To fictionify or not to fictionify


I’m working on a few different works of writing born from my time abroad in the Caribbean and West Africa right now and… well… actually, “right now” doesn’t about cover it.

More accurate: polishing a mostly completed book proposal I’ve been poking at since 2011 and also now I’m flailing around (in a fun and yet also sometimes emotionally rough way…) with the  follow-up to said nicely proposed memoir. But the bulk of the work really started back in… hooh… I’d say the summer of 2011.

The goodies within are tales of silly, leafy, dangerous and amazingly hot places and things to eat and they’re connected by overarching stories of important life things I learned during my adventures abroad. And while, as you know (as I’ve written about before), I feel super icky about sharing a lot of things from my life sometimes because I don’t like or want to think of myself as a commodity… every time I come back to these memoir-ish projects I’m smacked by the importance (to me, at least) of the ideas and realizations driving them and I am reminded that, yes, it is worthwhile to keep working on these things.

Because developing these book projects means advancing a conversation about issues I believe should be more conversed about (what it means to be a woman in the world these days and what it means to be a global citizen these days and also how to most effectively stifle one’s gastrointestinal problems when communal squat toilets are the only option) and, y’know, somehow I continue to find the writing funny and thoughtful and I even amuse MY TOTALLY CRITICAL SELF after several years and that is RARE for me. In fact, I already hate that sentence I just wrote but for the sake of making my point, I won’t erase it. (Lucky you, reader!)

Believe me, I understand the necessity to murder one’s darlings when it comes to pieces of writing that have to *B draws finger across neck*. There are more literary bodies heaped under this surprisingly camouflaging Ikea couch skirt than you will ever know. But these memoir-y darlings I’m talking to you about, I don’t think they’re supposed to be axed. Or not yet.

But the more I read about marketing memoirs and the more I talk to agents and read about what it means to publish something like a memoir through a traditional publisher, the more I feel capital-yuck GROSS.

It seems to be largely about selling the person telling the story, and not so much the story itself. It’s about getting enough social media pre-support for the writer (in the form of Twitter followers, Facebook likes, and general presence on the webz) to say to the publishers, “Hey, look how many people like this author! Hopefully a fraction of them will then buy her book and make it worth your while to publish it!” And the writing that author has created? It’s a small detail that can be massaged with the help of the right editors. The important thing is the persona in the author photo and how many people will shell out a few bucks for her.

And so I start to wonder… what if I magically changed all the “I”s to “she”s? Or what if a few more names were changed and then I added a really sassy cat or cockatoo and then, voila, the story was suddenly fiction?

Since I’m still such a dummy in this whole publishing game I just don’t know what would happen but it’s my suspicion that fiction writers do not have to take the same shizz when it comes to shaping their image. Again from my COMPLETELY newbie wondering place (la la la, it is shiny, this new place of contemplation), it seems to me like for fiction it is the work of writing that either makes or breaks a deal and that stands on its own even if the author is a recluse and doesn’t know the first thing about what to do on social media or how to brush his or her hair.

I’ve been to more than a few author conferences where industry consultants talk to novelists about the importance of communicating their brand on social media— their advice about same is has roughly a Wikipedia blurb’s worth of usefulness. It’s like social media 101… except… what comes before 101 and then what also comes before that? In short, compared to the social zip zap zooie I see in my communications job (non-publishing-related) the expectations of novelists appear to be LOW! And then if they do it well, hot damn, it’s a bonus. And then if they’re frickin’ Twitter prodigies like Teju Cole, well, all of humanity is made better for it, but that’s another matter entirely.

But what does one give up when just slapping the “fiction” label onto something that pretty much really and truly happened to them? I mean, obviously it doesn’t really change the impact of the story on the reader. The characters in War and Peace are as real as any old thing in Eat, Pray, Love (ho ho). And yet it seems to me it does significantly adjust the expectations on the author (ie; treats them more like an author and less like a piece of meat) and I wonder if that’s a more comfortable place for me to be.

That said, my “true” fiction (that is, fiction written to be fiction!) has a completely different voice and intent than my memoir writing and if I started publishing these memoir-ish pieces as fiction and then later down the line wanted to publish one of my legit and way more literary-feeling novels would that be a no-go because it was such a different flavour from the rest of my brand? And do I care at all?

And, let’s bring in the philosophy police for a minute: what are the ethical considerations of calling something that is truly memoir a piece of fiction? Especially if the goal behind doing so is just to demand some respect as a writer?

I hope it is possible to find a way to publish these memoir-y things as what they are without feeling like I have to tart myself up or compromise my products OR pretend they’re fiction when they’re not. But I suppose it’s all a matter of what I want out of the publishing process— to be backed by a legit publisher (thus demanding a slicker author profile for a memoir and reducing the degree of respect for the written work— or so it seems from my jaded space tonight; or else getting more creative leeway but having to call something fiction which is not fiction) ; or, is there another way that bestows the story product credibility and yet lets me be who I am, a memoirist with crazy unkempt hairdo and awkwardness and a tiny cohort of Twitter followers and all?


