A push for inclusivity in Seattle’s book publishing scene

‘The books are only as valuable as the community around them.’

 

Illustration by Julia Lubas

Jeff Cheatham is hard at work in a corner of The Station coffee shop in Beacon Hill, one of Seattle’s most diverse neighborhoods, prepping for the third annual Seattle Urban Book Expo planned for August 2018. He’s trying to lock down food trucks and a space for readings, but people keep stopping to say hi. A woman gives him a hug as she walks in. “I need to talk to you about lighting,” he tells her.

When Cheatham first started the book fair, he had no idea that it would end up becoming so deeply stitched into the local fabric. But it’s become a community event, pulling in a growing number of writers of color from the Seattle area and beyond, as well as volunteers, including the lighting expert. Cheatham still isn’t used to people thinking he’s a publishing guru; he just wanted to meet other writers and sell some books. “I didn’t know I was going to add event planning to my résumé,” he says, laughing. After self-publishing his first book — The Family Jones and the Eggs of Rex, which he wrote for his daughter, Josilyn, because he was dismayed by the lack of children’s books with non-white characters — he was disappointed by the lack of community and support. He didn’t know any other black authors in Seattle, which was recently ranked as one of the 10 least racially diverse cities in America.

So Cheatham contacted a black Canadian writer of urban fiction, Stacey Marie Robinson, whose skill at self-promotion he found impressive. She invited him to visit the Toronto Urban Book Expo, to see if he could make some connections there.

“In Toronto, I saw all these authors who looked just like me. I hadn’t ever heard of a black and brown book fair in Seattle, so I decided to create one,” he says. He took notes from Robinson and asked eight local authors to work with him. The nine of them set up tables in the Black Dot event space, and much to his surprise, hundreds of people flooded through the doors. “People were already asking about the second one at the first one,” he says.

This year, he has 20 authors coming from as far away as Mississippi. They’ll be joined by independent bookstore owners, members of advocacy groups such as “Brown Girls Write” and hundreds of casual attendees. “I’m all about creating a family reunion vibe,” Cheatham says. “When I first started, I felt like there was no one I could talk to, so I never want to deny anyone knowledge.”

The local community that can supply that knowledge is growing. Around the corner, lawyer and advocate Edwin Lindo built a different kind of space for diverse books. In May, he opened Estelita’s Library, named after his year-old daughter Estella and modeled on the literary salons his Nicaraguan father remembered. The tiny space is lined with books, from obscure tracts on hip-hop and the law to tomes on displacement and Octavia Butler’s early science fiction. “It was an idea that I’d always dreamed of, a library of social justice-focused critical literature that you couldn’t find other places,” he says. “I wanted a community library and cultural space full of wine, beer, food and babies” — an open, inclusive space where books could spark conversations. When he rented the space and started assembling a collection of his own books and donated volumes, he wasn’t sure how it would work or if he would be able to sustain it. But, like Cheatham, he says the reality has turned out even better than he imagined. He already has hundreds of members who pay a sliding yearly membership fee, and he’s been pleasantly surprised by the crowd. “From black academics to working-class white folks to the abuelita around the corner, we have a whole range,” he says. “There’s an older conservative man who has become a member. I bet a lot of these books burn him, but we have a piano and he likes that.”

In a way, this is why Lindo started the library — because a man who walks in to play the piano might pick up a book he would never have found otherwise and then start talking about it. “For me, the culture-building aspect was really important,” he says. “The books are only as valuable as the community around them.”

Estelita’s is kept open by volunteers — Cheatham is one of them — and the book fair is still, largely, a one-man show. But both Lindo and Cheatham have hit on what feels like a need and a network, shown by the upwelling of interest amid a dearth of other options. They’re working together to encourage a diversity of literary voices and create a place for people to hear them.

That’s why Cheatham is quietly resigned to being seen as an expert, even if he’s not exactly comfortable with it. “The publishing industry is super white, and we just want to create our voice,” Cheatham says. “We’re here, and we’re not monolithic. It’s not just urban fiction, where it’s thug meets gangster. We have children’s books, we have non-fiction, we have LGBQT literature, we have political books. I want to showcase all that.”

Heather Hansman lives in Seattle, where she writes about water and the West. Downriver, her first book, will be out in April. 

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