The Making of a Fierce and Badass Black Heroine

Yasmin A. McClinton is the winner of the 2020 Eleanor Taylor Bland Crime Writers of Color Award, presented by Sisters in Crime. Drawing inspiration from other great Black women authors, Yasmin kept writing even when she wanted to stop, and now her award-winning manuscript—whose protagonist is a fierce, female Ghanaian assassin—is about to be submitted for publication. Read Yasmin's essay here!

Before I hit the SEND button to submit my application for the Eleanor Taylor Bland Award for emerging writers of color, I was on the verge of quitting writing entirely.

But as I did some research into Eleanor Taylor Bland, reading various biographies of her. In one particular, she said “I truly believe minorities are underrepresented in most things and where we are [represented], we’re some auxiliary to someone else. I want us to be center stage” She wanted to give voice to those people who historically had no voice. She wanted to amplify Black voices—voices from the gaps of society—so they were everywhere, and be agents of their own stories. Ms. Taylor Bland’s beliefs are what propelled her to write about a Black, widowed, detective mother of two, the utterly relatable and totally fierce Marti MacAlister.

Her beliefs are what made me think about the purpose and audience of my immigrant female assassin story, a journey of revenge and inner redemption.

*Eleanor Taylor Bland. Photo credit Calvin Revis.

I began to reflect on the array of Black women authors I’ve read throughout the years and who’ve inspired me to pick up the pen and write beyond what people considered ‘the norm’ for Black women—for women period—in genres dominated by men. I wanted to write like those authors I read who wrote about women who were fierce in their own way and agents of their own stories.

Like Marti MacAlister, fierce in her ability to juggle the struggle of motherhood, her fight against sexism in the workplace, and solving murders. Or L. A. Banks, whose character Damali Richards was a spoken word artist by day and a vampire and demon huntress by night. Ms. Banks’s Vampire Huntress series was my first foray into seeing a person of color represented in a supernatural story. A Black woman was killing vamps! Who would have thought? Or Dana from Octavia Butler’s Kindred, who time-traveled back to the days of slavery to save the history of her family. Imagine having to live in those two worlds at the same time as a Black woman. I couldn’t, until I read it.

Or Angela in Tananarive Due’s horror tale, The Good House. When I read that book… a horror with a Black female lead? I was blown away by another book, written about a Black woman, in a genre where you never found them as a lead. And most recently, Kellye Garrett’s Dayna Anderson, whose voice is so fierce as she navigates the LA streets as a retired actress who accidentally-on-purpose becomes a private investigator.

Each of these characters had skill sets which made them vastly different, strengths and weaknesses that were unique to their own stories. Some were great fighters. Some were brave and adventurous. Some had methodical minds. And some had the gift of gab and comedy. ALL of them were fierce because of what made them unique from the rest. And I could find myself in each of them.

So, as I contemplated quitting, I recalled Eleanor Taylor Bland’s words, and the works of those authors I mentioned who blazed trails typically walked by men. And I asked myself, “What if, Yas? What if this one time you finally get a yes amid all these no’s?”

And then I hit SEND.

I held out a little bit of hope, and a whole lot of skepticism, knowing this response would probably be another no.

Until it wasn’t.

Because I received an email from Sisters in Crime, and the first line read something like,

“Congratulations, Yasmin…”

My doubt flared up and I didn’t open it. I thought it was one of those email scams, and nearly sent it to junk mail. But something gnawed at me. That “What if, Yas?” lingered in my mind, and with my skepticism by my side, I opened the email.

And saw I had won.

Like, for real for real won.

Receiving this award renewed my hope in myself that I could one day represent as those authors have represented.

Me, an English teacher mom of two girls and two stepsons who often ask, “Why are you like this?” when I publicly break out in a dance. Me, daughter of immigrant parents who came to the U.S. from Ghana on hopes and dreams.

Me—Yas, who has never won something so prestigious had just won the Eleanor Taylor Bland Award for emerging writers of color. Me.

Being the 2020 recipient of the ETB Award was validation of my writing. I know people will say I don’t need validation. But two months after I was prepared to quit, Sisters in Crime chose my story—Nena’s story.

Hell, yeah, I needed the validation. Because recognition by Sisters in Crime and the judges of the ETB award—authors Rachel Howzell Hall, Alex Segura, and the 2019 Award-winner, Jessica Martinez—meant I was one step closer to those authors whose stories gave voice to the voiceless, whose characters looked like me, whose stories were limitless. Receiving this award renewed my hope in myself that I could one day represent as those authors have represented.

I can show my daughters that even when you feel everyone is against you, and they tell you “no,” it’s good to find something to keep you going until you get that “yes,” like I did by reading Eleanor Taylor Bland and all those other women. It may have taken me decades of work to begin making significant strides towards becoming a published author, but there is never a time limit on achieving my dreams.

People are listening now and I, happily, have plenty to say. My manuscript is completed, in the hands of an agent, and is soon to go on submission. My readers will hopefully get to read about a fierce female Ghanaian assassin in a story that celebrates my Ghanaian culture. They’ll read about the power of Black women doing kick-ass things who are agents of their own stories, not the auxiliaries. My readers will get a story that hopefully keeps them on the edge of their seats.

I am going to take another page from Eleanor Taylor Bland, where in the Chicago Sun-Times she said that she was going “to live in the present. Rest when I’m dead but until then, do everything I can.” And like her, I’m going to use my time to ensure that what I write is about the underrepresented in roles where we are not “auxiliary to someone else.” Like Ms. Taylor Bland, I will continue to write us on the “center stage.” And with the Eleanor Taylor Bland Award for emerging writers, I am one step closer to doing so.


Sources:

Bently, Rosalind. “Magical mystery tour; black writers provide clues to an emerging fiction trend” (Star Tribune, 1992).

Herguth, Bob. “Eleanor Taylor Bland” (Chicago Sun Times, 1992).

Driven to Discover. “Voices from the Gaps: Eleanor Taylor Bland”. (Regents of the University of Minnesota, 2009)

 

Third Times the Charm: The Eleanor Taylor Bland Award and the Importance of Writing Characters of Color

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *