Where is the Queer Black Male Voice in YA?

It doesn’t take a lot of in-depth knowledge to know that intersectionality is lacking in the current LGBTQIAP YA market, but there’s perhaps no gaping hole in it quite as glaring as that of the queer Black teen boy perspective. In the past five* years, to the best of my knowledge, there has only been one YA novel released by a major mainstream publisher with an explicitly** Black male narrator, and if you guessed it was by a white woman, you are correct.

Wanna find one by a Black male author by a major mainstream publisher***? You have to go back to Sunday You Learn How to Box by Bil Wright.

Which was published in the year 2000.

Yes, you read that right: the last YA released by a major mainstream publisher with a queer Black male narrator and written by a Black male author is itself already a teenager.

So, hey, that’s pretty messed up! It might almost make you wonder about the queer Black male authors trying to get their #ownvoices stories published, wouldn’t it.

Good news! Here are four such authors with a whole lot of wisdom, thoughts, and experiences to share.

Ryan Douglass

Ryan WilliamsI’m a 23-year-old writer from Atlanta, Georgia. I went to high school in Geneva, Switzerland, as my mom worked for the UN. I was one of two African-American students in my grade there. There were two or three others in different grades, and that includes my brother. I’ve been to nine countries, six of them in Europe. I went to college at Hofstra University in Long Island, NY where I studied theatre and creative writing. I’m a freelance writer, graphic designer and actor. I’ve worked professionally in journalism and marketing. I’ve also been a security guard and a professional dog walker. I contribute thought pieces on social politics as well as arts & culture to The Huffington Post. I’m an award-winning spoken word poet (and regular poet). I occasionally perform in the poetry cafes in Atlanta. I’m very into fitness and health. I also love rock climbing, camping, and music festivals. I’m obsessed with creepy horror moviesmy favorites are Oculus, The Conjuring, and Insidious but NOT The Conjuring 2 and definitely not any of the chapters following the original Insidious. I’m an amateur ukulele player and really into music in general.

A. Leon Walker

Isom_Anthony_ (12)A. Leon Walker spends his days assisting library patrons in his small, Midwest town by soothing their daily woes or satisfying their curious appetites. By night, he takes the stage at the historic Croswell Opera House, where he fulfills his personal frustrations and delights. Meanwhile, he’s always conjuring up some new tale for readers of all ages in hopes of someday being shelved among his favorite writers.

Brandon Goode

BrandonBrandon Goode grew up in the small beach town of Melbourne, Florida. He attended Eastern Florida State College and Florida International University. He loves to motivate and inspire others, enjoys traveling, and eats an insanely amount of sushi. Oh, and he is obsessed with all things on the Bravo network.

Kosoko Jackson

KosokoKosoko Jackson is the Digital Media Associate for Rock The Vote and manages social media accounts totaling 270K followers. He also moonlights as a paid sensitivity reader for big 5 publishers. Kosoko has taught elementary kids how to read, educated millennials about the power of voting, and held various communications positions in political organizations. He graduated Magna Cum Laude with a BS in Public Health with a minor in new media communications. He lives in Washington D.C and is represented by Louise Fury at The Bent Agency.

Please introduce yourselves! Who are you, what do you write, and where are you in the publishing journey?  

A. Leon: Hello, everyone! Dahlia, thank you so much for this exciting opportunity. This is truly a dream come true. My name is A. Leon Walker (A stands for Anthony), I write fiction, non-fiction, poetry, plays, and am currently unpublished.

Kosoko: Hi! I’m Kosoko Jackson. I write YA novels in every genre, but my bread-and-butter is historical fiction with POC main characters and contemporary novels. I’m currently agented and working with my agent on my debut novel.

Ryan:  I’m Ryan Douglass, I write YA horror and thriller and I’m represented by Rena Rossner of the Deborah Harris Agency. We’re still working on my manuscript.  

Brandon: Hello! My name is Brandon Goode. I’m from Orlando and I write YA Fantasy and poetry. I’m currently working on my second novel and two books of poetry. Outside of writing I can be found eating sushi while watching Degrassi reruns, shopping at the local thrift stores in Orlando, and popping into the Disney Parks when I can.

