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American Fiction as Non-fiction

 A stack of books.


“You would like the movie, American Fiction.”

“Really? Is it on Netflix?”

“No. iTunes. You can rent it.”

I found the movie American Fiction through a text message. After receiving the referral from my sister and viewing the trailer on YouTube, I wanted to see it. Something in the description and the preview resonated with me.

The tension between authenticity and currency is omnipresent in the writer’s world.

In the film, the writer, Thelonious "Monk" Ellison, struggles to write a novel that sells and aligns with his values. Monk believes making it as a writer means compromising his values and fabricating a story to reinforce Black stereotypes.

He knows the market to purchase fictional depictions of ghetto violence, desperation, and ignorance is always open.

To prove his point, Monk writes a ridiculous novel full of pathologies. He adopts an identity as a fugitive of the law and authors the title under a pen name. With the support of his agent, the ploy attracts significant publishing and film offers.  


He detests being pigeonholed as an African American writer and wants recognition on a scale that transcends race and ethnicity. In one scene of the movie, he visits a bookstore and finds his books in the African-American Studies section. Monk asks an employee about the placement of his books.

The employee replies that the author is “African-American,” and he doesn’t dictate decisions about where to put titles. Unhappy with the response, Monk removes every copy of his books from the shelf and places them in another genre in the store. Monk's sister, played by Tracee Ellis Ross, escorts him from the bookstore before matters worsen.

Family illnesses, an aging mom, and sibling rivalries help this fictional story touch reality.

I resonated with the main character on several fronts. Monk is a college professor and lives away from his family. While he authored multiple books, they have not sold well enough for him to make a living from his work.

There are also some key differences.

Monk wants to establish a writing career void of race, but that is not my mission. I find honor in the prospect of seeing my titles adjacent to Ta-Nehesi Coates, Toni Morrison, or insert your favorite “African-American” author here__________, in a bookstore. Illustrating the Black experience, broadly defined, is one of my writing goals.

While my books do not reinforce stereotypes, I don’t ignore the concept of race. I acknowledge it as a social construct and tangible factor influencing opportunities in subtle and overt ways. The fiction I write is informed by non-fiction experiences.

Last September, I finished a novel. Without financial support from a publishing house, I hired a copy editor and developmental editor to help with the plot, grammar, and other structural components. Over the past six months, I’ve sent too many query letters to literary agents to count.

The only responses I received so far include polite rejections for representation. Unlike Monk, I'm unwilling to compromise my values for book sales. I continue to pursue agents because I know the story is relevant. The manuscript has yet to land in the inbox of the right person.

Rent American Fiction this weekend for more context to this blog post. It's based on the novel Erasure by Percival Everett.

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Watch the latest vlog episode below for highlights from one month of my family's life abroad.


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