BGNO Spotlight: Vanessa Willoughby
I am a big fan of the website Book Riot, a bunch of book nerds from different backgrounds writing about books, what's not to love? A few weeks ago I read an article called The Diversity Myth: Where Have All The Black Editors Gone? The article really stuck with me and when I went to the author's twitter I found out her name at the time was Black Hermione. I've wanted to start interviewing awesome women ever since we started Black Girls Nerd Out and who better to start with than a Black Potterhead and book nerd who cares about representation in media. So today's post is a Q&A with freelance writer and editor, Vanessa Willoughby.
- Introduce yourself to our audience?
My name is Vanessa and I’m a freelance writer. You may have seen my bylines at Vice, The Toast, The Hairpin, Bitch, Book Riot, and/or Literally, Darling. I’m the Creative Director at Winter Tangerine, an arts and literary journal. I started out as a Prose Reader/Editor and now I focus on driving the aesthetic and web presence of the journal. I conduct interviews, help curate spotlighted features, etc.
When it comes to writing, I mostly stick to books, music, film, general pop culture commentary, social issues, and personal essays/memoir.
- You mentioned #OscarsSoWhite at the beginning of your article, is that what inspired you to write about diversity in publishing?
Partly that and simply reacting to the publishing industry itself. After being on both sides of the business, both the creative side and the corporate side, it’s extremely frustrating to see the variety of excuses that white publishing figureheads use in order to suppress Black and/or POC writers and maintain the status quo. Like Hollywood, they believe that diverse stories don’t sell well or that these stories aren’t “relatable,” despite contradicting evidence. Like Hollywood, mainstream publishing has been content to publish the same type of narrative over and over again. How many literary fiction novels do we really need about the implosion of an upper-middle class white family in the suburbs? It’s no surprise that if your masthead consists of white faces across the board, it’s going to impact what kinds of stories you think are important or valid.
Or in some cases, companies also don’t even bother to make the effort to invest in diverse talent. With the help of social media, more and more minorities are speaking out against racism in publishing, but the industry itself has been slow to change. The VIDA count and the We Need Diverse Books campaign are excellent ways of forcing publishers, editors, agents, etc. to be accountable for their conscious and unconscious biases. They are the beginning of the conversations though, and not the end-all-be-all. I think it’s important to remember that just because the awareness of the whiteness of publishing is now visible, doesn’t mean it’ll change overnight. Diversity in publishing is more than just, “Oh, let’s hire one or two POC editors and that counts as our diversity.”
I care about these issues because I’m a reader and a writer. I want to make the industry better. I care because books have saved my life and I refuse to stand by and have my voice silenced. I always think of that Zora Neale Hurston quote, “If you are silent about your pain, they'll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” Life is too short to accept crumbs with a smile.
- On our blog, we talk a lot about intersectionality and representation and why it’s so important to us. Why is representation so important to you?
Representation is important to me because I know what it feels like to not see yourself in the world around you. It’s painful and alienating and makes you question your own purpose in the world. I struggle with the notion that my writing reaches people, so it’s always surprising but welcomed when someone, especially a young Black/POC woman, reaches out to say thank you for writing X essay. It makes me feel less alone. It makes me feel better that other people feel less alone just by reading my words. Writing is a form of time travel, I think. People can speak to you across time and history and geographic lines and change your life.
- Do you have any thoughts about why it is taking us so long to get diverse and nuanced representation in media, specifically books?
I think it’s a bunch of factors. It doesn’t start and stop with just publishing more diverse and nuanced portrayals of racial identity in media. It also involves the gatekeepers, the people behind the curtain. We want to believe that people are hired solely off their merit, but the notion of who you know can really outpower a resume. There’s the pervasive practice of people hiring people who look like them/want to be friends with/remind them of them. Well, if you’re a white person and don’t interact with POC (and no, your one Black friend doesn’t count), then why would you think of hiring someone who doesn’t look like you or someone who comes from a different cultural background? Or what happens when you get your foot in the door and you look around and you discover you’re the only minority in the room? For some, it means you have to endure working in a toxic environment. It’s your job and your means of living vs. your mental and emotional stability. We’ve seen headlines about POC employees in technology companies quitting due to racism and discrimination. If you have to deal with that on a constant basis, it really takes a toll.
Also, there’s the topic of opportunity and who has access to those opportunities. The obvious example is internships. If you can’t afford to take an unpaid internship, how are you supposed to network?
