Just tell the damn story; an interview with writer Baye McNeil

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Baye McNeil is an author, columnist, lecturer and activist, born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. He is the author of two critically acclaimed books on life in Japan, and his column, Black Eye, featured in The Japan Times, focuses on the image of “blackness” in Japan, and the lives of people of colour from the African continent and the diaspora living in Japan. He lives in Yokohama.

Patrick Sherriff: I first found out about you and your writing from your blogging as Loco in Yokohama, circa 2008. You’ve come a long way since then, publishing two memoirs and writing a regular column in The Japan Times. What have been the highlights of your writing career so far?

Baye McNeil: Well, obviously the publishing of the first book, Hi My Name is Loco and I am a Racist would be first and foremost, for that was the book that put me on the map so to speak. Though the blog had enjoyed its share of success, the book helped me reach readers worldwide who would never touch a Japan blog. So my readership jumped exponentially, and not just quantitatively but it caught the eyes of influencers and editors. One of these editors just happened to be at The Japan Times, which lead to the next highlight: the launch of “Black Eye” my column for that periodical. And once again the readership leapt to another level. And recently I published my first piece in a humongous Japanese website, called Toyokeizai, which once again expanded my readership to include Japanese readers who can’t read English for the first time. So those would be the highs of the highlights.

Did you write in Japanese or was it translated from English? What are the challenges writing for a Japanese audience rather than an English-speaking one?

Nah, Toyokeizai translated it, but I got my people to confirm their translation (which was a little off). And, fortunately, I live here so I know the Japanese fairly well, but still I consulted some Japanese friends to gauge how the message might be received from people not so much already in agreement with me (it was an opinion piece) but those who may not be. Their feedback was invaluable. The article is here.

What was the message of the article and how was it received?

The message was essentially the same I’ve stood by since this most recent event took flight: that blackface, while likely not emanating from a hateful place, is definitely reflective of an ignorance that too many Japanese are unaware of. And that if they knew that people around the world were beginning to once again label Japan a racist cesspool (as was the case, at least in the US, in the ’80s and ’90s) or that people considering coming here to feed money into Japan’s struggling economy, were thinking of our beloved friends and family here as hatemongers as a result of their use and defence of blackface, they would shut it down immediately without debate or delay. Something along those lines I said, politely and thoroughly reasoned, of course (-;

Oh, and it was received with your typical mix of opinions. Most of the opinions against though, I noticed, were ill-informed or misinformed. For example, they’d argue there is no racism in Japan so this is a projection of America… which any foreigner living here knows is not true, racism is alive and well here. Or they’d argue that Japanese people love black people, which I can say, even if true, is still a poor defence of blackface, because here I am, a black man, telling you that what you’re doing is problematic at best and being told to go home if I don’t like it. Besides, loving black people is not much better than hating black people because it still springs from a mind that otherizes us. How about loving human beings? We are not a monolith to be adored or abhorred. We’re just people. Just as lovable and despicable as you guys. Think I might have mentioned that in the piece, too. I’m sure I did in the books.

How has it been writing a column for the JT? Has it changed how you write?

Yes, and no. Obviously I couldn’t be as raw as I was on my blog or with my books, where I essentially had final cut and editorial say over the content. But at the same time I really don’t know any other way to write than to be direct and impassioned…and I really don’t see any reason to change my style. It’s gotten me this far and frankly it’s what my readers expect and enjoy. However, writing for the JT, I’ve added a new dimension that never existed before and that is the profiling of others, where my personal thoughts have to be set aside for a while. And how great has that been! I’ve learned so much listening to the stories and experiences of others living here in Japan, and that has helped me not only grow as a writer and a person, but has taught me quite a few things about how to better navigate my life here in Japan. Not to mention the variety of personalities and professional contacts I’ve made as a result of building the Black Eye brand. It’s really been tremendous. I’m only now starting to recognize its full potential. For example, if a Japan blogger tweets about blackface, no one gives a damn. But if Japan Times columnist tweets, people automatically give added credence to the message. The successful petition against FUJI-TV in 2015 and even this most recent firestorm (which has lead to BBC, NY Times, Asahi, NHK, etc… paying attention) likely does not happen without the JT. So, yes, it has changed how I write, and has changed how I live overall.

Is Japan your home?

Yes. I remember the last time I went home, to Brooklyn, I felt like a fish outta water. Like a damn tourist in my own hometown. Such is the nature of change in a city like NY. Not to mention it’s been gentrified all to fuck and half my friends and fams have been chased out of the state. But don’t get me started… Anyway, nah, Brooklyn ain’t home anymore. Just this place that produced me that I’ll cherish forever. So Yokohama is the closest thing I have to a home, to make a short story long.

What writing projects are you working on now? And a follow-up, how do you fit everything in between a full-time day job teaching, writing the JT column and your own long-term projects?

