Writing Woke

Several years ago during my first semester in graduate school, some of my classmates and I went out to a local watering hole after a rather tedious writing workshop. Which, by the way, was nothing new. I found my graduate writing workshops consistently difficult, not because I couldn’t take critique, but the focus of the workshop, at least my workshops, weren’t craft. Instead the professor and workshop participants’ critiques would often devolve into cultural anthropological digs, peppered with questions about the organizations and events taking place on the fictional black college campus where my novel was set. So while my classmates communed at the bar and I whined into my beer about my growing black-splaining fatigue, one of my white classmates countered, “Well, who is your audience?” Due to her tone and body language, I could tell it wasn’t a question she expected an answer to. On the contrary, it was one of those questions meant to shut me down or shut me up. Of course, being who I am and where I’m from, I’m not easily shut up, so I countered back with just as much pointedness: “People who read books are my audience.”

She returned to her PBR, and I returned to mine, but I sat still fuming, knowing my comeback was a lie because, in all honesty, I’d never really considered my audience. While I was well-versed in distinguishing the narrative’s relationship to the characters, the idea of my relationship as author to an audience was one I’d completely slept on. Did I have an audience? Was I writing into a void? Was it even possible to write to everyone who reads? How had I made it this far into the study of my writing and have no idea of my audience? Despite her less than stellar motives for posing the question, the bitch had me stumped.

While I’ve consistently been aware of the inherent blackness of the stories I write, that woke-ness didn’t necessarily lend itself to an awareness of my audience. I assume it may be the case for many new and emerging black American writers, primarily because the American literary canon is so white and male, and that whiteness and maleness is mostly rendered invisible, AND the African American literary tradition blossomed out of this externally-directed writer/reader relationship. The narratives of enslaved blacks were specifically written for white audiences, so from its earliest incarnation, published writing by African American authors was not meant for black people. In Our Nig, the fictionalized narrative written in the tradition of an enslaved narrative, Harriet E. Wilson clearly departs from the enslaved narrative’s characteristically white audience. Wilson writes: “I sincerely appeal to my colored brethren universally for patronage, hoping they will not condemn this attempt of their sister to be erudite, but rally around me a faithful band of supporters and defenders.” Wilson, the author, clearly identifies her audience as black people, her community. Last year in an interview for The Guardian, Toni Morrison stated, “I’m writing for black people in the same way that Tolstoy was not writing for me, a 14-year-old colored girl from Lorain, Ohio.” And like Toni Morrison, my default audience has and always will be black. And like Harriet E. Wilson, I was responsible for choosing my audience. So ultimately, the answer to the question of who is my audience is (insert drumroll)…

It depends. I know that may be a bit anticlimactic and seem like a not so nuanced response, but it does depend. And as a writer, that choice is key to my understanding of the ways in which I write. My audience. My narrative. My choice.

The idea of the relationship between author and audience exists as a continuum of sorts. Flowing from the most personal; from me for me (diary, inner thought, etc.), to the communal; from me for us (inner-directed to a specific community), toward the instructive; from me for them (outer-directed to specific community). Most of my writing exists in the “from me for us,” which occurred naturally for me, but that doesn’t mean that if I choose, I cannot shift to a different audience. Even before I was completely aware of my power to choose, I was choosing.


A lost lesson in evolution on the 3:16p from Chicago to Blue Island; or Adaptation

