I’ve just released a book of short stories, and “My Grandma is a Racist” is one that means a lot to me.
It’s not personal in the sense of family history–though I did have a grandmother who didn’t like blacks, Jews, or Catholics–and another who didn’t like hippies. These very complex, loving, interesting women harbored many prejudices as many of us do today. But this is not their story.
The setting is the Bush/Kerry election of 2004, when America was taking sides on the Iraq War and Swift Boat Veterans. It’s the story of a little girl, Wendy Redbird Dancing, trying to make sense of her mother and grandmother’s daily battle over politics. And it’s also the story of what happens when no one is looking after this particular child.
Racism in the story is overt in some moments and covert in others. It’s conscious and subconscious, as much as every moment in American history is laced with hyper-awareness of whether you are black, white, brown, yellow, or some mix thereof.
Don’t think it’s so? Please do a family history and place it against a timeline of civil rights landmarks for the last 150 years. You’ll see members of your family living through some strange and terrible times, whether it touched your family directly in traumatic ways or not. Someone may have an opinion, if not fought, like my ancestor, on one side of the Civil War. If you don’t wake up aware of your particular skin tone, chances are you walk the world with some amount of racial privilege. Even in this post-racial society, we can’t deny that walking into some places as the only white, black, or minority of the particular context, that there are different permissions given. Just the other day I was told that I as a tall white woman will be treated differently in India when I travel there this February. In other words, my risk of assault is lowered for a number of reasons. One of them is the colonial history of British oppression, white on brown.
Today, as President Barack Hussein Obama is inaugurated into his second Presidency, we know that America has done something historic in voting him in once and then again. We know it is a particularly special day that his inauguration occurs on the Dr. King holiday, because no matter what your politics, Obama has that content of character that gets certain things done. There will be historic legislation and events for historians to evaluate; it’s not a do-nothing presidency. We can judge him for those actions and not for his blackness. Dr. King may not applaud today’s gun violence nor the recent wars or massive uptick in poverty, but I do believe he would applaud the fact we can judge Barack the man with a different bar than many would have back in 1968.
And back to timelines–’68, the year King was shot, was the year I was born.
“Midrift” is another story in the collection, written from the perspective of a black woman, by yours truly, a white woman. I was told back in 2004 while workshopping this story that “You can’t write this.” I did anyway, and no doubt I will offend both white and black and perhaps others, too, in taking this risk.
Good writing starts a conversation. I hope I’ve done this. And I invite you to take a chance on my characters who like to stir things up and out of the complacent daily grind. Art for life’s sake.
Today, this holiday, I will take inventory of my service to others, as King would have us do. I’ll take inventory of my prejudices and the breadth of my mind, treating this as a New Year’s Day to be a better person this 2013. I have a hand in this historical timeline, and I hope to leave a mark that helps our progress as a human race–one people, under God, and indivisible, no matter how hard we try to tear ourselves apart.
What is your mark, and what do you want it to be?
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In honor of losing yet another short story contest, I declare it time to write poetry. Found poetry, that is, since the following lines are excerpts from the hundreds of rejections I’ve received for my short story manuscripts. I think they make a rather sweet pie of rejection.
Image found at http://www.jasonshen.com/2010/the-rejection-therapy-challenge-week-1/
Thank you for your submission.
We have carefully considered your submission.
We wish we could respond more personally to your submission.
We read your submission respectfully and with care.
Please know we read and appreciate every submission
and it pains us
to be resorting to such a standard reply,
keep coming in
and the hours keep
slipping away and
what is one to do.
We respectfully ask that you wait at least one month before submitting more work for our consideration.
We get a lot of submissions and can only use a fraction of them,
so please understand that this No most likely means
“Not Quite the Right Fit,” not “No Good.”
Because we read so many stories,
it is not possible for us to give specific feedback,
but, if you’re a relative beginner,
you may find something of interest here: Editors’ Input.
We receive many
stories, but can only take a very limited number due to constraints of space and style.
We were literally shocked at the quality of so many of the entries.
Even quality work often has to be declined.
We appreciate your willingness to entrust us with your writing.
Our editorial staff and needs change for each issue,
so I hope you will consider submitting your work to us in the future.
However, we particularly enjoyed “Retrograde” and hope
you will keep us in mind for future submissions.
One of our editors would like to leave you some personalized comments,
so look for an email regarding “Retrograde” soon.
There was much to be liked in this story, and it got some good comments from our readers.
But alas, it still just didn’t seem to work for us.
I’d be happy to see you submit something the next reading period, which is now open.
Best of luck finding a home for this story.
Unfortunately this particular piece was not a right fit for The St. Petersburg Review,
but we were very impressed by your writing.
We hope that you will feel encouraged by this short note and send us something else.
Iron Horse Review: About your manuscript (“By the Water”), our editors said: Okay, this story is very, very good. The father is rendered in great detail and is consistent, and the three boys are all clearly distinguishable from one another. The story, moving. At the end, though, the conflict with Jeremiah seems unresolved, and that conflict seems to be the most important, next to the protagonist’s own internal conflict. So we were just a little dissatisfied by the ending. But boy, that swimming pool scene is really nice.
The New Yorker: We really enjoyed this story of a father and his three sons; it was very tender and at times even humorous.
The Missouri Review: Lyn, Thank you for sending us your work titled “By the Water” for publishing consideration. Though this piece will not work for us, we encourage you to keep sending your work, as your talented writing style is one we look to promote through our publications. Your eye for detail and subtle humor are apparent throughout this piece, we congratulate you for excellent technique and hope to review your work in the future.
Sincerely, The Editors
We wish you success in placing your work elsewhere.
Never mind what we say. Keep writing!