When Kao Kalia Yang got her first library card when she was 7, she showed it to her grandmother. “I said, ‘It’s this card where I can go check out all the stories from the world, Grandma,’” Yang recalls. “My grandma listened to me. She smiled and she said, ‘Are there stories like mine on the shelves?’”
Yang and several others with Minnesota ties—including Junauda Petrus-Nasah, Roy G. Guzmán, and Kawai Strong Washburn—are among about 100 featured authors in the second annual Wordplay Festival, presented virtually by Minneapolis’ Loft Literary Center through May. It comes at a time of change for the publishing industry. An increasing number of voices are demanding more complex, multifaceted narratives, wherein marginalized communities tell their own stories.
A recent controversy highlights that demand. After author Jeanine Cummins received early praise for her book American Dirt, about a family that flees a drug cartel, Latinx critics called it an inaccurate and exploitive portrayal of the border experience. Cummins, who is of Irish and Puerto Rican background, had interviewed immigrants for the book, but she lacked firsthand knowledge. The controversy revealed the need for writers of color to be able to tell their own stories, in ways that aren’t packaged neatly for mainstream readers.
“I want to write for the little girl that hungered to see a picture book with a family like hers,” Twin Cities-based Yang says, “which I never had the opportunity to do growing up.” Yang has two children’s books set for release this year—The Shared Room, about grief, and The Most Beautiful Thing, inspired by her grandmother’s single tooth. “I want to write those stories for the children I have, and the children they will have,” Yang says.
Yang’s award-winning writing in 2008’s The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir and 2016’s The Song Poet: A Memoir of My Father masterfully illuminate the Hmong refugee experience. Another forthcoming book of hers—this one for adults—is called Somewhere in the Unknown World: A Collective Refugee Memoir, and it will highlight the refugee experiences of other ethnicities in Minneapolis.
Yang published her first children’s book, A Map into the World, last October. Her impetus for venturing into children’s literature, she says, was to tell stories like that of her grandmother, which weren’t available to her when she was a child.
“I believe, staunchly, that we have the most to learn from the people we don’t hear enough from,” she says, “and I recognize that I am one of those voices.”
How can publishers truly reflect a diverse array of voices? Here are three ways:
Boost New Talent
Part of this work has to do with established authors of color supporting emerging writers. That’s been the experience of Minneapolis-born Junauda Petrus-Nasah.
Petrus-Nasah says that she received immense support from mentors like local award-winning writer Shannon Gibney, who shared a draft of Petrus-Nasah’s young adult novel, The Stars and the Blackness Between Them, with her own editor. That led to Petrus-Nasah’s book deal with Dutton Books for Young Readers, part of Penguin Random House. Gibney also connected Petrus-Nasah with the person who became her agent.
Also a playwright, performer, and filmmaker, Petrus-Nasah says the experience of publishing a book has taken her work to the next level. “It really does give you a platform and a sense of acknowledgement within the world,” she says.
Decolonize the Canon
Part of this work also has to do with recognizing important examples of literature that have already been written, says Roy G. Guzmán, author of the book Catrachos: Poems, to be released in May through Minneapolis’ Graywolf Press. Guzmán is also a literary scholar, pursuing their PhD at the University of Minnesota.
Guzmán has written about decolonizing the canon. They note that great Latin American literature, including pre-colonial texts and poetry, has existed all along. “Why aren’t we highlighting those texts instead of thinking that the only way we can visibilize something is to do it through whatever medium or lens we choose or impose on that community?” Guzmán asks.
In Catrachos, some poems are autobiographical while others explore the idea of writing poems as part of a community. Guzmán uses the collective “we” in a number of them. “I tried thinking about the ‘we’ as a form of decolonial ‘we,’” Guzmán says. “A ‘we’ that thinks more through community and solidarity, rather than thinking about subjectivity only.”
That “we” features prominently in a series called “Queerodactyl.” The idea came in 2015, when Guzmán started making up dinosaur names with their then-boyfriend, at Victor’s 1959 Cafe, in Minneapolis. The boyfriend thought of Pteroqueer, and then Guzmán came up with the word “Queerodactyl,” which ultimately spurred an entire sequence of poems.
Occasionally, Guzmán also uses a persona voice to speak as someone who has died. “How do we zoom in on those voices and those archives that have been silenced for political reasons?” they ask.
For a long time, Kawai Strong Washburn avoided writing about Hawaii, where he grew up. (He now lives in Minneapolis.) Of mixed race (African American and European heritage), Washburn says one reason he wrote his debut novel, Sharks in the Time of Saviors, was to get a sense of his own identity.
“I feel like I don’t fit in with a lot of conversations that can happen about things related to race or ethnicity in the United States, because having grown up in Hawaii, I have a different experience in those things than a lot of people do,” Washburn says.
Literature can be a place to explore the nuance and fluidity of Washburn’s point of view, with craft that pushes against predetermined categories. The call for more diversity in publishing imagines writing that captures a fuller, richer set of experiences.
“So, even though I am not native Hawaiian, I recognize that the islands are still ultimately a place of those people,” he says. “And that, having grown up there, I feel more a product of the islands than I do any one specific ethnic group. I’m writing from that perspective.”
Wordplay is a giant celebration of authors and books organized by the Loft Literary Center in downtown Minneapolis. Over 10,000 people attended the inaugural Wordplay festival in 2019, and this year’s lineup of about 100 authors includes Alison Roman, Michael Ian Black, Danez Smith, Jessie Diggins, and Emma Straub. Public health concerns have moved the festival online for 2020. Expect livestreams, videos, podcasts, social media takeovers, and more for the all-virtual event. See the full lineup, find the latest details, and donate to Loft Literary Center at loft.org/festival/about-wordplay
For Minnesota-made podcasts and books to listen to and read in the meantime, click here.