Oh, the human being is a complex animal. We often work against our own best interests. We pray for our dreams to come true, yet we bow to fear as our god and keep ourselves in boxes because we don’t know what the terrain is like “out there.”
If you, as an artist, are anything like me, then you have spent some of your artistic life hiding out. O.k., let me revise that, if you are a human being, then you probably have spent some of your most valuable hours on this earth hiding out.
Here I am, crossing 30, claiming that it is my time to shine. I have been swearing I’m going to do all I can to show the world my brilliance. As I spoke these words, a great group of people made a commitment to help bring the Single Woman’s Manifesto, one of my projects, to the marketplace. They are pushing me forward, offering up encouragement and teaching me about self-publishing and marketing. The meetings can be overwhelming because there’s so much information to absorb and sift through. Each conference call leaves me with a slew of challenging questions. How much should the book cost? When will the book launch? Should we shoot for national press or pace ourselves and build a buzz slowly with local press? What kind of book party should we have? How many books to print in the first run? How will the books be distributed? These are all questions I insisted I never wanted to answer for myself. I wanted to sign somebody’s dotted line, get my percentage and let someone else worry about the details. But I’m here, with this wonderful team, and they are as committed to figuring things out as I am.
And, how do I respond to this great fortune? I let my to-do list lapse. I feel relieved when a team member isn’t available for a call. I feel distracted and unfocused and unprepared for meetings. And I allow my diffused energy to influence the others on the team so that none of us is moving forward.
A Short History
There is one area of my life in which I’ve consciously used hiding out as protection. In Colonize This: Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism, I discuss my personal history as a girl navigating the aggressive overtures of boys and grown men on the street. I detail the anxiety and anger catcalling aroused in me and I explore how these approaches translated into psychological pressure and harassment. I also describe how the daily harassment developed into all-out abuse during a trip to the Dominican Republic.
The way I responded to this environment of harassment and irritation was to diminish my glow. I wore baggier clothes, I stopped taking pleasure in shopping and adopted a basic style that was practical and level headed.
I’m a woman now and I know how to handle sexual interest (harmless or aggressive) and undesired overtures. I’ve been criticizing my lack of style and my refusal to buy nice clothing for a few years now, and only now have I come to recognize the change in my style was a form of hiding out. It was my way of saying, “no, thank you,” “pass by me, please” to men on the street. It was an attempt to keep myself safe.
Hiding out in my career
Recently in conversation about my desires for my career, the issue of how I used my clothing to deflect sexual harassment came up. “So you see safety in invisibility,” my friend stated. “Yeah,” I agreed, “but it’s not necessary now because I’ve come to own my sexuality as part of my personal power.” The friend challenged me to translate my reliance on invisibility on the street to how I relate to my writing career. “Huh?” I said. “Well,” the friend said as if talking to a child, “you just told me that when people offer you praise, you brush it off quickly so you don’t have to take it in.” “Yeah,” I said. “And you also spoke about how you’ll hurry up and return the compliment so you can send the praise back to the person who’s admiring your work.” “That’s true,” I said.
My friend’s statements really made me look at my reaction to standing out in literary settings. I want to be perceived as a really good writer, the cream of the crop, but I don’t want to believe that my skills are something anyone else couldn’t achieve with the same dedication. I want to be acknowledged and encouraged, but only while I’m one among a crowd of folks. I feel uncomfortable standing alone—proclaiming my power as a writer (or having my power proclaimed for me). As I contemplated my comfort and preference to blend in, rather than stand out—the realization hit me. My reliance on invisibility as a security blanket was not limited to the street. I also use it in my writing career and my relationships.
When the light bulb of awareness went off in my head, my friend made a potent statement. She said: “You need to learn to stop seeing safety in invisibility and step into your own power as a writer.”
How Hiding out Manifests
I could not deny I was hiding out in my career when, recently, my website went down. The server that was hosting it had some kind of problem. In order to restore my website, I needed to get into my domain name account and change the account settings. If this sounds like Greek to you, it sounds like Greek to me too… except, I realize that all of these operations can be achieved relatively simply if I just apply myself to understanding them. I have never applied myself to understanding them. I put my website and my career in someone else’s hands, and said “Here, I trust you, manage this for me.” But now, if I wanted my site back, I’d need my username and password. I’m embarrassed to admit I had neither. And, I was having trouble remembering whether I’d chosen kiiniibura or kiiniiburasalaam for my web address. As I spent three days, stuck, with no website and no immediate means of addressing the issue, I realized how far down in the sand I’d stuck my head.
