Third Times the Charm: The Eleanor Taylor Bland Award and the Importance of Writing Characters of Color
When I say it’s an amazing honor to receive an award dedicated to the late great Eleanor Taylor Bland, I’m not just speaking platitudes. Although I had never heard of her before I first applied for the award back in 2016 (and then again in 2017; you know what they say, third time’s the charm), once I saw her bio, I immediately searched out her books. A series of detective novels featuring one of the first—if not the first—black female police detectives? And it’s set in a fictional town in the Chicagoland area? Chicago, my beloved hometown? Sign me up!
I devoured her first book, Dead Time, and searched out more. When she died in 2010, she was one of the most prolific African-American writers in our genre, writing over 14 novels, several short stories, and also editing an anthology. She also gathered black mystery writers together for a collection titled Shades of Black: Crime and Mystery Stories by African-American Authors. And this is where I think her legacy truly lies.
Since being announced as the winner of the Eleanor Taylor Bland Award, numerous people have reached out to not only congratulate me but to let me know what a wonderful woman she was. How she wrote and spoke with humor and frankness and grace. How she was the glue that held the black mystery community together. And how she was a great friend, advocate, and mentor.
The fact that Sisters in Crime, a fantastic organization dedicated to promoting and advancing the careers of women crime writers, chose me to continue her legacy is a distinction that I hope I can live up to.
I wasn’t even going to apply for the grant this year. I had applied in 2016 and 2017 and was rejected both times. It hurt; I can’t lie about that. But when I found out my friend Jessica Ellis Laine was the 2017 winner, that took the sting out of the loss. Getting to room with her at Bouchercon and cheer her on as she accepted the award at the Sisters in Crime breakfast reminded me how important it was to support your community.
And when submissions were open for the 2018 award, I was reminded yet again of the importance of my writing community and all the ways Sisters in Crime connects us. As I said before, I wasn’t going to enter. But then, writer friends—all members of Sisters in Crime—contacted me to encourage me to enter. Jessica reminded me that she also had to apply three times before she won. I got emails from Lori Rader-Day, the woman who got me started writing mysteries, and my wonderful agent, Janet Reid, essentially saying, “This sounds perfect for you, so you better apply.”
And, of course, there’s my mentor and fellow Sister, Kellye Garrett. If anyone could be looked at as an inspiration for other crime writers of color, it’s her. She leads by example, and with her help, I hope to add to the dialogue and make sure readers who have never seen themselves in fiction can see themselves in my work.
Eleanor Taylor Bland saw crime fiction as a vehicle to express the complexities of society and the broad spectrum of identities in the U.S. She wrote primarily African-American characters, which gave us a glimpse into lives that before were either on the periphery or wholly ignored in crime fiction.
I’d love to do the same with Asian-American characters. My protagonists are Filipino-American not because their ethnic background is a necessary plot point but because we exist. I populate my worlds with people of different sexualities, ethnicities, and social and religious backgrounds. Not to be “PC” or hop on the “diversity trend”—which, by the way, please stop calling us a trend as if we were vampires, fairytale retellings, or dystopian elements that will soon cease to be “in”—but because that’s the world we live in.
That’s why this award means so much to me and is so important to the mystery world—if crime fiction is meant to comment on society, then it should be inclusive of all of society. I write about the world I live in yet never get to see. Because if I don’t tell my stories, then who will?