Small presses, important voices

Without the existence of small presses, it’s pretty certain I would not have two published books and another forthcoming to my name.

Small presses, some of which release only a few books each year, are run with limited resources by small, dedicated staffs. Many were established to publish books that have been overlooked (or underlooked? not given a look at all?) by the big presses. Many specifically state their intent to publish diverse books. Overlooked and diverse are not just coincidentally linked. They are often the same thing.

There’s a pervasive and very wrong, not to mention insulting, view that being a small press author means you’re not good enough to be published by the big ones.

Erika T. Wurth, a writer who is Apache/Chickasaw/Cherokee, is the author of several highly praised books of fiction and poetry. In response to the Twitter hashtag #PublishingPaidMe, in which writers of color revealed the paltry sums they were paid by their presses to contrast them to the sums paid to white writers. Wurth, whose books are from small presses, tweeted, “For all these straight, white, dudes going, well! Publishing hasn’t paid me shit! Let me tell you what folks have been telling me for years, when I’ve complained about the same thing: maybe you’re a bad writer?”


But here’s another more likely maybe: The big presses are not good enough at recognizing good work, even great work, because they can’t see past their white bias to appreciate stories outside of their own experience. That topic resulted in Twitter threads generated by writers Jenny Bhatt and Maaza Mengiste.

In a recent article in Entropy called “Floorboards and Gatekeepers,” writer Rosalie Morales Kearns who is also the founder of Shade Mountain Press, related both the thrill and disquiet at finding Kirsten Imani Kasai’s The House of Erzulie in her submissions pile.

“It was exhilarating to read such an unforgettable novel, but I was also gripped by a dismaying sense of isolation: No one else knows about this book, and I want everyone to read it.”

“A much more pragmatic question kept nagging at me too: Why the author was sending this brilliant work to an unknown, untried press with barely the hint of a track record. Why the gatekeepers—literary agents, editors at publishing houses—had turned her down.”

“And of course we can’t talk about gatekeeping in literature without talking about whiteness. Those keepers of standards, so lofty and mysterious as they hand down their momentous judgments—you will be published, you will not—are overwhelmingly white.”

Read the full article.

Breaching and dismantling  those gates to publishing can be helped by pressure from readers such as through the #Blackpublishingpower effort currently trending on Twitter. It recommends readers buy two books by Black writers during the week June 14 to June 20. I ordered The House of Erzulie from Shade Mountain Press and The Through by A. Rafael Johnson from Jaded Ibis Press, which Kirkus reviews calls “an intricate and often beautiful magical realist treatment of the South.”

I suggest readers consider these other two as well: Mulberry by Paulette Boudreaux and As a River by Sion Dayson. I read and loved them both and am honored to be on the same press lists.

Mulberry by Paulette Boudreaux was released in 2015 by Carolina Wren Press (now Blair Publishing) a year ahead of my book Hola and Goodbye. Mulberry won the press’s inaugural Lee Smith Novel Prize. Set in the segregated towns of rural Mississippi in the early 1960’s, it’s the absorbing and vibrantly told story of a young girl suddenly thrust with the responsibility of caring for her three younger brothers, while her mother takes their baby sister to a distant hospital for treatment and her father grapples with the psychological wounds of combat. Vivid characters and a powerful sense of place put the reader deep inside the story.

As a River by Sion Dayson was released September 2019 by Jaded Ibis Press, a year ahead of my book Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories which will be released this September. In Dayson’s novel, which is set in rural Georgia, Greer Michaels returns to his hometown to care for his dying mother ten years after a trauma-induced departure. The narrative switches back and forth in time, mainly between the years 1961 and 1977. This book is quietly enthralling, its prose, characters and setting beautifully rendered, the events of two time periods woven together to produce a deeply moving ending.

When you choose books such as the ones mentioned here, you’re supporting black voices and small presses. And you can always search on the Internet for other black writers or ask your favorite independent bookseller for recommendations.


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