Camille Acker’s debut Training School for Negro Girls came out this week. The collection of new short stories is a daring and bold declaration of the complexity of black and brown womanhood—vital new representation in a overwhelmingly reductive world. We are honored to be able to share this essay from Camille Acker about how she found the strength and passion to persevere in her vision when all seemed lost. Check out the essay, and then go grab the debut from this talented author.
“Somewhere out there a creative person is waiting to be inspired by the stories only you can tell. Work that is unapologetically you does that: inspires someone else to be more of who they are.”
The summer I finished a full draft of my short story collection I was living in New York, surrounded by cacophony and inspiration. In my MFA program in New Mexico the world had been ever so quiet, ideal for pure literary output but more challenging for generating ideas and capturing the rhythms of a city (specifically my hometown of Washington, DC) on the page.
I had ideas—opening scenes, sentence fragments, settings—but what shape many of the stories would take I hadn’t yet determined. I started out in grad school with nice stories, pleasant characters in challenging situations, but I had been contemplating other characters in different storylines. That summer, an exhibition of the work of designer Alexander McQueen was on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The exhibit was entitled Savage Beauty and displayed in its filled to capacity spaces were the garments that had made McQueen a fashion legend. Leather masks with zippers and straps that engulfed the entire head. Shoes more akin to the hoof of an animal than a human foot. Impossibly voluminous dresses made of feathers next to frocks that would tightly cocoon the waist of anyone who wore it. It was weird, outlandish, bold and I left, dazed by the daylight outside and roiled by what I’d seen inside.
In cafes and libraries for the next few weeks, I wrote and revised my stories. I decided on new points of view for some stories and introduced subplots into others. I wrote characters I understood but didn’t immediately like. I smuggled humor into situations that had been dead serious. I let it all get a bit weirder.
And I decided on a title that didn’t hide that it cared about blackness and womanhood.
Seeing Savage Beauty that summer encouraged me to push my work to a new place and so did listening to Marvin Gaye’s lesser known concept album, Here, My Dear. The work of both was so full of vulnerability, so unashamed of who they were. I didn’t know what the reaction would be to my vision of my hometown but I knew it was the DC I wanted on the page.
In the years after that first draft though I doubted my vision. Rejections from literary journals and agents left me wondering if my writing would only ever sit in a desk drawer instead of on a bookshelf.
A writing group I was in when I was living in Chicago forced me back to the stories, if only because some months when I was up to be read I had been too neglectful of my writing to produce anything new. Their feedback helped me to re-engage with the stories and see how they could be better than they were, to be more fully what I had intended them to be.
I felt more confident about the work but I still got rejections, all of which I printed out and pinned above my desk. If I couldn’t get any yeses then perhaps I could get a monumental number of nos. Until finally, friends sent me a call from Feminist Press for a debut work by a writer of color. I was unsure that taking the time to do another round of revisions would be worth it, especially when I was in between jobs. My partner urged me to try again. When I got a book deal from Feminist Press some months later, I cried, not just to realize a dream but to know that people had seen me through my work. Other people believed in the vision I had begun to lose faith in.
Especially in a season of rejection, the publication credit can feel like the only goal of value but the greater goal for any creative is to put work out in the world that is uniquely you. Somewhere out there a creative person is waiting to be inspired by the stories only you can tell. Work that is unapologetically you does that: inspires someone else to be more of who they are.