Thursday, May 03, 2012 it just a black thing?

I had someone, very well respected in publishing take a look at my self-published novel: My Name is Butterfly.

The person gave her honest review of the story and some of what she said I've heard from other people in the industry who have read my previous books as well as every day people who just like to read. 

What I've found is this: While white people enjoy my stories, they often complain about the language my characters use to express themselves. They also take issue with  the sex scenes and the violence.

And while I cannot be accused of utilizing foul language, sex or violence gratuitously - I rarely hear this complaint from readers who share the same cultural background as I do.

 So it got me to wondering if in some instances when we do not understand one another, could it be because it's a black thing? Have black people been predisposed to so much violence (both physical and verbal) that when we read it (or in my case when I write it) we barely flinch?

Does it have to do with how we were raised?

 I came from a home that did not censor my reading material or what I watched on television. I raised my daughter that way and my sister is raising her children in the same way.

I won't say that we weren't chased out of the room when grown folks were talking - but maybe we weren't chased out of the room as often as most kids.

 My parents had a volatile relationship. They fought and argued right in front of us. The only thing that happened behind closed doors was their sex. And we knew what sex was - our grandmother talked about sex with the same enthusiasm that maybe your grandmother discussed needlepoint or cookie recipes.

 Nothing was hidden. And death...well death was and still is a significant part of life. My sister tells a story of heading off to school one morning and coming across a dead body on the sidewalk. She was about twelve or thirteen years old. She stepped around it and continued on to school. Her thought at that moment: "The man is dead. There is nothing I can do about it and I can't be late to school."

We are a matter of fact type of family and I think in many respects that black people are a matter of fact type of people. This is not to say that we are not passionate - we are very passionate - history demonstrates that.

But we do have an it is what it is attitude -- until well, it isn't.

Now where my writing is concerned - I've been known to pilot my reader through heartbreak and despair, stripping them down to their emotional hide. I think you "feel" the most when you're exposed and vulnerable. I think you learn to feel and empathy when this is done to you.

I don't pull punches and I don't whitewash - it's not my style and I'm not sorry for it. An author friend of mine tells me that I have a: Gayle Jones streak in me...and I guess I do. Maybe the impatience I feel in my own life leaks into my writing.

I'm not a fan of books filled with fluff and muck in order to reach some publisher contracted page count. Fillers not only weigh down the story, but takes away from it. It's hard for me to stick with those types of books - and I feel bad about that because they're probably really excellent stories that I will never know because it was just too difficult for me to see the forest for the trees... I think in most of my novels I take the reader directly to the forest and offer up the trees as back-story.

 There is an immediacy in my work that has followed me like a specter my entire life and I wonder if it has to do with my ancestors or because of the near fatal car accident I was involved in or because of the Mayan Calendar...(<<<--LOL)

But seriously, tell me readers how much of what you read has to do with how you were raised and how you live now and writer's how much of what you write relates to your upbringing and present lifestyle? I don't know if I've made any sense here. I've got a lot of stuff swirling in my head and I don't even know if the title of this post is accurate - but it is what it is.

 All of what I've said ends with this: I've made my novel: My Name is Butterfly available for .99 cents until the end of May. You can download from Amazon, B&N and on your other reading devices from Smashwords. The best way to describe the story is: Chris Cleave's "Little Bee" meets Sapphire's "Push."

 The story centers on the practice of ritual servitude in Ghana and how this practice destroys and then reshapes the Tsikata family. The person I mentioned earlier in the post said this about the subject matter:

"You've also chosen a subject that is nearly impossible for most American readers to fully understand--writing about the long-term results of Trokosi is a little like writing about a five-year old who undergoes a cliterectomy, with most other Africans accepting this unspeakably awful cultural practice."

In light of this and because I'm really curious to hear the thoughts from readers - American and otherwise - I’ve dropped the price of the e-book from $6.99 to .99cents. It's an experiment of sorts that I think in the end will either propel me to make some changes to the story or keep it as it is. I appreciate your participation in the experiment and please do spread the word!


