“Let it bother me? Not so’s you’d notice.” Three Queer Women of Color Writers Talk Crime Fiction
Author: John Copenhaver
August 10, 2021
As with the transgender crime writers who featured recently in a roundtable, queer women of color are strikingly underrepresented in the crime fiction genre. The following three writers—Cheryl Head, Mia Manansala, and Penny Mickelbury—address a variety of subgenres, breadth of subject matters, and richness of themes. Although known for her gritty and compelling series featuring P.I. Charlie Mack, Head’s first book was a work of historical fiction about African Americans in the Armed Forces during World War II. Manansala’s debut, Arsenic and Adobo, is a culinary cozy that features a Filipina American lead, lots of humor, delicious food, and a twisty mystery. Her follow-up, Homicide and Halo-Halo, will arrive next February. Mickelbury has written plays, short fiction, historical fiction—most recently Two Wings to Fly Away, about an enslaved person who uses her dress shop as a front for her work with the Underground Railroad. She has also written three crime series, her most recent novel being the gripping Mimi Patterson/Gianna Maglione mystery You Can’t Die But Once. With this roundtable, my hope is that readers will explore these writers, consider how their voices enrich and expand this beloved genre, and, of course, find inspiration from them.
A Detroit native, Cheryl A. Head (she/her) lives and writes in Washington, DC. Head is the twice-Lammy nominated author of the Charlie Mack Motown Mystery Series which features a Black, cis, lesbian private investigator. Books in her series have won the Golden Crown Literary Society’s Ann Bannon Popular Choice Award; have been short-listed for the Goldie and Next Generation Indie Book Awards. In 2019, Head was inducted into the Saints & Sinners Literary Festival Hall of Fame. She currently serves as a national board member for Bouchercon.
Mia P. Manansala (she/her) is a writer and certified book coach from Chicago who loves books, baking, and bad-ass women. She uses humor (and murder) to explore aspects of the Filipino diaspora, queerness, and her millennial love for pop culture. A lover of all things geeky, Mia spends her days procrasti-baking, playing JRPGs and dating sims, reading cozy mysteries and diverse romances, and cuddling her dogs Gumiho and Max Power.
Penny Mickelbury (she/her) is the author of fifteen published novels and a collection of short stories, and is a contributor of stories to several anthologies and collections. She is a two-time Lammy finalist and a two-time Goldie finalist. She is the 2020 winner of the Alice B. Medal for her body of work in the field of lesbian literature, and is one of the writers featured in the film, In Her Words: Lesbian Literature in the 20th Century. She is a recipient of the Audre Lorde Estate Grant and of a Hedgebrook residency.
What’s your writing origin story? What led you to write fiction and, in particular, crime fiction?
Cheryl: Writing has been part of my job description for most of my professional career. I have an undergraduate degree in Radio/TV/Film, and I worked as a radio and TV reporter and producer in Detroit for many years. Later I moved into media management. When I moved to Washington, DC, I became a funding officer for programs aired on PBS. It was at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting that I began to think seriously about writing fiction.
My first novel was historical fiction with a mystery element. I loved reading mysteries and watching BBC mystery offerings, so the next writing project I took on was crime fiction. It was a fun project after the grueling research on the historical fiction. I love writing a tight plot, surprising the reader, and getting into the heads of bad guys. It was a pleasure to write the first installment of my mystery series.
Mia: I’ve always loved writing, but I thought I’d be a KidLit and/or SFF writer since those were the stories that most captured my imagination when I was younger. I was always meant to write crime though–my first school prize for writing was my retelling of the “Three Little Pigs” where the Big Bad Wolf was a drug dealer, and the pigs were trying to bring him down. Why I was writing that as a ten-year-old, I can’t begin to explain.
In 2015, I took my first creative writing class, which happened to be a one-day mystery writing workshop led by Lori Rader-Day. She saw promise in the story I started that day and invited me to join the local MWA and SinC chapters, which she was involved in. I’ve been a mystery writer ever since.
Penny: Our parents always read to us. When we could read our own little books, we read to our parents. Then we read to our baby brother. Then I wanted to write the stories that we read. Both my parents were readers, and my mother was a librarian, so I was definitely encouraged. They liked detective fiction: Chester Himes, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Dashiell Hammett, Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham. (Mom read lots of other things, Dad stuck with whodunits.) Did I recognize early on that women wrote most of the whodunits my parents read? Maybe. But I do think it’s entirely possible that’s why I chose to write mysteries. When I got a bit older, I read quite a few of those whodunits.
Laughter in one scene and social commentary in the next
All of you write in different subgenres—P.I./noir, cozy, and procedural. What drew you to your crime subgenre(s)? Why?
