Can Black Women Dare to be Themselves in the Writing Industry? Interview with author Sarah Raughley
Updated: Dec 9, 2019
Sarah Raughley is a well-renowned author and academic who grew up in Southern Ontario writing stories about freakish little girls with powers because she secretly wanted to be one. She is a huge fangirl of anything from manga to sci-fi/fantasy TV to Japanese role-playing games, but she will swear up and down at book signings that she was inspired by Jane Austen. On top of being a Young Adult writer, Sarah has a PhD in English, which makes her doctor, so it turns out she didn’t have to go to medical school after all. Her academic research dissects race in popular culture, youth culture, studies across the African diaspora, and many more.
I'm so thankful to have had the opportunity to interview a successful, black female author and ask about her experience, her passions, and any advice she could give to other black people, especially black girls, so I hope you enjoy reading this interview as much as I did conducting it. Let's begin!
1. Can you tell the readers a little bit about yourself, your professional experiences, and your education.
Ah man, well I was like a professional university student. I have a Bachelor of Science degree, a Bachelor of English degree, a Masters and PhD in English, as well. I also just finished a postdoctoral fellowship (so, like, when you work on a project, do post-PhD research, etc.). Most of my professional experiences are around research, writing, editing and teaching, though I did work at a pool shop one time.
2. Who are some of your influences, either in writing, or life in general?
I think my biggest influences in writing have been those storytellers who would tell grand epic fantasy stories that you can get lost in. Notice I said storytellers, not necessarily writers. Obviously writers like O.R. Melling, J.K Rowling and Rick Riordan are among them. But, you’ve also got anime and Japanese roleplaying games like Final Fantasy that also told grand adventure fantasies with great characters and development. They have inspired my writing. And in life, all the strong women around me, definitely. I’m always looking for ways to learn from their experiences and knowledge.
3. You are also a well-renowned author and creator of 'The Effigies' young adult, action-packed trilogy which garnered much success across the world. What got you into writing work that has a fantasy and dystopian theme to it rather than writing other genres, like non-fiction?
I’ve always loved fantasy since I was a kid. Something about having epic adventures in fantastical worlds has always appealed to me. To be honest, I never considered The Effigies dystopian. I consider it more contemporary fantasy, precisely because as a kid I always loved the idea of fantastical things happening in the world we currently live in. Maybe that’s why Harry Potter appealed so much to me as a child. The idea that magic can be right under your nose or just around the corner. All you had to do is find the right platform.
4. For those who may not know, can you explain what 'The Effigies' series is about and why you felt it important to incorporate characters of colour in a genre that tends to overlook such demographics?
The Effigies Series basically asks, what if the Sailor Scouts from Sailor Moon were celebrities – like influencers – and they had to fight monsters under the public eye? For the Effigies, when one dies, another takes their place, so it didn’t make sense to me that they would all be of one race, or from the same country, since any girl in the world could suddenly be “called to action.” Fantasy has, for a long time, focused on white characters in Eurocentric settings, but I think nowadays people are starting to see the value of telling different kind of stories starring different kind of heroes and heroines. All kinds of kids of all kinds of races read, so they need to be able to see themselves represented in media to know that they matter.
5. Your most recent book, Legacy of Light, which concludes The Effigies trilogy came out at the end of 2018. Without giving away any major spoilers, what was the hardest scene to write?
The first. It sets up the central conflict of the entire final book, and really the whole series: Maia coming to terms with herself as she is, and growing into her power while still accepting her flaws. I think we all have people we look up to, but we need to remember that the people we look up to have their own problems, their own weaknesses. Hating yourself, wishing you were someone else, it never leads anywhere good. The first scene of Legacy really highlights that conflict within Maia.
6. Solidarity is a major theme throughout your Effigies series. Why is that a topic that’s important for you to explore?
Simply put, I think people need people. Everyone needs someone that they feel comfortable relying on when they are at their lowest moments. We live in a capitalist society that teaches us to envy and compete with each other. I think we need to support and give hope to each other instead.
7. If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
Don’t be so hard on yourself. Hell, I’d tell my present self that too and anyone of all ages regardless of whether or not they write. I think we have these ‘concepts’ of ourselves, idyllic, unattainable ideas that we think we have to match perfectly or else we’re “failures.” We’re told that by society, by family, by the media: you have to look like this, you have to have this kind of life by X age, you have to have these kinds of thoughts and be interested in these kinds of things. You know the drill.
Growing up, I was bogged down with so many ‘shoulds’ that I didn’t have much freedom to explore who I was and what I wanted out of life. I spent most of my time trying to please others instead of being content with just myself. We’re all actors to some degree. But, we can never be happy acting our whole lives. I’d like to tell my younger and present self to be content with the present moment and believe in who you are now, rather than chasing the image of who others expect you to be.
Dare to be YOU!
8. What does literary success mean to you? Is it being well-recognized, someone leaving a positive review, getting a good rating, etc?
What does success mean to me? I actually had a conversation with someone recently that put a lot of things into perspective. I’ve been through it all – the stress of getting rejected by agents, then publishers. Having to write a new book, getting that published by a small imprint only for that imprint to go under. Writing a new book that gets a big New York publisher only for the book to be considered overlooked and underrated. Of course, I always want to write. When I was 21, I used to have dreams of getting those 7 figure advances and taking my whole family on a trip to the Bahamas or something. But 7 figure advances aren’t easy to get and even harder to live up to. Not everyone does.
