The voyage into literary representation
When sending off a novel to literary agents, a writer is usually encouraged to list, in their cover or “query” letter, between one and three comparable titles that have been published in the last few years. Only after I started sending queries for my own manuscript did I realize how fraught the process of listing “comps” could be.
If the books that you list were very successful or won prizes, literary agents might discard your query on the assumption that you have unrealistic expectations for the success of your own work. My novel follows an escaped slave who becomes medium to a Maroon god, while the last two novels on the American market that have featured runaways are Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Water Dancer and Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black; Oscar-winning director Barry Jenkins’ serial adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize novel The Underground Railroad debuted while I was querying. I realized, perhaps too late for my own good, that it would be a faux pas to compare my book to other ones with similar subjects.
My novel is set in a fictionalized version of Suriname. Alex Olchowski’s Buskondre, a strange political fantasy published in 2012 is the only English-language novel to share the setting. Olchowski, an American, seems not to have known that Surinamese Amerindians had their own political party and also voted as a core part of then-president Desire Bouterse’s political coalition. The last act of Buskondre sees Amerindians becoming politically active, seemingly for the first time, and abducting Bouterse in order to talk with him about their conservationist goals. There is almost no trace of the book on the internet, and if I had not bought a copy on Domineestraat in Paramaribo in early 2013, I’m not sure I would believe it existed.
Prior to that, you’d have to go all the way back to Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko, published in 1688, before the English novel was yet (as they say now) “a thing.” By that time, Suriname was a Dutch colony, but it had once been controlled by the English. Oroonoko, set in the English period and also about a person who escapes slavery, is taught in university English departments as a proto-novel, one of the works that planted the first seeds of the beautifully diverse garden in which readers of English fiction cavort today.
A biography of Aphra Behn was written by Vita Sackville-West, but Behn is perhaps best known as the subject of a quote by Sackville-West’s friend Virginia Woolf: “All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.” Authors of prose fiction should do the same, regardless of their gender identification. Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out, is set during a trip to the fictional South American town of Santa Marina, once colonized by the English and later taken over by the Spanish. It is hard not to read Santa Marina as being in part inspired by Behn’s vision of Suriname. Behn wrote in 1688,
Though, in a Word, I must say thus much of it, That certainly had his late Majesty, of sacred Memory, but seen and known what a vast and charming World he had been Master of in that Continent, he would never have parted so Easily with it to the Dutch.
Woolf wrote of Santa Marina in 1920,
All seemed to favour the expansion of the British Empire, and had there been men like Richard Dalloway in the time of Charles the First, the map would undoubtedly be red where it is now an odious green.
Supposedly Woolf excised much in the way of anti-colonial sentiment from her manuscript in order to get it published, with the passage containing the above sentence being almost all that is left. The two longish paragraphs are deliberately phrased in mock-seventeenth-century tones, a mode that Woolf would not revisit until Orlando, her fictionalized biography of Sackville-West.
Suriname is represented from time to time in Dutch fiction. Chris Polanen wrote Waterjager, a postapocalyptic work featuring a burst dam flooding the Surinamese capital. The Dutch have rather famously spent forty years coming up with one reason after another for not delivering the development aid they promised Suriname at independence in 1975, and reading a Dutch book imagining the failure of Surinamese infrastructure does not excite me as it might, but the failure is my own, and the book is on my list to read.
Urwin C. Vyent is the director of the Dutch National Institute for the Study of Dutch Slavery and its Legacy (NiNsee). His short histories of the Para District (where I live) Gekocht en Betaald and Profeet aan de Para are not novels, but rather narrative nonfiction. In both research methodology and presentation, they resemble the first half of Amadou Hampâté Bâ’s memoir Amkoullel, L’Enfant Peulh. Despite the great cultural and environmental differences between Bâ’s Sahelian deserts and savannah and Vyent’s rainforest, they share an offer of patient recitations of the rhythms of daily life. If you can’t slow down, you can’t live in rural Mali or Suriname, where an event today might pay off weeks or years down the line. Vyent captures this better than perhaps any other author who has written about this country.