Anjali said...

Very interesting post, Bernice.
I have no idea whether it's a black thing or not. Violence and sex don't bother me when it's not gratuitous. (And I've read enough of your books to know you never do this gratuitously.) I also love Kola Boof's stuff-- I don't consider anything she writes gratuitous, either.

I do think that in schools, we read things like Austen, Dickens, Shakespeare-- great literature that doesn't necessarily show true evil or wild passion. Perhaps this sanitizes us some in our reading?

Bernice L. McFadden said...

Anjali - That may certainly be the case...!

Kathleen Sara Shattuck said...

This is a subject I've thought much more about, since reading your books. I'm a female reader, who happens to be white, and in my 60's. I grew up in So. California, living through good times and bad times, where racial issues continue to meet.

As you've described your family 'history', and your cultural history, of course it differs greatly from mine, but, at my age, I'm not immune to understanding what you are saying, and writing about.

As a writer, we all write what we know, and I love how you approach your characters with understanding.

This is what I feel most when I read your stories, you understand the people in them; you're not slamming the reader full on in the face with facts, but holding our hands while you take on the language, or the violence of these lives, and making the horrible into a truth that can't be denied.

I, just this morning, ordered This Bitter Earth, the sequel to Sugar. I want to continue hearing about this person. You allow us to feel compassion, and strength, through frailties. I root for these people, and I cry for them. This is what I get.

I no longer have an e-reader, or I'd take you up on this great offer, but eventually I will have all of your hard copies in my hands, including My Name is Butterfly.

All the best,
Kathy S.

Bernice L. McFadden said...

Thank you Ms. Shattuck - I really appreciate your support and wonderful words!

Kim B. said...

When I read your work, I am reminded of a comment you made about "blood memories." Your stories give voice to a very violent history in this country, Maybe I didn't experience it personally, but my elders may have, I feel it in my bones as I read 'Gathering of Waters', We are so very thirsty for all of our stories and our history - maybe that is one of the differences between your audiences.

Also in our work is great love, falling in love and staying in love and the heart break lovers endure.

Bernice L. McFadden said...

Yes, yes great passionate searing love! Thank you Kim!

Barbara Albin said...

It is also a white thing - violence and sex never bothered my parents- i.e. remember when my parents got their copy of Catch 22! That was a big deal almost 50 years ago (not sure of the date). I treated my sons the same way, didn't seem to be a problem. I don't notice anything in your books that seem to add any more sex or violence than any other books, whether written by black or white authors. When I read your books we are not talking gatuitous sex or violence, let's talk about the violence in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo - the Swedish movie version was incredibly violent although I realize it was part of the story. I disagree with anyone who says to you that AA authors add more sex or violence - not so! So instead we have to read about his throbbing manhood in the old romance novels - so funny! Can I write about throbbing manhood? Hope so. xo Barbara

Bernice L. McFadden said...

Throbbing manhood! LOL!!!

Bobbi Cisse said...

I'm not as well-read in "leisure reading" as most of the folks who posted here. Prior to reading your books, my collection included Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume and since then mostly text books or required reading (books by Toni Morrison or Ian McEwan). My point is, I don't have a range of authors and writing styles to compare. When I read your books and I see language that makes me pay attention, I think it is there to make me pay attention as if to say "this is relevant right now". I think that's what folks mean when they say you aren't being provocative for shock's sake. I read it, go damn and on with the story. I've never feel dirty or anger or the need to slide down the sides of a shower sobbing uncontrollably screaming BERNICE MCFADDEN damn you!!! - if that's what the reaction has been.
Overall, I'm sure folks get a little something from all of your work.. passages we remember when you mention the title and that's a good thing.
That's all I have to say about that.
Re: Mayans, screw that watch out in 2012, it's the Year of the Geechi! hahaha

Bernice L. McFadden said...

Thank you Bobbi!!!

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