It’s a common misconception that writers create characters or situations that have a direct parallel to their lives or the people they know. It’s not always that straightforward, and many times happens on a deep, unconscious level. For Black History Month, I’ve invited a few writers to explore how history — whether personal or family or country or world — affects their fiction.
Today’s Guest Essay is by S. Renée Bess
While I’m not a new writer per se, I am new at writing fiction for publication. I’m completely untaught and untrained in the ways of writers. I’ve managed to find that there’s a beauty and grace attached to that. While my newness means that I could be some editor’s worst nightmare, my naiveté gives me license to play freely with all kinds of devices, like narrative style, point of view and character development.
Dare I alternate my chapters between first and third person narrative? Why not? No one told me I couldn’t. Can I spin my stories well enough to convince a Texas-based publisher to print them, even if they are stories about black lesbian relationships? Go for it. I have nothing to lose but time, and I won’t lose that if I’m enjoying my work. Can I jump feet first into a plot involving two black women from totally different socio-economic worlds who spot each other during the festival that is their lives, and then decide to try life’s dance together? I don’t see why I can’t. I’m willing to bet there’s a readership of black same-sex loving women who are hungry to see their stories, or reasonable facsimilies, between book covers. So I’m more than willing to leap without a safety net into these uncharted waters.
But have I really done that? Have I taken that risk and written about the unknown, or have I created plots and characters borrowed from familiar territory? I need to be honest with my readers and with myself and confess that I’ve used bits and pieces of my personal history in writing three novels thus far. Don’t most writers do the same thing? Oh, that’s right. I wouldn’t know about “most writers” because I’m a newbie. What I do know is that in committing my characters to the computer screen, I couldn’t escape my past and present realties any more than I could walk on my hands for a mile while singing my favorite Gladys Knight and the Pips song.
For me, “the inescapable” was the settings of my stories. My familiar Philadelphia, the Philly suburbs, a city public high school, a university; and my “wish-I-were-there” environments, like Cape Cod, or a homebuilding company’s office. What flowed most naturally from my imagination were African-American female characters of all colors and backgrounds. What intrigued me the most were story lines involving women whose needs brought them together despite their differences. The frequently difficult “fit” between two people of color who have been raised to believe they should clash instead of mesh was a topic that must not have been buried too deeply in my mind, because it surfaced quickly when I started writing Breaking Jaie.
My history includes Mary Franklin, my best friend when we were in the third grade in a suburban Philadelphia school district. Day after day, Mary and I shared insider jokes and Graham crackers. Two little “colored” girls in a school world that was predominately white, we made sure we sat next to each other during every ride on the yellow bus. I remember wanting our laughter to stretch into after-school homework sessions or Saturday afternoon visits to Mary’s house or to mine. And I recall not understanding why Mary could never accept my invitations.
Mary understood, though. She fully grasped the implications of our school bus dropping me off at the Garfield Lane stop along with the other kids from Concord Park, while she boarded and left the bus a few blocks later, with the kids who lived in Linconia on the “other side of Concord Drive.” Mary’s parents were no doubt up front with their daughter, protecting her with their warnings, explaining why she and I couldn’t be more than classroom gal-pals. As for me, I didn’t understand the barriers of caste and class until a bit later, when I found myself suspended like a drop of oil in a vat of water, caught between the ever-present distrust I saw in the eyes of a few other Mary Franklins I tried to befriend, and the charitable but obvious disdain leaching from the skin of the light-bright Jack and Jillers whose friendships and parties eluded my comfort zone just as I eluded their membership qualifications.
My history entwines me, infusing my fiction and making the stories believable, I hope. My memories have come alive in the bodies/spirits of Jaie Baxter and Terez Overton in Breaking Jaie, and both Corey Lomax and Kinshasa Jordan in Leave of Absence. My first career, teaching, brought me in contact with quite a few Jaie’s…girls whose academic potential was feared, trashed and discarded by insecure and desperately unhappy mothers. I’ve lived in Terez’s and Kinshasa’s skin all my life…unabashedly comfortable, but aware of my need to stretch my horizons. I don’t intend to disclose any more specifics about the impact my history has on my writing, or how exploring certain themes has made me open to exploration in my own life, but I will attest to the emotional comfort one experiences in finding someone whose life echos similar yet far from identical sounds. The “homecoming” is powerful. The discoveries of culture-based recollections is so moving.
As new as I am to the business of writing, and as dedicated as I am to making my stories well crafted, I also am attracted to the notion of what the Négritude writers called “littérature engagé.” What I write needs to serve an emotional/political/social purpose as well as function as entertainment. There is a plethora of lesbian fiction on the market, but not that many books by and about lesbians of color. If there is to be a chapter (in the volume of LGBT fiction) about the history of black same-gender loving authors and their work, I aspire fervently to contribute to that history.
Fiction Contributor, Piece of My Heart- A Lesbian of Colour Anthology, Sister Vision Press, Toronto, Canada, 1991.
At the Beauty Parlor, first place “Labyrinth” short fiction contest, 1994.
Fiction Contributor, Ma-ka Diasporic Juks- Contemporary Writings by Queers of African Descent, Sister Vision Press, Toronto, Canada, 1997.
Leave of Absence, Xlibris, 2005.
Breaking Jaie, Regal Crest Enterprises, 2005.
Rebuilding Sasha, forthcoming from Regal Crest Enterprises, 2008.
Photo Credit: Dee Ferguson