Alex is the mixed black protagonist of my novel See No Color, and is a tenacious, thoughtful teenager. Adopted into a loving white family as a baby, she discovers that her parents have been keeping letters from her birth father from her, and that her ties with her white adoptive father and brother—thus far in her life solidified by a firm commitment to baseball—are not quite as strong as she thought they were. This begins a journey of questioning and discovery for sixteen-year-old Alex, about who she is, who she belongs to, and who she wants to belong to. The book is a coming-of-age story about identity, especially its messiness when you are on the fringes of so many different communities and cultures at the same time (white, black, mixed, transracially adopted, etc.).
I started the story in my mid-20s, in the MFA program at Indiana University. An avid fiction reader since I began reading, I had up until that point focused primarily on writing poetry. But I desperately wanted to learn the craft of the stories I loved, and to explore my experiences and those of the people I knew and also loved. As Toni Morrison has expressed, I wanted to write myself into literature. The problem was, I needed to develop my writing chops. Writing is not the same as reading, although I will always argue that the two are intimately and beautifully intertwined. So, there were many, many areas I needed to give myself the time and space to develop, both within and outside of workshop: my first attempts at dialog were stilted and not believable, my characterization fell flat, my plot lines went nowhere. My classmates were exceptionally generous and encouraging, and for the most part, understood what I was trying to do and told me to keep working. When I won a national writing award at the end of the program, I felt assured that my draft of the novel would get picked up by a publishing house.
But the agent I had at the time dropped me rather unceremoniously, saying that although he could see some gems in the manuscript, he didn’t believe in my ability to revise it and fix its global problems. That was a blow to my confidence, for sure, but after I got over it, it made me even more focused on strengthening the draft. Over a period of probably seven years, I tinkered with the novel, sent it out to various readers and editors, received feedback, and incorporated what I thought was valuable into the next draft. I even had a small press that published young adult fiction express interest in publishing it, right before they folded, and an even smaller community publisher release parts of it digitally, targeting an adoptee audience.
Some projects are meant to be shared with the world, and others are meant to lead you to the next project. First novels, I reasoned, generally fall into the latter category. Writers can work on first novels for half their lives, and yet these drafts will never be published because their purpose was to develop the writer’s craft. I believed that this was what happened with See No Color, and although I was disappointed, I had also accepted that the life of the writer is largely about rejection, and had moved on to other projects.
My one lingering regret was that I still felt like the story was really needed in communities of transracial adoptees, where most of the literature about us is written by people who don’t really understand the particularities of the experience: how it feels to live largely separated from your home culture and the people who you look like, how you paradoxically feel closest to whiteness and white culture, even though you clearly aren’t white. I was also aware of the dearth of solid reading choices for young teens of color in general, and young women of color in particular. When you consistently don’t see yourself represented in the stories around you, you begin to believe that no one really sees you, that you are some kind of anomaly, and that reading and books are only for white people. This is as dangerous as it is wrong, and I always believed that Alex’s story could be one of many to help re-center our experiences.
|The author at sixteen|
That Alex’s story will soon be out in the world, crashing into stories of others who do not fit into easy categories, is particularly moving for me now that I have my own children, who are American and Liberian. Carolrhoda Lab™, with its focus on finding and developing books about the realness of being a teen today, has made this possible, and Alex and I couldn’t be more excited. She and I hope you find resonance with your own story through hers. We hope that, like us, you find a space to tell it, so that so many others will know that none of us is alone in our cultural strangeness.
Look for See No Color on November 1 in bookstores and libraries near you.