Over the years, I realized that just having someone read and love your work is a victory in itself. And just being able to write a new book is a blessing. So, I’ll say wellness and self-contentment. Literary success is having the will and ability to write new books and having the self-contentment of knowing that there are people reading and enjoying them.
9. Do you feel like the current state of politics (either in Canada or throughout the world) have affected or influenced your writing at all?
Yes, and you’ll definitely see certain things appear in the next books I write. But to be honest, I think the current state of racial politics have not changed too much over the years. We still live in a Eurocentric society in which black people continuously have to prove our own humanity, in which black people have to fight for the same rights and opportunities our white peers are just given. This is the same in Canada and overseas. Racial inequality and injustice has been a constant theme in my academic work and it’ll continue to appear in my creative works, as well.
10. What are some of the barriers you have faced being a black academic and a black, female author in Canada? Are there things that you have to do to overcome them?
I actually think Canada has given me the most support when it comes to promoting my work. I do see American publishers picking up books from more and more black authors, but I’m not sure they’re getting quite the same marketing support as their white peers. There are exceptions, of course. However, since the industry is very Eurocentric, they may have somewhat narrow ideas as to the certain kinds of “black books” they want to sell and push, which means it becomes a race to try to conform or else you may not get the support you’re looking for.
As a black academic, I’ll be honest, I have been in situations where my labour has very clearly been exploited. I’m female, black, short and young, and so when someone like that is in a room of old(er) white men and women, they may think it’s just fine to dogpile you with work not caring about how it might affect your physical and mental health. There are so many hoops you have to jump through to get ahead in academia – to get that postdoc fellowship, to get that tenure track job, to get tenure professorship, etc. And the competition is fierce. It often turns budding academics into stressed out, exploited workaholics. That’s why it’s always important to take care of yourself first and know when to say “no,” even if that means not taking that sessional teaching job and spending that time travelling or watching K-POP videos in bed instead lol.
11. What can the “white allies” in the creative arts and entertainment industry do to help support and promote black creatives better?
I’ve been two ways about white allies. Often white people will listen to other white people before they listen to any person of colour, especially if that person is black. However, I’ve often found that white creatives gain accolades for being ‘woke’ and are paid handsomely, professionally and financially (gaining more fans and engagements) whereas black creatives who dare to say the same things are often repaid with threats, the loss of fans, gaslighting, humiliation and so on. I also think being ‘woke’ is “in” now and some (SOME) people, celebrities, companies etc. may be using social justice simply to further their careers.
I think if you’re truly an ally, you will help create the institutional, political and social space for black creatives to speak their truths without having to fear for their livelihoods – and their lives. Rather than speaking over them, create avenues for black creatives to speak freely and be heard. Sometimes, that means speaking out very loudly against those who try to silence and hold back black creatives – for example, festivals that won’t hire black creatives to showcase their work, expos that will have black-less panels, or companies who may pay black creatives less for their work. It’s a delicate dance to speak but not speak over. To support without profiting.
13. What tips can you offer Black women reading this right now who plan on pursuing a career in writing, or anything regarding the creative arts, in general?
Write your story. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s too black or not black enough. Just write. In the beginning of the 2010s, I was told my black main character wasn’t believable because she sounded too “white.” Which is strange and confusing, because I gave her my voice. People always want to label you and put you in a box in terms of what you can write and what you can’t. I know everyone wants to be published and it’s okay to make some concessions at the beginning of your career to give you the platform to write the novel you truly want to write. But just don’t forget: at the end of the day, what matters is your contentment, your happiness, your fulfillment in your art. This is just as important as the financial aspect of writing.
As for the financial aspect, don’t be upset if you’re not making as much money as you thought you would at the beginning. Just keep writing. Nothing sells backlist like front list (aka the more work you put out there, the more people will want to check out your former works).
14. What are some things that you do in your free time that genuinely bring you joy?
I’m a big geek and have been since childhood so I’m always reading geeky books or watching geeky stuff. I am SO excited for the Final Fantasy VII Remake. Lots of great music in the African diaspora I’ve been looking into lately. In terms of my being an unabashed K-POP fan, I’m presently repping Monsta X, but I’ll listen to anything that’s good. By the way, GREAT article on Monsta X’s organic rise in America! I read it and thought it was a phenomenal piece! It’s nice to see the American music industry slowly become more diverse.
15. Is there anything that you are currently working on that may intrigue the interest of your readers? Or, anything in the future that you would like to share a sneak peak to the readers of this blog?
My next book is called the BONES OF RUIN and will really tackle some of the political ideas I’ve discussed in this interview but in a Victoriana steampunk kind of way. No sneak peaks available yet, but please look forward to it!
I'm very much looking forward to Sarah Raughley's next book, Bones of Ruin, and I genuinely appreciate her collaborating with me on this interview. It's so important for people to be able to see other black women making a name for themselves, especially in an industry where there isn't a lot of black, female representation being promoted into the mainstream. I'm wishing Sarah Raughley an abundance of success for the future and I hope that this interview helps to encourage more people to not only go out and support her work, but to also make sure that they're investing time, effort, and energy into their own dreams and vision the same way she did and continues to do. Make sure to check out her 'Effigies' series, follow her on her social media, and await her new book!
Goodreads Author Page: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/7056449.Sarah_Raughley