Writer Jennifer Baker’s story “The Pursuit of Happiness” was featured in Issue #6 of Newtown Literary. For more of her writing, check out her website, or follow her on Twitter @jbakernyc. We asked her about her piece, and her answer is below.
Reflect on the process of completing your piece. What inspiration started your journey? What lessons did it lead you to?
The piece Newtown Literary published of mine titled “The Pursuit of Happiness” was one I had struggled with for years. Most of the short fiction I’ve been working on for seven, yes seven, years are part of a linked collection about an interracial family in my hometown of Long Island, NY. At the center of this collection is Mikayla Jenkins Smith, a Black woman who’s been told all her life she had so much “potential”. And let me tell you, “potential” is a dangerous word to use with someone. It can make you feel like no matter what, you’ll let someone down with your own choices. “Potential” can make it seem as though you’re slumming it simply by being.
When I began this collection at age 27, I purposely avoided Mikayla’s stories because I didn’t know who she was yet. I think I knew what I wanted her to be, but not what she as a character needed and wanted to be when I put pen to paper or my fingers to the keyboard. She’s a woman born in the 1950s who married a Caucasian doctor and left medical school because it was not her desired path. She’s a woman who wanted a family at a time when women were supposed to, and pushed to, want more than a matriarchal role. She’s a woman who had to navigate being a good Negro with constantly being perceived as “less than” when it was seemingly okay to make this claim as it was laid out very broadly in media, on television, in the news in a way that anyone seeing this today would flip a table at the audacity to say such a thing about a group of people.
So how was I, a 27-year-old, newly married woman, who was more career-minded than family-minded, going to portray that effectively? Other stories in my collection were drafted with ease, yet with others it took a while to slip myself into these characters skin or wait for them to instruct me on the direction of a particular story. Writing can be like using a Ouija board. You put your hands on the mirror and wait for the spirits to direct you to each letter constructing a larger message. So, for years I waited until Mikayla told me what her true fears were, what her passions were, what she sincerely wanted and the obstacles she faced. I listened to stories from my family—my mother would be around Mikayla’s age—about what she dealt with as a woman of color working in NYC in the 1970s and 1980s. What her childhood was like as the eldest daughter and how she saw herself in conjunction with how the world saw her.
And as I waited for Mikayla’s stories to take hold concentrating on others, I went through a divorce. I had a miscarriage. I was looking back on my life wondering if I had made the right decisions and if I had followed my own path or what I thought others wanted for me. What I thought I, as a Black woman, needed to do to continually prove myself as being good enough. I failed at what I wanted and succeeded at things I had no interest in, just like Mikayla. My marriage turned rocky before it completely dissolved and I found that while I hadn’t thought I could fully identify with Mikayla, she and I had much in common. Not just as women of color, but as people who wanted to believe that this time was the time that things would work out and in a blink it was gone. I remembered the pain of my miscarriage and being thankful and scared, and I wondered, how would it feel for a woman who was not thankful in this instance but very, very torn with fear?
As writers you grasp for something that almost seems unattainable. You hear the stats of how many people submit work and how many get published, you see the numbers, you get rejected over and over again. Even this story that took two years to polish and came in so many iterations in various workshops was rejected by a dozen or so magazines, sometimes with personalized letters admiring the work but saying, ultimately, “it wasn’t for them but send something else.” I took getting personalized rejections instead of form ones to mean I was getting closer. And I believed in this story.
Interestingly enough, many who read this particular story told me it made them uncomfortable because it put them so deeply in the body of Mikayla. That’s also when I knew that I was getting better and the story had life. If I could make someone feel something from this piece, that Mikayla’s experience could urge someone to see things from her perspective, then I had done her and this piece justice. After so many revisions and hours staring at the screen, then submitting it to critic after critic who told me there was more work to do, I wasn’t really failing, I was growing, and as long as I kept pushing myself, kept pushing this story, I would eventually succeed if not in publishing it as a standalone then getting it to where it needed to be. In the end I learned, just like Mikayla does in “Pursuit of Happiness”, you have to move forward to try and get what you want in life regardless of outcome; you have to keep trying. It was in finishing this story, in a way conquering it, that Mikayla was no longer a mystery to me as a character and I gained more confidence in myself to continue my collection as a whole.
Readers, mark your calendars:
- Join the Oh, Bernice! Reading Series at Astoria Bookshop on February 20 at 7 p.m. for readings by LaForrest Cope/ Freddy Dugard, Panagiota Lilikaki, and Jason Fishedick, hosted by Ann Podracky.
- Join Poetry and Coffee at Omonia Cafe on February 21 at 5 p.m. for a reading and discussion on “Love and Other Euphemisms.” Tickets are free but required.
- Join the LIC Reading Series on March 8 at 7:30 p.m. at LIC Bar for readings by John Leguizamo, Mira Jacob, and Tracy O’Neill. Reserve your seat now through Astoria Bookshop.
- The Jamaica Center for Arts & Learning is calling for artists to apply for a free one-month residency. For more information, and to apply, check out the JCAL website. Applications are accepted on a rolling basis.