The US produces over 300,000 books yearly—but books written by black women, about black women, occupy just a slim margin of that, despite the demand for those voices and storytelling. Getting these stories published and reviewed by major publications is where the obstruction lies: the 2014 Women of Color VIDA Count, which amasses over 1000 data points from world-renowned journals, publications, and press outlets yearly, reveals the truth of just how far the industry needs to go.
Enter author Raina McLeod. She’s no stranger to bold and ballsy stories—having penned a sex and relationship column for the Miami New Times, where she was also Arts and Culture Editor, and as an editor at NBC’s Feast. This year, she compiled the fruit of her experience, and her passion for enticing and provocative narratives, in her first work of fiction, the independently published novella Death by Misadventure.
Inspired by Amy Winehouse and her untimely demise—the title refers to her official cause of death—follows the life of fictional character Bobbi Dahl and her sheets-entangled, alcohol-drenched, and designer fashion-clad nights. Spanning just 77 pages, it’s the first in a series of four novellas; McLeod pulled from both first-hand experience and the accounts of women she’s met along the way, so Dahl’s benders feel real (“Long black strands, some straight and some kinky as my roots” sums up a more than a few of our partying college nights), while her portrayals of loving and dating in this modern era are so spot-on that you can’t help but smile and think “Yes girl” in your head after reading. For instance: “I didn’t always answer, though I did spoil Him with reasonably timed responses when He texted.”
That’s the beauty of the story—the moments we maybe cannot relate to (like Dahl’s boyfriend having all the coins in the world) are still not that far-fetched. The calming-down of a woman who once spent all her money on party tops and skintight dresses, who traded nights out with the girls for nights in with him on the couch, being unsure whether or not it was the right decision most steps along the way, read as though McLeod laid bare some women’s early twenties experience. And Dahl’s blackness is something that lies at the foundation of who she is, but doesn’t separate her from so many of the struggles that women all over the world face: the way Elizabeth Bennet and Fermina Daza are relatable whether or not you’ve been a white British woman in the early 19th century or a Colombian woman who has lost her husband.
Jezebel spoke with McLeod about her impetus to write this story, her cautionary advice to women who are partying-and-bullshitting their way through life, and her approach as a feminist author.
JEZEBEL: The title of your book is pretty macabre. What led you to want to write this story and the inspiration behind its name?
Raina McLeod: When Amy Winehouse died, her cause of death was “death by misadventure.” Officially, it means an accident, or a mishap. But I took it as: the combination of partying, drinking, drugging, body-mod, and lovesickness that killed our girl. In Miami, that’s just another Tuesday night. The girls in my stories are baited with pills and potions and discarded when someone prettier lands at MIA Airport. I knew it was the perfect title for my book.
Which books and authors inspired you when you were growing up and coming into your own?
Toni Morrison and Roald Dahl definitely had a big effect on me. So did cereal boxes, Narcos captions, and the small print on Neiman Marcus receipts. I like to think it all seeps into my brain, melds with my writing, and comes out of my fingers like Shake Shack soft serve.
Recently, I read Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels and fell deep in love. I went on a true crime bender and haven’t been the same since. I read Jackie Collins last year for the first time and decided I will be Blackie Collins because of her output, how many books she’s sold, and that house in Beverly Hills. I’ll forever love The Picture of Dorian Grey, as I’m obsessed with identity and reality: both defining it and dissecting it.
There are a lot of black female fictional characters right now who are equal parts imperfect and powerful: Olivia Pope, Ifemelu from Americanah, Annalise Keating, etc. Did you feel any pressure when creating a black protagonist?
If anything, I felt less pressure because there was no burden of “representing the race.” I could actually tell a real story with characters who are flawed as fuck. And I love all those girls, but there’s no one like Bobbi. She’s Sandra from 227. She’s Blanche Devereaux. She’s Samantha Jones. She’s the type of girl who would break Drake’s heart. These girls are usually marginalized and shown as no more than an oversexed one-liner queen, or a woman only good for a fling. Death by Misadventure tells her story.
There have been a ton of sexy and dark stories and series with Miami as a backdrop: Miami Vice, Scarface, Miami by Joan Didion, and Wild Things among the most famous. What is it about the city that lends itself to that subject matter? Did any of those stories influence your work?
Miami is definitely the place you can forget about reality and that’s incredibly seductive. I’ve seen people come on vacation and never leave, and I’ve seen people go from a penthouse to sleeping in their car two years later. There is such a potpourri of people living here and with a constant stream of tourists, there’s always the possibility of friction. And it can be good or it might be bad.
