Recently, I was at a TIMES UP panel, and this actress, Rain Valdez, said, and I’ll paraphrase, because I could only write so fast: “We ask for a seat at the table, or they tell us to bring our own chair, but sometimes the table isn’t big enough or there aren’t enough chairs…so I said, fuck this, I’ll build my own table.”
It was a line that elicited applause, and it deserves applause. Building your own table is an admirable accomplishment and it can happen in all sorts of ways, as the result of all sorts of hardships.
Ten years ago, I joined RWA and then allowed my membership to lapse almost immediately. I did not feel supported or welcomed. And if you’re wondering why that is, understand that the same conversations we had last month, were happening then.
Imagine, starting a new career, and asking your colleagues to make some room at their table, and being told, no. Go build your own. Told, so nicely. In the sweetest of tones. Why don’t you go build your own.
I started my legal career almost simultaneously as my romance writing career. And just think what would have happened, if I’d gone up to a partner at the firm and said, I think it’s really wild that no woman ever gets promoted here, it’s really outrageous that we’re constantly told that our work isn’t as good as the men’s. And instead of fixing those issues because by and large it was the predominantly male partnership that had the power to fix those issues, imagine the partner looked me in the eyes and said, why don’t you women just start your own firm, if you’re so unhappy here?
I would be so rich right now, if that had happened. It would have been a great lawsuit.
But it was acceptable, for nice women to tell me that. It was acceptable, for publishers to tell me to hide my face and change my name. For agents to say, they’d be able to sell my books if the characters were just a little whiter. It was acceptable, and remains acceptable, for our black colleagues to be placed in their own genre. It is acceptable for our colleagues whose intersections of identity place them in a far more vulnerable position than I, to be treated worse than that.
I carved out my name without RWA. Without chapter meetings or PAN loops or retreats. I wasn’t totally alone, I eventually found my crew through other means and we helped each other, we lifted each other, because that’s what you do, when you’re told to go build your own. An island of misfits.
I rejoined RWA two years ago, with hope. And I’m still hopeful. And people ask me if it’s better now, if I feel welcome now, and by and large, yes. But I don’t know how much of that is because I have the protection and the privilege of the table I built myself.*
And that table is not perfect. Last year, I was at Nationals. It was the first year I had one of those peripheral tables at a signing, the ones on the outside of the room. My friends told me about it the night before, I hadn’t looked at the seating chart. We toasted to it, as we always toast to each others successes.
The next day I walked in and I asked the volunteer if she had a seating chart. She said, “It’s alphabetical by your last name.”
Me: Oh, I think I actually have one of the end tables?
Lady: No, you don’t. The peripheral tables are only for the bigger authors. What’s your last name? I’ll help you find it.
How many of you know what an author looks like? I don’t. But I guess it’s safe to assume the ones who sell well probably don’t look like me.
Was it the worst thing to happen to an author of color at this conference? Nope. Not at all. The worst thing to happen to me at a conference? Nope. I tried to shake it off, I’m tough. I have support. I have the peripheral table. I built it myself, I dragged it to the corner of that room. And then when I couldn’t shake it off, I told myself, this is the toll we pay. The tax.
The next time someone says to you, I don’t understand why these authors say that they don’t feel welcomed, we’re not racist, I don’t care if someone is purple or green, ask them to think carefully. And think about what they say to people who aren’t purple or green, but are black and brown, which are actual colors people can be. Ask them to understand there is a million little ways you can be made to feel unwelcome. Sometimes it can be three words. No, you don’t.
Publishing is a brutal industry. Success here is not the baseline. It takes talent and luck and timing, and all of those things are helped when you’re not starting from scratch. Think of how much time it takes to build a table, to get it to the periphery of a large ballroom. We could be writing books. Think of the time I spent writing this speech, about this topic, when we all know I’d rather be talking about Magic Mike XXL.
Applaud building tables. But understand how much better the world would be, how much better our industry could be, if we could all just move over a little. If we could be kind. Not nice. But kind.
We are writers. We traffic in words. Let us be mindful of the words we speak as well as the words we write. There is room. There are chairs. It will cost you nothing, but you will be giving your siblings coming up after you everything.
*It’s barely been nine months since I gave this speech and I’m no longer hopeful. Do all this stuff, definitely make room, but fuck RWA. See also #IStandWithCourtney.