It’s okay to show them who you are.

When I was eleven, I wrote a short story set in 1960s Tennessee. It had all of my favorite things: time travel, family secrets, sprawling estates, beautiful girls. The story dealt with the Civil Rights Movement, but it wasn’t about the Civil Rights Movement — that territory felt foreign to me. I didn’t see the problem with my writing until my mom read an early draft and circled the single sentence I devoted to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In the margin, she wrote: “You sound like a white person.”

It took me several years to understand what she meant. Why? Because when I first started writing, I was imitating the books I read and the shows I watched. Society had sold me the concept of white beauty. I was addicted to the dream of fair skin, suburban life, a two-parent family, perfect health… the list goes on.

Five years after the “You sound like a white person” incident, I showed my mom a short story I’d written about a girl who was in love with her best friend. She asked me if it was about friendship. I told her that it wasn’t — it was about queer teenagers. I never said that my main character was gay for the same reason that I’d rather not describe characters at all than say that they’re black: because I was scared to reveal too much of myself in my writing.

“You know,” my mom said, “it’s okay to show them who you are.”

That changed everything.

I sounded like a white person. I sounded like a straight person. I sounded like a healthy person. The way I came across in writing never felt like a conscious choice, but an act of mimicry. I didn’t sound like my real self because I didn’t know of many authors or characters who were like me. I hadn’t yet found Octavia Butler, Samuel R. Delany, Nalo Hopkinson, Yoon Ha Lee, or Colson Whitehead. While I’m comforted by the knowledge that there are authors out there telling stories that I need to hear, I’m also alarmed by the thought that there are not more of us. There really ought to be more of us.

So here I am — black, queer, brainweird, chronically ill. I’m ready to write the stories that my younger self needed so desperately.

Here’s the story I want: A black trans kid who manages to save the world in spite of relationship drama and chronic severe asthma. I want my hero to take breaks to use their rescue inhaler while chasing down the Forces of Evil™. And if they have OCD? Even better.

If I want to read this story, I’d better get back to writing.

A version of this post was initially published on on 6/26/17. 

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