Representation Matters

There are a lot of movements lately that are attempting to diversify publishing (#latinolit is the one I'm most familiar with). These initiatives have included lists of writers and agents of color; publishing houses dedicating imprints to non-white voices; and an attempt to diversify internships, the position from which many publishing careers are launched.

The need for this kind of overt action became apparent to me last night when I asked the students in my creative nonfiction writing class to bring in their favorite or most influential books. While many mentioned childhood favorites, most cited books they'd read recently that really resonated for them.

As I listened and wrote down titles, I noticed something. A pattern, one that sometimes varied but emerged nonetheless. White men brought in books by white men; black women listed books by black women; gay men brought in dogeared copies of books by gay men. As a half-Colombian woman, my go-to is Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende. Books by authors that have had similar experiences to ours are, obviously, going to most resonate with us. There is nothing wrong with this. This is the human condition.

However, this phenomenon makes it clear why representation in publishing (along the whole pipeline from writers to publishers to librarians and booksellers) matters. We need representatives in all stops along the way to advocate for the books we, as readers, need.

Here's last night's list of books:

  • The 12 Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis
  • 4-3-2-1 by Paul Oster
  • All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  • All the Strange Hours by Loren Eiseley
  • Cane River by Lalita Tademy
  • Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman
  • Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher
  • The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maas
  • Hans Christian Anderson: The Complete Fairy Tales
  • Kindred by Octavia Butler
  • LaRose by Louise Erdrich
  • Nixonland by Rick Perlstein
  • A Passage to Ararat by Michael Arlen
  • Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
  • The Real and Unreal by Ursula Le Guin
  • Spark Your Dreams by Candelaria and Herman Zapp
  • Where’d You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple
  • Wild Embers by Nikita Grill
Anika FajardoComment

Last night I asked my students to write about their memories surrounding a public event such as September 11th, the Challenger explosion, the 35W bridge collapse, or other event. The writing was raw and tender. Most people linked the public event with an intensely personal one. Overall, the mood dropped as we discussed these life-altering events and memories. In the midst of this darkness, however, a few writers read a funny line or a surprising anecdote. The class's laughter was tentative and then overt. We needed to laugh, to smile. It reminded me about the importance of letting off some steam, opening the pressure valve in writing, the importance of balance.

Balance is something lacking in our political/social culture right now and so it's good to remember this even if it's just on the page.

Anika FajardoComment

Over the past year of teaching writing, I have been asked a new question from various students: How do I start? Before this, I had never heard that question nor asked it of myself. Is there something in the air that is keeping people from starting? Is it the social climate? The political uncertainties? A device-bred self-censoring?

Whatever it is that is causing would-be writers to have trouble starting, as a teacher, I need to figure out how to answer that question.

Starting can be the hardest part, but it can also be the most exciting. How do you start? With one word. Then another. Then another. Prompts help the truly stuck, but for most people, I think all they need is permission to put their thoughts on paper. Your thoughts are valuable, unique, and important. No one else has your thoughts and no one knows what they are until you let them out.

So, if you need permission, here it is: Begin. Write the first word that comes to you, the word that snakes its way through your grey matter, through your subconscious, through your conscious thoughts, through your arm, down your fingers, and onto the paper or keyboard.

Now do the next word.

Anika FajardoComment
Fiction vs. Nonfiction

As I finish the latest (hopefully one of the last) rounds of edits on my memoir with my editor at U of MN Press, I am simultaneously working on edits for my middle-grade novel with my agent. The push-pull between fiction and nonfiction was the topic of this blog post from Lit Hub by Aminatta Forna, "The Truth About Fiction vs. Nonfiction."

Forna says, "When I come to a begin a book it is usually with a question in mind, something I have been thinking about and I want to ask the reader to think about too. What turns the book into a novel is the arrival of a character... with nonfiction when I start to write I believe I may have come up with an answer, an answer of sorts at least."

I chose to tell stories about identity and Colombia from two different perspectives: one based on my life and one based on a character. For each project, I have been circling similar themes, but the core questions I wanted to explore were different. Both my projects have questions and, for me at least, one of them is answered.

Anika FajardoComment
summer school!

For the third year, I will be teaching Telling True Stories at the Loft in downtown Minneapolis this summer. This six-week class focuses on how we tell true stories--where do we get ideas? what norms should we follow? what inspires us? what ethical dilemmas do we face?

I am grateful to my past students for the insights and elegance they have shown . Telling true stories can be scary and opens up the writer to vulnerabilities, and I'm always impressed by the level of honesty and support in the classroom. Plus, we laugh a lot.

Using sample of fabulous creative nonfiction from a variety of authors, we will write to prompts, share our writing, and support one other on our journeys. It's a great class that can really catapult a motivated writer.

Anika FajardoComment

I taught fiction basics to a group of middle schoolers last weekend. It was fun--really, it was. The kids were enthusiastic, strange, confused, excited, and scattered. But the thing that felt missing to me was the truth-telling.

You see, I'm used to teaching about nonfiction and I missed the commitment to the truth. Sure, it's fun to make up characters and setting, but what a challenge to figure out how to tell a story that really happened in an interesting way.

This weekend I'll be teaching again, but this class is about essays and I can't wait. For the first time, I'll be using this gem by Nicole Stellon O'Donnell, which appeared in Brevity. I'm excited to see how the students (adults this time) react and what they come up with. Our true stories are powerful.