A Woman, First

With everything that’s going on in the publishing industry in regards to diversity, and #OwnVoices, I feel compelled to share my experience.
I lived in Greece for more than seven years in an area rife with female ex-pats who had come from pretty much everywhere. We had only two commonalities. The first was that we were in Greece because we’d fallen in love with a Greek national. That man might have been in our home country for school or work. Or we met him in his home country for our work. Some of us had saved money for an adventurous holiday in Greece after college, and ended up meeting the man we would marry. Others like my friend, Angela, were in the American military when we met our future Greek husband.
Whatever the reason, we were in love, told by our lover that he wanted to live in Greece or the marriage was off, and so there we were—Americans, Canadians, Italians, Australians, Irish, English, Black, Asian, Latina, Lebanese, Filipino—you name it, we were there, and we bonded because each of us felt like a fish out of water.
We found a commonality in our perceived ‘uncommonness’. Most of us had to deal with the Greek mother-in-law who thought her son shouldn’t have married a foreigner, thought she needed to show us the error of our strange cultural ways. Everything from what we cooked to how we spoke Greek, to how we raised our children, was critiqued. We were lonely for what we’d left behind, and we didn’t branch off into little ‘ethnic’ communities the way people do here. In Greece, we had no home ethnic communities.
That was reserved for the poor immigrant. And the shunned Romas and Turks. In the last twenty years since I came back to the USA, that list has gotten longer in Greece since the migrant crisis. There are Syrians, Pakistanis, and more living in “their own communities” now, too. Read “ghettos.”
But we weren’t shunned, because our husbands were men of means, had a name in the community. Or we ourselves were women who came from a family of means. That gave us some protection from out-and-out ostracism, but we still dealt with the stares, the questions, the odd looks, the mocking smiles.
In defense of Greeks, I will say we had plenty of Greek women friends too, who, for their own reasons, also felt like fish out of water among their own.
We formed our own community. If you longed for a Thanksgiving holiday, which is obviously not celebrated in Greece, you created one with your friends. You made the traditional meal for them, and for some of them, it was the first time they’d eaten it. They’d bring their own foods too, as we all do. So your traditional Thanksgiving dinner might also include hummus. And mazapán. And spanakopita.
It didn’t take long for this all to seem ordinary. We had first bonded over the fact that we were made to feel “other” but we soon learned that we were much more alike that it appeared, because we were all women. Women who loved, who had families we loved.
We might tease her because she says “biscuit” instead of “cookie,” or “eggplant” instead of “aubergine,” but we don’t tease her when she confides in us that her husband is cheating. It doesn’t matter what color skin she has when she tells you her in-laws are driving her mad. Or that, though you might never understand the Hindi she speaks to her children, you know just how she feels when she finds out her mother has died, thousand of miles away from her.
In all of these scenarios, we know just how she feels, don’t we?
As an author, how could I not write about these experiences? And it was with them in mind that I wrote The Secret Spice Cafe Trilogy. Four women from four different backgrounds who meet on a food blogging site.
Yes, a food blogging site, because it also doesn’t matter  where you’re from, we all have to eat. These four bond over recipes, and each with their own secrets and heartbreaks, decide on impulse to open a restaurant together aboard an historic ship, the Queen Mary, that’s now a floating hotel and museum, permanently docked in Long Beach, California.
The ship is real, the women are not, and the closest I get to any of them in background is the Italian-American widow. But she and I are least alike in every other way. I’m not a widow, I’m a two-time divorcee. I don’t have a son who’s gay, but if I had, my reactions to that would be quite different from the Italian-American’s in my story. For those who care to know, I’m most like Cynthia, the Brazilian heiress who leaves her home to take a job as a cocktail waitress in Las Vegas. I’m not an heiress either, I’ve never been to Brazil, and I don’t speak Portuguese. I did do some waitressing in college. But we are alike, she and I, in our tenacity, our refusal to be bitter, and our belief in doing what’s right, no matter how hard it is.
With all that said, I see a little of myself in all four women, as I see a little of myself in all my friends I met in Greece. My years there taught me to look for the commonalities in humans rather than the difference, and it was with that approach I wrote my stories.
I also did tons of research. And I don’t mean searches on Google and Wikipedia, or by culling from books written by other authors. (Shame on any ‘writer’ who does that.) I interviewed dozens of people, and got first-hand information on everything from how to run a commercial kitchen, to what is happening in a certain very progressive small village in India. I studied the history of the ship where the stories take place, but I also talked to ship aficionados and historians. Even with all this work, I still took a misstep, and I posted a correction in the Author’s Note of the last novel in the trilogy, because when you make a mistake, you own up to it, not make excuses for it.
My most profound research experience was my interview with a genuine Vodou practitioner, Priestess Miriam Chamani of the New Orleans Voodoo Spiritual Temple. (Yes, there’s a Vodou priestess character in The Secret Spice Cafe. She shows up in book three of the trilogy.) I wanted to learn about the real-life priestess, but I also wanted to ask her permission, if you will, to write such a character—me, a white woman who knew nothing about Haitian Vodou before I got started down this path.
Priestess Miriam asked me why I wanted to write this character, and I answered honestly. “I don’t know. But I somehow feel as though she wants me to write about her.”
Her response was both a relief and an affirmation. She said, “Then you should write about her. And you shouldn’t be afraid, because remember this: I’m a woman first, then I’m a priestess.”
But the biggest confirmation came from several writers of color. (Yes, I did talk to all these people before I wrote my stories. Because we should, dammit. If we writers so much believe we have something to tell the world, enough that we want to make a permanent documentation of it, then we shouldn’t be arrogant or lazy about it. We should do the hard work.)
What they had to say was even more eye-opening. Author of Gypsy Kisses and Voodoo Wishes, Denise Tapscott told me, “I got complaints because I used the word “gypsy.”
It’s true that this term is no longer considered acceptable to some, while others see no harm it. Either way, her novel is delightful, and in no way demeans either of the cultures about which she writes.
Another commentary made to me sticks out in particular, from Ace Antonio Hall who goes by the pen name of Nzondi. His novel, Oware Mosaic, set in post-apocalyptic Ghana in the year 2025, is currently on the preliminary list for a Stoker Award, which is well-deserved, in my opinion. Ace is a fifty-year old Black male. Oware Mosaic has a teenage girl as its protagonist. And she has friends, some of whom are white. “What does that say about me?” he told me when I asked about my character.
Well, what it said to me after I read the novel is that he wrote a very convincing protagonist. Because that’s what good writing is. A good writer will take every experience she has ever had, every person he’s ever met, stir those experiences and people into a well-blended and satisfying stew of imagination and storytelling.
So, I guess my conclusion is maybe authors should write about whom and what we wish, but be very, very sure to do it well, and do it authentically. More importantly, we should promote those authors who stories we revere, stories told well, and authentically too, no matter their color, their fame, or their book advance. Authentic voices will remain unheard, if, unlike the women I met in Greece, we don’t step up for each other.

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