Between querying, subbing, and self-pubbing, what are you finding to be the greatest obstacles so far? Any constant refrain in responses?

Kosoko: I think querying was the hardest, but that’s more from a personal level. Agents are the first level of gatekeepers and in many situations, you have to, in your writing, query, etc, prove that your story is something that can make it through all the further gauntlets. Sometimes, it’s the real first time you have someone independently say “This is good” or “this is crap” (hopefully no one says THAT). But nonetheless, that’s hard. Many great stories don’t get published, or even get agents because of thisand sometimes you get little feedback from agents you query. Agenting, to me, is harder because it’s very cut-and-dry, with little insight, and felt, often, like stabs in the dark. I do think that sort of diligence builds a good first skin you need to be a creative POC LGBT person, though.

Ryan: Querying was definitely my biggest hurdle. I wrote three manuscripts before writing the one that landed me my agent! But I needed to write the failures to learn who I was as a writer. My rejections were varied while sending out my last manuscript but for the ones before that, I often heard the stories lacked originality (which they did).

Brandon: I think the one thing I have found to be the greatest obstacle so far was spreading the word about my novel. The Secrets of Eden was released in March of this year and I had to do everything on my own since I self-published this novel. So take that and add in the disaster of a year that 2017 has been so far with social issues, and that’s why it’s been a great obstacle. Twitter has been a great tool in spreading the word and getting my novel out there, but of course I feel like more could’ve been done.

A. Leon: Querying used to be my biggest hurdle. These days, drafting seems to be the beast to conquer. It’s one of the reasons I’ve committed to writing a short story collection; for one thing, I’ve dreamed since I was 20 years old and first read Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things of composing my own cohesive collection but it has also proven rather useful in keeping me writing. Due to my day job, the one that pays the bills, I’m blessed to afford a four-day weekend every other week, which I spend writing my stories. I’ve a novel building in the subconscious, which will hit the page when I come to it.

So far, two of my shorts have been rejected. I’ve a third on submission. Fingers daily crossed until I hear back.

Even as we start to see more intersectional YA on shelves, the intersection of Blackness, queerness, and masculinity is probably the rarest in the category, especially by queer Black men. Why do you think that is?

Brandon: I think it’s rare first of all because of the stereotypes to be honest. Black men have so many stereotypes about us, that sometimes the truth is rarely given the time of day by a proper audience. Growing up, I couldn’t really identify with many novels that were on the shelves because the characters weren’t black or gay, and I wish there were more novels. I can only speak for myself, but growing up I was taught to never cry. To always “man up” and be tough.

Masculinity is something that was shoved down my throat by my mother and father. My dad was never really in the picture, but the times I did see him it was the same masculinity hype over and over. Being black and gay and trying to be “masculine” in the eyes of my family was tough and was something that I have shut away in the past. I’ve evolved into the person I’m supposed to be through all of those experiences, but for those who don’t know what it’s like they can’t try to fake it in literature. I honestly think that even within certain corners of the black community, queerness is still a taboo topic. I always found it hypocritical for those within all communities, especially the black community, to turn their nose up at queerness. Everyone in this country, one way or the other, has faced some sort of inequality a time in their life. The Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Suffrage, etc. all happened in American history and someone on the other side had to believe in those movements in order for equality to blossom. That same support needs to be given to the LGBTQIAP community. Until these conversations start happening more frequently, allowing those who are growing up or surrounded by it the proper push to share their voice, then those types of YA won’t exist. Even for those who are adults now, until they feel that their voice will be received then those books won’t come.

There’s a moment I remember breaking out of what I thought was a hold on me from being myself, but not everyone is surrounded with love and support being Black and queer. That’s why YA is important to share those stories. That’s why we have to cultivate this platform and provide the necessary support to those who aren’t receiving it.

