Monday, February 28, 2011

On learning to love my niche audiences

The last thing any creative writer wants is to be put into a narrow box. We all want to believe we are writing for all people, for all time: as universal and essential as well, Shakespeare or the Book of Genesis. So imagine my frustration! A librarian in Victoria, British Colombia reviews my book. I've never met the guy, but I picture a thin, stuffy 45-year-old in a three-piece suit, heterosexual, married, smoking a pipe in an office cubicle with a view of the Puget Sound. He said:

"[Glen Retief's] memoir should appeal to LGTB readers looking for something beyond the standard gay coming-of-age story and, incidentally, to anyone interested in the social history of South Africa as apartheid was ending."

There I had it--BAM! My memoir should appeal to eccentric queers and idiosyncratic historians. The latter only incidentally. For presumably a week or two. Then, thank God for recycling--at least I wouldn't bear sole responsibility for the loss of a row of trees in rural Maine!

I was furious. I Googled Richard J. Violette, the reviewer, but didn't learn much. I Googled Victoria, BC: beautiful spot, indeed, I decided. But who would want to live there if it's the kind of place where "ordinary" people (read: Western, middle-class, straight) don't want to read books by "different" people (African, gay etc.)? I'll stick around in Amish country. And drop off a couple of promo copies of The Jack Bank in the Mennonite store with the "buggy romance" rack. Who needs Canada?

But then, this weekend, I had a different insight. Mostly out of guilt, I've been reading Jacqueline Deval's How to Publicize Your Book. She's a former book publicist for a major New York house. The one thing she talks about over and over again is, figure out your audience! Get a picture in your head of who might want to buy your book. (The myth of universality, she says, is just that, a fairy tale. Every book appeals to specific kinds of people). Then, if you're an author with even a grain of desire to actually be read, figure out a way to connect with these folks.

So that's what I'm planning to do this summer. I am planning to visit, as much as I can, some of my favorite people in the world: progressive expat South Africans, like the fun crowd I hung out with DC for the World Cup--see my earlier post on this blog. Queers of all stripes, especially activist ones. I don't know that many idiosyncratic historians, but I am, after all, a Quaker, and Quakers are endlessly interested both in progressive social history and in global cross-culturalism. So I'm going to be doing a reading at Friends General Conference in Iowa.

I feel strangely at peace having accepted this box--and grateful to my unknown Canadian "Violette" for having pointed out its contours. As I tell my students, it's in the particular that we find the universal. And in having claimed my cultural particularity as a writer--gay, South African, etc.--I somehow also feel more in touch with the human race as a whole. There's a lesson in this.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Worlds Apart: Family Life Across the North-South Divide

My little brother David just came to stay for the weekend. He is working for his multinational computer company for six weeks, in North Carolina, and popped up for the weekend to bleak, wintry central Pennsylvania, where Peterson and I live. It was lovely to have him, but talking to him about all the family developments back home--my nephew going to school, all of the different family members' reactions to my book coming out--was a reminder of how radical a choice it is to be an expat. Edward Said talked about how it severs an individual from the consolations of "family, history, and geography."

I see my parents, siblings, and nephews once every two years or so, when I make my bi-annual pilgrimage back home, usually for Christmas and New Year. In the 17 years I've lived in the USA, only three times have any of my biological family members set foot in a place where I live: my parents, once, when I lived in Miami; David, twice.

My friends Silas and Catherine, both American, went on a family cruise recently. Catherine's family lives a couple of hours away, in Maryland, so they see them every month or so. On this cruise, both Silas and Catherine were struck by the number of developing-world workers--Filipinos, Thais, Brazilians etc.--who made a fuss of Silas and Catherine's kids and talked about missing their own children, left behind with grandparents or aunts and uncles. I'm certainly not comparing my own experiences to these workers': I'm a middle class South African who left my home country at least partly to study and teach creative writing. I don't have children the other side of the world, just aging parents and lots of siblings, cousins, and nephews. Still, it does seem to me South African families, across race and class differences, are fragmented in a way that American middle class families aren't. Among my parents' friends, almost every family has at least one kid somewhere in the West, in England, Canada, America, or Australia. And the Xhosa families my students and I met in Tshani, Transkei, this last December, talked of children leaving the village for the distant large cities, and almost never being seen again--from the way they spoke, their children might as well have been in Brisbane.

What do you think? Is it easier to maintain family closeness in richer countries? Is this a good thing? Bad? Are America and places like it the last bastions against the globalization of blood ties?

Monday, February 14, 2011

Valentine's Day randomness

Just a few random, rambling thoughts this sunny, mild Valentine's morning...

Had a busy weekend, which began with my looking at my friend Susi Wyss's web page, I met Susi at the AWP conference in DC last weekend and I instantly liked her: she just seems so smart, wise, and interesting. Susi has what seems to be--I haven't read it yet--an excellent novel coming out just a few days before The Jack Bank does, and from the same publisher (St. Martin's). Her novel is ALL about Africa--weird and wonderful coincidence, no? We're going to try to do some joint Africa-themed events in the Baltimore area.

Anyway, I was reading some of Susi's stellar reviews, and that got me hunting down reviews of my own. I was pretty pleased with this one from Library Journal: Retief has a skillful, subtle style that conveys a sense of atmosphere and his own otherness that grips even when he describes in detail the sordid brutality of boarding school life.” Gripping my readers with sordidness--yes! That'll pull out the book-buying hordes. But then I got thinking: as a writer, should I even be reading my own reviews? My own Valentine, Peterson Toscano, asked a similar question at just about every panel he went to at AWP: should we writers listen to our critics? I told him no, I am just going to ignore my reviews, all they can possibly do is muddy the creative waters. But then I realized: if I put my head in the sand, who will collect the good reviews for my web page? Tenure file? Writers conference applications? So I guess I'm going to be reading my book's reviews after all, God help me...

Yesterday, at the Quaker meeting Peterson and I attend, folks had a lot to say about Egypt: how inspiring the nonviolent change there has been; how destructive the military and financial support for the Mubarak regime. I think I was the only one in the group to have traveled to Egypt, all of the way back in 1993. I remember the beauty of the Nile, the endless hustling of the tourist totes, and the breathtaking pyramids at Saqqara. But I did think: if we North American liberals are going to get THAT inspired by a country we've barely thought about for the last several decades, how about we teach ourselves a little about it? So here are some beginners' links and suggestions:
The novels of Egyptian Nobel Prize winner, Naguib Mahfouz. I especially enjoyed Palace Walk.
If you haven't already, read the Koran, a brilliant, sometimes disturbing, poetic sermon on how to be righteous. It also contains alternative versions of the major Bible stories.
Watch some Egyptian movies!

Finally, a sad Valentine's moment--a segment on BBC World Today, about the BBC reporter who had to flee Uganda after telling an MP he was gay. I'm not denying the awfulness of what's happening there in that country, by any means. When I visited in 2000 I was very struck by the climate of terror and homophobic hatred. But really, what does Scott Mills expect if he asks random people in the streets of Kampala what should be done with homosexuals? If I asked this question in rural Transkei, many of the respondents would think I was talking about intersexed people ("hermaphrodites," as they say in rural Africa). Without asking Ugandans about their understanding of the word "homosexual," interviews like this simply become a display of mutual cultural ignorance.