In two of my favorite photos of two of my favorite writers, they are dancing. In one photo, Toni Morrison is at a disco, fine and free, in 1974. In the other, taken a decade earlier in somebody’s New Orleans living room, James Baldwin is bustin’ a move with friends. I cherish these images because they remind me that I’m part of a literary tradition built by people who knew how to get down. They lived and wrote (and danced) in the context of community and of the cultural moments they survived, thrived in, and helped to shape. Like many Black writers, I claim Morrison, Baldwin, and their contemporaries as family, as kin. These photos I love invite this sense of familiarity, this embrace.
This time last year, I had no idea that Robert Jones Jr., Dantiel W. Moniz, Dawnie Walton, and I would become not only friends, but family, bonded by the release of our debut fiction books—two novels, Robert’s The Prophets (Putnam, Jan. 5) and Dawnie’s The Final Revival of Opal and Nev (37 Ink/Simon Schuster, March 30); and two short story collections, Dantiel’s Milk Blood Heat (Grove, Feb. 2) and my The Secret Lives of Church Ladies (West Virginia Univ. Press, 2020). We are bonded by our books, by this moment in history, and by a fierce commitment to community and to each other. With a generosity of spirit, we are lifting as we climb. And it all started in the DMs, reaching out, showing each other, and our work, love. What follows is a conversation with my cousins, conducted on March 3 over Zoom; it has been edited for length and clarity.
ON DEBUTING DURING THE PAST YEAR
Deesha Philyaw: I don’t know how you all feel about this question, but I get it a lot: What has it meant to you to have a book coming out in the midst of a pandemic and in the midst of what people politely refer to as this time of “racial reckoning”—that really wasn’t—in the wake of the murders of George Floyd and other Black folks? What has that been like for you?
Dantiel W. Moniz: I have to spin it back to 2016 to properly get into that question. I was taking my writing seriously, I got into an MFA, I was actually gonna devote time and energy to my writing. And then Trump got elected. The day after that happened, I went into [my mentor’s] office, “So what’s the point? Why should I even be doing this? What do my little stories mean in the grand scheme of all of this?” And she sat me down and was like, “Stories have always been necessary. That’s why they’re underfunded. That’s why they’re undervalued. It’s not because they have no value. It’s because they have so much power to enact subtle changes on a day-to-day level in people’s lives.”
Having the book come out in 2021, I felt so much joy about having the stories published finally, but I was teetering between Why do this? I should be out in the streets right now versus That’s the point, they want me to feel like this is for nothing. I had to coerce myself into Hey, you did this, nobody can take this from you.
Dawnie Walton: Dantiel, you and I went into an MFA program at the same time, and in very White towns. You were in Madison, I was in Iowa City. That 2016 election hit like a bomb in a lot of ways, and in other ways it made me write harder and with more fierceness and urgency. In my book, part of the plot issues around the Confederate flag, which was always part of the book, even before 2016. You have things like the insurrectionists taking over the Capitol and the Confederate flag, the flag of literal traitors, being waved through the Capitol, and people are reading the book now and saying, “Oh my gosh, it’s so relevant.” I’m like, well, it’s always been relevant. It’s been relevant for decades.
Dantiel W. Moniz: It’s foundational. And nobody wants to acknowledge that.
Robert Jones Jr.: You know, I agree with that assessment about it always being here. I was thinking about Trump getting elected and realized that I have a touchstone for every era of my life in which I felt menaced by the society I lived in. So as a 6-year-old, growing up in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, I was chased home by the White kids every single day from school; they had bats, bottles, and chains, chasing us back into the projects. Then I was two blocks away when Yusef Hawkins was killed in my neighborhood. And then, you know, George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, on and on and on to Donald Trump—which for some people feels like a culmination but to me feels like just another day in America. What I realized is that the fabric of America is the genocide of the Indigenous people and the enslavement of the Black people. And it doesn’t know how to operate outside of those paradigms without fundamentally changing what America is and means. Writing in this period is writing in a perpetual state of fear and suspicion and oppression. America has not changed. Faces have changed, but the underlying pathologies remain the same from 1492.
Dawnie Walton: What we’re writing is not new or different. It’s just that the attention is more intense.
Dantiel W. Moniz: One of the things that was very important for me was to acknowledge the realities of the world that we live in, especially for marginalized people, especially for Black people, especially for Black women. But I wanted to also portray that that’s just not always at the front of these characters’ minds. The characters are just worried about the same shit everybody else is worried about, you know what I mean? And then a little incident will pop up and remind you—whether it’s a microaggression or something more heinous than that—but it’s not always at the forefront. I wanted to give this space for these characters to be experiencing just normal everyday life-shit.
Robert Jones Jr.: Dantiel, you’re saying something that Toni Morrison said. She said you can’t always home in on the crisis. There have to be the other parts of it, so that you recognize that these are human beings, not just political slogans.
Dawnie Walton: I have been so appreciative of all the [people who read] my novel and said it’s about systemic racism—but it’s also about a Black woman who loves music. It’s also about her trying to find her voice, this one character.