Ryan: It’s hard to get Black stories in the mainstream publishing sphere and for queer, Black stories it’s even harder. Maybe the industry doesn’t think the stories will sell. On the writers’ side, there’s a strong possibility Black, queer writers are afraid to tell their own stories because they have no examples of their stories on shelves yet. It can feel like compromising your chances of success as a writer to write something there’s no precedent for. I used to think I had to write about straight, white people or I couldn’t be an author. But we won’t know if the stories will sell until we give them a chance, will we? There is also still a lot of pressure on Black men in the community to be masculine and heterosexual. Some Black writers could be closeted and writing about straight characters, which is okay and how I wrote my first two books.

Kosoko: I think, honestly, it’s because of the number of intersections. It’s easy to say “no” in the publishing world. The data is just starting to back the statement that “POC/LGBT stories have a place in our canon”. That’s because of successes like Angie Thomas, Jason Reynolds, and Nic Stoneand people like Adam Silvera. For each success, it’ll get easier, but there are still many reasons to say no from the publishing side. The whole conversation has to be shifted from “what sold before” to “what is needed now.” YA literature should reflect the times and the need of the youth who read it and as our society becomes more and more intersectional, we need more intersectional literature. That should, in my opinion, be reason enough.

A. Leon: My thoughts on this subject are too voluminous to sum up here; I’ll do my best to keep things brief. While masculinity, in and of itself, bears great privilege in all of society, therefore dominates the literary landscape despite the overwhelming female presence of the YA category and the romance genre (both outsell every single genre in the business, including thrillersa male-driven genre), add anything to that algorithm other than white or hetero and issues abound. Black male, queer male, black queer maleeach requires some deterioration to the male ego before your audience even begins engagement. Because we’ve all met black men, right? We’ve all met queer men? We’ve all met queer black men? Okay, then: we know how they act. There they must stay. Black men, you get to be Native Son and Invisible Man. Queer men, you get to be Boy Meets Boy and A Little Life. Black queer men, you get to be Giovanni’s Room. So when people read, unless you happen to disturb the male algorithm in some way, you don’t really ask yourself questions such as: Where all the black folks at? Where all the black queers at? This, of course, is just the beginning; to ask such questions means you’ve done little more than left the tarmac. Action, particularly on the part of writers and reviewers and critics, is due. Overdue, in my opinion.

Obviously, we’re seeing a tremendous push for diversity from advocates. How much do you feel like that’s making a difference? What actions do you feel would make a difference, and like to see more people engaging in?

Ryan: I feel like it’s making a difference in the types of books the community is paying attention to. For a long time black stories were relegated to the “black section” and gay ones to the “gay section”, et cetera, as if those stories could onIy be appreciated by those groups. I see these stories being normalized now and more people are open to reading them. I would love to see more people engaging in conversations about the content of books by marginalized authors and what is being taught through these narratives. In the YA community it can feel dangerous to admit you don’t know or understand something about an experience outside of your own because you risk being called problematic. But I think what we’re doing in writing books about our experiences is teaching, so it’s normal to learn and discuss a changed perspective. I think we should approach these conversations in open ways.

A. Leon: A greater sense of urgency, in terms of lacking queer voices, couldn’t hurt. Not only black queerness but Muslim queerness & Latin@ queerness & Biracial queerness & Asian queerness & international queerness. More & more & more & more. Variety, depth, nuance. This isn’t just dependent upon writers. It begins with critics & reviewers. We need thinkpieces, Op-Eds, reviews pointing out the absolute absence of diverse queer representation, even (or especially) within books written by white gays. Let’s look at the greater culture for a moment here as an example: Moonlight was the first-ever QUILTBAG+ film to win Best Film at the Academy Awards, although Brokeback Mountain got snubbed. This is significant. But why aren’t we hearing about it in droves? How many more people preferred La La Land because it was the one they saw as opposed to genuinely believing it the superior film? Writers of all forms need to take a closer probing glimpse at this lack, question and force others to question why we’re still stuck on white maleness as the paradigm within an already oppressed community.

