The Big Idea: Leah Vernon
Author Leah Vernon knows something about persistence, as this Big Idea about the years-long struggle to publish the story that would become The Union tells you. What is the story that motivated her through all this time? Read on to discover.
What would you do with boundless privilege?
The kind of privilege that allows one to pack bodies on a sweltering ship like human sardines as the top row defecates on the ones chained beneath. The kind of privilege that would allow one to place a church above a dungeon full of enslaved people who stood in feces, blood, and sweat up to their shins in the darkness awaiting their passage into a new world, a stolen world. Or perhaps a privilege that would allow a man in blue to kneel on the neck of a man for almost ten minutes as he cries out for his mama.
“What lengths would you go to keep that privilege?” This question is the big theme for my novel: The Union. And whether we want to acknowledge it or not, it is floating all around us.
I grew up in Detroit. We were the only Black Muslim family on the block. People used to think I was a nun because of my head scarf. Mom was a single parent to five children by five different men. I had an interesting upbringing and that is putting it very, very mildly.
I was home-schooled. Awkward. No father. Looking for something to latch onto. I discovered stories. The library became my escape. Sci-Fi and dystopian were my prescriptions of choice. In these stories I became the hero; I had control that I never experienced in my real life.
Harry Potter. Goosebumps Series. Fahrenheit 451. The Chronicles of Narnia. All written by white authors. And presumably written for white readers. They included magical people and aliens and the impossible. But they forgot one thing: Black people. Somehow in their quests for new worlds, they had erased a whole populace. Did Black people not exist in the future? I pondered.
Although these stories saved me, they hurt me, too. You can imagine what identity issues come into play when white people always win, and we always lose.
As I got older, I started to notice the differences between me and them. I had no family support in college. They got to vacation in Europe. I worked and took a full load of summer classes. They bragged about shopping sprees with trust funds. I became bitter about the fact that I would never, ever win because the system wouldn’t allow it. It wasn’t that they were better than me or smarter than me. It was that they carried a privilege that I would never have access to.
When I exited my mother as a Black girl, my fate was set. The narrator says, “And she will have a difficult life…”
The anger and resentment I felt for having been dealt such a difficult hand turned into stories. But of course, I am a writer and that’s what we do. We turn pain into entertainment…
I concocted a story in which we ruled. A world where slavery had indeed happened but now the tables had turned. I wanted to see, to feel how it would be to eat and not be eaten. To exploit the ones who colonized us. To make them suffer as my ancestors had. I wanted a reverse telling of history but in the future.
Two girls—one Black, one mixed-race, an “Impure” slave girl. What were their stories? I wanted action, sex exploitation, drugs, and harsh laws against procreating more than one white baby, purity laws against mixing races punishable by death—a scary reality.
I wanted white people in this novel to feel the discomfort and pain that I felt, that we felt, that my ancestors felt when they were tossed overboard into the sea with no justice, no peace.
Would they then care?
I pitched The Union to white agents and white publishers who rejected me by the dozens… I tried for years. Then I just gave up… Who had I thought I was? I was just a Black, Muslim girl born into the system.
No one wanted to hear my stories…
Years later, I resurrected the novel in my MFA program. I remember having to pitch my story about enslaving white people to a panel of—well, white people—in the industry. I stumbled over the words and twiddled my fingers and cleared my throat as I watched them squirm in their chairs trying to give “objective” feedback.
I stormed out. Upset. Unsure. I went to my mentor for support, who sat with his chihuahua, Clovis, resting in his lap.
“I think this story is too…disrespectful.” I said as I slumped into the lobby’s chair. “I think white people will be mad at me if I keep pushing.”
“A writer’s job is to tell the story. And, sometimes telling the story makes people, readers, uncomfortable,” he explained.
I sat up a little more. “But I just don’t want—”
“Is it the story you want to tell?”
“Well, uh, yes.”
“Then tell it.”
And I vowed to tell it.
Unfortunately, the other editors in New York and LA did not share my mentor’s sentiment and I was rejected again for the third round.
Life went on. I got divorced. I went bankrupt in the mind, the soul, and financially. I wrote a memoir about all of it and it’s that angst that got me my first book deal.
“What’s the next project?” my agent asked.
Out of fear of rejection, it took me two years of toying with the idea of revisiting my problem child of a novel. I tried again, maybe the time was right now.
My problem child landed in the hands of a biracial editor working at Amazon Publishing. She got me. She got it. She got the story! I was offered a two-book deal.
I wrote something that I wanted to read as a child whose library was filled to the brim with books by white authors. I wrote something that would challenge the ways that we as humans engage in privilege. Something that would make any reader excitingly uncomfortable.