REPRESENTATION: In Education, in the World and on the Page

Inspired by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, I recently got me some hoops.

At a recent Town Hall meeting, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez spoke of her dad’s education at Brooklyn Tech, a selective NYC public high school that made a different kind of life possible for him – and I related. As a teenager, I traveled 90 minutes each way to attend Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan because I, too, wanted a different kind of life. But attending this “elite” school (and the “elite” schools that followed) came at a cost.

In high school, I was the only Latina I knew. Because I didn’t fit the stereotype of a Puerto Rican girl from The Bronx, I made the decision that not only did I not count as a “real” Latina, but that I should also avoid anything that could make people think I was one. Hoop earrings were, therefore, out of the question, as was gold bamboo jewelry, nameplate necklaces and tight, sexy outfits. I also did everything I could to erase any signs of a Bronx accent, including speech classes at 16 to cultivate a generic Mid-Atlantic cadence.

I did, however, always wear bright red lipstick and nail polish — because it looked so damn good. Then one day, a friend asked “Why do you do that? It makes you look like a Puerto Rican girl.” In a rare moment of pride, I responded, “Because I am a Puerto Rican girl.” But my pride didn’t go much further than that.

From personal experience, I know that the lack of black/brown representation in NYC’s selective high schools (as well as in highly selective colleges and universities) is an injustice not only to deserving kids who don’t get in, but also to ones that do. Just this week, out of a total of 897 kids, Stuyvesant admitted only seven black students to its class of 2023. For all the opportunity Stuyvesant offers those kids, how can it possibly compensate for the culture shock they’re about to experience?

When, as People of Color, we change ourselves to accommodate an inherently racist status quo, we lose the best of what we have to offer our families, our communities and our ancestors. And because true power and fulfillment come from owning who we really are, an educational system in which extraordinary kids from disadvantaged communities are pressured to dis-identify with their authentic selves cannot be considered “just” or even successful.

The same goes for publishing and media. Human beings cannot become what we do not see; this is not mere philosophy, it’s neuro-science.* And this is why I speak, write and teach, again and again, about REPRESENTATION.

Because I am not in favor of a culture dominated by a Whiteness which insists on denying the value of other peoples, of their languages, their histories and their ancestry. And I am not in favor of a culture in which the cost of “success” is participation in the further eradication of one’s own people and culture.

Representation Matters. And it changes the world.

If you’re in the PNW, join me on March 30 for my one day writing workshop called “REPRESENT!” And express yourself as you really are, not who the White culture wants you to be so you can “succeed.”

*For a scholarly perspective on mirror neurons and literature, see Literary Biomimesis: Mirror Neurons and the Ontological Priority of Representation by Deborah Jenon and Marco Iacobini

Rewriting Your Own Story is Sometimes the Most Important Revision of All

This girl thought she’d made all the mistakes, until she realized she’d gained all the wisdom. Or some of it.

Whether I’m editing, teaching, or public speaking, I’m not only committed to educating writers about how to write and publish better books, I’m also committed to being their champion and a constant reminder that they’re worthy of writing, and rewriting, their stories… especially the ones they tell about themselves.

For writers who come from marginalized backgrounds, this is particularly important. As they say, “representation matters.” And when we lack heroes who remind us of ourselves — ethnically, racially, socioeconomically or otherwise — it can be that much harder to see ourselves as the heroes of our own journeys, especially when the going gets rough.

Back when I was starting out in the entertainment industry, “The X-Files” posted an opening for a researcher. As a huge fan of the show and a whiz at research, I jumped at the opportunity to apply. I’d already written a sample script in which Agents Mulder and Scully discover Puerto Rican independence activists fighting the Federal government with brujeria, and saw the position as a launching pad for the fantastic writing career I wanted.

Thrilled when I got called for an interview, I drove to the Fox lot with stars in my eyes. Having nearly memorized the show’s credits, I knew that the woman interviewing me had moved up the ranks from Executive Assistant to Vice President, and I looked forward to impressing her with my mad skills and abundance of arcane knowledge. And, to my credit, I did both. But then, as our conversation was wrapping up, she dropped the bomb. They’d already decided to hire from within, and while they had a writer’s assistant position available, she thought I wouldn’t want it because “assistants don’t get the respect that researchers do.”

