Bil Wright examines race, sexuality in third novel
Don't be fooled by his magical eyes and disarmingly boyish smile. Bil Wright is a writer with great depth and versatility as he celebrates the release of his third novel this month.
"When the Black Girl Sings" (Simon & Schuster) revolves around Lahni Schuler, a young teen aged black girl and daughter of adoptive white parents, who must deal with their impending divorce and also forge her identity as the only black student in a private prep school. But her life begins to change after she discovered gospel music at a local church.
Survival and self-discovery are common themes throughout Wright's work. And he told EDGE New York in a recent interview they reflect his own life.
"I think on some level I consider myself a survivor," Wright said. "I have such an affinity for the outsider and how dark and how lonely that road can be."
He acknowledged he feels self-discovery is a prominent part of a person's sexuality.
"The sensitivity, the vulnerability and the defensiveness were all a part of my coming out process and they continue to be a part of who I am as a gay man," Wright said. "So if I'm continuing the journey of self-discovery, the sexuality piece is absolutely part of it."
He further pointed to choir director Marcus Delacroix as a character -- and a positive gay role model -- who stands out in the novel.
"Marcus is a strong father figure, an artist, and he's a caring, gifted man, and that is extremely important to me," Wright said.
He also explained he feels a connection to Lahni.
"I've taught forever and I've always been really in touch with young people because the kid in me is so alive," Wright said. "I've taught forever and I've always been really in touch with young people because the kid in me is so alive. I understand what it is to not know and blunder through. I've done a lot of blundering through."
Born into a working-class family, Wright recalled his strong-willed mother always called him a dilettante and urged him to figure out what he wanted to do and to focus on it. He conceded most of his contemporaries did not consider writing a career option for young men of color but he persevered.
"It took me a really long time to understand that you could have a career and that you could be paid for it," Wright said.
A change in attitude came after he auditioned for an Assotto Saint play. Wright admitted he "chickened out" because of its graphic language but Saint later invited him to join the group Other Countries after he found out he was a writer.
"It was specifically black gay men writing, and they were so focused on publishing and performing the work," Wright said. "That was pretty great."
That experience soon led him to meet George Stambolian, editor of the "Men on Men" anthologies, who published one of his stories in its third edition in 1990. Wright described the anthology at that time as "pretty lily-white" but added, however, he feels his story was well-received because it was "very black."
"He [Stambolian] was brilliant and he helped me focus on the story," Wright recalled. "Our first reading was at A Different Light and the only reason I was asked to read was because it was in New York. Afterwards, George pulled me aside and said, 'Why the hell didn't you tell me you could read like that?"
Simon & Schuster published his first novel, the acclaimed "Sunday You Learn How to Box" in 2000. It focuses on a 14-year-old boy from the projects who comes to terms with his masculinity. Some reviewers called it a gay coming-of-age novel despite Wright's original intent. And Simon & Schuster printed nearly 40,000 to respond to the demand.
Wright published his second novel, "One Foot in Love," in 2004. And although his work examines race, sexuality, class and religion, one can arguably conclude it transcends these hot topics. Wright is not bothered by "gay" or "black fiction" and other categorizations.
"The publishing business will do what it needs to do to sell books," he said. "Once you send that thing to the publisher, it becomes part of the process and you are powerless to what critics or even booksellers do with the work."
But Wright let out a sigh of relief as he summed up his career to this point.
"When I look back at that little kid writing things on scraps of paper, I'm just very grateful to be published."
Bil Wright will be reading from "When the Black Girl Sings" on Monday, Feb. 11, at 7:30 p.m., at Barnes & Noble on the corner of Sixth Avenue and West 8th Street in Greenwich Village.
[Editor's note: EDGE incorrectly asserted that the author's mother disapproved of his writing in a previous version of this article. We apologize for this error.]