This book is part of a larger series I’m working on called Miami Noir, about all the people and lives lived on SoBe. The ballers, the bathroom attendants, the expats, the music execs, everyone. All the stories are connected and told in various ways. I’m telling of the highs and the lows and most importantly, the real. My entire career I wrote about Miami, but I think this is the most Miami work I’ve done.
You’ve already had experience writing about your real life, thanks in large part to your Miami New Times sex columns. Was writing a fictional story very different from that?
This was very different. At the New Times and NBC I had to avoid blatantly making shit up, on top of being an advice columnist and editor. How it went was more along the lines of “I’m an expert and I cannot be wrong.” I don’t know if it was the lack of social media back then or if I’ve developed a kind of frigidity, but I didn’t mind it at the time. Now, it’s very different for me. I can mosey to my philosophies and defy them later if I choose.
In Death by Misadventure I was free to embellish, tell the truth, create fantasy, and whatever else I chose to do. I‘m writing through it, I’m letting the character learn things and we both decide what she should do, and guess what? I may be totally wrong and that’s completely fine. And later no one is allowed to tell me otherwise. Fiction has become synonymous with freedom for me.
“It’s gauche to cheat death and brag about it” is just one of the many tips the protagonist, Bobbi, shares in the piece. Was that your voice speaking through her? Is her advice some you think women should actually listen to?
I imagine these statements as Bobbi speaking to herself: either reassurance or parroting what someone has said to her. I like my characters’ thoughts and dialogue to vacillate between profound and superficial—exactly how it would work in real life. For instance: Bobbi’s boyfriend can calculate the profit made off a weed shipment like it’s nothing, but has never read over a thousand words in one sitting.
None of this is advice. It’s a life lived and bisected. Readers can take from it what they like.
I couldn’t help but notice “He” and “Him” are capitalized throughout the beginning of the book: a choice normally reserved when speaking of God in different texts. Was that meant to symbolize Bobbi’s worship of her lover?
Definitely. The pedestal she’s put him on, the position he’s taken for himself. The singular power he possesses over her life, the ways in which she believes in him and waits on him to return with bread, fish, and wine. He was her God, for sure.
Bobbi gets into some pretty hairy stuff because of her lover’s influence. Is the book a cautionary tale on how we should approach relationships and the things we should allow ourselves to get wrapped up in? Is it something you think all women can relate to?
I wrote this book to put certain feelings on record. Emotions. For patriarchy’s Library of Congress to have one more account of how a man’s actions can make a woman feel and do. She breaks down in so many ways, but it’s because she’s young, she doesn’t know any better. A lot of us are lucky to have the chance to try things out and fail, and some go so far beyond their personal limits that they never return.
You wrote, “What makes men so cold?” I couldn’t help but detect a bit of cynicism in that.
Fuckin’ right. I’ve seen some cold actions from men. Women too, but there’s a particular type of pain certain men wreak. The way some manipulate, and then abandon: it’s Grade A. Every time it happens to me I’m like, “Damn you did that, that was tight, mission accomplished and you came out unscathed, kudos boo (murder murder kill kill).”
Emotional abuse is undetectable–like carbon monoxide poisoning. We talk a lot about sex education, but what about emotional education? I think we need to learn how to take care of each other better.
What does feminism mean to you? Was it something you were thinking of while writing this?
I refuse to have an agenda. But yes, I am a feminist. If anything, this book asks feminists to look inside ourselves and take inventory of what our own gender biases are. There are a lot of women who subscribe to the same outdated moral codes we fight men on. Why is she wearing that? She’s for everybody! Look at this thot! It’s 2015 and there’s still a collective disdain for the type of woman who don’t follow “the rules.” I’d hope that my book humanizes her.
What’s to come in your series’ second book?
Next is the prequel, I’m calling it negative 1 (-1) in the series: Cad is the title. It follows the main male character from Death by Misadventure and tells you how he became who he is and what his thoughts and feelings are. An early reader of Death by Misadventure told me that I needed more positive male characters, so I think it’s fair to let Cad prove he has heart.
After that I’m going to fast forward to Bobbi post-Death by Misadventure. This is where you meet her girls and get to see her in action for real. She’s naughty, wicked, fun, and takes little shit.
Faith Cummings is a contributor to VOGUE.com, Glamour.com, Esquire.com, Fashion Bomb Daily, and StyleCaster, among countless other publications.
Image via Raina McLeod.