At the time I didn’t know that, regardless of potential disrespect, working as an assistant was one of the best ways to get started as a TV writer. I also didn’t know that I should have taken anything she offered. But instead of saying “I’ll take it,” I said “No thanks.”

Then I put my script on her desk and walked out: right past Vince Gilligan, the writer of my favorite “X-Files” episodes and future creator of “Breaking Bad.” He must have assumed I was one of the new assistants because, as I strode by, he shot me a disdainful look, dripping with disrespect.

For too long, I told myself this incident proved I was destined to fail. WHO does that? Aren’t ‘successful’ people smarter than that? Wasn’t I supposed to be smarter than that?

As I matured and gained perspective, however, I rewrote this story — from one that confirmed my incompetence and stupidity, to one that celebrates the courage of a geeky Latina girl from the Bronx pursuing her dreams in Hollywood. Rather than a story about shame, it became a story about experience, and a badge of wisdom rather than a disfiguring scar.

When we rewrite the stories from our past, we rewrite out futures. Stories are that powerful. They give us who we are, and not only can they help turn us from victims to heroes with just a few words, they can do that for our readers as well — especially when those readers have been dying for a story with a heroine just like them: one who learns from her mistakes and grows that much stronger for them.

Wanna make a room of white people feel awkward…?

Books by writers of color are more likely to be banned. That’s right. In the above Bitch Media interview with Kristen Pekoll from The Office of Intellectual Freedom with The American Library’s Association, she states that more than three quarters of the books banned by school libraries in 2017 were by, or about, people of color.  “What does it say about our culture that people don’t want these books on the shelf?” she asks.

Even though offended parents, teachers and administrators claim that they object to these books due to religious, political, sexual, or other “controversial,” content,  what they all have in common is that they explicitly and honestly address the experiences of non-white Americans, or protagonists from other cultures.

And that can make a lot of people uncomfortable. As she says “Wanna make a room of white people feel awkward? Talk about race.”  

It’s not only difficult for most white Americans to face up to the racist history of our country, it’s even more difficult for them to understand what racism is, and how it functions on a structural and institutional basis. Unfortunately, however, because 89% of publishing industry professionals are white, the odds are against writers of color getting the attention and support they need to effectively explore the intersections of race, poverty, gender and class in ways that will awaken readers and challenge the status quo. 

Nevertheless, I have hope. And right now that hope lies in my commitment to creating spaces for writers of color to discover and develop stories that not only convey infrequently-heard truths, and possibly inspire a more just and fulfilling world, but where they also never have to hear the question, “Why does everything have to be about race?”

Register for my upcoming Circle for Writers of Color, launching in February 2019, or sign up for a free group coaching session for Writers of Color.

Facing The Monster

Writers, Editors, Collaboration
A Good Editor is A Writer’s Best Ally

If you are not discouraged about your writing on a regular basis, you may not be trying hard enough. Any challenging pursuit will encounter frequent patches of frustration. Writing is nothing if not challenging. – Maxwell Perkins

Whether we’re seasoned writers or inexperienced newbies, there’s no question that facing the blank page, or even a page we’ve already written, can feel like facing down a monster.

Creativity is a major area of stress for most, if not all, human beings and few things are as sensitive as offering up our creative babies for feedback. At times, it may feel like our very existence is being judged and measured for worthiness, and when a project is particularly close to our hearts, even the smallest critique can sting.

People write because they have something inside which they feel compelled to get out. It can be an experience, an observation, an idea, or a dream, but, whatever it is, it can feel like so much is at stake when we offer it to another set of eyes.

Is it good? Does it make sense? Have I revealed too much? Should I give up?

Questions like these flood every writer’s mind once they’ve handed off their pages, and that’s why a good editor must be as gifted with psychology as she is with words. While I’m here to assure that your work makes sense, flows cleanly, and communicates a powerful message, I’m also here to hold your hand as you face the monsters at every stage of your project. I’m your collaborator, your coach and your ally.