Her debut novel Sugar was first published 10 years ago. Set in a small town in Arkansas, USA, it begins with the description of a crime scene that is so startling the reader is drawn compellingly into the story. Young Jude, the daughter of Pearl Taylor, has been found murdered and horribly mutilated near a field at the edge of the town. “The murder had white man written all over it,” writes McFadden. “But no one would say it above a whisper. It was 1940. It was Bigelow, Arkansas. It was a black child. Need any more be said?” In the years that follow, Pearl catches sight of Jude in so many strangers that when Sugar Lacey comes to town and sets up her unwholesome “business” in the house next door, she doesn’t know whether to believe what she sees in Sugar’s face: a striking similarity to Jude, dead for 15 years.
You would think it’s the sort of the story that would have potential appeal across national and ethnic lines. It turns out that at its core, the storyline deals with racism and the power of friendship and acceptance. Bernice McFadden is African-American. Published by a Penguin imprint, the book’s original cover depicts a black woman standing behind a screen door and it was marketed solely to African-American readers. For McFadden, this is tantamount to marginalization, the sort African-American writers decry as “seg-book-gation”.
In a stirring article in the Washington Post entitled Black Writers in a Ghetto of the Publishing Industry’s Making, McFadden took the publishing industry to task for perpetuating a practice which she said is “demeaning” and “financially crippling” to black writers in America. She goes further and exposes the industry’s double standards by citing two white writers whose novels tackle themes similar to those of her novel Sugar, but were given different treatment. “Both novels were given beautiful covers that did not reveal the race of the characters. Both books were marketed to black and white audiences.” Read more>