Discussing the Spirit World and White Supremacy in Publishing with Daniel José Older

Jun 3, 2014
9:20 AM

Bronx Writers Center director and Rebelde Charlie Vázquez sat with Daniel José Older at a Brooklyn restaurant to discuss —among other things— the spirit world in storytelling, the importance of building community and how the publishing industry needs to restructure its acquisitions and marketing strategies if it wishes to engage more Latino readers.


Daniel José Older


CV: I admire the fact that you’re doing well for yourself, but also that you are building community —in 3D and online— which is something I’ve also tried to do over the years with my own work. Plus, you’ve been a loud and persistent voice in calling for the “diversification” of published authors, so let’s start there.

DJO: The title of my essay “Diversity in Not Enough” sums up how I feel about the conversation. The piece blew up in part because diversity has become a convenient and comfortable term for white people and the rest of us are tired of catering our speech to make the same people comfortable. “Diversity” as a word has no power analysis in it; it’s neutral and has lost even more meaning over the years because things haven’t moved forward. In a way we’ve moved backwards.

The 1965 article I quoted in there about the same topic, Nancy Larrick talks about how to abolish white supremacy in the publishing industry. She reminds editors that “what is good for the Ku Klux Klan is not necessarily good for America—or for the book business” and that “they need not submit to bigots.” We’re barely talking on those terms anymore; safe and easy “diversity” has replaced “How do we abolish white supremacy.” I wrote this piece to shove the conversation out of that comfort zone.

CV: The arts are businesses, as much as we hate to think of them as such. So if we’re talking about, say, the potential of the “Latino/Hispanic” market, that means that people need to buy theater tickets, authors’ books, paintings, etc., in order for those businesses to survive. An engaged audience and its spending power are necessary for all of this to work because someone will need to invest money to create these things, even if it’s just the artist.

DJO: Yes. And then we need to have that conversation and ask ourselves why we aren’t getting the same marketing boost that established white —almost always male— writers get. We need to discuss the context of marketing resources. The publishing industry doesn’t successfully produce and market our books to our people because they haven’t thrown the kind of advertising budget at our books or put in the time to understand how to market correctly to us.  Until that happens, and until publicity offices within the industry diversify themselves, I’m not going to be told by publishing professionals that my people don’t read. Marketing to us is the industry’s job. They need to figure that end out. On our end, the hunger for books and stories about us, who we are and how we are, is there. There is no question of this.

CV: I agree 100%. As the new director of the Bronx Writers Center I regularly engage dozens and dozens of folks all over the borough, mostly people of color, at the free writing workshops we provide. And I can tell you that literary activity—reading and writing—is happening. So if Junot Díaz was able to shoot through the roof, there should be at least a few others by now that can claim even a decent fraction of his success.

DJO: And white publishers have these resources at their fingertips! People want to read because they want to see themselves in the story. So if the publishing professionals can maneuver through bureaucracy for others, why aren’t they willing do that for us?

CV: Let’s switch angles. What makes you decide to include a story in an anthology such as Long Hidden, from an editor’s point-of-view?

Long Hidden Cover 1

DJO: My co-editor Rose Fox and I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what makes a story stand out. We had an amazing slush-pile; 250 submissions and many, many terrific ones. With such a task, it became a question of which stories really jumped off the page and felt alive. This is something beyond mechanics, beyond plot or technique. It’s something indescribable, we have no words for it, like love, and that’s what makes it so powerful. It is magic.

Often, it comes down to a sense of urgency, and that’s something you can’t fake. You look around and you see the complicated, lethal state of the world today and how it endangers us. When I think about why I write, I can tell you that it has a lot to do with the urgency that we navigate in this world, just to survive—to love how we love, to be messy and human, to be who we are. Writing to me, is resistance. To write myself, I need to be able to connect stories to my own sense of urgency.

CV: I love how you negotiate the world in-between life and death for your characters in Salsa Nocturna. Want to discuss that a little bit, plus your other book projects?


DJO: Salsa Nocturna is a short story collection where two characters, Carlos and Gordo, start out in their own worlds and then gradually come together, their two communities combining into a sort of secret underground network. They both exist in that middle space between the life and death binary because of their relationships with the dead. Carlos is literally half dead and half alive and Gordo just gets along real well with the spirits—it’s natural to him. I’m intrigued by characters that are already comfortable in these interstitial, spiritual spaces—so many narratives spend so much time with protagonists being aghast by it, right? But for many of us the spirit world is like, not such a wild woo-woo concept. So it was refreshing to write a character like Carlos, who both gains power and struggle within that space, finds comfort there.

That space of ambiguity is a source of so much power and so much pain. So many of us get lost in between these false binaries of gender, of race, of life and death. I write to complicate these corrupt systems and find some sense of truth and peace in the struggle to live outside them.

To me, ghosts are a crossroads of past and present. The history that stays with us. I call Salsa Nocturna “ghost noir”. It uses the medium of ghost stories to address gentrification, cultural appropriation, surviving trauma, and falling in love—territory that traditional ghost stories don’t often venture into.

Then there is Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History, an anthology that I edited with Rose Fox. It looks at oppression and empowerment through the lens of historical literature of the fantastic. It’s been creating a hell of a buzz, amazing conversations have already sprung up around language and power and voice in just the few weeks it’s been out, and I’m excited to see what else comes from it.

Half Resurrection Blues comes out in January 2015 and is part of the Bone Street Rumba series, which is the same world as Salsa Nocturna. So we learn more about those characters there. And Shadowshaper is a young adult novel I wrote about a Nuyorican girl in Brooklyn who learns to bring murals to life through the spirit world. That comes out in summer 2015.

CV: How do people stay in the loop with you?

DJO: My website is at ghoststar.net and I’m on Twitter @djolder.