A few weeks ago I was invited to speak at El-Sewedy International Academy of Cincinnati’s Girl’s Ball. The event, organized by the school’s fantastic and hardworking teachers, was focused on celebrating female creativity, strength, and community.
As someone who gets very nervous, I was a bit anxious about speaking, but I was immediately put at ease by the positive energy in the room. I’d been asked to briefly talk about my writing and path to publication, and to focus on all of this through the lens of being a woman, specifically a Middle Eastern American woman.
I began brainstorming my talk by thinking about the extra challenges that I believe girls, especially girls of color, face when it comes to pursuing a creative career. I know that when I was younger, I doubted if I could become a writer because none of the visiting authors that came to my school looked like me. I actually don’t ever remember reading a book about a girl who ethnically resembled me until I was over the age of eighteen.
Beyond the lack of representation, I also suffered from a crippling fear of failure. I’m embarrassed to admit this, but when I was drafting MY HEART AND OTHER BLACK HOLES, I considered leaving out any mentions of Aysel’s ethnicity. I even toyed with the idea of changing her name so she would seem more “universal”. I was so worried that this story was going to fail and I didn’t want to add anything to the narrative that would make it less “accessible”. But my brave friend Sara Farizan urged me to tell the story I WANTED to tell, and while Aysel’s ethnicity is not the central focus of the story, it is integral to it. Sara’s encouragement gave me the confidence to finish writing the novel, and I was lucky enough to find an agent (the lovely Brenda Bowen) and an editor (the fabulous Alessandra Balzer) who are beyond supportive of diverse titles.
While I feel more confident now, in no small part thanks to the support of my agent and editor, I do think this fear is a pervasive one in our community. The more I talk with other female writers, especially those writing about diverse characters, the more I begin to realize that I am not alone in my fear, and so I chose to center my talk at El-Sewedy International Academy around this issue.
While I’m sure fear of failure applies to boys, too, as this recent Atlantic Monthly article demonstrates, there is an alarming gender confidence gap. The study concludes that when it comes to success, confidence matters even more than competence. And it theorizes that girls tend to struggle with confidence much more often than their male counterparts. With this in mind, I urged the young women in the room to not be afraid of failure and to understand that there is no such thing as instant success. Very often I think young girls are afraid of seeming less than perfect and this means that they too quickly give up on their dreams. Or even worse, are too afraid to ever try. As Beyonce famously states:
It seems to me that the best thing we can do to support young diverse female voices is reach out to them, mentor them. Help them get over the paralysis that comes from wanting (or expecting!) to churn out a perfect first draft. Work with them to nurture their confidence. Dispel this notion of instant success while at the same time being encouraging that there are people out there who want to hear their voices–much like my wonderful friend Sara Farizan did for me.
I was so inspired by the young women who came up and chatted with me after my talk. They voiced concerns and fears that I was very familiar with, but at their age, would have been too afraid to confess to anyone. It made me realize how important it is for all of us to talk openly and honestly about our fears and help one another to overcome them, to help one another build confidence.
And that’s why I’m so excited about being a member of the Freshman Fifteens and helping to spearhead our Freshman Voices initiative. As the push for diverse books becomes louder, I believe the best thing we can do is help nurture, mentor, and support the future writers of those titles.
Jasmine Warga is the author of MY HEART AND OTHER BLACK HOLES coming from Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins in Winter 2015. She likes surrealist sketches, old swing sets, and the night sky.