Mia: There’s great value in books as entertainment. People often look down their noses at what they deem “fluff,” but fun/escapist media is what has gotten me through the hardest times in my life. I love making people laugh. I love giving people a brief respite through my writing. That being said, while cozies are purposely light, they are still a subset of crime fiction. I get to make you laugh in one scene and provide commentary on social issues that I care about in the next.
Cheryl: I’ve always liked the P.I. elements of the genre. Even as a kid I gravitated to Noir, and all the traditional tropes: the loner, the code of right and wrong, the innate nose for trouble, and the suspicion of institutions and systems that don’t work for the little guy. I try to write the P.I. novel in a new way—paying homage to the tropes—but adding new elements that come with my sensibility as a Black, queer woman.
Penny: I accepted a challenge to write a mystery “since you read so many of the damn things!” But what should I write? … What was pinging around in my brain: I’d been a newspaper, radio, and television reporter, and my primary beats were government and politics, and the criminal justice system. Ergo, I wrote about reporters, cops, and lawyers.
“I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Being queer women of color, what obstacles have you faced in your writing life and publishing journey? How has that affected you?
Penny: The obstacles are too numerous to count or remember, and since I’ve always been Black, female, and gay, either one or some combination of those elements led to some career-blocking element or other. Let it bother me? Not so’s you’d notice. If I had allowed racism or sexism deter me, I wouldn’t be in a position for you to be posing the questions to me.
Everything I write, have written, or will write has been and will continue to be informed and influenced by who, what, and how I am … and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Mia: Arsenic and Adobo is my debut novel, but it’s not the first book I tried to get published. My first finished novel, Death Comes to Comikon, featured a queer, Filipina American millennial solving a murder mystery at a comic book convention. It won a few awards for unpublished writers, got me a place in the Pitch Wars mentorship program, and even got me my first agent. But when it went on submission in 2018, the most common rejection was, “This book is great, but we can’t sell it. It has no audience.”
The plot was a typical traditional mystery, but the protagonist and setting were rather atypical at the time. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what aspect of the book was “unsellable,” but considering one rejection stated that traditional mystery readers were older white women, it’s hard to not feel that me and my character’s various intersections (queer and Brown and young-ish) were just one diversity checkbox too many.
Thankfully, things are (slowly) getting better in the industry. My publisher, Berkley, realized that they needed to expand the mystery genre readership and created a new line dedicated to diverse, millennial cozies, which is my absolute jam.
“Publishing is not great at embracing intersectionality, at least not in our genre. Publishing likes neat labels and boxes, and when those lines blur or cross over, it can be difficult for writers.”
Cheryl: Personally, the only obstacles I’ve faced are the ones faced by the whole class of writers of color and queer writers. I don’t think I’ve been singled out. Publishing, like every other major industry in America, places a lower value on creative work produced by people who aren’t of the majority population. But I’ve grown a thick skin, a glass-half-full optimism, and a get-back-in-the saddle response to the obstacles. Since the murder of George Floyd, I’ve learned to use my anger as a creative force.
“A spiritual thread that connects me to those who are marginalized”
Likewise, how has your intersectionality informed what you write about and, perhaps, how you write it?
Mia: I recently saw a Shonda Rhimes quote saying she didn’t like the word “diversity”; that she wasn’t “diversifying” TV but “normalizing” it. I thought that was a perfect way to describe how my intersectionality affects what I write. I’m not interested in checking things off a list—I write to bring the world that I live in (which often doesn’t get represented) to life. I’ve had a book club ask me what the “point” of including such a diverse cast was, and my point is always the same: because we exist.
Cheryl: I think about this all the time. Being Black and queer I want to tell stories that present the tensions this country has around diversity, race, class issues, prejudice, privilege, gender identity, and social justice—and the consequences of those tensions. They will be themes I address over and over, hopefully in an entertaining and non-didactic way. I do know that growing up being and feeling like “the other,” and observing that dynamic in my life, has shaped my worldview. It’s an affinity—a spiritual thread—that connects me to those who are marginalized. I count it as a gift, and as a writer, it’s a valuable resource.
“Believe me, his head wasn’t a happy place for me to be”
What was your favorite scene, passage, or element to write in your most recent published work? Why? (Remember, don’t give anything away!)
Mia: Food and family drama are always my favorite things to write. To that effect, I think my favorite scene to write in Arsenic and Adobo was the dinner scene where my protagonist Lila, her family and aunties, her best friend, and her various allies all gather for dinner at her house to talk about how the investigation is going. It was a fun challenge for me since there were about a dozen people in the scene, and I had to balance the dialogue, actions, revelations, and general character development in just a few pages. There’s something about sharing a meal with people that reveals the dynamics of a group that I find absolutely fascinating.
