Middle Child Press: Ankh Speaks: Debunking the Universal Narrative

4.14.2011

Ankh Speaks: Debunking the Universal Narrative

In her recent interview with popular book reviewer Joey Pinkney, Amaya Radjani was asked: "As an author, what are the keys to your success that led to The Sultry Court getting out to the public?" To which she replied: "Listening to the market is very important to us here at MCP; our target audience comprises women of color, and that’s a group which doesn’t get listened to very often here in the West.

"We roamed through online communities, started blogs, read blogs and initiated discussions all because we wanted to hear what women of color want and don’t want. Even now, we encourage readers to come to our blog and talk to us about The Sultry Court so that we’ll know what direction to go in for future volumes."

This reminds of me when I was a senior at Marshall University, studying World Literature under the very strict, very blunt Irish professor Dr. Lachlan Whalen.  While we read postcolonial literature from Africa, he pointed out that Western scholars were always lining up to praise African writers for sharing their "universal narratives."  Needless to say, Dr. Whalen called bullshit, flat-out stating these narratives were not universal.  Not everyone could understand where the writers were coming from, much less who they were and what they'd been through.  In short, their stories were not for everyone, and not everyone could understand them.

The same perspective applies here.  In addition to our mission statement about women of color writing for women of color, one of the reasons I suggested breaking down genres and categories at Middle Child Press was that we wanted our readers to know exactly what they were getting themselves into.  Like the good professor, I don't believe in universal narratives.  While human beings are fairly universal at the physiological level, we are by no means universal at the cognitive, emotional, behavioral, or experiential level.  We have different needs, different wants, and different perspectives.  No single narrative can satisfy them all.

So whenever a new film, or comic book, or TV series comes out here in the U.S., and people of color in particular are critical of its racial aspects, one knee-jerk reply they often get is that the story has a "universal narrative" and that they should be able to relate to the characters no matter their skintone.  But, say, a woman of color watching the dating adventures of a white woman doesn't feel the same way.  She doesn't have the same privileges as the white protagonist.  And the white protagonist doesn't face the same obstacles women of color face in dating.  So there this automatic disconnect between actress and audience which really shouldn't be there.  And when a filmmaker slaps an adjective like "universal" on his work, he is either showing his ignorance of societal differences between whites and POC in America, or his desire to deliberately obscure their existence.  In most cases, filmmakers do both.

My hope for MCP is that we don't wind up doing either.  We're honest about our target audiences and intend to make their needs the #1 priority.  We are unapologetic about this, because American media has been unapologetic and hypocritical towards us.  And this is where audiences of color need to pay close attention.  When it comes to so-called mainstream entertainment here in America, the goal is to push the white aesthetic and ideal while making a profit, but they will never come right out and admit it aloud...even when that strategy fails.

When I got into this venture, I told myself upfront that while I might meet several great authors and help get their work out there, there was good chance I was going to need a day job for the rest of my life.  And I'm fine with that.  This isn't about making money.  It's about meeting the needs my target audience.  It's about working against the white saturation in American media.  It's about sending a message and making a change.

It took me a while to find my target audience, but I've found it and I'm proud of it, and I look forwarding to letting the inspiration just flow.