You Are The Second Person
You know that any resemblance to real places, spaces, people, time, or things is purely coincidental.
Alone, you sit on the floor of your apartment thinking about evil, honesty, that malignant growth in your hip, your dead uncle, letters you should have written, the second person, and stretch marks. You're wearing an XXL T-shirt you plan on wearing the day your novel comes out. The front of the T-shirt says, "What's a real black writer?" The back reads, "Fuck you. Pay me." You open your computer. With a scary pain in your hip, you inhale, force a crooked smile before reading an email from Brandon Farley, your fifty-four-year-old black editor.
"The success of your book will be partially dependent on readers who have a different sensibility than your intended audience," he writes. "As I've already said to you, too many sections of the book feel forced for the purpose of discussing racial politics. Think social media. Think comment sections. Those white people buy books, too, bro. Readers, especially white readers, are tired of black writers playing the wrong race card. If you're gonna play it (and I think you should) play it right. Look at Tarrantino. He is about to fool all these people into believing they were watching a black movie with Django. I guarantee you that whiteness will anchor almost every scene. That's one model you should think about."
"Also, black men don't read. And if they did, they wouldn't read this kind of fiction. So you might think of targeting bougie black women readers. Bougie black women love plot. They love romance with predictable Boris Kodjoe-type characters. Or they love strong sisters caught up in professional hi-jinks who have no relationships with other sisters. Think about what holds a narrative like Scandal together.
"In 2012, real black writers make the racial, class, gender, and sexual politics of their work implicit. Very implicit. The age of the 'race narrative' is over, bro. As is, the only way your book would move units is if it Oprah picked it for her Book Club. That's not happening. Oprah only deals with real black writers."
You begin typing, "Hey Brandon, this is my fourteenth thorough revision for you in four years. I know I'm not changing your mind and that's fine. Thanks for telling me what real black writers do and what Oprah likes. You never told me you met her. Anyway, the black teenagers in my book are actually purposely discussing 'racial politics' in awkwardly American ways. Their race and racial politics, like their sexuality and sexual politics, is somehow tied to every part of their character. My book is unapologetically an American race novel, among other things. I'm still not sure why you bought the book if you didn't dig the vision."
You push send on the email before opening up the Word doc you just defended. You jump to Chapter Nine. Thirty minutes later, a section of the book where an older queer coach tries to impart a strange "them/us" racial understanding on your narrator is cut because it "explicitly discusses racial politics."
You call your editor names that hurt, muddied misogynist names you pride yourself on never calling any human being while looking out the tall window of your second floor apartment in Poughkeepsie, New York.
A barefoot white boy with a red and black lumberjack shirt is outside sitting under an oak tree. He's doing that walkie-talkie thing on his phone that you fucking hate. You can tell he's telling the truth and lying at the same time.
"You fucking hurt me more than anyone in my whole life," he says. "I couldn't hate you… I just don't trust you… You're the second person who has done this to me. You're the one who said you tell the truth? You started this." The white boy is scratching his sack with the thumb of left hand and using his big toe to make designs in the dirt in front of him. "You ruined my life and hurt me way more than I hurt you. It's always all about you."
You wonder about the second person on the end of the phone. Is the second person a woman or man? Is s/he listening to the lumberjack on speaker-phone? Is s/he wishing the lumberjack would hurry up and finish so s/he can run and get a two for one special on Peanut Buster Parfaits from Dairy Queen? You know far too well why a first or third person could self-righteously claim innocence in matters of love and loss but you can't figure out why the lumberjack is scratching his sack with his thumb and making dirt rainbows with his big toe.
Looking down at the browning "s" key on your keyboard, you think more hateful thoughts about your editor, your ex-girlfriend, skinny people, and fat young black men. These thoughts distract you from the pain in your hip, the dirt on your hands.
For five years, Brandon Farley, your editor, has had you waiting.
You remember the acidic sweetness in Grandma's voice when you told her you'd just signed a two-book deal with "KenteKloth Books," the most popular African American imprint in the country. New York fall felt like Mississippi winter as Grandma came out of her second diabetic coma.