Brandon: I think it’s great to have diversity! This world is one giant melting pot, and if there isn’t representation then people are excluded which isn’t right. I think that it’s a great idea, but I want to see more authors of color getting their recognition and their works published and publicized. I feel that authors who aren’t of color get more recognized for “diverse” stories as opposed to those who really should. There should be more LGBTQIAP authors and authors of color getting their moments in the spotlight as well. I think in order to further make a difference, pushing diversity needs to be championed more. I love things like #DVPit, Diverse Book Bloggers, etc. that are opening the doors for diversity, but there should be resources for diverse authors. Diversity isn’t a gimmick and people need to remember that.

Kosoko: Overall, the trends are slowly moving towards more representative societal reflections in literature, in my opinion. That doesn’t mean it’s happening fast enough. Outspoken advocates like Justina Ireland, Dhonielle Clayton &  L.L. McKinney have really helped us push the conversation and narrative forward, but I think sometimes that get’s lost in the mix. We think because the conversations are happening on Twitter, and the likes/retweets are high, there’s actual change going on, and there isn’t…not in the way we need.

Nicole Brinkley has a great thread on twitter where she shows the Publisher’s Weekly sales and compares the POC sales to the POC percentage of the US. It’s usually about 66% lower than the percentage of POCs in the US.

If you asked me one way to change that? I’d say we need more POC/LGBT people in publishing. Not just more agents, we need more editors and more POC/LGBT people in all positions. We need these people in the room where it happens (ha, Hamilton), and our presence to be reflective of society. I’d also like to see more POC LGBT writers, writing their own stories. I struggled with that for years–about 3–and though I’m not saying they HAVE TO, or should be forced to, I certainly think there should be a bigger push to have those stories. But that’ll only happen when there is a safety feeling in the YA community…

…and safety in YA is a COMPLETELY different topic.

What’s really important to you in the publishing staff that works with you and your books, especially you work that features queer Black boys?

A. Leon:  First and foremost: all my work features queer Black boys. It’s the one subject I cannot avoid, despite how hard (in the early days, especially) I’ve tried. That being said, a deep understanding of the great necessity for wider, deeper, more nuanced representation within queer literature is something publishing staff working with my oeuvre must understand. Otherwise, they’re not going to get it. Most beta readers who’ve not addressed these questions within themselves tend not to sit well with my work. They say things like, “This is good. Really good, in some places. But can’t you write about something other than gay sex?” Or they’ll say, “You don’t believe in writing stories with white guys or straight guys in them, do you?” I need desperately NOT to work with publishing staff who even consider questions like this as valid.

Kosoko: To me, it’s important to find like-minded individuals in the publishing world who understand that the single narrative of POCs, Queers, and that intersection isn’t the only story…and continuing to perpetuate that single story, does more harm than good. It’s important queers of color see a wide range of authentic stories that reflect a wealth of backgrounds. Personally, I’m a queer POC who hasn’t faced the disownment of my family that is so commonly associated with the story of queer POCs. I don’t relate as strongly to that sense of story, but I identify stronger with stories where the character has to struggle with the split identity of self. Someone else will say the reverse. Having publishers and those in the industry who understand, champion, and advocate this is important.

I think it’s also important POCs, and queer POCs, are given the same leeway as our white, straight counterparts. Think about the “quiet” YA novels. That same freedom isn’t often given to queer POCs, and that’s a disservice to the community as a whole.

Brandon: I think allowing the authenticity of an experience or story that you want to incorporate into your novel to stay intact. Being a gay Black male, I have experienced many things from pitfalls to triumphs, heartbreaks and falling in love, and anything else of the like that I can morph into a plot line for a novel to motivate someone is very important to me. I want my voice to be a voice that they can trust, and that comes from being real and vulnerable with my work.

Ryan: It’s so important to me that my work is not sanitized to push an agenda for what queer Black boys (or just Black boys or queer boys) should look like. I think there’s pressure when writing marginalized characters to make them paragons of nobility because a lot of people think victimhood makes someone inherently noble and likable. My characters are imperfect because they’re human. They’re also victims. I don’t want my work censored. The harshness of what happens to my characters is very important to me because it’s realistic, and my work usually has elements of horror to it, so it’s supposed to be uncomfortable. I really don’t want to see that damaged.