ON NAVIGATING THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY
Deesha Philyaw: Dawnie, your main character, Opal, says of herself, “I have never been one of those okey-doke, ‘just happy to be here’ Negros.” And then she goes on to talk about how she scrutinized her very first record contract. I’ve been telling Black writers who asked my advice that they don’t have to be happy just to be here, to be asked to the party. They don’t have to accept what’s offered without negotiation or without asking clarifying questions. Some people are afraid to ask questions for fear that this is their only chance of getting published or getting their book adapted for film or TV, if they’re further along in the process. What can all of you share or advise about navigating and negotiating in the publishing industry as a debut author?
Robert Jones Jr.: Thankfully, I am married to an attorney from Jamaica, who is a Virgo on top of all of that, who does not tolerate BS, who scrutinized every single contract that I signed and asked very probing questions. That gave me the courage to then start to ask questions: What am I signing? Do these people have my best [interests] at heart? Initially, I was afraid to ask any of those things, thinking if I asked the wrong question, maybe they’ll snatch this contract away.
Dawnie Walton: When I was in my first semester at Iowa, NoViolet Bulawayo came through, talking about We Need New Names. She did a QA session with students, and somebody asked, “What is your advice in terms of publishing?” As wonderful as my program was, they’re very much like, We don’t talk about that, we just want you to focus on the writing. I don’t know that I agree with that, because a lot of us go in blind, right? The thing that she said, the thing that I tell every Black writer, is: Before you go hurtling into the publishing industry, before you show an agent anything, finish your manuscript. Get it where you want it to be, understand your intention, understand your character arcs before somebody else puts their hands in and starts meddling. I think that is hugely important, especially now, because there is a lot of interest in Black writers. They’re trying to discover somebody, right? And if you do not have your confidence, if you don’t know what your work is, somebody else will tell you. And you may end up with something that you didn’t intend.
Dantiel W. Moniz: I think for me, the greatest advice that I would give anybody is to learn to listen to your own instincts. When I was applying to MFA [programs], I had gotten into Iowa, and I had gotten into the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where I ended up going. I was trying to figure out which one would be the better fit for me, and I remember everyone being like, Go to Iowa, because it’s Iowa. That’s a no-brainer. And I was like, Is it, though? I’m trying to teach my students to learn when they’ve internalized something that’s external. I think that’s so important in a writing project. I do believe that writing is a community, a collective, after a certain point. And that’s great. But you got to know what it is you want from it before it can be beneficial to have other people look at it. Learn to distinguish what your actual voice and vision is versus something that you’ve internalized that’s actually external.
Dawnie Walton: 100%.
ON THE EDITORIAL PROCESS
Deesha Philyaw: Somewhat related to that question: When my agent began to shop my collection around as a partial manuscript, I thought about the facets of the collection that I didn’t want to have to negotiate on. And this was based on the horror stories I’d heard from other Black writers who had engaged with White editors and publishers. And I’m all about the editorial process and the revision process, because it makes for a better book. But I did not want to have to translate Black culture or Black vernacular or Black people for a White audience. I had no interest in revisions that centered the presumed needs and interests of White readers. I knew that White readers could connect with my stories and characters as written if they wanted to. And I knew what Toni Morrison had said about the White gaze and what August Wilson said about Black stories being universal. Can all of you speak to the work that we do of holding onto the vision of our books in a largely White publishing industry?
Dantiel W. Moniz: I’ve done a number of podcasts and TV shows where people would be like, “Who do you think this book is for?” And I was like, “Well, I didn’t write this book for everyone. But I do think anyone can connect to it.” So for me, I wanted to make sure that I’m not explaining things that would not have to be explained by the people that I am writing for. For example, there’s a scene where a character is getting ready for work, she has a little toothbrush, and she’s brushing down her baby hairs. She’s just doing it. You know it, or you can look it up, you know what I mean? I feel like it’s OK for writers to require their readers who are outside of that experience to do a little work. I think that’s totally fine. I’m always conscious of where I’m writing toward and making sure that that stays at the center without trying to put any “Black Experience” label on my book. It is what it is, but I don’t have to define that for you. Because I don’t need to define myself or my worlds.
Robert Jones Jr.: I agree with that. I’m writing in a tradition, which I acknowledge as a Black tradition that I see starting with Phillis Wheatley—going back that far. I know what Black is when I see it. I know that there’s a lot of different types of Black, but I know Black when I see it. Maybe I can’t put it into words, but I know it when I encounter it. I know it in your work, Dantiel, I know it in your work, Dawnie, and your work, Deesha. And I see it in my own work. And when I was first pushing this manuscript, I had already known: There will be no compromises on the Blackness, there will be no compromises on the queerness. These two things go together. It’s Black queerness, if you will, and I will not compromise on any of the Black characters in terms of their agency, their roundness, their dimensionality. And I’m not explaining anything. So when you see the word toubab, figure it out.
Dantiel W. Moniz: Look it up.
