Discoveries and disclosures regarding SJF Books
I’m a week out from the BookBaby Independent Authors Conference and I have been thinking long and hard about what I write, why I write, and for whom I write. It’s been a fraught thought process, one that has forced me to confront something I’d known for a while but didn’t want to accept—to the point I even confessed to one of the speakers about the revelation. In the week since, I’ve not been responding well, culminating in a complete meltdown on Friday where I couldn’t be the Strong Black Woman™. I was all out of spoons. My internal mason jar of emotions had been filled up. The excess had to go somewhere, out, and even then what I’d shed was simply enough to put the lid back on so I could power through another day and on to the weekend.
Coincidentally, there was an author behind me at the signing who was independently published like myself and had made a very involved journey from Indiana to sign in my co-hometown of Columbia. As I was doing a quick look around at my fellow authors, I noticed her book cover, stopped, and immediately picked up the book. Why? There was a visibly ample woman on the cover looking soft and vulnerable and it took me a few seconds to skip down to the rest of the cover to see the conventionally attractive hero below her. We eventually did a book swap of that book and mine, but we got to discussing about why she wrote what she wrote, how much courage it took for her to be her own cover model (when the naysayers about her being so were loud and hurtful and tried to steal her voice), and I was just so happy for her she did that, told her story, and this conversation effectively reinforced and reframed—at least a little—something I’d been struggling to write for a while.
Per the advice of several speakers at the BookBaby conference, I took a gander at the people who follow me on Facebook and Twitter. The demographics for both were incredibly similar and not too far off what they are for the general romance readership. But the Twitter audience surprised me in this regard as well: politics. There are as many people following me for book/publishing information and crafting as they are for my politics, and then I realized I shouldn’t be surprised by this. Both matter deeply to me, and as a marginalized person who writes, I cannot divorce one element of myself from the others. I’ve tried and it’s left me fragmented and low-key frustrated, so I’ve slowly been working on the best way to incorporate the two. At first, I was afraid to lose readers or alienate followers. But, per the aforementioned speaker at the conference: I have to talk to my audience, which means I may lose some people along the way. As the universe would have it, months before attending the conference I gave this same bit of advice to a local entrepreneur I’d met who’d been talking about her struggles with incorporating her politics with her business. “Do as I say, not as I do,” is a common trait among us, clearly. I am not immune.
Nowadays, authors need a platform upon which to brand themselves. When I first started writing, that wasn’t so boldly articulated, especially because social media wasn’t as ubiquitous as it is today. Essentially, platform is the shorthand for “what, why, for whom” with the additional caveat of why you versus anyone else. What makes you the expert on this platform? Why should yours be a leading voice on this subject? It was that last caveat that sent me to a place I’d been avoiding for years. It’s a place that’s shame-filled, and the funny thing is, I don’t feel this sense of shame for others who may be in that same place.
There’s a lot of things to unpack as to why that is that I won’t get into here because if I do this writing will turn into a multi-volume tome, but suffice to say it’s informed far more than I’d been conscious of it informing and it’s still informing me now. One thing I’ve learned over the course of my career is writers tend to write around the thing they most want to write about. I’m even doing it in this essay! I know I am. But I have to do this because I need to follow the trajectory of where I was to get to where I want—need—to be.
A place of vulnerability, a dangerous place for anyone, but particularly a black woman, because we’re not generally allowed to be. To paraphrase Zora Neale Hurston, “Black women are the mule of the world,” and a lot of our laboring is on behalf of everyone else. Even now, we’re doing our best to save this country from itself, but nobody is trying to save us. We have to bootstrap ourselves, figure out a way love ourselves in a world that says we’re unlovable, unwanted, and a last resort. We can’t even be the victims of our own crimes, merely the evidence in someone else’s. So many examples, both explicit and implicit, are what I wrestle with while situated in love stories because while love is supposed to be the strongest force in the universe to which everyone is entitled, despite what people like to believe, love is political as hell.
Politics informs us way more than we like to admit. It’s impossible to be apolitical if one lives in a society. As much as people in this country like to believe they are individuals and independent, we’re actually not. It takes a level of courage and bravery most of us don’t actually have to live the life we’re supposed to live and love the people we truly want to love. And in this country, there’s a whole slew of people who we’re told, implicitly or explicitly, shouldn’t expect to be mutually and genuinely loved. Being Plumville is the story that most directly deals with this conundrum on a more macro level, and people have received it well. When I delved deeper into these themes on a more personal level, though, it gets more difficult. It’s that heart matter, that thing I write around. In other words, my platform.
I write stories where unseen, often ignored women find love—i.e., write about women who are like me loving and being loved. Because if I can conceive it, maybe it’ll actually happen one day. Intellectually, there’s no shame in this, even though according to surveys most romance readers are not lonely, unloved, unseen, or ignored. But then that “you know this doesn’t happen in real life” voice crops up, and that weird amalgamation of shame and defiance compels a new crafting (though most recently it’s been more the former rather than the latter).
Nevertheless, I’m claiming this truth: I do write for the lonely women; the unloved or underloved women; the unseen and/or unheard women; the bullied women; the butt-of-the-joke women. I write for Black women who are generally perceived as all the above all at the same time, with emphasis on the Black women who might also be fat women and/or dark women and/or hardworking women who only have time to focus on ensuring roofs remain over their heads and food stay in their bellies while taking care of everyone else first. And I write for the women who don’t know what to do with finally being seen for the amazing people they are; who might fight against it because hypervisibility has generally not worked in our favor; who second guess and wait for the other shoe to drop because it always, invariably does. I write for women who need space and permission to be weak when they have to be inhumanly strong in real life; who need to be helped and held and hugged when that mason jar becomes too full and those spoons have run out, or just…because. And when I write, I show this loving can be messy, frustrating, but also tender and schmoopy. Happily Ever After doesn’t mean it’s free of strife or challenges, and what’s the use of falling if you can’t help each other stand in the aftermath?
There are readers who were here for Being Plumville but might not be here for Trust Fall or More Than a Summer Love or my latest City of Sin stories, and that’s okay. There are authors I admire and adore, and I don’t read all their books, either. But every writer has inner politics she’s working through—even in romance—and every writer should have the courage to explore what that means for their crafting. As I tell newer and aspiring authors: every book isn’t for everybody. And for me, if the number of “everybodys” isn’t as large as someone else’s I have to be okay with that too. This fact doesn’t mean I don’t have a worthwhile story to tell; and more importantly, this fact doesn’t mean those “everybodys” don’t deserve the opportunity to read it.
The immediate weeks leading up to this birthday have been mercurial to say the least, which makes sense considering my ruling planet is Mercury (which was apparently in retrograde, and isn’t that always fun?). A colleague of mine passed away suddenly on the same day as my grandmother had six years prior at a similar age as my mother had twenty-three years prior, who left behind two young ladies just as my mother had. Also, this was the Monday after Mother’s day, so I was already in a state of unexpected grief (I’d thought after two-plus decades having no actual mother to celebrate I wouldn’t be as affected as I’d been, but this year it’d snuck up on me, and the metabolizing of the day I must have subconsciously been doing years prior didn’t happen this year). I don’t mean to start this off unhappily, but Dr. Conseula Francis, the woman who passed, was a champion of the romance genre – particularly Black romance – and especially for the right for Black women to feel love and all the pleasures that come with it without shame or negotiation or excuse. And for her to do this in academia, a place that is usually insidiously hostile to all of these things, with the level of success and gravity as she’d done was so refreshing and exciting for me. The last personal interaction I’d had with Dr. Francis was a few months ago (she was an incredibly busy associate provost at the College of Charleston where I also work) and she gave a talk about Black women and romance. There was only a handful of people there, and I was the only other Black person in the room besides Dr. Francis. I was happily her Amen Corner, because everyone else had little idea what she was talking about (not their fault, considering Blackness is always marginalized, and anything having to do with Black women even more so). To hear Dr. Francis name drop and big up so many fantastic authors – including myself – was a point of pride not just for me, but for all of us Black women who give voice and space for ourselves to be loved and cherished and adored and pleased, and for all of the women who choose to occupy that space with the fullness of themselves and the freedom of their undeserved guilt. To hear her discuss how romance interacts with, wrestles with, contends with social status quos that have actual ramifications of how we live our everyday lives and that these novels aren’t simply an “escape”, but are in many ways a blueprint of how Black women can pursue and live their fullest selves, was empowering for me to hear, as she’d articulated a subconscious drive I’ve had for why I even write what I write in the first place.
Sometimes you have to sit with a thing; let it soak, then simmer, then sink further down into the psyche where the real metabolism can begin.
Prince’s death hasn’t soaked, simmered, or sunk yet, but I’m going to write about it, anyway. I’d tried to write something about it the day after he’d passed, but nothing I was producing really hit where I wanted it to go. I could feel the ramble begin, trying to do a chronology of my relationship with Prince, such as it was, on the cusp of staying up late well passed my bedtime watching Purple Rain, a film I’d only halfway seen once before and only in the last five years. Truthfully, I’m not a “fan” of his in that I didn’t actively pursue his music—not like I did with Whitney or Michael—but he was a foundational artist to me nonetheless.
“Kiss” is one of the first songs I ever remember hearing that wasn’t a lullaby or a hymn. At first, I’d thought Prince was a woman, because in a three-year-old’s mind, women have “high” voices and men have “low” voices. So the fact Prince dips down into the lower registers of his voice for “You” to catapult him to the “don’t have to be rich…” at the end of the song didn’t faze me at all. And really, it’s just his voice, a drumbeat, and harmonies above it that drove the song, with the guitar to add flourish, some synths to fill it in, and no bass line. “Kiss” never fails to get me tapping my feet or shaking my shoulders; it’s that motivating of a song. And now that I’m older, I can also appreciate the lyrics for what they are—just be yourself; I dig you for just who you are. I suppose three-year-old Savannah understood those lyrics would be important one day, even if she couldn’t articulate it then.
A few years later, Prince then releases “Diamonds and Pearls”, which is actually my favorite Prince song. Again, it’s a simple song, not really complicated—complete with a bridge that features a breakdown of D-I-A-M-O-N-D that goes hard in the paint. By this time I’m eight years old when the song drops, and I admit I liked the song because I could sing along with it and I liked the melody. Yet with age and life lived, the lyrics of “Diamonds and Pearls” are gorgeous and resonant, especially the verse after the bridge. Gems are nice, but what we have to offer from inside is the real value we give to each other. “All I can do is just offer you my love,” how completely precious is that? How completely simple, yet difficult to do, especially if you think you’re not worthy of it, or full of it?
Welcome to the new SJFBooks.com! This is will be the first stop to any and all things related to author Savannah J. Frierson and SJF Books, including blogs, upcoming releases, excerpts, and appearances.