The grand dame of Surinamese letters is Cynthia McLeod, whose historical novels are taught in schools here. Her Hoe Duur Was De Suiker, which takes its name from a chapter in Voltaire’s Candide, was made into a movie in the Netherlands and translated into English as The Price of Sugar. Her De Vrije Negerin Elisabeth is an even better, if less famous novel, tackling both the attractions and perils of a sort of Lean In ideology and respectability politics, through the lens of the true story of the richest plantation owner in Suriname in the 1770s: a black woman named Elisabeth Samson. The book never went very far in the United States, perhaps in part because the literal translation of its title hobbled it in the market: The Free Negress Elisabeth. A passage in the novel in which a minor character falls in with Maroons went a long way to inspiring my own manuscript. McLeod spent years in Dutch archives researching her book, but there’s nothing to be found there about how Maroons welcomed new members to their bands. McLeod seems to have guessed, and unfortunately, her guesses were wide of the mark, with established Maroons immediately telling new male recruits their names and bringing them eagerly back to their main settlements and showing them the ropes.
McLeod shares with Maryse Condé, another Caribbean author, a tendency to portray marronage as great in theory and Maroons as disappointments in practice. In Suiker one young man maroons and turns unspeakably and unnecessarily cruel, while in Elisabeth the new Maroons are soon disabused of the idea that life in the forest would be better. In Condé’s Segou, a young man in Sierra Leone is excited to learn that his new in-laws are Maroons from Jamaica, while his son travels his mother’s homeland and comes to see Maroons as villains. The protagonist of her Moi, Tituba, Sorcière develops magical realist talents that are regularly misinterpreted as witchcraft, never more so than by the Barbadian Maroons she meets, who would like her to teach them her skills and become one of their leader’s many wives.
Throughout the circum-Caribbean, Maroons have tended to have a distinct ethnic identity and often find themselves in conflict with other black people. During Maroon wars, colonial powers would regularly offer manumission to any enslaved black people who enlisted to fight Maroons, a tactic the British repurposed during the American War of Independence. Later, as a condition of recognizing Maroon freedom, colonial governments required so-called “pacified” Maroons to help fight any new escapees from slavery as a condition of the peace (again later repurposed: the French required newly independent Haiti to execute or extradite any Caribbean freedom fighters who came knocking on their door). As a result, Caribbean literature tends to be much more ambivalent about Maroons than, say American literature is about its historical runaway slaves, who are treated heroically.
A challenge of my own manuscript is that its treatment of marronage starts where McLeod and Condé finish: with the proposition that not everyone in the Caribbean trusts or admires Maroons. It then goes on to show how they adapted to this mistrust and enmity with a certain cageyness about telling their own stories and wariness and slow-footing when it comes to accepting new people among them. Given that I’m trying to sell the manuscript to American publishers, this might make it a hard sell. McLeod and Condé offer subplots that unfold across hundreds of pages and counter American narratives about Maroons. I’m working in part to counter their narratives, but it’s not like their view of Maroons been particularly widely accepted outside the Caribbean itself, even if they do realistically reflect Caribbean attitudes. If their novels take the footnotes of American and European history and make them chapter headings, I’m addressing myself to their own footnotes.
Regardless, Caribbean marronage clearly is a gap in fiction, one which calls out for filling. In 2015, Neil S. D. Roberts’ non-fiction Freedom As Marronage was published to rapturous reviews, even as its methodology sidestepped actual Maroon studies, focusing instead on Haitian history, which the author said would be easier to research and discuss. In 2018, Wayétu Moore’s novel She Would Be King, about the early days of Liberia’s colonization by freed blacks who had been enslaved in the Americas, was published. It briefly visited a Jamaican Maroon settlement, showing the place through the eyes of a bigoted British scientist. I’d been thinking of writing a novel about marronage in Suriname for three years when Moore’s book was published, but had hoped that someone else would do so, and I could just read it. Reading Moore’s excellent novel was the event that made me realize that this was as close as I would get if I didn’t write it myself. (But that’s another thing to be careful about query letters: it’s an advantage to identify a hole in the market, but it’s a mistake to seem to be negative of the authors who surround that hole; you’ve only got a few words to work with — make them count).
One thing aspiring authors are warned of when querying is that their selection of comps to cite might, without their knowing it, reveal them to be not well read in the space in which they’re writing. It is a real risk for me, as the American and British publishing industry’s definition of well-read-ness is based on the books that came out in the three or so years before a query is sent. My last visit to the United States was in 2018; novels that have come out since then are mainly rumors to me (though I picked up a few on a swing through Europe last year). I remember seeing Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater on the shelf of an American bookstore and not buying it, as I misunderstood its blurbs as suggesting that African and diaspora spirit mediumship was tantamount to mental illness, a belief decidedly not shared here in Suriname. I’ve since read about how Freshwater is based on Emezi’s own experience, not on an attempt to categorize African and diaspora cosmologies universally as correlative with “fractured selves.” She’s writing lyrically about and through her experience. There may be no book I’m more eager to pick up whenever I get back to the United States.
