04 Jan At Home on Many Shelves
Sixty-six agents declined to represent Trace. Several of them had expressed initial interest based on the query letter. But all said no, some of them taking the time to explain that they would have difficulty placing my work with a mainstream publisher. The fear was that publishers would perceive my manuscript as trying to do too many things at once, that they would have difficulty categorizing it — figuring out in what section of the bookstore it belongs. One kind agent added that the publishing environment is very conservative right now. Publishers are more risk-averse than ever, he told me, and my work would be perceived as a very risky proposition.
So you might have an idea of how grateful I am that Jack Shoemaker and Counterpoint Press were eager to take the risk.
Trace now sits on many different shelves in bookstores. In one store I found it in Biography/Memoir, in another in History, in others still in Anthropology, in Sociology, in Nature Writing, in Travel Writing, in Essays, in Psychology.
The various categories might lead one to ask if Trace is trying to do too much at once. But this question amounts to asking my Gemini-self if I am trying to think of too many “different” things at once that should be considered separately. My answer is and has to be no. As a Trace reader and new friend just told me, there are so many issues and questions and concerns in the air regarding race, justice, identity, integrity, environment, and history in this country. She appreciates how I tried to tie them together in Trace.
We all carry history within us, the past becoming present in what we think and do, in who we are. Trace is a personal narrative that asks who “we” are in this place called the United States. All Americans are implicated in the nation’s history, told and untold. We are all marked by the continuing presence of past and by America’s landscapes, whether ancestors inhabited the continent for millennia or family immigrated in recent years. I may be a witness trying to re-member, but I am not alone—these journeys speak to common concerns. Anyone calling the country home might ask similar questions: Who are “we”? What is my place as a citizen in this enterprise of America? What is my place on this land? Any honest answers require acknowledging the place of race. Anyone wondering how to live responsibly on Earth might face similar conflicts.
As well, so much writing about African-American life has focused on urban experiences. Or, if the land is mentioned, it is engaged in a commentary on the history of the South. This is an enormous mistake because the range of experience and the meaning of home are as wide as the physical land itself. Trace tries to redress this to some extent, opening to a greater richness.
The chapter-journeys in Trace cohere as experiments of cross-readings, across lines of cultural difference, across disciplines, and across the land. By asking questions about our lives in this land, and by re-imagining language and frames, the book invites creative interaction with many audiences as a calling back and forth and an exchange. Trace is not just a “race” book nor is it simply “nature writing”—it is a call for connection and dialogue.