There’s been some really incredible success for authors of color in the past couple of years, including Black authors Angie Thomas, Jason Reynolds, Tomi Adeyemi, and Nicola Yoon. Is there a deal or award or other event that really stuck out to you as being an inspirational kick in the butt?

A. Leon: Two things: N.K. Jemisin winning the Hugo Award two years in a row for her best work to date. She’s the first black author to do so, despite the current wealth of black SF out there right now. So that’s been hugely inspiring! Also, encountering the work of Kai Ashante Wilson, whom everyone should read. Like, right now.

imagesRyan: Angie Thomas’s 13-house action and Tomi Adeyemi’s 7-figure movie deal were inspirational for me because it appeared publishers were looking for black stories. I also loved seeing Everything, Everything on the big screen because we don’t get to see black teens leading movies very often. I’ve been reading and admiring Jason Reynolds for some time now.

Kosoko: This is small, but being Nicola Yoon’s Everything, Everything as a movie meant a lot to me. Seeing a black girl on a poster, was something I never really saw before unless it was about some gang movie or some violent movie. To see black kids having that kind of inspiration; to be happy, to live their authentic lives, and to take chances and risks for their own happiness? That mean’s a lot to me. When I was younger, seeing something like that on the big screen would have influenced my writing, and been pivotal to becoming an author. I have a feeling it’ll do the same for other kids, and movies like The Hate U Give and Children of Blood and Bone will have similar results. And I’m so excited for that.

I mean, hellthey inspire ME.

What’s the first book you ever remember reading with a queer Black character? What about other media?

Laf1Kosoko: This was the question that took me the longest to answer. I don’t think I ever remember reading a queer black character (that may be on me, but also another reflection of the society we live in). TV wise, that’s not the same. I’d like to say Lafayette Reynolds from True Blood was the first I ever saw. And that really meant a lot to me because of how bad ass and genderfluid in some senses he was, which is something I’ve grasped with in some aspects of my life.

Ryan: I think it was Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda! The first one I saw on TV was Lafayette from True Blood. I was obsessed with that show back in the day.

A. Leon: The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin. The book with the most significant impact on me was Sorcerer of the Wildeeps and A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson. Sorcerer of the Wildeeps stars a gay black wizard in probably the deepest read about masculinity I’ve ever read; A Taste of Honey is a fantasy romance of epic proportions, addressing queerness of all types and including women in the conversation of masculinity. Obviously, Moonlight was an impactful film; my best friend from high school refers to me as Titus Andromedon (from The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt); and there’s a great gay black cop with a beautifully complex perspective in HBO’s Six Feet Under.

Brandon: The first book I read with a queer Black character was If This World Were Mine by E. Lynn Harris.  Mr. Harris has many books on my bookshelf because growing up, there really weren’t any other books featuring Black queer characters that I could find or have access to. Thinking back to other media, the one show that sticks out for me is Noah’s Arc from creator Patrik-Ian Polk. It was like the black and gay version of Sex and the City. This show provided me with some of the inspiration I needed to become comfortable in my own skin and to live life to the fullest!

Of the LGBTQIAP YA that exists right now, what book(s) is closest to your heart?

Ryan: More Happy Than Not changed my life and what I thought was possible in LGBTQ fiction. It felt like receiving an undeserved present to have a gay character who was also a character of color and from a lower class background. But it is deserved. Everyone should be able to see themselves. I think that’s the first time I experienced that feeling of immediate connection that straight white people are getting when they read the majority of books.

Brandon: The book that is closest to my heart is Hero by Perry Moore. I read this book my senior year of high school and I have a tradition now of reading it once a year. This book really showed me that we could have YA novels where a gay character was the main character and not supporting. This novel also tackled topics of acceptance, family, loss and it touched me so much that I actually reached out to Perry Moore and had the honor and privilege of interviewing him before he passed away. Because of this experience, this novel became a part of me.

A. Leon: What They Always Tell Us by Martin Wilson. There’s a beautiful relationship at the center of that novel between the main white gay character and his PoC boyfriend. That shower scene makes me want to have sex in the shower, even though I hate sex in the shower. I read that book every year. (Not just for the sexy shower scene.)

