For my latest profile, I caught up with Linda Villarosa, an award-winning writer. Villarosa is a professor of journalism at the City College of New York and the author of many health articles. Among her many achievements, she has trained journalists from around the world to better cover the international HIV/AIDS epidemic. Her mother, Clara Villarosa, founded Harlem’s Hue-Man Bookstore.
What drives you to write about health and wellness?
I got into health writing in a roundabout way. I was a high school and college athlete, and got injured a lot. So when I became a journalist, I specialized in fitness and injury prevention because that’s what interested me. Once I learned more about the serious health problems that affect people of color, women and the poor, I became passionate about that.
My first big, serious piece was about HIV/AIDS in black women for Essence. I had trouble with some of the science and felt insecure about interviewing researchers, doctors and patients. So I got a fellowship in health communications at the Harvard School of Public Health, where I took a deep dive into serious physical and emotional health issues that strike the communities that I care about most.
Body & Soul grew out of the women’s health movement. It was conceived as Our Bodies, Ourselves for black women. Because of my background at Essence Magazine and my Harvard fellowship—and my passion—I was the right person to research and write the book.
A novel, a good one, is a 300-page big, messy train wreck that somehow gets resolved in the end. Journalists, though, watch from the safe distance of objectivity.
What prompted you to write Passing for Black? How did the journey of discovering your own identity play into this writing?
I like writing about coming out. Twenty years ago, my mother and I wrote “Coming Out” for Essence Magazine. That article was very highly received and I wanted to touch on the topic again, this time in fiction. The title Passing for Black is tongue in cheek. Real passing is passing for white or it was in the past. In my book, the main character is passing for straight, but also as an “authentic” black person. When you’re a black gay person, you sometimes feel like you don’t fit in either world—black or gay. That’s why many end up passing for straight in order to fit in the community and also feel like we’re “passing for black.”
I noticed that you sometimes speak on the topic of getting published. How was that process for you? What lessons do you try to impart to new writers?
Getting published is both easier and more difficult these days. The mainstream book publishing industry has been severely disrupted by technology. So it’s harder than in the past for anyone outside of the mega-selling authors to get book deals. On the other hand, it’s easier than ever to self-publish, especially in the digital marketplace.
That’s the business side of the equation. But as all writers know, it takes a lot of time, courage, heart and talent to write a book. As a novelist, the hardest part for me was moving from journalism to fiction.
The first draft of Passing for Black was rejected all over town, sometimes by editors that I knew or had worked with. It was an exercise in humiliation. But after about the sixth or seventh rejection, I realized that my experience as a journalist wasn’t helping me at all. In fact, it was making things worse. Novelists feel. You open a vein and let words, not drop, but pour onto the page. You spill your guts, your heart breaks, you’re swept away. A novel, a good one, is a 300-page big, messy train wreck that somehow gets resolved in the end. Journalists, though, watch from the safe distance of objectivity. So I had to stop doing that in order to write a better novel.
Can you tell me about what you encountered when training journalists on covering HIV/AIDS topics? How do the reporter’s biases play into the way that they research and write a story?
As an editor and reporter at the New York Times, my secret goal was to use nonwhite sources ALL THE TIME. In most of the stories I edited—even when the reporter’s heart was in the right place—the “real people” were often people of color and the experts were white. And we were using the same talking heads over and over.
When I got there I made it a point NOT to do that anymore and to challenge the reporters I edited to do the same.
At the AIDS conferences, I often train reporters from the South in the U.S., Africa, and the Caribbean, most of whom don’t cover health much less HIV. The training is intense—we talk about how to interview people living with HIV, how to read studies and understand epidemiology, how not to be “sensationalist,” interviewing scientists, doctors and activists—all the stuff I wish I’d known when I was first starting out as a young health reporter.
In most of the stories I edited—even when the reporter’s heart was in the right place—the “real people” were often people of color and the experts were white.
What about the work that you do in City College’s journalism department? What are some of the lessons—beyond what they’d learn in a textbook—you try to pass along to your students?
I try and get my students to think like journalists. Some of them will end up being journalists, but many won’t. I teach them how to tell a story across media platforms, work to improve their writing, show them the proper way to interview and conduct online research and nurture their creativity and curiosity. These are skills that they can use no matter what career they pursue after graduation.
I’m fascinated in hearing more about the work your mother, Clara, and you have done with the Hue-Man Bookstore. Can you tell me about the bookstore’s role in your own life, and within the Harlem community?
My mom started Hue-Man in Denver and then grew it into the country’s largest African American bookstore. She then retired and moved to New York City to be closer to us—her daughters and grandkids. When the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone found out she was in NYC, they convinced her to open Hue-Man in Harlem. It was very successful for many years, culminating with a signing for Bill Clinton that received international media coverage. But bookstores have had a very hard time surviving in the age of Amazon. Like Hue-Man, many have closed. During the heyday of black bookstores, there were 300 across the U.S.; now it’s about 50.
What do you see as being some of the major issues facing women writers right now? What was your take on the #WeNeedDiverseBooks discussion, if you followed it?
My best friend, Jacqueline Woodson, writes children’s and YA books and is deeply involved in activism around the lack of diversity in publishing. It’s basically a travesty in our global, multicultural world that so few books aimed at kids have characters of color.
Since my mom retired, she and my sister and I have been discussing how we can help black authors get their books published and get involved in the industry. At the end of the year, we’re launching Villarosa Media, which will publish a few digital and print books annually by and for African Americans.
Our first book, The Wind Is Spirit, looks at the life and legacy of Audre Lorde. It’s written and edited by Dr. Gloria Joseph, Audre’s partner in the later years before she died, and includes contributions by Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, Jewelle Gomez, Adrienne Rich, Elizabeth Lorde and many others—as well as lots of photos. It’s kind of the love child of a bio and anthology; we’re calling it a call and response biography. We’re mounting a Kickstarter to get initial funding for this book, which is a beautiful, creative labor of love and an honor for us to publish.
What do you love about Brooklyn?
I work in Harlem, but I have lived in Brooklyn for 25 years. I love it—the food, the people, the energy. I belong to the Park Slope food co-op, I play soccer in the Prospect Park, my kids go to public school here, I work out at the Y, we have our own LGBT Pride celebration, the mayor and his family live around the corner. Why live anywhere else?
I’ll be back with another profile in August. Here’s a way to tide yourself over until then!