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Bernice L. McFadden On Her Career, The Publishing Industry & What It Takes To Be A Writer

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This video is sponsored by Vintage Books

Sugar by Bernice L. McFadden is now available in the UK for the first time.

Video Transcript

Jendella Benson  0:00  
Thank you so much for joining us today, Bernice. And congratulations on this being the first time that Sugar, your debut novel, is published in the UK. Why do you think it took so long for it to come to the UK?

Bernice L. McFadden  0:16  
Well, thank you so much for having me. Um, I have no idea why it took so long. You know, I have the same question in my head. But I think the truth is, everything happens when it's supposed to happen. And this was just when it was supposed to happen. It's been published, Sugar has been published in a few other countries. But obviously, this is really, really huge. And I think you know, this, the time is right. The time is right for her to– what is it? Hop across the pond? She's legal, she's 21. She's legal, she got her passport. And she's gone.

Jendella Benson  1:02  
She's a completely, unforgettable character. She was very unexpected for me, as well. And kind of the idea of centring a black sex worker in the 1950s just felt very, it felt very... groundbreaking always sounds a bit cliche, but it just was very different to a lot of the stories that are out now, let alone back in 2000 when you first had the book published. So I wanted to know, what was it that drew you to Sugar, that story, that woman, as kind of your debut novel?

Bernice L. McFadden  1:38  
I was attracted to the story, because all of the characters that populate the novel remind me of my family, in some ways. So my mother's people are from the South, from Georgia. And my father's people are from the Caribbean, right. But I grew up mostly nestled in the bosom of my maternal family. And when those people migrated North, they brought all of their customs, all of those stories with them. And I was the child that was very quiet and so was allowed to stay in the room with the adults as they were speaking. And so I kind of absorbed all of those stories. And I was a storyteller from very young and a voracious reader and I always knew that I wanted to be a writer. And so I think that's how, you know, that story came out of me, because it was just bits and pieces of all the little stories I had heard over my young life.

Jendella Benson  2:40  
What was your... what was the reaction when you first published it? Was there that kind of like shock or that like unexpectedness? Was that there from the beginning?

Bernice L. McFadden  2:54  
Yes, I mean, it was very well received, I must say. In fact, I think the pub date was probably something like January 14, and the publisher actually went to print twice before it was even published. So and the fact that it has remained in print for 21 years straight, says a lot about the story. And I never dreamt that it would be in print for 21 years. Of course, as a writer, that's what we hope and pray for. So I'm, you know, very happy that people are still finding it and people are still falling in love with Sugar.

Jendella Benson  3:36  
Yes, definitely. What do you think it is that people are connecting with, in particular? Obviously, readers come to stories with their own experiences, their own interpretations, their background, but from kind of your perspective, as the mother of the story, what's your kind of feeling as to how people are receiving it and coming to it?

Bernice L. McFadden  3:58  
I think that people like stories about underdogs, about outcasts, and I think people like stories about friendship, and about love not necessarily romantic love but this like, there's a mother daughter love there, there's a sister sister love component to that. And I think that's what draws people into a story.

Jendella Benson  4:23  
Yeah, I did like the kind of intergenerational kind of relationship between Sugar and Pearl and at Black Ballad, that's something that we're always quite keen to just showcase and kind of celebrate because oftentimes, I don't know the focus, especially now, can always be on like the young and like youth is kind of idolised, but that intergenerational exchange is so important in our personal lives, so it was really great to see that written as well. So there are some black writers who feel or maybe some black readers who feel that black writers can be pigeonholed to the past, at the expense of kind of contemporary stories, but I read that you said that you kind of like gravitated towards historical fiction as a personal choice. So why is that? What is it that historical fiction holds for you?

Bernice L. McFadden  5:24  
First of all, I'm a student of history. I love history. And because I was deprived of my personal history, my familiar history, I think that's why I gravitate towards it. There's so much that I was not taught about black people living here in America. And so I'm hungry for all of that. And when I stumble across something that's new to me, I really eagerly want to share that with my readers. So I find some sort of way to kind of insert that into these stories that may or may not start out as historical fiction, but end up that way. Yeah, that's why I've gravitated towards historical fiction. I think there's a lot of truth in fiction. There's probably more true than fiction than nonfiction, sometimes. And for people who aren't necessarily interested in reading historical books or historical texts, I think it becomes more palpable and more digestible when it's delivered through fiction.

