Erica Kennedy is known to many readers for her hip-hop novel Bling, but her latest novel, Feminista, has been making waves for its so-called entry into the “bitch lit” genre and its unapologetically ballsy protagonist, Sydney, a writer who finds love almost despite herself. Kennedy, who blogs about “feministas” in pop culture, from Michelle Obama to “The Princess and the Frog,” at The Feminista Files, answered our questions via email. Check out the interview, after the jump!The Frisky: How did you get the idea for Feminista?
Erica Kennedy: My first book, Bling, was a satire and I knew I wanted to do something completely different. In my 20s I read a lot of chick lit and it always seemed like the same template: the girl is single or was just dumped at the beginning of the book, and then you go on this whole journey just so she finds a guy at the end, making her happiness once again dependent on a man. WTF?
I want to see myself and my struggles reflected back to me because on some level, we all go through the same girl s**t. It’s like when Anna Wintour told Oprah she needed to lose 20 pounds to be on the cover of Vogue, Oprah went on a diet ASAP! I’m always waiting for Oprah to distance herself from that, but she still talks wistfully about that Vogue cover! So I wanted to write something that was unabashedly chick lit but also wasn’t just fluff.
The Frisky: Feminista doesn’t just send up feminism, but also magazine publishing and pop culture, from Sydney’s wild but successful boss Myrna to The Raven, who is like a tranny Prince (your first magazine interview subject). How much of your experience in magazines wound up in Feminista?
EK: I love that you made the Prince connection. My Prince interview is such an awesome and unbelievable story. I had just started writing professionally after quitting my PR job at Tommy Hilfiger. I had sent my clips to In Style and one Friday afternoon they left me a frantic message. Turns out they wanted me to interview The Artist (as he was called then) and it could happen at any moment so they wanted to have me on standby. Of course, I’m psyched, but I’m also suspicious because they had never worked with me and I was so green. So I asked, “Why me?” They tell me he specifically asked for an African-American female writer and I thought, Out of the whole Time, Inc. network, I’m all you got? At that point in my career, anybody would have been more qualified than me! So in the book, the idea that Sydney is offered this cushy contract, even though she was previously just a temp, is derived from the fact that I got drafted into the big leagues under the Prince Rogers Nelson affirmative action plan!
The Frisky: Sydney is multiracial, yet from the cover we’d hardly know she’s anything but white. Recently there was a controversy over the cover of Justine Larbalestier’s young adult novel Liar, which wound up getting changed to reflect her protagonist’s race. Was this ever an issue regarding Feminista?
EK: Oddly, I didn’t even think of her as being white on the cover, mostly because it was just a sketch. And the original mock-up was all black and white. So I think I almost saw it as race-neutral. But I definitely understand why people would think she was white. And I’m not happy about it.
The interesting thing is that I started Feminista as a script and, unless race or specific physical details play some pivotal role in the story, you usually try to describe characters in terms of personality rather than say, blonde and blue-eyed, because you never know who might want to play that part. So I conceived most of the plot without giving Sydney a race. I just thought of her as this aggressive chick. Then when I started writing it in novel form, I felt I had to figure out what race she should be. I made her multiracial so anyone could see what they wanted to see in her, but making her multiracial also allowed Sydney to choose how she identifies. And I think she identifies as a woman of color because she wants to be part of an “oppressed class,” even though she grew up in Scarsdale with a lawyer father and a mother who’s become a professional trophy wife. It’s like when she tells Max she’s multiracial, she says, “I get offended for everybody.”
The Frisky: I thought it was interesting that you said that of all your characters, the older matchmaker Mitzi Berman is the one you say “has found the perfect balance of masculine/feminine.”
EK: Female ambition was something I really wanted to explore. Even in 2009, there are so many women who are not comfortable being the boss. I got a lot of money for my first book and I remember a male friend said, “Wow, you must have a great agent!” I said, “Yes, that’s why I hired him.” But I still felt guilty about having the money. I’m loathe to even admit that but it’s true.
But you know why everyone just adores Beyonce, this global superstar who literally has it all at 27? Because she always takes the “I’m so blessed just to be here” road and shunts all of her aggression and ambition off on an alter ego.
And it’s not just Beyonce. Most of America’s sweethearts go the “I’m just so lucky” route, but you don’t become Reese Witherspoon or Jen Garner without being ravenously ambitious. You can luck into a good part or a hit reality show, but you don’t luck into making $20 million a picture. What’s so wrong with female ambition? Why can’t a woman be allowed to admit that she got to the top because she had a plan and worked hard to achieve it? But I totally get why women do that. Because when you don’t humble yourself and play the good girl, you become labeled a diva or a bitch or an ice queen.
Purchase a copy of Feminista on Amazon and don’t forget to check out Erica Kennedy’s awesome blog, The Feminista Files.