Penny: In You Can’t Die But Once, Sgt. Alice Long can’t find a pedophile she’s convinced is close by. She asks for help from the Canine Unit and meets the largest German Shepherd she’s ever seen. Bella by name, the Shepherd never met a perp she couldn’t find. I like this passage because it’s funny while also crucial to the plot.
Cheryl: I didn’t exactly enjoy it, but I spent a lot of energy to strike the right chord of a character in my most recent book, Warn Me When It’s Time. It’s about the growing power and influence of right-wing hate groups in 2009. I tried to inhabit the head of a young, white man working to be self-radicalized as an alt-right player. Believe me, his head wasn’t a happy place for me to be, but I wanted to channel him in a three-dimensional way. Not to glorify or condone his thinking and choices, not to invoke sympathy for his actions, but to incorporate an empathetic approach to writing the character.
“They are too many and they are too good”
Where do you see the future headed for LGBTQ writers of color in the crime genre? What changes are happening, and what changes would you like to happen?
Penny: I have no idea what the future holds, and I don’t spend time thinking about it. It will take care of itself, and I will take care of myself. I will be so bold as to say, though, that if BLF Press and Bywater Books are part of that future, I’ll have a place in it. I’ll also be so bold as to say that Black and Brown women writers—queer or not—will not, despite the desperate and deplorable efforts of those who shall not be named, disappear or stop writing. They are too many and they are too good.
Cheryl: I like that we’re seeing a broader range of queer characters in literature in general, and that transfers to crime fiction. I’m seeing more stories that make LGBTQ people the protagonists and antagonists, and not just the colorful sidekicks or incidental background characters.
Mia: I’m honestly not sure, because I feel publishing is not great at embracing intersectionality, at least not in our genre. Publishing likes neat labels and boxes, and when those lines blur or cross over, it can be difficult for writers. KidLit is much better about embracing these kinds of changes. I would love for us to reach the point where these conversations are no longer necessary because we’re finally accepted as part of the status quo.
Advice and inspirations
What advice would you give to your younger writer self?
Penny: Though I’ve always read widely (thanks to my librarian mother), I’d encourage my younger self to read even more widely, especially to read women from all over the world. We must remember that, until recently, work by Black and Brown women was not widely available in the US. I worked in a women’s bookstore (Lammas in DC) in the late 1980s or early 1990s, where I discovered books by women I’d never heard of, women from Africa, India, Central America, and the Caribbean. All those years I was a journalist, and these women were never mentioned.
Cheryl: Get a writing community earlier. Writers need a support system.
Mia: It’s OK that you’re not ready yet—you have so much to learn about yourself and the world before you’ll reach that point. Read widely, read deeply, and never stop envisioning the books you want to see on the shelf.
“I try to write the P.I. novel in a new way—paying homage to the tropes—but adding new elements that come with my sensibility as a Black, queer woman.”
Who are your favorite writers—or narrative artists of any sort? Where have you found inspiration?
Cheryl: I find lots of inspiration in poetry, and poets. A few queer poets I like are Nikky Finney, Judy Grahn, JP Howard, Jericho Brown, Julian Randall, Natalie Diaz, G. Winston James, and Audre Lorde.
Mia: I’m terrible at favorites since I’m such a mood reader, but the authors currently on my “auto-buy” list (as in, I don’t even need to read the description, I know I want it) are: Sherry Thomas, Alyssa Cole, Talia Hibbert, Kellye Garrett, Lori Rader-Day, and Gigi Pandian. Lately, I’ve been finding a lot of inspiration in BIPOC romances, because they’re such masterclasses in character development, tension, and building stakes that are personal and believable. The ones I’m into are great at being inclusive, and seeing queer and/or BIPOC women finding love and celebrating joy is wonderfully restorative.
Penny: Octavia Butler, Nikky Finney, Gwendolyn Brooks, Nikki Giovanni, and James Baldwin are my favorite writers—because they’re brilliant, because their words transport and transform me, because I could never write what they write (science fiction, poetry, and Baldwin’s essays) but they inspire me to get better at what I can and do write.
Warn Me When It’s Time (A Charlie Mack Motown Mystery, Book 6) By Cheryl Head Bywater Books Paperback ISBN: 978-1612942070 June 29, 2021 Arsenic and Adobo (A Tita Rosie's Kitchen Mystery, Book 1) By Mia P. Manansala Berkley Paperback ISBN: 978-0593201671 May 4, 2021 You Can't Die But Once (A Gianna Maglione/Mimi Patterson Mystery, Book 6) By Penny Mickelbury Bywater Books Paperback ISBN: 978-1612941875 December 15, 2020