Whatever the case may be with regard to particular books, treating spirit mediumship as a mark of totalizing difference seems to be a theme in American and British literature. (Once again, Beloved, with its specter of Sethe’s deceased daughter experienced equally but differently by all other characters, stands out). Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone separates mediums and those capable of “magic” into their own class. Adeyemi has been called “the next J. K Rowling” and Children’s relationship between mediums and non-mediums is in some ways reminiscent of Harry Potter’s distinction between magicians and muggles. Among Surinamese Maroons, while spirit mediumship does confer a level of social distinction and also runs in families, it doesn’t cement into class distinction: every family has its mediums, and there is a persistent belief that anyone can become a medium (I’ve turned down multiple offers to be made a medium to a Maroon god, in no small part because my own history of what is now called “neurodiversity” in the United States is apt to inflect non-Surinamese people’s reaction. Instead, when I am not working, I am an assistant to the medium of a god that has been possessing members of his family since the eighteenth century).
I learned that literary discussions of mediumship and cosmology tend to get manuscripts classified as “fantasy” (I’d originally thought they’d be treated as “magical realism”). This can be dispiriting — Emezi has talked about having her autobiographical debut novel being called “speculative fiction.” Some of it may simply be marketing (“do you like stories about wizard academies? Try this novel about a society of obeahmen”) while some may have to do with American and European comfort zones. You can write a novel in which a character is a priest who presides over the moment bread and wine transubstantiate into the body and blood of a millenia-old resident of the Levant after giving a speech on the Holy Spirit’s regular descent from Heaven to influence daily life and have it be realist fiction, but write about a spirit medium who, during possession acts, talks about walking across the ocean floor or flying between continents, and it’s fantasy unless the narrator winks at the reader to suggest that she doesn’t really believe any of this. (The wink, to be fair, can be ambiguous, as when the narrator of Things Fall Apart notes in passing that Okonkwo wasn’t in a crowd that watched the arrival of masked gods).
In the end, the whole querying process is fraught. More than one agent describes selecting new authors as being like dating and courtship. Still, it is a business relationship, and your letter should be professional and feel warm, directed, and personalized. Authors are encouraged to “Google stalk” prospective agents before pitching them, though too much familiarity or personalization is as apt to get your query letter bricked as is too much rote professionalism. Even when working for American and European companies, I only rarely think in English, despite that being my first language. My thoughts stay anchored in Saamakatongo, branching variously into Dutch, French, Sranan, Kreyol, English, and a smattering of Aucan and Portuguese depending on the type of thought. I have no doubt that I’m making errors of etiquette left and right, errors of commission and omission. I wrote several queries (and follow-up emails) while mourning the death of a friend, and only later realized the extent to which my thoughts about the world on that day seeped quietly into the edges of the things I said about my manuscript.
Literary query letters have become such a unique artform in and of themselves that debut authors are encouraged to have their standard letters workshopped by a professional or even ghostwritten (people offer these services freely or for a fee). It is said that, for ultimately successful authors, their first batch of rejections teaches them to craft better query letters — after all, these rejections aren’t based on a review of the manuscript, but on the request for an invitation to review it. For a while, I made edits to my manuscript based on any personalized rejections, but I stopped after receiving two such rejections in a single day: one said that my book sounded too literary and experimental, and the other that it sounded too commercial and formulaic. My very first rejection was from the assistant to a prestigious literary agent. It was two lines long and contained three typos. I had to go back to my own query letter to see if she was making fun of me (she wasn’t, but I’d be lying if I claimed never to have sent a query with an error in it).
The main alternatives to belletristic querying (either paying tens of thousands of dollars or getting an equivalent scholarship to an American graduate program that helps you edit your manuscript and network in the publishing field, or networking at writers’ workshops not held in Suriname), are not quite open to me. It’s all a daunting prospect. I can only hope that I can put in enough emotional labor to make agents think I’m personable and knowledgeable about them, well-versed in comps, and unfazed by a 2021 that seems to be easy for no one. May my faults not loom too large in anyone’s eyes. It’s not like their end of the job is easy: they get scores of these letters each and every week, and are in the unenviable position of being forced to judge authors and books based on their cover letters.