Jendella Benson  6:33  
I absolutely agree. I think that most of my historical knowledge kind of comes through fiction because I just gravitate towards fiction more than, like nonfiction. And yeah, I think that there's a truth that can be told in fiction that is harder to tell in nonfiction, because I feel like when it's in fiction, it's easier to accept, like maybe it's easier to swallow while in nonfiction it's more like, 'Did that really happen? Or did this person really say that?' People can get into maybe too much of a like an analytical approach, but I feel like fiction is a really good conveyor of truth. Because, yeah, people just, they can feel the truth, and they just kind of accept it. Yeah. So kind of, I guess one of the reasons why perhaps, I feel like, speaking to readers and people that I know, people are a bit hesitant to get into historical fiction particularly, is because often the pain and the trauma that like black people throughout America, throughout the UK, throughout the West, and to be fair, throughout the whole world, have experienced, but it feels a bit strange to say, but I feel like the way that you've written pain in Sugar is actually quite beautiful. Like your characters have experienced a lot of pain, a lot of trauma. But I feel like it's not gratuitously traumatic or like that voyeuristic kind of genre of like, shock, horror, woe is the world, kind of thing. So, I mean, how did you achieve that? Big question – how did you achieve writing, pain and trauma realistically, but not allowing it to distort or dehumanise your characters?

Bernice L. McFadden  8:31  
I think it's a reflection of my own personal experience. I've had, I've experienced a lot of pain and trauma in my life, but I did not allow it to dehumanise me. And so that's probably something that unconsciously I put down on the page. It's not like I sit down and begin a story and say, 'Okay, I got to write about this pain. But how am I not going to make it gratuitous?' I don't do that. It just comes out. It's holistic. It's holistic. When you meet someone who has been traumatised, it's oftentimes it takes a while for you to realise that person is carrying around that pain. Because they're very skillful at camouflaging it, and then maybe releasing it bit by bit by bit. You don't get it full on. Right> And so I think that's how I handle it in the stories that I write.

Jendella Benson  9:33  
Yeah, yeah. Deaf and I like also how, particularly with someone like Sugar, at first, she comes across quite kind of like hard and, you know, like, she's been through some things and she's got the kind of scars or the callouses to show, but almost how she opens up, she's kind of like transformed, I think, by the love shown to her by Pearl. And yeah, I just like that image of kind of like characters, people revealing themselves kind of slowly because I feel like that is really relevant to Sugar's character. So my next question is around respectability politics and black womanhood. And, of course, given Sugar's profession as a sex worker and the time period that the book was set in, it's a very relevant topic to the story. But even in the years since then, with the dawn of kind of like sexual liberation and beyond, it was a theme that resonated with me like quite deeply. And I think it's something that will resonate with a lot of black women who are kind of reading Sugar's story. And just yeah, how she's interacting with kind of like the the townspeople at first and the judgement that's kind of like thrown her way. Like, I think no matter what your experience, I think, as a black woman, you've kind of encountered this kind of, yeah, this respectability politics. So I guess, I wanted to know what, what does it take for black women to be free from these constrained expectations? From your kind of perspective, what, how can we, yeah, free ourselves from it? Because I just found it quite interesting that even now I can relate to a woman from like the 1950s. Even now in like, 2021 on that basis.

Bernice L. McFadden  11:32  
How do we free–? Well, you know, I grew up in a family of women, majority women, and sex was always a topic of discussion. Right? I think that the women in my family realised quite early on that it was important to demystify it for their girl children. And that this was, you know, sex was a human normal act, right? And wasn't anything to be ashamed of. We will also taught to be empowered by it and not to be controlled by it. So this is one side of my family. But then there was the other side of my family, like, you know, the women who went to church and, you know, believe that the man was the head of the household, and that if you had sex before marriage, it was a sin, you know, all of that. So I think it's... I have to be really careful how I phrase this. I think that, you know, religion is a big problem. I feel like religion is a big problem when it comes down to that. So religion shames women in to... it just shames women across the board for many different, many different reasons. And because of that shame, I think that going forward, as we grow into adults, we start dealing with all sorts of emotional and mental fallout from these teachings, these church teachings. And how do we how do we go forward and change that? I think this, you know, starting right now, with this conversation, this is how we go for it. Like there's nothing to be ashamed of, if you like having sex, you should have sex. And if you know, there's also of course, the double standard, right? If women like sex, then they're labelled sluts. If men like sex, well, you know, that's normal. They're just men. And so I, I do think that in the past decade, that things are changing, because we are, right, taking control of our sexual lives and saying, well, this is mine, and I get to do what I want with it. And I think that the shaming is not as severe as it was a decade ago. So in time, you know, things change. And I'm hoping that it will continue to change.

Jendella Benson  14:27  
Hopefully, hopefully, fingers crossed. But yeah, I know that even for our audience, I think religion, faith, that kind of thing has, like, yeah, it's been a it's been a big factor, a big shaping kind of factor. We actually, we've published a few things actually kind of around purity culture and the church. And yeah, just how it affects women as they grow and come into themselves and their own kind of ideas around sexuality, and whether they're still in the church or whether they leave the church as well. So yeah, I think, hopefully it will change. But it's something that we need to interrogate, and I think be honest with ourselves more about. But yeah, ongoing conversation, as you said. So obviously, you've been in this publishing industry for a while. What have you witnessed change over that time for black women writers?

Bernice L. McFadden  15:34  
The change is current, I would say maybe over the past five years, just from my perspective. When I started out 21 years ago, black writers, men and women, mostly women, were pigeon holed. Absolutely. So there was a period of time when... because I'm considered like a literary writer, right? So there was a period of time where we had a slew of books, called 'urban' books. So books that, you know, take place in black neighbourhoods and, you know, drugs, which was fine. Me as a writer didn't have a problem with the content. But what I found was that publishers had stopped acquiring any other types of books, any other genre types of books from black writers, and they were just pushing the urban story. That's all they wanted to buy. That's all they wanted to promote. And, I mean, I understood exactly what was what was happening. And so what I realised and having conversations with different readers was they were walking away from black writers, because they thought that this is all we were putting out. And so they were taking their dollars back to, you know, white writers who were allowed to write about a myriad of topics. So that went on for quite some time. Now, though, I see that publishing has shifted, always comes down to the dollar. And with the rise of Black Lives Matter, and you know, all of these things that are happening, they are now allowing black writers to– not 'allowing', acquiring a lot of different types of work written by black writers. So that's changed, we are coming out of the box there, they've opened the lid, and we are now able to spill out and write about what we want to write about. But yeah, that had gone on for you know, so long. And even, you know, up until a few years ago, it was still this myth circulating through the industry that black people don't read. And that white people aren't interested in reading work by black people. You know, it's just, yeah, so things have changed, thankfully.

Jendella Benson  18:32  
Do you think that the change is going to stick? Because I think that's the question that a lot of us have, like, almost like the industry has been shamed into doing something. But stick is that like, a long term shift? Or is that kind of like a almost like a knee jerk reaction?

Bernice L. McFadden  18:54  
Right. So that's the question of the day, right? Because we see it happens like every 15 years. Some how I feel like this time it's going to stick. The lid is open. They've unplugged the hole, they can't replug it. I think it has to do with the generation. Yeah, the new generation of readers, these new, you know, these kids that are coming up, they're like 'enough!' They're interested in the world and with the internet, there's so much information out there. So if I can't go there, if I can't have that experience, like physically, I'm going to pick up a book to read about it. Yeah, I think it's gonna stick.

Jendella Benson  19:44  
What advice would you have for imagine black women writers who are writing right now?

Bernice L. McFadden  19:49  
Reading is so important to read outside of your comfort zone. Read everything and anything. I find inspiration and everything I read That's one. Um, I know there are a lot of people who have attended creative writing workshops. And they may have had a professor tell them that writers write every day. And for those writers who do not write every day, they might feel like they're not a real writer because they don't write every day. I do not write every day. I have 15 novels. Keep that in mind. Don't let the rejection get you down. I always say use it as kindling to fire you up. Rejection is a part of life. If you want it really badly, you will continue to pursue it. Like I said, it took me ten years to sell Sugar. And yeah, that's it. And manifest for yourself. Imagine yourself already published. Imagine yourself already touring.

Jendella Benson  20:57  
So those ten years when you were trying to sell Sugar, like what was going through your mind? Like, what were you doing? Like were you writing other stuff? Were you still working on Sugar? What did that process of waiting look like for you?

Bernice L. McFadden  21:11  
It wasn't until about seven months before I actually sold Sugar that I started working on another book. And it's not because I didn't believe in Sugar. I was just like, OK, there's nothing I had... you know, writing is in the rewriting and I have rewritten and rewritten and rewritten and I was taking, you know, I was taking advice and cues from my rejection letters, right? And then I was like, This is it, this is finished. There's nothing else I can do with this story. I'm going to move on to the next story, I've spent ten years on this story. And I continue to read. I continue to feed myself with literature.

Jendella Benson  21:57  
So kind of tied into that question. Who are the authors that you enjoy reading both kind of like historical authors and any authors who are writing now?

Bernice L. McFadden  22:08  
So in the beginning, obviously, I read all of the greats, right? [Toni] Morrison, [Alice] Walker, [Gloria] Naylor, [Terry] McMillan, Marita Golden, J California Cooper, who really... her work really, really spoke to me. Um, and then you know, now. Okay, because I knew this question was coming, and I'm like, I should write my list down. Lauren Francis-Sharma, Ladee Hubbard, oh gosh... I've been really enjoying... Oh, Kim McLaren. This is nonfiction. She's a wonderful essayist because I'm all about nonfiction [these] past few years. Who else? Lynn Nottage, the playwright, I love reading her and I don't enjoy reading plays. But I enjoy reading her. Patricia Smith. If you're familiar with her, she's a poet... and I'm sorry, I'm sure I'm forgetting a slew of people. But I have bookshelves. I have shelves and shelves of books have wonderful writers. And  I find inspiration in every single page that I read.

Jendella Benson  23:45  
Thank you so much, Bernice for your answers, for sharing your generosity and your wisdom. And for anyone who is definitely interested, Sugar is out today in the UK and you should definitely go and read that book.

Bernice L. McFadden  24:01  
Please and thank you.