Dawnie Walton: My book is really dependent on voices, and Opal’s voice in particular. I was uncompromising about the way that she puts things, her phrasing. It was funny at times, because you go through these rounds of proofs, and I would have Opal saying things that we all know, like “You a lie.” It would come back from copy changed to “You are a liar.” They didn’t know. And so I had to write an email, “Please stet that change.”
Dantiel W. Moniz I had that, too. I had someone, she “fell out” in the church. And they were like, “She fell down?” Finally, I had to do a long explanation—this is just Black. She fell out. They know what I’m talking about, it’s OK.
Deesha Philyaw: I had that, too, with my story, “Jael.” The character Granny says, “I stay prayed up.” And my sweet editor, we went rounds because of the tense. Is it “She stays praying?” No: “She stays prayed up.” The other one, for me, it was more fact checking. She said, “I could not verify that a dozen crabs in Jacksonville, Florida, cost $7 in 1984. Are you sure?” And I’m like, “Yeah.” I don’t even know where you would go to find that!
ON BLACK READERS
Deesha Philyaw: What do you wish these publishers and editors that we’ve been talking about—we had good experiences, but in general—what do you wish they better understood about Black writers and Black readers?
Dawnie Walton: For me, it’s two things. One, understand how important it is for your Black writers to reach their communities. Black “bookstagram” has been so good to me. Those requests are top priority. I want to do all the [Instagram] lives, that’s super important. The second is that in the PR and marketing process, I have been very involved. And you guys can answer this, but probably you wanted to be very involved as well, in terms of whatever imagery is attached to your work. Whenever sort of fun marketing things are being done. There’s a lot of nuance, and you don’t want to get things wrong.
Robert Jones Jr.: I would like the industry to get over this dogged perception that Black people don’t read. If they went to Harlem, 125th Street, [they’d] see that every other vendor is a bookseller. Every other one. That is how much Black people love to read. And part of the reason Black people love to read so much is because we were denied that ability. Our ancestors, at the threat of death, could not read or write. I would like them to understand that and then find those readers. You have to come up with plans to understand where those readers are and appeal to them.
The way that you do that is you start hiring Black people. There is no reason why, when I was meeting with publishers, that I met one Black woman editorial assistant at seven different publishers—she was the only Black person I saw. When you have a room full of the same people, you come up with the same ideas, and those ideas become stagnant. You need to be able to move and adjust and turn and twist with the times. Understand that you have what is largely an untapped market out there of Black readers who are hungry for books that you might even have on your catalog. But you’re not reaching them because you’re not doing the work and you don’t have the cultural competency. That is what I’m hoping the industry begins to understand.
ON THE IMPORTANCE OF ROLE MODELS
Deesha Philyaw: What writers have you looked to as role models for navigating this experience?
Dantiel W. Moniz: You, Deesha. I mean, 100%.
Robert Jones Jr.: Deesha Philyaw, who was very transparent about her experience, and Kiese Laymon, who loved me through this process, actually connected me with my agent. Both of you have been absolutely crucial, pre- and post-, as I navigate this publishing industry.
Dantiel W. Moniz: I’d say for me, Danielle Evans and Jamel Brinkley. [Jamel] was a fellow in my first year at my MFA. He sat down with me in a coffee shop [when] he was going through the process of publishing A Lucky Man. And he was very honest with me about the money. Here’s what the process is, here’s how it is to order a book. Let me also tell you about your stories and how you’re not really writing to your potential at this moment. During this whole two years that it took to sell the book and then actually have the book published, I could text him and be like, Yo, what does this mean?
Dawnie Walton: I have to give a shoutout to De’Shawn Charles Winslow, who was a year ahead of me at Iowa and pulled me aside and said, Look, it’s a good time. Here’s what you need to do. He hooked me up with [my agent]. That was crucial. And I also have to give deepest gratitude to Ayana Mathis, who was my thesis adviser at Iowa and has looked out for me every step of the way.
Deesha Philyaw: We talked about Kiese, [how] he’s opened doors, bringing us with him. And so we, in turn, want to bring others with us as we move forward. Robert talked about tradition. We have our writing traditions as Black writers, but also our tradition of being in community. People call it “collaborative” now, but we call it a cookout. We call it talking over the backyard fence. There are versions of that we create wherever we go. I would encourage writers to find that community, to be the person that builds that, be the person that people can come to. What would you advise?
Robert Jones Jr: I would say, do not look at other Black writers as competition, look at them as community. There will be forces around you that try to pit you against one another. Because, you know, There can only be one.
Dantiel W. Moniz: There can only be one. I was just about to say that.
Robert Jones Jr. That is absolutely not true. My experience has been, for the most part, that every Black writer that I have come in contact with has lifted me up as I’ve tried to lift them up. This is the sort of love that we need amongst one another because we are writing against the cultural grain. We are writing things that are implicating the people in power, as marginalized people in a White supremacist capitalist patriarchy. My advice to up-and-coming Black writers is to find what is crucial to your development. And then make sure, like Patti LaBelle says, “When you’ve been blessed, pass it on.”
Dantiel W. Moniz: Pass it on.
Deesha Philyaw is the author of The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the Story Prize, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize: The Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction.