As an introvert, the act of writing is right up my alley.
Spend hours alone?✅
Reading and researching?✅
Imagining things? ✅
I’m all in!
Publishing what you’ve written turns out to be a different game, however. Sure, I heard this before my book came out and knew it intellectually, but actually doing it is...something.
Publishing a novel is as gratifying as I had hoped it would be, yet calls upon a different set of skills. Once the book is out in the world, no more solitary creativity. The order of the day? Interacting with people about the results of one’s imagination.
Externalizing what had largely been an internal process feels like attending a yoga class requiring you to stretch muscles you didn’t know you had.
Before giving a book talk, a sense of excitement courses through me: this thing I worked so hard and so long to complete is now out in the world. People have read it! And I get to talk about it! Amazing. And, mixed in with the thrill is a trepidation that feels like those dreams of walking naked across the stage at graduation. What if they ask a question and I have no answer? Or what if they hated the book and have nothing positive to say? Or what if I have a Naomi Wolf moment and it turns out that despite all my efforts at research I fundamentally misunderstood the meaning of the materials I used? 😰
Today I got to put all those feelings to the test: a Shanghai-based book club made up of Western (white, AAPI, and Black) and Shanghainese members invited me to speak to them about Rumors from Shanghai. Meaning I would be addressing a group of readers that includes members who are
Familiar with the city that is critical to the story the book tells ✅
Familiar with Chinese (and specifically, Shanghainese) culture ✅
Familiar with African American identity operating in an international context ✅
And I was doing it at 5:30 am US time. Fire up the espresso machine!
The club’s reception of the book left me honored and humbled. The members had lots of probing questions (as the member acting as moderator phrased them, ‘hard questions’). They didn’t feel like ‘gotcha’ questions however, but rather like the members really engaged with the material. Towards the end of the discussion, a Shanghainese reader whose grandparents had lived in Shanghai during the period of the book, indicated she could tell how much I loved the city, how the book had resonated with her and asked if there was a Chinese language edition in the offing.
A Black American member offered a textual analysis of certain passages that describe reactions of the protagonist (a Black American man) to situations he faces, and her sharing was so powerful. She asked why I had written each of them as I had, which I answered. She went on to explain that they were situations and reactions she herself had faced, but were not generally things she would share with people who are not Black. Her question: How would you know?
She offered that she is of the school of thought that someone who is not Black could not write authentically about a Black character, yet concluded her comments by saying that she changed her opinion after reading Rumors. Her frankness in discussing experiences that can be painful or anxiety-inducing as a Black person interacting with non-Black people was such an act of generosity to the group. I was deeply grateful for her candor.
I was mistaken in thinking that publication of my book would be the conclusion of a long journey. For years, I had researched, pondered, written, re-written, and edited. It is complete. Phew.
But it turns out the journey is simply now on a different phase and I am so grateful for the knowledge people have shared with me since finishing the book.
It was a photograph of William McDonald Austin, that I first saw 85 years after it was taken, not knowing who he was or what happened to him, that served as the spark for the character who became Tolt Gross: A trained lawyer who as a Black man cannot get a job in his profession in Seattle and heads across the Pacific Ocean to pursue opportunity.
When writing Rumors, I didn’t find any reference to Austin having practiced law or working in Seattle. But after completing the manuscript, I learned that Austin had in fact been unable to get a job as a lawyer in Seattle and left for the Philippines to pursue professional opportunities there! And, an attendeee at a book talk I gave shared that Austin had gone on to work for the American colonial administration in the Philippines.
And since completing Rumors, people of shared with me the stories of real life Black American adventurers overseas like Frederick Bruce Thomas, who became the premier (and wealthy) restaurateur/impresario in pre-Revolutionary Russia. You can read about Thomas’s amazing life in Vladimir Alexandrov’s book The Black Russian
Or, Henry Flipper, the first African American to graduate from West Point who used his civil engineering talents, fluent Spanish language skills and knowledge of mining law and leases to lead the legal department of an American-owned mining company in Mexico, then to serve in the U.S. government as assistant to the Secretary of the Interior, and later as engineer for Pantepec Petroleum Company, William Buckley Sr’s company. Flipper negotiated and secured the oil leases that formed the heart of Buckley’s Venezuelan business.
And, I have learned as well of African Americans who pursued opportunity and adventure in Asia across a range of endeavors: THE BLACK PACIFIC, 1919-1941: AFRICAN AMERICANS AND ASIA IN THE INTERWAR PERIOD
This is a journey I'm grateful