T minus 2 weeks: Recognition
When I was a child I told stories because I could never tell the truth.
I don’t have to be famous. I don’t have to be respected, or liked, or understood. I just need to be good by my own lights. I need to be honest. I need to do what I set out to do, and when I die, my bones can whisper stories to the earth as the floating copies of my remaindered books whisper stories to strange children in unimaginable futures who happen upon them like the lost keys to a forbidden kingdom, and they will feel seen, they will feel the magic pulsing between the ghost of once-me and themselves and something small will turn inside of them and years later they might have forgotten all but the haziest dream of that novel but they will remember that something spoke to them and told them they were true. And then they will die and the last of my books will turn to pulp and landfill and generations upon generations will walk the earth and no one will remember me or them or the stories that we passed among ourselves like fire, like food, like poison, like comfort. There is no posterity, you see. There is only me, right now, breathing ash in the burning season at the end of May, typing on a computer whose keys are slowly going, a mug of wine beside me, knowing that I am free because I will be forgotten—
But not yet.
Is there anything more glorious than remembering yourself?
This is, also, bullshit. I’m as desperate for recognition and acclaim as the next writer pouring their traumas out on the page and hoping, futilely, for the world to plug the holes so bravely exposed. Witness! How ineffectual, how addictive, all the praise denied us in the long neglected corridors of our childhoods! Growing up in this capitalist hellhole the impulse to quantify, evaluate, position, brand, is automatic and inescapable. I can tell myself to stop doing it but I do it anyway in the next second, some kind of miserable self-commodifying death spiral. (Oh, but if I die my sales will go through the roof!) I try to be honest and break through my barriers. But brutal honesty is a marketable commodity; my pain is there for your consumer pleasure. I’m trying to half-ass this game, keep one cheek out of the water, some self-awareness, some remnants of my own self-perception, but we all know the house always wins. My justifications are predictable. We need a cistern to last through the next dry season—materials cost a mint my books always do better with the critics than the marketplace—I’ve been out of the YA game for nine years, so long I hardly recognize the genre and probably no one remembers me—I have to do something.
But, what? What?
Sometimes I want to close the gate to my mountain, cut myself off from the world and write what I would write if no one else would ever read a word of it.
I want to write a bestselling novel for once in my goddamn life and get reviews in actual motherfucking newspapers and go on a very well-attended tour with a catchy name. Then come the “you should be grateful” admonishments, as if the previous list of abject desires isn’t precisely what I’ve been trained for since grade school, a good little capitalist scion, light-skinned black girl, whispered about and distrusted, but access paid for and provisionally granted in those ivy enclaves of suburban Maryland. I have had a career blessed with brilliant, generous editors and readers who have allowed me to tell them stories that have kept me whole. If I never sell another word of fiction, I am one of the lucky ones. I know this. See above: capitalist hellhole. See also: nothing matters but the next rung on the ladder.
See, please: how the hell do I get off this motherfucking ladder?
When I was a child I told stories because I could never tell the truth. When I was seven years old, I wrote a story I called a “novel” and bound the wide-ruled pages into a report folder. I drew the cover illustration, the title artfully placed among falling meteorites. Above the title, above my carefully-inked name (middle name included, my branding instincts consistent, if not particularly sharp) I wrote the words “Tour-de-force” and the byline, “The New York Times.”
I am sure I only understood the “New York Times” in the vaguest terms as an entity that said things about books. I only understood the term ‘tour-de-force’ as ‘A-plus, but for books’ (not sure I understand it any better now, honestly). But I had paid attention to the covers on my teachers’ shelves, and I knew the most important part: those were the words that meant you were worth something.
When I was a child, I could not open my mouth except to question or create or pretend not to understand. There is a painful earnestness in someone constantly forced to lie. I grew accomplished at it, but that was beside the point. I didn’t want to get better at hiding, I wanted to find some way to reveal myself. I had to find a way to tell the truth without actually saying the words that would destroy a limited safety. So I told stories. I grew phobic of the unnecessary lie: questions of routine politeness regularly sparked existential crises. I became obsessed with Chaka Kahn’s version of “The End Of A Love Affair” (the Waiting to Exhale soundtrack was a friend to me in middle school). So I talk a little too much, and I laugh a little too much…I was constantly too much. How precious honesty becomes behind a mask, how necessary a light at the top of darkened stairs.
But what is a truth that no one hears? What is reality that no one sees? I wrote my stories, yes, but I always imagined them as big as that brassy laugh that I threw like a grenade to protect me and my siblings. I always imagined them with a cover, and a byline (never, ever, forget the “Dawn”) and—perhaps most important of all—the words that meant I had been seen, and I mattered, and the hand of society had touched me and declared me—indisputably—worthy.
It is hard to forget about this.
It is hard to write with just myself for an audience and know, as that little girl could not, that she is good enough, she is black enough, she is smart enough, she loves enough and will, one day, be loved enough.
I can make each breath a prayer that people will read this book, that it will sell enough to keep my career going until the next one, that I might get at least a few reviews more open-hearted and curious than the one-and-only I’ve gotten so far from Kirkus (ouch).
But the other day I was sitting with my dogs at the very edge of my mountain, when the brutal heat of the day had finally broken into something sweet and singing, and I understood exactly what I wanted. Freida’s god-haunted, politically intricate, story-twisting story won’t be for everyone, or even most. But for some people it will be a miracle.
I want them to be able to find it.
Thank you so much, loyal subscribers to A Stranger Comes Home. I promised you an essay a week until launch, and so far so good! Remember to share this newsletter, to pre-order the book (in the US/in the UK), and/or recommend it to your local indie or local library! I feel so deeply appreciative of your support and generosity and I hope that for at least some of you, The Library of Broken Worlds will be a little bit of a miracle.
Book launch! I am overjoyed to report that Octavia’s Bookshelf in Pasadena, California is going to be hosting me on Tuesday, June the 6th for the launch of The Library of Broken Worlds into our world. I will be joined by the absolutely brilliant Brandy Colbert and we will talk and answer questions and I’ll probably read a little bit. It starts at 6pm Pacific Day Time and I will (with any luck) be livestreaming it over on Instagram (@alayadj)! Come and join me in person if you can! (FYI: My ventilation policy is “as much as possible” and my mask policy is “indoors, please!”)
More virtual goodness is in the works, and will get announced here first.
May you follow your paths brightly,
Thanks for reading A stranger comes home! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.