You see a girl on the Rock Island Express. She is brown, or not so brown, or very brown on the outside. You watch her as her eyes scan the pages of a tattered copy of The Bluest Eye; or you catch small screeching bits of Alannis Morisette wafting from her earbuds; or you stare as she nibbles the last bits of wet and wild’s ravenous red from the tip of her index finger. You see her feet, and they remind you of something you learned in earth science, or was it biology? You remember reading somewhere that archaeologists had found remains of prehistoric whales with feet somewhere in the deserts of Africa. Rising waters and shifts in the earth’s plates had made whale feet futile, and whales had stopped growing feet. You look down, and she has feet. You see mandarin orange toenails peeking out of open-toed sandals, or sensible loafers hiding bunions. So you look at her hands. They are empty, except for Morrison’s first, or her iPod overflowing with the bit too angry Alannis. Her fists only hold half-eaten fingernails. You can’t stop watching her. Her bouncing and behaving hair moves when she moves, or it doesn’t, or maybe the natural curls shift as a unit in the opposite direction of her body. It looks soft, and you want to touch it, but you don’t. You know that you can’t, so you cough loudly, or drop your Ten-ride, or anything to make her look at you. She looks at you, and you see that her eyes are empty. Her empty eyes are deep brown, the same brown as her skin; or a lighter brown and they reflect the light. Or they are gray, and you are transported to red clay roads, and open fields under a southern sky. You see a man with matching gray eyes whose skin is white, or very white from years of sheltered living under the incessant gray skies of his Motherland, or red from the punishing sun of the Americas. He follows a dirt path beaten down by the passing of many feet and enters a place where he is not wanted. It is a small lean-to, a worn shack with too many ways for the southern air to get in. You see a girl alone or not alone inside. You see children, some brown, some not so brown, and some very brown lying close to a dying fire. You see a man also lying on the floor very still, but not sleeping; and it is too dark to see his skin, but somehow it blends within the darkness around him. And the girl is next to him but not. And the white man has his pants down around his ankles, and he is on his knees. He is fucking the girl, and her eyes are closed, or covered, or wide open. And the eyewitnesses are unforgiving and forgetful. And the dark man is silent, and the children are sleeping and silent or not. And the crying is soft or loud or not; and you hear it, but you aren’t sure where it’s coming from. Somehow you know all of them are crying. Even the white, very white, or red white man. And when he has cum, he goes back the way he came. You see the man go back to the whitewashed box or modest cabin and a white or very white or red white girl that sleeps next to him and what he has just done. Her eyes are full. Too full of the brown, very brown, or not so brown children that play with her own white, very white, or red white children. She is full of anger, or sadness, or jealousy, or empathy. But mostly she is full. All of them watch the brown girl’s children leave. They are sold or traded or gifted away and nothing changes on the outside. Her children are gone, but the brown, very brown, or not so brown girl remains—her womb a vestige. You see the girl sitting across from you on the Rock Island Express and her arms are empty. You remember reading something about a quiet epidemic of wombs collecting benign, painful growths of nothing. You hear the driver call out a name of an honored and dead white, very white, or red white man, and she stands. You wonder if she knows what you now know, that her womb has been swallowed up by benign tumors because her uterus had been rendered useless. Then she looks at you and smiles. Her eyes are clear and full and un-empty. You must have been mistaken. You look at the muddy, red, worn carpet lining the train’s center aisle. Your eyes are weighed down by her fullness, and you wonder if you can trust any memory from a source you have forgotten, but you also wonder if whales ever miss their feet.

(Originally published in Tidal Basin Press, 2010.)


While the relationship between the narrative and characters in Adaptation is internal, the relationship between the author and audience is clearly a from me to them (outer-directed to specific community). I don’t mean to suggest this continuum is limited to the three relationships I’ve described, but it’s a good way to begin to consider how our contexts as writers inform both how we write and how we read. As a reader, especially readers/gatekeepers, you may not love a short story, a novel, a screenplay. You may feel left out, invisible, or ignored, and that’s okay. A piece of writing may not resonate, not because it’s not well written, but because it’s not written for you. And being aware of that is the true definition of being woke.


Cole Lavalais writes fiction. Her work has appeared in Obsidian, Apogee, Warpland, Tidal Basin Review, Aquarius Press, and others. Her short story Adaptation was nominated for the Best of the Net in 2010. Cole has been awarded writer residencies at the Vermont Studio Center and The Noepe Center for the Literary Arts. She is a fellow of the Kimbilio Center for Black Fiction, VONA, and the Callaloo Writing workshops. She holds an M.F.A. from Chicago State University and a Ph.D. from University of Illinois at Chicago. She has taught writing for over ten years and currently teaches community-based writing workshops on the south side of Chicago. Shealso hosts Colored People’s Time, a bimonthly literary salon featuring fiction writers of color. Her debut novel, Summer of the Cicadas, is currently available.