When I toured for my first book, Sex, Murder And A Double Latte back in 2005 I was scheduled to be interviewed on a popular regional talk show in the Northwest. Shortly before I was to step in front of the cameras and studio audience I was given the chance to chat with one of the hosts. She was friendly and bubbly (as befit her persona) and she seemed to have honestly enjoyed my book. "It was funny, and the characters were so easy to relate too," she said. "And...well, you know what surprised me?"
"What?" I asked thinking we were going to talk about some plot point or twist in the murder mystery.
"I was surprised every time you mentioned Sophie's ethnicity," she said. "I was constantly forgetting that she was biracial! Reading the scenes where she sits around and talks to her friends...well it could easily have been me sitting around talking to all my other white girlfriends! There was no difference in speech or subject or anything!"
What struck me about this comment was not the How-can-she-be-black-when-she-speaks-English-so-well connotation but that this woman seemed completely oblivious to the fact that her remark might be in anyway construed as offensive. But then my (and Sophie's) ethnicity came up a lot during that tour in all sorts of unexpected ways. My very first review was printed in Z!nk Magazine. They loved the book and said that "Davis explores and explodes racial stereotypes" by making the protagonist black AND Jewish.
"Explores and explodes." That phrase ran through my mind a lot during the months to follow. If giving Sophie a black father and an Eastern European Jewish mother was exploring and exploding racial stereotypes then obviously I was exploring and exploding racial stereotypes just by existing. But somehow that didn't seem like an accurate description of my life to date. Some people I have come across have expressed surprise or interest when I've told them exactly what my ethnic heritage is but as far as I know none of their heads have exploded while they attempted to digest the information nor has simply being introduced to me radically changed anyone's world view. And yet by creating the character of Sophie I was supposedly exploring and exploding stereotypes. That was interesting.
And perhaps there was a small bit of truth to that. When my publicist, Susan Schwartzman, set up a book signing event for me in a Bay Area, African American bookstore she was informed (after the owner of the store had a chance to actually read my novel) that my appearing there wouldn't be appropriate. "There is only one black character in this book," the owner had said in an email, "and that character is Marcus." In other words Sophie, and by extension me, was not black enough to meet this woman's approval. I was fully ready to let that one go. I had several book signings set up in the area, if I didn't get into a local black bookstore it wouldn't be a big deal. However Susan is a New Yorker through and through. She doesn't know the meaning of the phrase, "let it go." In her emailed response which she cced to me Susan wrote (in all caps) "KYRA HAS BEEN REVIEWED IN SAVOY, BLACK ISSUES BOOK REVIEW AND EBONY MAGAZINE. IF SHE'S BLACK ENOUGH FOR EBONY SHE'S BLACK ENOUGH FOR YOU!" A friend of mine suggested I have that printed on my business card, "Kyra Davis, black enough for Ebony." Anyway, Susan's email was strong enough to make the bookstore owner relent and I did speak at her store (although she didn't stay to hear me). I filled the place up with friends who were Asian, Latina, Russian and Irish immigrants and even one white cop just for kicks and giggles. But the whole affair gave substance to Z!nk's claims. Sophie was shaking things up. The very fact that the book was reviewed in both Ebony AND Cosmo was in and of itself rather revolutionary. I think it's entirely possible that my books were the first to ever make it into both of those publications. The vast majority of my readership is not black and yet I have managed to secure a lot of support within the African American community. I'm incredibly proud of that crossover. It's absurd to think that an ethnic protagonist can only be enjoyed by those who share that protagonist's particular ethnicity and if that was the case how small would my readership be? Are there any numbers on how many black, Eastern European Jewish people out there enjoy chick lit murder mysteries? I seriously doubt there are thousands of them.
And yet there is a perception within the publishing industry that white readers will not read about black characters (whether they be Christian, Jewish or Buddhist) unless the book is specifically about that character's struggles with civil rights. My publisher never actually sent an ARC (Advanced Reading Copy) to Ebony or any of those other black publications for their review. That was done by Susan who was working (and being paid by) me, not Red Dress Ink. My publisher was concerned that should my novels be mentioned within the pages of those magazines they would be categorized as "black books," and then tucked away in that dark little corner of most bookstores where they keep their "African American fiction" or what is sometimes euphemistically called "Urban Fiction." It seems that bookstores are one of the few areas where segregation is accepted by the mainstream. Frequently when I've asked my publisher to change this or that on the cover of one of my books they ignore me but when I mentioned that the ARC cover for Lust, Loathing And A Little Lip Gloss had Sophie looking much more ethnic than she had on previous covers the powers that be ordered that her skin tone be lightened by three degrees within an HOUR of my making that observation. They didn't want to do anything that might cost me white readers.
I don't know if my publisher's fears are founded or not. Like I said, I haven't had a problem with crossover appeal. But the fact is there still isn't a television show on the air right now that is meant for predominately white audiences that stars a black protagonist. There are lots of very strong black supporting characters but we haven't seen a black Meredith Grey and we certainly haven't seen a black Carrie Bradshaw. Remember I Love You Man? There's a reason why we were introduced to almost every member of Peter Klaven's character's family and yet the only person we met in Rashida Jones' character's family was her white cousin. They cast Larry Wilmore as the officiant in that movie but there wasn't a single African American extra who was hired to play a guest at that couple's wedding. There is a reason why Rashida Jones and the movie producers don't want her identified as a "black actress" and it has little to do with Rashida Jone's personal feelings about her ethnicity and everything to do with her (and her handlers) concerns about her commerciality. Just because something shouldn't be true doesn't mean it isn't. Of course there's a chicken-or-the-egg angle to all this. Are studios not producing TV shows and whatnot starring black protagonists for white audiences because they know there are women like that talk show host who don't believe black women can speak English properly or do some women hold that opinion because they've never seen a television show that features a black female protagonist who does so?
The whole thing is rather sad and yet Sophie's widespread appeal makes me hopeful. I'm not egotistical enough to think that Sophie can change the world but I'm glad that she's made her mark on it. I'm proud of my ethnically diverse readership. I'm proud to have had my books featured in both Cosmo AND Ebony. I'm proud that in some people's mind Sophie has explored and exploded a stereotype.
Bestselling Author of:
The Sophie Katz Mystery Series
So Much For My Happy Ending
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