"We are so proud of you, baby," Grandma whispered over the phone from Forest, Mississippi. "Just remember that God gave you five senses and whatever health you got for a reason. When they gone, they gone, but if you don't use them best you can while you got them, ain't a bigger fool in the world than that fool in the mirror."
Six months before your first novel's initial publication date of June 2009, you stopped hearing from Brandon Farley. He didn't answer your calls or respond to emails. You gave up and called the publisher of KenteKloth in February.
"Oh, Brandon didn't tell you?" his boss, Ms. Jacoby asked. "He's no longer with us, but your book has been picked up by Nathalie Bailey. She'll call you in a few days."
Your lungs whistled, crashed, and slipped into the heels of your feet. You told yourself it would be okay. Then trudged your sexy ass to the International House of Pancakes.
Three hours later, you were full, fatter than you wanted to be, less sexy than you were, and you found a way to reach Brandon Farley at home. Brandon apologized for not telling you that he wasn't seeing eye-to-eye with his boss. He promised you that Nathalie Bailey was a friend of his who would do right by both of your novels.
A week later, you got a call from Nathalie. "It's a hard sell for black literary fiction these days," she told you. "But I like what you're doing. You're on your way to becoming a real black writer. It's a gorgeous book with big messy ideas and we've got to work hard and fast. But I'd love for you to let me take this book to publication. It's a winner."
You felt a comfort with Nathalie but you didn't want to be impulsive as you were with Brandon. "Can I have a few days to think about it?" you asked her. "Just to make sure."
A few days passed and you planned on calling Nathalie at 4:00 p.m. on a Thursday. At 3:00 p.m., you got a call from a 212 number. Before you had a book deal, 917 and 212 numbers were like slimming mirrors; they made you think, "Damn nigga, you ain't that disgusting at all."
On the other end of 917 and 212 numbers were agents, editors, or an ex telling you she was sorry and she missed sharing a heartbeat.
"Hello," you answered, trying to sound busy and country at the same time.
It was Brandon Farley.
After a few minutes of spin where Brandon Farley showed you how much he remembered about your book and how happy he was to be the new senior editor of young adult fiction at the widely acclaimed, "Duck Duck Goose" Publishing Company, he said, "… all that to say, we really want your book."
"Word up, bro!" Brandon laughed. It was the first time any black man on earth had ever called you "bro" with a long "o."
"Bro," he said it again, "I will pay you more for one book than you got for two over at KenteKloth. I'll want an option of first refusal on the second. But that'll still give you the kind of flexibility you want."
"Are you serious?" you asked. "Only thing is I'm a little worried about changing the subtext and the darkness and the meta-fictive stuff if it's gonna be marketed as a young adult book. The ending ain't really pretty."
"You'd be surprised at the possibilities in young adult fiction," he told you. "Listen, bro, young adults will read it. This is adult literary fiction with mass appeal. You won't have to make many changes at all and we can get you a pub date of June 2009."
"But what about Nathalie?" you asked.
"Bro, you're the second person to ask me about her," he scoffed, sounding like a hungry Hip Hop mogul. You hated even imagining using the word, "scoffed."
"It's business, bro. Never personal. You'll have to get out of that contract over there. And I've got the perfect agent for you. She's this wonderful fine sister over at Chatham Ward & Associates named Bobbie Winslow. Look her up. Bobbie'll take care of everything if you decide to go with us."
You smiled and forgave him for four or five "bros" too many.
Later that night, Bobbie, the perfect agent/fine sister, called from a 212 number and asked you to send her the other pieces you were working on. By 8:00 p.m., you sent her the book Brandon wanted, another novel and a rough draft of some essays you'd been working on. By 3:00 a.m., she emailed you and said, "We want you. You're the second person I've said this to in five years but I think you could change the trajectory of African American contemporary literature. You've got the makings of what Brandon calls, 'a real black writer.' I'm so excited about the new projects you're working on. If you sign with Chatham Ward, we'll have our lawyers get you out of the deal with Nathalie in the next week or so and Brandon says he can get us half the advance in three weeks. I'll be in touch."
You never contacted Nathalie, but a few days later, Bobbie, the perfect agent/fine sister did. "Nathalie is so fucking pissed," she said a few days later, "but all's fair in love, war and business." As you wondered whether this was love, war or business, you and your perfect agent/fine sister waited and waited and waited for Brandon to deliver.
Six months later, three months after your initial publication date of June 2009, Brandon offered you substantially less money than he promised and a publication date two years later than the one he verbally agreed to.
"Pardon me for saying this," your perfect agent said over the phone from a different 212 number, "but Brandon Farley is a bonafide bitch-ass nigga for fucking us out of thousands of dollars and pushing the pub date back to June 2011. He's just not professional. I'm wondering if this was just some ploy to get you away from KenteKloth. He's been trying to take all his authors away from there as a way of fucking the company."
"I don't get it," you said, shamefully exicted that your agent used "fuck" "bitch-ass" and "nigga" in one conversation.
"So Brandon acquired this wonderful list of new literary black authors at KenteKloth, and they were all going to work with Nathalie after he was basically fired from the company. Nathalie and the house were going to get credit for a lot of his work. Do you get it now? We got caught up in something really nasty."
You got your first edit letter from Brandon Farley in July of 2012. In addition to telling you that the tone of the piece was far too dark and that you needed an obvious redemptive ending, Brandon wrote, "There's way too much racial politics in this piece, bro. You're writing to a multicultural society, but you're not writing multiculturally."
You wondered out loud what writing "multiculturally" actually meant and what kind of black man would write the word "bro" in an email.
"Bro, we need this book to come down from 284 pages to 150," he said. "We're going to have to push the pub date back again, too. I'm thinking June 2012. Remember," he wrote, "It's business. I think you should start from scratch but keep the spirit. Does the narrator really need to be a black boy? Does the story really need to take place in Mississippi? The Percy Jackson demographic," he wrote. "That's a big part of the audience for your novel. Read it over the weekend. Real black writers adjust to the market, bro, at least for their first novels."
By the time you found out Percy Jackson wasn't the name of a conflicted black boy from Birmingham, but a fake-ass Harry Potter who saved the gods of Mount Olympus, you were already broken. Someone you claimed to love told you that you were letting your publishing failure turn you into a monster. She said that you were becoming the kind of human being you always despised. You defended yourself against the truth and really against responsibility, as American monsters and American murderers tend to do, and you tried to make this person feel as absolutely worthless, confused, and malignant as you were. Later that night, you couldn't sleep, and instead of diving back into the fiction, for the first time in my life, you wrote the sentence, "I've been slowly killing myself and others close to me just like my uncle."
Something else was wrong, too. Your body no longer felt like your body and you doubted whether your Grandma would ever see your work before one of you died.
Two years after the pub date for your first book, there was no book. Questions fell like dominoes.
"Why would Brandon buy the book," you kept asking yourself. "Why would that bitch-ass nigga get you out of a contract for a book he didn't want," your perfect agent kept asking you. "Why'd you promise stuff you couldn't deliver," you asked Brandon on the phone.
"The book doesn't just have Duck Duck Goose's name on it," you told him, slightly aware of what happens when keeping it real goes wrong. "My name is on that shit, too. That means, on some level, it ain't business. I feel like you want me to lie. I read and write for a living, Brandon. I see the shit that's out there. I've read your other books. I see your goofy book covers looking like greasy children's menus at Applebees. I ain't putting my name on a fucking greasy Applebees menu. I'm not. Don't front like it's about quality. You, and maybe your editorial board, don't think you can sell this book because you don't believe black southern audiences read literary shit. And that's fine. Maybe you're right. If you didn't believe in it, why buy it in the first place? Look, I can create an audience for this novel with these essays I've been writing," you tell him. "It sounds stupid, but I can. I just need to know that you're committed to really publishing this book. Do you believe in the vision or not?"
After a long pause where you could hear Brandon telling his assistant, Jacques, to leave the room and get him a warm bear claw with extra glaze, he said, "Bro, you're the second person to complain to me this morning about how I do my job. The first person had a bit more tact. Honestly," he said, "reading your work has been painful. It's business. Take that folksy shit back to Mississippi. I did you a favor. Don't forget that. You're just not a good writer, bro. Goodbye."
The next morning you got an email from Brandon with the following message,
"Hey Wanda, I finished the revision this afternoon. It totally kicks ass. Congrats. I've sent back a few line edits, but it's brilliant. Move over Teju and Chimamanda. There's a new African writer on the scene showing these black American writers how it's done. I'm so proud of you. Always darkest before the dawn, Wanda. It feels so empowering to work with the future of contemporary diasporic literature.
Tell David hi for me. Best, Brandon."
Your name was not, and never will be "Wanda."
You opened up Facebook to the News Feed page and found that Brandon, your Facebook friend, had posted the covers of recently published and forthcoming books he'd edited. Wanda's book, and all the other covers really looked like greasy children's menus at Applebees. Your eyes watered as you googled the published authors Brandon had signed two years after you. You wanted your name on an Applebees menu, too.
Even though you were fatter than you'd ever been and the joints in your hip got rustier and more decayed every day, parts of you were a rider. Yeah, Brandon bombed first, you thought, but right there, you felt determined to get your novel out by any means necessary so you could thank him in the acknowledgments:
"…And a special thanks to that shape-shifting cowardly ol' lying ass, Brandon Farley, the untrustworthy editing-cause-he-can't-write-a-lick ass Tom who'd sell out his mama for a gotdamn glazed bear claw as long as the bear claw had been half eaten by a white librarian named Jacques or Percy Jackson. I know where you live. And I got goons. Can you see me now? Goooood. Congrats, BRO."
Instead you wrote, "Not sure why you sent that email intended for Wanda Onga-Nana, Brandon. I hope we both appreciate the distinction between what's marketable and what's possible. Glad you're having success with some of your authors. I think you should give my books a chance to breathe, too. Thanks for the inspiration. Tell Wanda congratulations."
Brandon never responded to your email.
You stayed in your bedroom for weeks writing essays to your dead uncle, your Grandma, the son and daughter you didn't have. Outside of that bedroom, and outside of your writing life, you'd fully become a liar unafraid to say I love you, too willing to say I'm sorry, unwilling to change the ingredients of your life, which meant you you'd gobbled up your heart and you were halfway done gobbling up the heart of a woman who loved you.
You'd become typical.
One Tuesday near the end of spring, you couldn't move your left leg or feel your toes and you'd been sweating through your mattress for a month. You knew there was something terribly wrong years before your furry-fingered doctor, with tiny hands and eyebrows to die for used the words "malignant growth."
"It won't be easy," the doctor told you the Friday before your spring break. "You're the second person I've diagnosed with this today, but there's still a chance we can get it without surgery. You said you've been living with the pain for three years? Frankly, I'm worried about you," the doctor said. "You seem like you're holding something in. Fear is okay, you know? Do you have any questions?"
You watched the doctor's eyebrows sway like black wheat. They looked like a hyper four-year-old had gone buckwild with a fistful of black crayons. "I like your eyebrows," you told the doctor. "I don't know what's wrong with me. I just want my Grandma to think I'm a real writer."
"I'd actually like to recommend therapy in addition to the treatment," the doctor told you before he walked you out the door.
For the next few months, you took the treatment he gave you and prided yourself on skipping the therapy. You told no one about the malignant growth in your hip, not even the person whose heart you were eating. Though you could no longer run or trust, you could eat and you could hate. So you ate, and you ate, and you hated, until sixty-eight pounds and five months later, you were finally unrecognizable to yourself.
You accepted, on a ride through Georgia that ended with you falling asleep and crashing your car, that you had sprinted away from hard work of being the human being and writer you wanted to be. Like every hater you've ever known, you shielded yourself from critique and obsessed with wading in the funk of how people had done you wrong.
One Sunday near the end of spring, after talking to your two family members who were both killing themselves slowly, too, you made the decision to finally show the world the blues you'd been creating. You also decided to finish revising the novel without Brandon.
"The whole time I'd been in those woods," you wrote in one of the last scenes in the book, "I'd never stopped and looked up."
You spent the next four months of your life skipping treatments for your hip and getting a new draft of the novel done. You didn't dumb down the story for Brandon, for multiculturalism, or for school boards you'd never see. You wrote an honest book to Paul Beatty, Margaret Walker Alexander, Cassandra Wilson, Big K.R.I.T., Octavia Butler, Gangsta Boo, your little cousins, and all your teachers.
You prayed on it and sent the book to Brandon in July. You told him that you had created a post-Katrina, Afrofuturist, time-travel-ish, black southern love story filled with adventure, meta-fiction, and mystery. You wanted to call the book, Long Division after two of the characters' insistence on showing their work in the past, present, and future.
"It's a book I'm proud of," you wrote in the letter attached to the manuscript. "It's something I needed to read when I was a teenager in Mississippi. Shit, it's something I need to read now. I'm willing to work on it. Just let me know if you get the vision."
Brandon responded the same day that he would check it out over the weekend and get back to you with his thoughts.
Four months later, he finally sent an email: "Ultimately, the same problems exist in this draft that were in the other drafts." Brandon ended the email, "We need more traditional adventure. We need to know less about the relationships between the characters, less racial politics, and more about the adventure. You need to explain how the science fiction works, bro. No one is going to believe black kids from Mississippi traveling through time talking about institutional racism. It's way too meandering. Kill the metafictive angle. You haven't earned the right to pull that off. This is still painful. I'm convinced you really do not want to be a real black writer, bro. The success of your book will be partially dependent on readers who have a different sensibility than your intended audience…"
Still too ashamed to really reckon with your disease or your failures, and too cowardly to own your decisions, you stretched you legs out on the floor of your living room and cried your eyes out. After crying, laughing, and wondering if love really could save all the people public policy forgot, you grabbed a pad and scribbled, "Alone, you sit on the floor…"
After writing for about two hours, you wonder why you start the piece with "Alone, you…" You are the "I" to no one in the world, not even yourself.
You've eviscerated people who loved you when they made you the second person in their lives, when they put the relationship's needs ahead of your wants. And you've been eviscerated for the same thing.
You're not a monster. You're not innocent.
You look down at the browning "s" key on your keyboard. You don't know how long you'll live. No one does. You don't know how long you'll have two legs. You know that it's time to stop letting your anger and hate toward Brandon Farley and your publishing failure be more important than the art of being human and healthy. You know it's time to admit to yourself, your writing, and folks who love you that you're at least the second person to feel like you're really good at slowly killing yourself and others in America.
"Sorry your reads have been so painful, Brandon," you start typing. "I want to get healthy. That means not only that I need to be honest; it also means I've got to take my life back and move to a place where I no longer blame you for failure. I've thought and said some terrible things about you. I've blamed you for the breaking of my body and the breaking of my heart. I hate the word 'bitch' but I've used it so many times in my head when I'm thinking about you. Women deserve better. You deserve better. I really believed that you and your approval would determine whether or not I was a real black writer, worthy of real self-respect and real dignity."
"There was something in my work, something in me that resonated with your work and something in you. We are connected. I'm not sure what happens next. No young writer, real or not, leaves an iconic press before their first book comes, right? Whatever. I can't put my name on the book that you want written and it's apparent that you won't put your company's name on the book I want read. We tried, Brandon, but life is long and short. I've written my way out of death and destruction before. I'm trying to do it again. I think I'm done with the New York publishing thing for a while. I'm through with the editors, the agents, and all that stress. No hate at all. It's just not for me. I can't be healthy dealing with all that stuff. I'll get my work out to my folks and if they want more, I'll show them. If not, that's fine. I'm a writer. I write."
"I'm sorry and sorrier that sorry is rarely enough. God gave me senses and a little bit of health. It's time for me to use them the best that I can. Thanks for the shot. Good luck. I hope you like the work I'm doing."
"Not sure if it's good, but I know it's black, blue, Mississippi, and honest. I'm a not a bro, Brandon. You ain't either. Thanks again for everything."
You look up.
You close your eyes.
You look down and you keep on writing, revising, reading, reckoning, working… because that's what real black writers do.
–Kiese Laymon (from Guernica)