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sister/outsider by Zetta Elliott

March 22, 2011

Zetta Elliott is a writer/educator, currently teaching African American literature at Hunter College and Bard High School Early College. Her plays have been staged in New York, Cleveland, and Chicago, her poetry has been published in three anthologies, and her essays have appeared in School Library Journal, Horn Book Magazine, and several scholarly journals/anthologies. Her first picture book, Bird (2008), won the Lee & Low New Voices Honor Award and the Paterson Prize for Poetry for Young Readers. Her self-published young adult novel, A Wish After Midnight, was re-released by AmazonEncore in 2010. Zetta describes her work as black feminist cultural criticism.
Visit Zetta’s site at

“As a black feminist writer/educator, I work in fields where women constitute the majority. As a children’s book author I work with teachers and librarians, almost all of whom are female; as a feminist I find that most of my scholar/activist/artist peers are women. All of my writer friends are women; all of the book bloggers in my online community are women. Nearly every door I’ve passed through has been opened by a woman, and I feel blessed to belong to such a strong, supportive community.

When I learned that the goal of this blog was to “celebrate and reaffirm the depth and breadth of women’s involvement in literature,” I knew I wanted to participate. Yet when I reflect upon my involvement in the literary world, I find that little of my time and energy has gone toward addressing “the fundamental wrongness of gender disparities.” When everyone in your world is female, gender tends not to be the focus. For me, the main problem isn’t that men are impeding my progress as a writer. The truth is, behind every door that has been closed in my face…there’s another woman.

Sometimes that woman looks like me, but more often than not, she doesn’t. She belongs to a different race, a different class, and a different culture.

I often remind my students that power isn’t absolute—it’s relative. I certainly don’t think of myself as powerless, and I assert my unique voice every time I sit down to write an essay or novel or blog post. Yet I’m very aware of the power differential that separates me from the women who work in publishing. As gatekeepers they determine whose book gets published, promoted, and put on the shelf. Women editors may not earn as much money as their male peers, but that doesn’t mean they’re mere puppets or pawns. Women in publishing make decisions every day that affect millions of women and girls who read, write, and teach literature. I suspect that teams of women were behind the publication of most of the books I hold dear.

When I think of my many disappointing encounters within the publishing industry, I don’t generally attribute the outcome to “disloyalty.” I don’t feel “betrayed by a sister” because as a black feminist, I know women’s history well enough to realize that “sisterhood” isn’t (and has never been) automatic. I also understand that publishing is, for the most part, a business and women who are drawn to the large publishing houses that operate on a corporate model are not likely to value my black feminist perspective.

I did have a moment last month, however, when I wondered whether some women in publishing have learned too well from their more powerful male colleagues. Whatever happened to “Lifting as We Climb”? Of course, that was the motto of the National Association of Colored Women—a group started, at least in part, because the General Federation of Women’s Clubs was racially segregated (ironically, their motto was “Unity in Diversity”).

I don’t mean to suggest that publishing is a white women’s club, nor is it my intent to diminish the very real obstacles faced by women writers. I do feel, however, that when we talk about women in publishing, it’s important to consider who’s climbing, who’s lifting, and who’s being left behind.”


From → Writer

  1. Well said and true too. Being a woman and being a supporter/sister are not always the same thing. I’ve been inspired and helped along the way by some women in publishing, but also held back and diminished (sometimes by the same person!). I guess we’re all complex, too, finding our place and our power in relation to whoever else we’re working with. But mainstream publishing is a corporate place, usually having money as the bottom line, so that doesn’t lend itself to people necessarily being supportive or doing the “right thing.” As always, I appreciate your honesty and openness.

  2. elliottzetta permalink

    Thanks, Nina, for giving me this opportunity to share my thoughts! And thanks, Laura, for being the kind of sister that tries to bring *everyone* inside…

  3. Thanks for this thought-provoking post, Zetta! You’ve pushed this discussion in a direction that made me ponder my own assumptions and biases about the publishing world.

  4. Interesting post, but why should you expect women in publishing to be different from men? Isn’t that in itself a gendered assumption? I agree that one should always consider the work on its own merits – some publishers and their staff are better than others at seeing beyond the mainstream – but of course most publishers are in it only for the money. One can’t blame them for that, even if it means that for me as a reader, my choices in what to read are limited.

    Perhaps the rise of print on demand services and smaller e-publishers will lead to writers marginalised or ignored by the mainstream publishing industry finding their own voices, and bloggers leading the way to discovering them.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. outside child « Fledgling
  2. Thoughts on self-publishing | Brown Paper
  3. no reprieve | Fledgling
  4. something new | Zetta Elliott

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