Currently, working on the translation of Hi! My Name is Loco… and zeroing in on a new writing project. But currently looking into branching out into other writing disciplines like TV, stage and film writing. Wanna give those a go. Pretty good at dialogue I’m told, so gonna give that some due attention. It’s not just the day jobs and column that are obstacles. I’m actually quite lazy and spend a lot of time binge-watching American TV (which is without a doubt in its golden age) and that’s the highest hurdle for me. I call myself doing research when I’m watching a full season of Better Call Saul or Fargo (or comfort shows like West Wing) and that’s how I pacify my self-loathing. lol But when I do sit down to write, I tend to binge-write (if that’s a thing…if not, now it is). So I guess that’s why the output looks like it’s time-devouring. And I write fast (as opposed to type fast) so much of what I write is written in my head before I sit down to hammer it out. However, I revise slow, and often harass my peer editors for feedback at all times of the day and night. Fortunately, some of them are in the US (12-13 hour difference) because I’m a night writer.

Who is your audience? Who is your ideal reader?

Hard to say. The support of people who give a shit, and the bile from people who hate people who give a shit seem to dominate the feedback I get. I dunno. Never figured that out actually. I just write and publish and see what happens. Fortunately, of late, my writing has garnered some attention, but I’ve gone through years where I’m sure I was merely entertaining myself and a handful of loyalists. The audience fluctuated around me, but I haven’t done anything to facilitate that. But who they are beats me. I can say one thing about them though (that I’ve noticed since my blogging days): the VAST majority are white liberal thinking folks, and white liberal-leaning conservative folks looking to test drive some fun fake facts they read on Breitbart or heard on Fox News. Oh and a lot of black people yearning to come to Japan, who admire me for having had the foresight to have done so years ago. Go figure… But I’ve never been one of those analytics guys, so the actual numbers and sources I really have no idea. Nor do I have an ideal reader. I just write what I like, what I know, what I feel compelled or inspired to put out into the world, and watch what happens.

Would you say there’s a theme running through all that you write? Hard to analyze yourself, I know, but if you were on your deathbed looking back on a lifetime of writing, what would you say you had been trying to do?

I guess I would be trying to express precisely the ideas that pass through my mind at any given time. Sometimes I succeed better than others. Sometimes I fail miserably. But, always, that’s the goal. And if on my deathbed I can read something or even reminisce on something I’ve written that is as fine a representation or reflection of the thought that inspired me to write it, then I feel I’d be able to rest easy. Can’t say there’s a theme going through all my work, though. Guess one day I’d be far enough from it to see it plainly. Maybe even now readers can see it. But I can’t. Elements? yes. Many persistent elements recur in my work. But a theme? No. I don’t see it. Don’t even know that I want to see it…because sometimes I feel like I’ve been trying to write the same story living in my head, and wind up periodically writing newer versions of it, screened through my ever-evolving view of the world around me, changing and refining it as I’ve been changed and refined by life.

I’m just listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power audiobook (like the good white liberal that I am), and he talks about how being labeled a “black writer” (he says he’s “the Atlantic’s black writer”) is both limiting and enabling. Do you see yourself as a writer or as a “black writer”? Is there a meaningful distinction?

I’m not a big fan of the label “black” or any other label. I think such labels or at the heart of most of the strife I was raised within. I was just talking with a friend of mine about how it must have been for “black” people before these labels existed. I talked about Shakespeare (as I guess every writer does at one time or another) and Othello which was written at a time before such labels were in vogue (and all the connotations that make these labels too cumbersome for anyone to bear.) William did not approach Othello as a black man. He was a Moor. He was a lover, a warrior, a general, leader of men…etc. But not a “black” man until he was the target of a man trying to bring him down. I love that. I’d love to write (and love to read) books where none of the characters are identified by their race, but simply by their characters. Whenever I read a story written by a white writer and I hear a character’s race identified, I have this feeling in my stomach that the person’s race was identified for a reason, and I find myself waiting to learn that reason. It’s generally not a pleasant wait, and generally not worth the wait. Sometimes black is used by white liberal writers as a way of showing they see the world as this diversified place where all colors are a part. Blah blah blah… If racial diversity is not essential to the plot then just tell the damn story. That’s what I’d like to be seen as: a writer that tells the damn story! In my books, when I’ve identified race it was always for a reason essential to the story because to date all I’ve written is non-fiction memoirs as far as books are concerned. Soon I’ll be venturing down that fictional path and I when I do I intend to just tell the damn story!

I’ve been waiting for the day you transform into a fiction writer. You mentioned screenwriting. Any other hints of what we can expect from you in the future?

Actually I’ve completed a fiction work but it’s so damn autobiographical in places (and people are so accustomed to my non-fiction) I feel people will think it’s non-fiction…but I do have some thoughts buzzing around. Nothing concrete yet.

Any advice for newbie writers out there?

Advice? Just keep writing. Write what you feel is important, or what interests you, and share it without any thought for recompense. Find your audience and build upon it. Read writers that you want to emulate, whose styles and voices speak to you. Emulate until you find your own voice, and you will eventually, inevitably (took me like forever). Then submit everywhere and suck on the refusals…if any. And eventually you’ll get your stuff into the right hands, and it will garner the attention of the right readers, and there you’ll be: A writer!

Where should people go to read your stuff?

If you want to peep my work, go to: www.bayemcneil.com. You can follow me on twitter: @locohama and Instagram: @locohama. Hope it was useful and ganbatte kudasai!

Fantastic! Much appreciated.

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