What It’s Like to Be “Exotic”

Earlier this year on the podcast, we discussed the peculiar Hollywood trend of referring to Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o as “exotic” and how that relates to broader intersections of race, Western beauty constructs and the multilayered problem of exoticizing and fetishizing non-white beauty. Judging by the amount of letters we continue to receive from listeners who have experienced it firsthand, the “exotic” treatment is by no means limited to celebrities like Nyong’o. To continue this important discussion, we’ve rounded up a excerpts from listener letters to further highlight what it’s really like to be “exotic” — and why it typically isn’t a compliment.

The triumph and tumult of breaking my internet silence


In the spirit of a fourth-grade public speaking presentation beginning with the dictionary definition of whatever the kid is talking about, I thought it might be interesting to see what comes up when one does a Google image search for ‘ambivalence’— voila! (See above!) So, yeah. I see and read and hear about a lot of people who fall out of the groove with writing on blogs and Twitter and whatnot and most often it seems to me they blame it on laziness, lack of being able to follow through every gee-dee day, to commit to writing in a serious way.

For me, who (as you can see from all the time-stamped glory of my posts across various thingies) has been absent from sharing things in a public way for quite some time, it’s definitely a little bit of the laziness but if I’m being honest it’s really more the result of a mix of emotional exhaustion and ethical ambivalence I’ve been dancing with for the past however long.

First, probably in the most practical way, I was just so completely emotionally and social-media-y pooped from shilling the shit out of the book I co-edited that came out last fall. For years I’d toiled with my co-editor and the authors to put out this thing that I, literally, do not think I could possibly have cared more about. I poured everything I had into that damn book and thank god it turned out to be something I love so much and is of such awesome quality (thanks to the writers and publishing team at Feathertale). But after throwing my heart into this thing, which I actually believe(d?) was more than a book but rather a concept, and argument and a social movement, I desperately needed to connect it with as many receptive souls as possible. (I’m such an earnest cheesehead, I know. Embarrassing but true.)

I spent hours and hours developing and editing podcasts and blog posts and promotional concepts and maybe from the outside it looked like I was trying to ‘move product’ but— how can I say this in a way that folks will believe me— I never actually expected us to make money on the thing (because I have a working knowledge of the publishing industry), and so I can only hope that you’ll believe me when I say that it was, instead, a labour of love. I just thought the book was so excellent, the writers’ pieces so moving, that I was willing to spend hours and hours of my life trying to get it into the hands of people who would care about it too. Who needed it, even though they didn’t realize it. Who would read and go, ‘YES! This is a place for me!”

And so I know that on one level I just totally sapped any interest and ability to share publicly because, I think, for a certain amount of time I shared and shared until I extinguished the impulse and ability to do it.

But then, too, was the emotional and ethical weirdsies of it. Once the book was released into the world, once I had more book concepts on the go, I could no longer get my head around the concept of ‘sharing’ for the sake of sharing… myself. This is strange, because I am a writer, and had no problem continuing to generate ideas in a private space. Instead, it was like, well if this public space is for selling things… then what am I selling?

And I knew what I was selling— me. My ‘platform’! Trying to get enough Twitter followers so my agent will finally trot out my book concept to publishers with a sure argument that I have enough supporters to buy the god damn books. Trying to translate my personality through places like this Tumblr so when editors do a Google check on me they see me fully, spread everywhere, open and full of energy and edge and spark and connecting with audiences. And I think because I was so emotionally exhausted from the EAT IT experience I was like, ughhh, no.

There wasn’t really a way for me to just ‘be’ in this public space anymore that was divorced from marketing. And that made me feel gross but it also felt like it was something that I could never return from.

Back in the day I would just write stuff in the public sphere that, like, came to mind. Now I can’t even imagine what that would feel like to just so genuinely say these things through a broadcast. Argghh but I want to! I want to go back to that place where I could just have the impulse to share without having an end goal, but unfortunately I chomped the apple and now I live in the age of knowledge and I don’t think I can go back to that blissfully ignorant place.

That said, I feel like even though I’ve broken my own trust in what sharing oneself is (trust… or belief… or motivation?…) in the act of public sharing, I also feel ashamed that I’ve been so inward-facing since I left the public space. Like, antisocial, almost? Or just… hurt. Yes, hurt, but in this embarrassed way. Like from a really cringe-worthy self-inflicted wound resulting from hubris and sense of self-importance and understanding of oneself as a commodity. I feel like hiding in private silence was a way to try to repair my belief in ‘the community’ out there— all the writers and readers and people I once broadcasted to and connected with so freely, before I allowed myself to believe it instead to be a metric of my abilities as a writer— a self-injury in the first degree.

And I don’t want to choose to be that cynical person who hides away because she’s afraid of being judged as not good enough.

So this is me dipping my, like, suuuUUUuuper unmanicured toe back in the water. And we’ll see what’s what.