I literally just saw on Twitter today something that went viral relating to internships. This white guy tweeted about how he was going through resumes for interns and he said something along the lines of, “Hey college kids, your part-time job working at a restaurant isn’t relevant and isn’t going to get you an internship!” What an ignorant and privileged response. Some of those students HAVE to work in order to have food to eat for the week and to help pay their tuition. They don’t have the luxury of not working. People rightfully dragged him.
- In your article, you state that "in the eyes of white publishing, the universality of a narrative is dependent upon its connection to whiteness. The default modus operandi in publishing is that of the white gaze, where the white protagonist is held as the standard of authenticity, likability, and familiarity." As a reader and writer did you ever struggle with upholding this standard, knowingly or unknowingly? How do you deal with this standard in your own work?
I guess when I was younger, I blindly accepted whiteness as the default. I’ve always loved to read but I didn’t always seek out diverse stories. I guess that was because of what I was exposed to in grade school and because, growing up in a lily-white suburb, you’re automatically viewed as the Other. You can’t really escape that. When you just want to fit in and not be harassed for being different, it’s hard to put self-love above acceptance.
However, going off to college and getting out of my hometown state helped trigger my awakening, so to speak. I was introduced to literature and culture that I never would have encountered had I stayed. I got to experience life outside a small town. I could go out on the street and not get openly stared at just because I was one of the few minorities in town. I got out of my comfort zone and had to rely on myself.
At this point, I don’t care if my work is “too black” or “too ethnic” for people. You’re probably not the type of reader I want, anyway. My mere existence is a problem for some people, so there’s no point in censoring my writing in order to please people who won’t change their minds.
- You also mention that narratives focused on Black characters are categorized as "African American fiction" or set in urban settings as "street lit" what do you make of this assumption of what POC audiences want to read or how they identify?
I think POC audiences want stories that are just as nuanced as anyone else. I think the demand is there, but again, it’s a matter of dismantling the current power structure in publishing. I think those labels are not a reflection of what POC audiences want, but rather what white people felt comfortable with.
- What is the worst aggression or microaggression you've heard of or experienced so far in your career?
LOL. Too many to count. I hear/see something new every week, it seems.
Pretty much any time I write about race/racism and my experiences with it, I get trolls, especially white men, who come out of the woodwork and tell me how I’m wrong or I’m overreacting or I’m a racist. That’s the horror and beauty of social media, especially Twitter. The positive gets amplified as much as the negative.
- Your Twitter name is currently Black Hermione. Do you identify as a Potterhead? How long have you been a fan and what about Hermione appeals to you?
Yes, I’m an unabashed Potterhead, though I don’t think I’ve ever said that aloud. I’ve been a fan of HP since the first book, which came out when I was in fifth grade or sixth grade. I did all the midnight movie showings, midnight release parties, etc. I remember getting the last book at midnight, going home, and pretty much locking myself in my room and reading until I was done. I’d grown up with these characters and I truly felt like I knew them, like they were old friends. It sounds silly, but I honestly was so emotional reading the last book. I cried a few times and then I felt so relieved at the end knowing that the trio was safe and got a happy ending.
I like Hermione because she’s unapologetic about being herself. She’s smart, loyal, logical, compassionate, and will punch you in the face if you call her a Mudblood! She certainly wasn’t perfect but I admired her because she never wavered in her convictions. I think it’s quite rare to see female heroines in books and pop culture that are allowed to be nuanced and strong and vulnerable at the same time. I also think I automatically latched onto Hermione because she was braver than I was about standing up for oneself, and I wanted to be like that.
- Do you think of Hermione as Black? Have you always identified her as Black?
Honestly, when I read the first book, I kind of thought she could be. I just remember reading that she had big, bushy hair and I immediately identified with her. I was tripped up by the word bushy, I think. I read it and subconsciously translated that as non-white. Hermione’s got huge, uncontrollable hair, she’s socially awkward, and she’s a bookworm. She’s not from a “pure” bloodline and is considered an outsider, in terms of the wizarding community. People question and undermine her talents and gifts. It was easy for my mind to make a connection between Hermione and blackness. It just made sense to me.
- Do you have any upcoming projects we should be aware of?
I’m currently a Fiction Editor at Brain Mill Press. My submissions just opened so I’m currently looking for literary fiction manuscripts by diverse authors! Interested writers can check out the details here: http://www.brainmillpress.com/submit/
- Where should people look for you and your work?
I always post my work on my Tumblr: www.my-strangefruit.tumblr.com. People can also look for me at Winter Tangerine. I’m so stoked to see all of the new projects and ventures that WT is doing. We have a Summer Writing Workshop about to drop, we’ve got contests going on, etc. Also, I post about my work on my Twitter.