Yesterday I explored some ways I can feel like an authentic writer, methods like blogging from cafes and drinking coffee. It’s clear that these things aren’t what define me as a writer (although, full disclosure: I’m back today, at the cafe with coffee).
Today I’m thinking about how I can identify myself as a writer. Not that I’m eager to put myself in a box, but in many ways I’m sometimes expected to. I try to avoid it sometimes, and succeed for as long as I can until the next person asks that question: “what do you write?” It’s that question you might get from many people when you identify yourself as someone who writes.
Maybe there was a time when answering this question would’ve been a simple one, but it’s since gotten more complicated for me. I often say I’m a fiction writer, but I feel a little guilty about it, because that’s not entirely true. But does each person who asks really want to hear about my internal struggle over whether I’m writing fiction or poetry?
I’ve taken to identifying myself as a queer writer while trying to figure out how to answer the question. You might wonder why I would want to put myself in such a box, especially if not everything I write is distinctly queer.
It’s kind of like the question of why I’d taken on the label of queer. I’ve been asked why queer people want to “flaunt it,” why they would have to broadcast their sexuality as such a primary part of their identity. At times I’ve tried to put this perspective in terms of a bookstore. I can walk into the fiction section of an average bookstore, and I’m sure I’d find plenty of great books, but I might have a hard time finding stories that reflect people like me. I’d scan book covers and summaries on the backs to see if there were any featuring women of color as main characters. I’d try to read into every description of character relationships to see if there could possibly be a queer character somewhere within the pages.
But of course, the majority wouldn’t focus on queer characters, or women of color, and surely there would be very few featuring queer women of color. In all the time I spend searching each book for them, I would definitely find some wonderful books, but the number of books I’d find including my identity might range from very few to zero.
That’s why I have some kind of nerdy bookgasm when I walk into a bookstore to find sections like Black literature, queer literature or (gasp!) lesbian fiction. I don’t necessarily want to limit myself to reading books by authors like myself, but since such books are so rare in mainstream literature, I love finding entire sections devoted to highlighting such work.
So maybe that’s why I call myself a queer writer. As much as I would love to be simply considered a good writer (period), to be identified as a black writer or a queer writer would mean that folks like me, in search of some reflection of their own story, might find my work and hope to find it.
And I would have to ask myself, what would be the advantage of eliminating the labels, identifying myself as only a “writer” without distinguishing myself from any other? Langston Hughes wrote “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” in 1926, and his words still resonate with me today. He writes of the black poet who just wants to be “a poet — not a Negro poet,” in attempt to fit into the white American standard as much as possible. The black poet says it “as though his own racial world were not as interesting as any other world.”
I identify who I am as a writer because I’m not ashamed. I’m saying that, although voices like mine have long been ignored in many mainstream literary circles, my world is as interesting as any other world. Even if I’m never accepted in those mainstream circles, I will find myself amongst others in celebration of who we are. As Hughes writes: “We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.”