As you know, I’m always on the hunt for good books, especially if they’re written by and about folks from marginalized communities. That’s what this interview series is about: highlighting independent content creators from the margins, be they authors, publishers, or artists. A brand-new publishing house, Onyx Lee Publications focuses on publishing the stories of LGBTQ+ women of color. Its first novel, Hot for Teacher, is “a tale of passion play, family drama, intrigue, and lustful intentions.” I sat down with Onyx Lee’s head of publishing, Shonia Brown, to talk about the company, her work, and the representation of queer women of color.
Gretchen: So, how did Onyx Lee Publications come to be?
Shonia Brown: Onyx Lee Publications is actually dedicated to my previous 16-year-old Maltese whose name was Onyx Lee. He was very close to my heart and so is this small print press. Previously, it was known as Nghosi Books. I started Nghosi Books in 2002, when I published my first novel A Deeper Love. After setting aside that small print press 11 years ago, I have decided that I want to return to the publishing industry. There’s such a shortage in the LGBTQ+ community—well I shouldn’t say shortage. There’s not a massive quantity of content for African American women or other women of color in the LGBTQ+ community. I wanted to make sure that I continued to support and add to that presence in our community as far as literature is concerned. So, that’s how Onyx Lee Publications got its name and why I started the publishing company this year.
G: Are you a writer yourself or did you have another path to the publishing industry?
SB: I’ve always enjoyed writing. I’m an only child, and when I was 10 years old, I knew that I really wanted to be able to create stories and novels. At that time, I thought I wanted to write romance novels; I used to read Harlequin romance novels. I remember my mom buying a monthly subscription of Harlequin romance novels for me. I looked forward every month to that pack of four books. I would sit down and read all four over a weekend. I also watched a lot of soap operas during my childhood. My mom and I shared a passion for movies. My favorites were romances, and hers were western and horror movies. Because of those three experiences as a child, it was inevitable that I would find myself creating romance novels that often remind me of a dramatic soap opera with the pace of a feature romance film. I also wanted to be a teacher and follow in the steps of my mentors from middle and high school. I imagined that I would be a full-time English teacher and a part-time romance writer, using my holiday breaks for opportunities to craft my next novel.
Later in life, when I came out to my family, I realized that I wanted to write stories that represent the people I fell in love with, which changed the characters that I initially wanted to write about. That’s how I got started with writing lesbian novels. My first published novel was written during a time that I was also involved in my first lesbian relationship. At the time, I had been with my lover for six years, but I was also developing a crush on a coworker. I never planned on cheating on my lover, I was very faithful to her, but the intensity of my infatuation over the coworker wouldn’t go away. So, I started writing about it. It’s what I enjoyed doing anyway, fantasizing and writing about various romantic situations. When I started writing the manuscript, I remember letting my lover read the first chapter and she was like, “This is really good, but that’s a lot of sex. Where’s the real storyline for this book?”
So, I thought about it and realized she was right. As I continued to work on the novel, I started experiencing certain things in my own life and remembering things that I had experienced growing up as a child. These new and old experiences became a part of the novel. Even after we ended our relationship, I continued to work on the novel and finally published it a few years later. At the time, I had submitted my manuscript to agents and publishing houses and never got a response. This was during a time period that lots of independent writers started to self-publish. I found out about iUniverse through a friend of mine. After reviewing their website, I realized that I could publish my novel through this self-publishing company. I also started communicating with other independent writers who built their own websites to help promote their books. That gave me the idea to learn how to build a website and create Nghosi Books.
G: Tell us about your current publications. You mentioned romance, are there any other genres and how did you decide on which genres you wanted Onyx Lee to focus on?
SB: So, right now it’s a very small start—we just have our one new writer, Aunt Georgia Lee. I remember how challenging it was for me to get started with A Deeper Love and five years later. I published an anthology of 25 women of color writers entitled, Longing, Lust, and Love: Black Lesbian Stories. Again, that gave me the idea to start this publishing house after I had closed Nghosi Books and focus on helping other women of color publish their work. We’re starting with the romance novel, but we’re open to all genres as long as it’s something that promotes women of color in the community.
G: Onyx Lee prioritizes the writing of queer women of color, a marginalized group often overlooked mainstream traditional publishing. What are the benefits to smaller run publishing for queer writers of color? Are there any drawbacks?
SB: In my opinion, the main benefit of independent publishing is the fact that we’re focused on their work. It’s not a fad or a phase that we’re going through—as people have said of people’s sexual orientation, “Oh, it’s just a phase.”
I’ve worked with other writers before, not to publish their work but just interacting with them. Some of these writers have told me that their publishing houses want them to publish novels that are highly infused with sex as opposed to put more emphasis on a really good storyline. And those authors also mention feeling like this isn’t being true to their story, that it’s more about what the publishers want. They’re being forced to accommodate to what the publisher says sells. I understand the publishing houses are a business and they’re in the business to make money. At the same time, it’s risking the quality of the author’s writing and their authenticity. Having a small print press that focuses on the author’s work, especially one that comes from the same LGBTIQ+ community, we understand more intimately what the readers really want and also what the author really needs, which is to publish what’s authentic.
