Black Women’s Writing: An Interview with Donna Bailey Nurse

Interview by 
Chelene Knight

I was tagged in a thread on Facebook about the difficulty in naming black Canadian women who had published a novel before the age of forty. I thought about this and began questioning the reason why it was so difficult to come up with even one name.

Shortly after seeing this thread, someone posted a link to a CBC radio interview with Donna Bailey Nurse. After listening to the interview twice and hearing her thoughts on black women and their place in the publishing industry, I knew I had to speak with her.  

Donna Bailey Nurse is a literary journalist who lives in Pickering, Ontario. Her work has appeared in Maclean's, the Globe and Mail, The Boston Globe and the Literary Review of Canada. She is a columnist for The Next Chapter on CBC Radio. Her anthology Revival: An Anthology of Black Canadian Writing was published by McClelland & Stewart in 2006. She is also the author of What's a Black Critic To Do? Vol. 1 & 2. Donna is still working on her memoir about the American South. Her book Black Girls will be published by Palimpsest in 2018.

ROOM: We always hear the words “diversity” and inclusivity” but as this relates to black women writers in Canada who are just starting out, why aren’t these important voices being published?

DN: A number of studies have concluded that college (university) educated black women read the most books. This is probably one of the reasons so many black women authors have been published in the U.S. in recent decades. American publishers recognize they have a paying audience. But I don’t think Canadian publishers are particularly interested in black Canadian readers. They don’t believe it is an audience worthy of pursuit. Yet Canadian publishers are desperately trying to stay afloat. It is a mystery to me why they would not cultivate this eager demographic. Besides, black women’s writing is one of the most popular literatures in the world. Black women are certainly not the only people reading it.

ROOM: Agreed! And our stories need to be heard. I’ve always said we will get our words out by any means necessary.

As you mentioned in your radio spot with Shelagh Rogers, self-publishing is sometimes a “last resort” for those black female writers who don’t have a foot in the publishing door or connections in the CanLit world. What are some of the pitfalls self-publishing can cause for these emerging writers?

DN: I am not entirely opposed to self-publishing, but you have to understand your true objective. If you want to be taken seriously by the publishing industry or the literary community, self-publishing is probably not the way to go. Indeed, few newspapers or magazines review self-published books. Another drawback of self-publishing is that you must pay to be published as opposed to being paid to be published. This has psychological as well as financial implications.

When it comes to publicity, it is virtually impossible for the self-published author to compete with the marketing machine of an established publishing house. We are talking about entire departments devoted to promoting novels to newspapers, festivals, broadcast media and lecture series. Finally, a self-published author will not receive the experienced editorial guidance of a major publishing house, which means she has less of an opportunity to improve with her next book. Of course, you can always hire a freelance editor. But that requires laying out even more money for a book that is likely to earn very little.

ROOM: What can our “white allies” in the publishing industry do to help support black Canadian women writers?

DN: They can take black Canadian women’s writing seriously. They can read it as thoughtfully as they read white writers, and develop their own opinions and their own taste.  In other words, when it comes to promoting black women’s writing, they need to be able to consider more than the colour of the author—they need to be able to recognize the quality of the work—otherwise it becomes a token exercise.

Our white allies in publishing also need to stop asking black people to freely share their expertise on diversity. Instead they need to start hiring black people for their expertise on diversity.

I am glad you brought up white allies because I would not be far without mine. Especially in the early years I had tremendous white, mostly male, editors who fought for me and fought for my right as a black woman critic to review black books and to discuss black authors. I don’t find as much of this today. Indeed, appropriation is a huge issue in journalism. It is one thing for journalists to want to write about black novels; it is another for them to use their clout—the positions they are likely to have, the people they are likely to know—to prevent black critics from writing about black novels.

ROOM: Yes! I have also had some pretty amazing white allies who supported me every step of the way. A lot of what I am doing today is very much a direct result of that support.

It’s one thing to publish a black woman’s work, and give her space, but how can we be sure that this space will be sustainable and that these women will be offered the tools they need to pursue long-lasting careers and hold positions in the publishing and editing world?

DN: That is a big question. I am not sure I can answer it. I will say that tokenism’s M.O. is divide and conquer. Rather than spending our time battling one another for the few random publishing spaces, black women writers, readers, critics and editors should join forces to create the space we need. It is perfectly natural for us to be separated into various competing groups. But when necessary we need to be able to come together. We must show Canadian publishers that we are one large united demographic that will not be ignored.

ROOM: On the other end of the spectrum, I find myself second-guessing the reason I get offered writing, editing, publishing, and speaking opportunities. How can those who hold the power to provide these opportunities make sure they are offered up in a way that reassures us of its validity? In other words, how can we be sure we aren’t the physical equivalent of a diversity hashtag?

DN: Don’t worry too much about why an opportunity comes your way. And don’t care too much what people think. First of all so many people never get the job they want simply because they are black. So maybe people who get the publishing position because they are black should consider themselves lucky. At the same time, remember, most white people in publishing have their jobs because they are white, which is to say that if they weren’t white, they wouldn’t have them. Whatever job you get, for whatever reason, just do your best and at the same time find ways to thoughtfully exploit the full potential of that position.

ROOM: You are all about supporting and elevating young black Canadian women writers. What types of work are you doing around getting these voices heard?

DN: I have been all my life a passionate reader—I read widely—and my work in criticism is an extension of that magnificent obsession. I don’t necessarily see myself as an advocate of black Canadian women writers. I am first and foremost an advocate of black people. I want black Canadians to have access to the most excellent literary representations of their experience. That is my objective. Black women’s writing from Canada and across the diaspora is one of the most popular and powerful literatures in the world. What I do is study it, write about it and talk about it at every opportunity—in reviews, in profiles, on the radio, at the library or for organizations or at curated events because I believe these stories are essential to the lives of ordinary black Canadian people.

ROOM: What tips can you offer Black women reading this right now? What do you need them to know?

DN: Our unique position in the world combined with our unique vision has produced the most powerful and extraordinary body of writing. If you are a black woman on this planet, you have a great story to tell. And if you want to do that I encourage you to read the best black women writers, but not only black women writers. At the same time, don’t be a follower. Don’t pretend to value a book just to go along with the crowd or to be accepted by the right people. Decide for yourself what constitutes excellence. Cultivate your own taste and that will enhance your writing. This focus on excellence will also advance black Canadian literature as a whole.

If you are trying to sell your first book, be patient.  Do not succumb too quickly to the urge to self-publish simply in order to see your name in print. If you are looking for an agent try the younger operations like Beadle Literary Agency. Also approach the smaller presses first. In addition to the indie Canadian presses, the U.S. also has a host of small presses devoted to publishing people of colour. Sometimes when you are published by a small American house, a Canadian house will follow.

Most importantly, we as black women need to be generous with one another and make space for one another, which is difficult in an industry riddled with tokenism. But I honestly believe it is key.

Chelene Knight is working on her third book and is managing editor at Room magazine.

“It's Canadian, feminist, and one of my favourite things ever.”

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