It is scary, challenging, risky and confronting to invest in your career. How much money will disappear if I do this? Will anybody even hear of me and my project? Am I wasting my time? Is it worth it? Am I worth it?
When we invest in our careers, we are saying with our actions that we want to have a presence in the public domain. We are proclaiming our work as serious and worth attention. We are yanking at the world’s coat sleeve, whispering (or yelling) “peep this—I made it, and it’s good for you.”
Approaching my career proactively challenges all my gentleness and all my balance. It’s easier for me not to promote myself. If I just give people things to read, they can choose whether or not they want to read it. Instinctively, I don’t tell my friends about my readings. They hear me talking all the time, why—I wonder—would they want to sit in an audience and listen to me gab? I don’t like to assume the world’s interest.
But you must assume the world’s interest when you order a print run. You must presume and define your work’s value when you put together a marketing plan. When launching a career, you can’t pretend you don’t care, or the result doesn’t matter, or you’ll take it however it comes. In short, you have to come out of your shell and interact with the world. You have to stop hiding out.
I want a dazzling career as a writer. I want to impact people with my words. And, yes, I do want to stand out from the pack. I want success—critical, literary, commercial, social. I want to lead an inspiring literary, artistic life. But I can’t do it with my head down. I can’t do it by dodging praise and diminishing my talents. I’m still learning what it means to chart my own path and create a place for myself in the literary marketplace. I dedicate myself to shrugging off my cloak of invisibility and embracing my power in a way that pulls everyone—friends, family, readers, fellow writers and artists—forward.
Be well. Be love(d).
Kiini Ibura Salaam
==KIINI’S ACCEPTANCE/REJECTION O’METER==
: : : September 2002 – present : : :
==KIINI’S ACCEPTANCE/REJECTION O’METER==
So, I’m having a time with academia right now. The journal that wanted its contributors to buy a subscription now has a problem with my story. The guest editors really like it, but when they turned the issue in to the journal, the journal’s editors felt the dialogue was too thick, the story was stilted, and though the story featured a woman/women, it didn’t challenge notions of women. Wow. I mean they really don’t like the story.
The guest editors managed to secure permission to ask me to rewrite, but they had to fight for me. The journal’s editors didn’t want to include the story at all. I don’t mistrust their opinion. The older I get, the more willing I am to accept other folks’ critiques. I like to look at these experiences as the universe offering me a nurturing hand. Now I have the opportunity to go back into a story I thought was finished and see what strengths I can tease out of the story. When I reread the story, I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to work on the dialogue and the “stilted-ness” of the story, but I’m not optimistic about changing the plot to challenge notions of women. For a June deadline? With my schedule? I know many folks would ask why even change it at all. One friend in particular would say the editors are standing on the sidelines and they aren’t creating the art, and so can’t righteously critique it. But I find I learn this way. The guest editors were absolutely right about the original edits they asked me for. When I applied them to the story, the story zinged with new life. I knew it dragged before I submitted it, I just couldn’t figure out how to make it fly. Now, I’m being challenged to look at it again. And, as life would have it, I recently had an experience that gave me an idea about how I could expand the story to address the issue of notions of women. This story is really getting worked over! Also, I told the editors about the conversation I had with my father re: writers supporting publication venues, and if, by some miracle, I do get published in this journal, I’ll be happy to buy a subscription.
Also, the editors of the book on race, hair, and body politics told me they’d be sending me an acceptance letter in the mail. However, when I got the letter it was a rejection letter. Like in the case above, the editors may have liked the story, but the reviewers didn’t. It lacked a critical lens, it didn’t have the proper academic footnoting, and more and more and more. I actually thought, “Whew, that’s one less thing I have to do.” Well, three weeks later I get an email from the editors saying they sent me an acceptance letter, did I get it, do I plan to work on the piece and had it been previously published?!? I wrote them explaining my confusion and explaining the limitations on the piece (I’m not an academic), so now I’m waiting to see if it’s actually been accepted or rejected.
The acceptance/rejection meter stays the same.
Kiini’s Rate of Acceptance/Rejection
August 2001 – August 2002
Publications: Acceptances = 6; Rejections = 6
Grants/Fellowships: Acceptances = 0; Rejections = 1
Residencies/Workshops: Acceptances = 0; Rejections = 4