Now with that said, the drawback is we have fewer resources. We won’t be able to have a massive production. We won’t be able to promote an author as well as, say, a bigger publishing house would be able to, at least not right away. To me, that’s really the only drawback. But I’ve seen that when I self-published and other authors I knew to have self-published, that social media helps and determination helps. Just getting out there and working really hard will help spread the word in our community.
G: Given that you are an exclusively LGBTQ+ publisher and write LGBTQ+ stories, tell me about your thoughts on the importance of LGBTQ+ representation, especially in romance.
SB: I think it’s very important because it’s so easy to stereotype the community as to who the people are. I think the more open you are, the more information that’s available to the world, the better understood we’ll be by people who aren’t LGBTQ+ or who may have concerns or fears about a community they don’t understand. Sometimes it can be very dangerous to be open about who you are. But I’ve found in my own life working full-time as a digital content creator in the IT industry, being open about my relationship, the things I’m doing outside of work, who I am not just as their employee but as a person, help them to understand the community better as well. I think having more of our content out there, stories that are relatable and not just highly sexual erotica—which is what people expect to see—helps people to understand better that we’re all the same. Our sexual orientation really has nothing to do with who we are as people.
G: With so much focus on visual media like film and television these days, what place do you see for books as a means of representation for the LGBTQ+ community?
SB: I think that people still read; they still enjoy reading. Although I agree that a lot of people are focused on visual media, so we’re trying to incorporate things like book trailers to engage people as well. But I think that the art of reading, the love of reading hasn’t dissipated.
When I started the first publishing house—I’m 49, turning 50 this year—back then, I was in my early 30s, and I wrote for that age range. I expected that my intended audience would be 30 and older. But I remember a friend of mine came to me one day and mentioned that she had been at a local club where this young girl came into the club with a backpack. She watched the girl walk over to a friend who was sitting on the stage. The friend asked her, “Did you bring it?” The girl replied, “Yeah I did.” Then she pulled my book out and gave it to her friend! I asked my friend how she thought the girl was. My friend said she was maybe 18 or 20 years old. I was really surprised because I expected an older audience to be more engaged in reading that book. And maybe that was me not being aware or stereotyping, but I now realize we do have readers of every age. I even have people that I’ve worked with that are straight who have read my novel and identified with it. They want to read the novel we’re publishing at Onyx Lee right now; one lady wants her mom to read it!
So, when you get a chance to read Hot for Teacher, you’ll see that the story is relatable to not only the LGBTQ+ community, but it’s also relatable to everyone. We know there are still tons of readers out there who do enjoy the printed word, so it definitely has its place.
G: As an aspiring writer myself, that’s the goal. We had to read stories about straight people and relate to them all our lives, so if someone who is straight can read one of our works and see themselves in our characters, I think that means you’ve done a really good job writing your characters as people.
SB: That’s what I want and that’s the kind of writing Onyx Lee wants to publish as well. It’s not about stereotypes. These characters are like the people you interact with every day that you may never know are lesbians or gay because they’re just people with very similar concerns that straight people have. It’s more of a message of what’s happening with these people and what they’re trying to achieve as opposed to ‘what type of sex they’re having’ if you will.
G: I totally get what you’re saying. More personally, what is it like being the head of publishing at Onyx Lee, working full-time, writing, and doing everything else you work on? What are the biggest challenges to doing it all?
SB: Time. Time is really the thing. I just finished my masters in instructional technology last year and I was working a full-time job, then I transitioned to a new job. It’s a lot! I also love to learn new things. I’m never mastering anything, I hate to say that, but I’m a jack of all trades truly and a master of none because so many things pique my interest. I always stay really busy. The publishing house I definitely wanted to revive, so I find the time. I do my best to juggle between things.
We’re actually in the process of creating a new website called “Lesbian 411,” which is a site about anything and everything women of color. We initially created it and deployed the 1.0 version in 2008, but later had to discontinue the site due to a family crisis. So, now we’re back at it again with the 2.0 version. We feel it’s important because there’s so much content spread all over the Internet and other places, but nothing that’s centralized where you can go and find this information lesbian women of color. So, that’s another big project. How I do it is just…I just keep going because it’s a passion! And then when I get tired, I take a break and then I regroup.
G: What kind of advice do you have for LGBTQ+ authors of color looking to try and publish their work?
SB: Whatever you choose to do, do what’s best for you and what’s truly in your heart. Sometimes following your passion may make you penniless, it may be difficult and challenging. You may not reap all the benefits right away. I know that doesn’t sound very promising, especially if the motivation is more financial. If your focus is more financial gain, then you may have to make some choices that may not be true to your heart. But if it’s about passion and being authentic, do it no matter what people say. I’ve had people who will tell me, “It doesn’t make any sense,” or “Think about yourself,” or “What are you getting out of this?” But it really depends on what it is that you want to do and what feels good to you. Sometimes the things that matter the most, you’re not going to make a lot of money from them. You’re probably going to spend more money than you make, which is why I have the day job.
It sounds kind of corny, but really, be true to yourself.
G: Thank you for the advice! I look forward to reading Hot for Teacher and learning more about the first imprint of Onyx Lee Publications. Thanks so much for sitting down and talking with me, Shonia!
SB: Thank you so much for this opportunity!
Hot for Teacher will be released on July 12, 2019.
In the meantime, be sure to check out the book trailer: