The Freedom to Write Beyond Race – Chicago Review of Books


Since the onset of the global pandemic, there’s certainly no shortage of virtual literary programming, but I’m happy to share a few upcoming events I’ve had a hand in creating that are geared toward writers of color.

For writers of color who have created work but are unsure how or where to send it, in February, author Sonora Jha will conduct a virtual workshop called Prepping to Publish, where she’ll walk students through creating query letters and developing a list of potential homes for their writing.

In April, writers of color can attend a virtual panel discussion with leading writers and publishers of color who are creating their own platforms and creative spaces, including San Francisco Poet Laureate and American Book Award winner Tongo Eisen-Martin; award-winning, Chicago-based poet, author, and scholar Tara Betts; and writer and Kaya Press Managing Editor Neelanjana Banerjee.

Finally, May will bring a virtual public reading that joins writers of color with readers of color around the theme of isolation.

These are the programs I wished I had when I first picked up a pen a decade ago. 

When I began my writing practice, I met with a publishing industry that encouraged me to put my identity on the page alongside my imagination as if the labels society had affixed to me—black, African American, woman—were my sole contributions to the literary landscape. When I wrote stories and essays that addressed racism, these works were published, got me invited to workshops, and led me to mentors and colleagues. My writing that did not tackle race often remained on my computer’s hard drive. 

One day, an editor asked me to pen a piece about racism. When I sat to draft it, I stared at the blank screen, wondering for whom I was writing, and it struck me that a white editor had solicited the work for a white audience. To write about my oppression for the enlightenment of the people who were actively oppressing me felt like an offensive burden to be foisted on my shoulders. Angry that I was using my time to confront a problem I didn’t create, I stopped writing the essay. 

Truth is, I wanted white people to deal amongst themselves with the monster of American racism they created and perpetuated, and to leave me to write the characters I wanted—a black girl who discovers her grandfather’s endless pocket is a gateway to an alternate version of herself or a multicultural beauty queen who disrobes at her coronation ball and throws her crown in a trash can. My characters were people of color, but labels were not what their stories were about.

About a month after the 2016 elections, I talked to my writing partner Pallavi Dhawan, also a woman of color, and discovered she felt the same way. We moved quickly to create the platform we wanted, which is POC United, an informal collective and safe space of creative play for writers of color removed from the white gaze and the restraints of writing about marginalization and trauma.

We teamed up with Devi S. Laskar, an award-winning poet and writer, and the three of us edited a themed anthology for writers of color to showcase works that went beyond race and racism. To our surprise, Graffiti was a small press bestseller and even won an award. And now, with a California Arts Council grant, and in collaboration with our publisher, Aunt Lute Books, we are launching these virtual events in 2021 to continue our mission.

It is my hope that through this project, the freedom of imagination that we’ve been able to create in Graffiti will spill over to other writers of color. I still grapple with race in my work at times, but it is important for me to feel that is not my sole path to publication. After ten years I can finally say, yes, I am an African American woman, a writer of color, but I am free to write beyond race.

Tamika Thompson

Tamika Thompson is a writer, producer, and journalist. She is author of the novella, Salamander Justice (Madness Heart Press), co-creator of the artist collective POC United and fiction editor for the group’s inaugural anthology, Graffiti (Aunt Lute Books). Her writing has been published by Prairie Schooner, The New York Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, and among others. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and two children. You can find her online at


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