04 August 2023
Bestselling author Anika Scott writes about the courage of the misfit story.
I love the word misfit. It has negative connotations to many people, but I don’t think it should. Back in school, the people who didn’t quite fit in were usually the ones who were most interesting. They seemed to have a different way of seeing the world. Stories are much the same. The ones that don’t quite fit the usual categories have the most potential to surprise us.
But it’s scary to not fit in, especially in the publishing industry. Well-meaning people tell writers that clarity of genre, character and plot is essential. Mixing genres is sometimes celebrated, but maybe only for more experienced authors. Stories that cross or smudge certain boundaries are in danger of being inaccessible to publishers and readers who have a clear set of expectations. On the outside, it might look easier to conform to these expectations for a better chance of success.
Three novels into my publishing career, and I still think about the risks of being different. I can’t help it. In the 1970s when I was born in the United States, a large majority of Americans rejected interracial marriage, therefore shoving the offspring of those unions – kids like me – into the category 'other'. We didn’t fit into the ethnic boxes our society was built on. We were mixed. We were hard to define, and that scared people.
This was in the forefront of my mind when I was developing my third historical novel, Sinners of Starlight City. For the first time, I created a protagonist with a similar background as me: Black American and Sicilian American. Rosa Mancuso is the child of an interracial love match a century ago, when such relationships were almost universally rejected by American society. What’s more, Rosa refuses to choose a side of the US colour line. She sees herself exactly as she is, a mixture of ethnicity and culture. She is a misfit in her society and proud of it.
I grew up with the pressure to choose an ethnic box to comfortably exist in, and I was sometimes criticized for refusing to play that game at all. Books are often similar; if they’re hard to define, they’re in danger of being misunderstood or rejected by publishers and readers. Wouldn’t it be easier if people and stories were only this genre or that, never mixing into something new and exciting but also potentially risky? On the other hand, what’s more important: knowing where your book belongs on the shelf, or writing a story that reflects the human condition as you live it?
All of us are complex in our own ways, and as artists working on our craft, we should be striving to write stories that are uniquely ours. Uniquely ourselves. The old advice to write what you know is too intellectual and restrictive. I believe you should write what’s natural for you. On the surface, this might seem like writing about being a working class single parent, if that’s what you are, or being an engineer from a diaspora family. These are great story foundations, but we can look at ourselves in even deeper ways.
It’s natural for me to write stories that cut through the divisiveness in the world. Aside from my mixed heritage, I’ve been an immigrant in Europe for twenty years. Moving fluidly between countries, cultures and languages is second nature to me. My stories reflect that. I’m attracted to stories where people struggle against totalitarian regimes though I’ve never lived in one myself. It’s natural for me to be skeptical of societal control, of 'us versus them'. It’s natural for me to look for bridges between people, and to focus on what connects us. It’s how I live and who I am.
I love stories that are as different, ambitious, or complex as the authors who write them. But I was still scared to write a story that personally reflected this in deeper ways than I had ever tried before. Stories that don’t fit the norm have a higher chance of being rejected or misunderstood, and when that happens, it can hurt even worse than rejection usually does. But if you find the courage to not fit in, to write outside the boundaries or in the spaces between them, you might just produce something extraordinary.
Sinners of Starlight City by Anika Scott is published by Duckworth (£9.99)
Is your story based on a real-life character? Read novelist Russell Franklin on the issues involved in fictionalising real-life events.