Kosoko: The Love Interest by Cale Dietrich, Ramona Blue by Julie Murphy, If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan, and Looking for Group by Rory Harrison. Each of them has things I love in books and things I can identify with in my own life. I also won a preorder give away of They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera, so I’m pretty excited for that!

What’s your dream conference panel to sit in on? To be on?

Brandon: I would LOVE to sit on a #BlackBoyJoy panel for YA literature. I think it would be neat to sit alongside other black male authors, whether LGBTQIAP or not, and share our stories and successes to inspire the next generation of authors and readers. Adversity is an obstacle that many may feel that they can’t overcome, but showing them that light always triumphs over the darkness will help push them  forward in their individual journeys.

Kosoko: I’d LOVE to be on a panel at FlameCon or World Con, especially since World Con 2019 is in Dublin, Irelandone of my favorite cities in the worldand speaks heavily to my desire to make more LGBT POC YA stories international. It kills 2 birds with one stone. FlameCon would be amazing because it’s so many awesome LGBT creators in one space of all types.

A. Leon: I want to play the 92Y. Roomful of deeply thinking people waiting to hear my deep thoughts. Yeah, that.

Ryan: I’d love to be on a panel with other queer writers of color, any of the wonderful authors I’ve connected with on Twitter, or any of my influences. Neal Shusterman is my biggest influence but if I shared a panel with him I would not be able to talk or breathe.

What’s on your bookish bucket list, i.e. something book/publishing-related you dream of achieving at some point?

Kosoko: I don’t know if one exists but I’d love to sit on a panel/be on the steering committee devoted to POC creators in the creative arts (if there is onetell me if not; I’d love to work with someone to create it). Conversations and topics are different when they center around POCslike the POC version of Sirensand I think that space really is needed. So I’d love to be a part of that, steering committee, etc.

A. Leon: Bestseller. And a whole shelf of books written by me that readers adore, whether they sold well or not. Some prize-winners in there, or at least nominated. Prize of choice: Michael Printz Award. Also, I just want to keep writing and publishing. I wish to leave behind shelves of books across all ages, platforms, techniques.

Ryan: International book tours because I love to travel and talk about myself.

Brandon: One day I hope to have one of my works produced for either television or film. I understand that not everyone enjoys reading, and some prefer watching great stories instead of reading them. So in order to reach that audience, a show or movie would do just that.

Got any words of inspiration for aspiring queer Black authors out there, and/or for your future readers?

Ryan: To queer, Black authors: write your stories. Don’t be afraid to write them. Write boldly and without fear. Include the ugly, the sexy, the awkward, the scary, the honest. We need your vulnerability! Things are changing and people are starting to listen. If you’re not ready to be open about your sexuality, write whatever you want.

To readers: I write what I know and do my best to make a narrative compelling and characters relatable. Everyone’s experience is different but marginalized people are often treated as a monolith and a lot of pressure is put on us to write for the whole community. I hope we can all give writers space to write their individual stories without having to speak for everyone at once.  I hope you like my creepy work because it’ll only get creepier.

Brandon: If I could give any words of inspiration it would be, “Love yourself more than anyone else. YOU are the most important person in your life and you and your dreams DO matter. Never give up until you reach the finish line, and even when you do that, drink more water and keep going!”

Kosoko: As a POC you have to work twice as hard as your white counterparts. As someone LGBT, you have to work twice as hard as your straight counterparts. As both? You need to work four times as hard. Don’t let that deter you. The harder the opposition, the more reason for you to keep sweating, keep shedding blood, and most of allcontinuing to write.

A. Leon: Read others’ work. Write your work. Be relentless.

***

*It was actually more than five years ago, as the Stonewall Honored Gone, Gone, Gone by Hannah Moskowitz was published in April 2012.

**Proxy and Guardian by Alex London feature a dark-skinned male character one who might absolutely be read as Black, but it is not explicitly stated as such. Ditto Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo. And yes, still white authors.

***Of course, it always behooves to support authors who are publishing through other means, so while you wait for these authors to grace your shelves, note that you can already buy The Secrets of Eden by Brandon Goode and check out the work of Craig Laurance Gidney.

 

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