Telling a Dif­fer­ent Story

How to Cul­ti­vate Inclusivity at Lit­er­ary Mag­a­zines

Poets and Writers - - Contents - By jenn scheck-kahn

How to cul­ti­vate inclusivity at lit­er­ary mag­a­zines.

EV­ERY good lit­er­ary magazine editor dreams of dis­cov­er­ing the bold new voice that’s em­blem­atic of our time—of find­ing a pow­er­ful poem, story, or es­say in the slush pile and be­ing the first to pub­lish that writer’s work. But to writ­ers, lit­er­ary magazine ed­i­tors may seem more like gate­keep­ers than arche­ol­o­gists of tal­ent—ac­com­plished college pro­fes­sors and literati who en­gen­der, at best, a sense of author­ity, al­lure, and pres­tige, and at worst in­tim­i­da­tion, elitism, and ex­clu­sive­ness. For writ­ers of color, this tacit Keep Out sign looms much larger. It’s no se­cret that lit­er­ary mag­a­zines, like the greater pub­lish­ing in­dus­try, have a sys­temic prob­lem with power struc­ture—one in which white ed­i­tors are his­tor­i­cally at the top and white writ­ers get the ma­jor­ity of the pub­li­ca­tion cred­its. Even as some ad­vances have been made within the in­dus­try, it’s per­haps no sur­prise that writ­ers of color and those from other marginal­ized com­mu­ni­ties are of­ten dis­cour­aged by their pub­lish­ing prospects.

But lit­er­ary mag­a­zines are noth­ing with­out writ­ers. And in to­day’s lit­er­ary land­scape the most in­flu­en­tial pub­li­ca­tions are am­pli­fiers of a cul­tural milieu, launch­ing orig­i­nal work by new, im­por­tant voices that might pre­vi­ously have gone un­pub­lished. Lit­er­ary mag­a­zines must prove their rel­e­vance with each is­sue, a chal­lenge made pos­si­ble only when the ed­i­tors and in­sti­tu­tions that pub­lish them work to cul­ti­vate an en­vi­ron­ment that gen­uinely wel­comes and sup­ports new writ­ers, many of whom have been his­tor­i­cally ex­cluded from their pages.

AS AN editor, how do you ap­peal to writ­ers who have been sys­tem­at­i­cally des­ig­nated as out­siders? It’s not enough to re­move bar­ri­ers, the peo­ple or pro­cesses that make it dif­fi­cult for writ­ers of color and other marginal­ized peo­ple to be re­spected as artists. Nor is it enough to staff a magazine with sym­pa­thetic white lib­er­als. Ed­i­tors must build an in­fra­struc­ture of in­clu­sion that ac­knowl­edges the firm roots of the legacy it aims to dis­man­tle, and to do that they must es­tab­lish and up­hold a prac­tice of sus­tain­able par­tic­i­pa­tion.

Be­cause the best judges of inclusivity are writ­ers of color them­selves, I asked a num­ber of po­ets and writ­ers of color how they know when a lit­er­ary magazine is truly open to their work. I also asked sev­eral ed­i­tors to share their ex­pe­ri­ences and am­bi­tions for cul­ti­vat­ing inclusivity in their jour­nals. Over­whelm­ingly, the sen­ti­ment I heard was this: The lit­er­ary world, much like the larger world, func­tions within a long-es­tab­lished sys­tem of white supremacy that is be­gin­ning to be rec­og­nized by more writ­ers and ed­i­tors, who are at­tempt­ing to find ways to change it. Ex­plicit state­ments of in­clu­sion—whether in a magazine’s mis­sion state­ment or in its sub­mis­sion guide­lines—can be a good start­ing point for ed­i­tors who wish to be­gin dis­man­tling that sys­tem and to es­tab­lish an ethos of in­clu­sion at their mag­a­zines.

“An in­vi­ta­tion to sub­mit in the mis­sion state­ment sig­nals inclusivity and diver­sity,” says mem­oirist Daphne Strass­mann. “It’s like get­ting an in­vi­ta­tion to do some­thing that be­fore might have felt some­what in­ac­ces­si­ble.”

For mag­a­zines that fo­cus specif­i­cally on marginal­ized com­mu­ni­ties, ed­i­tors might ap­peal to those writ­ers di­rectly— ei­ther by ex­plic­itly wel­com­ing them in their mis­sion state­ments and calls for sub­mis­sions or by so­lic­it­ing them via e-mail or in per­son at lit­er­ary events and read­ings. But fo­cused outreach is less com­mon among tra­di­tional lit­er­ary mag­a­zines, and be­cause writ­ers of color have his­tor­i­cally en­coun­tered far

less work that re­sem­bles their own in such pub­li­ca­tions—whether in style, voice, or theme or by writ­ers from sim­i­lar racial or eth­nic back­grounds—it’s easy for them to as­sume their chances of be­ing pub­lished are lim­ited. “I have only sub­mit­ted to Chi­nese com­mu­nity pub­li­ca­tions so far be­cause they ea­gerly seek me out,” says cre­ative non­fic­tion writer and mem­oirist Cyn­thia Yee. “I may be mis­taken, but I usu­ally as­sume main­stream—and es­pe­cially highly lit­er­ary—mag­a­zines would re­ject my pieces.”

Adopt­ing state­ments of in­clu­sion at es­tab­lished mag­a­zines (for ex­am­ple, “We ac­tively seek work by writ­ers and artists of color, queer and gen­der non­con­form­ing writ­ers, and writ­ers from other un­der­rep­re­sented com­mu­ni­ties”) can help as­suage such as­sump­tions among marginal­ized writ­ers and may en­cour­age them to sub­mit. But such state­ments are only the first step. The best ev­i­dence of a magazine’s track record of inclusivity is found in its re­cent is­sues and ar­chives.

“It’s not ef­fec­tive for ed­i­tors to say, ‘We’re open to di­verse voices,’ as a gen­eral pol­icy state­ment,” says Geeta Kothari, non­fic­tion editor of the Kenyon Re­view. “Peo­ple look at the jour­nal it­self, and if they don’t see them­selves in the pages, noth­ing an editor in chief says will make the jour­nal more hos­pitable. Many long-es­tab­lished jour­nals that have tra­di­tion­ally been closed to di­verse voices have an im­age prob­lem, and it doesn’t help that of­ten ev­ery­one on the mast­head is white.” With peo­ple of color on the mast­head, and in par­tic­u­lar when a per­son of color is at the ed­i­to­rial helm, a magazine is more likely to send a clear mes­sage that it’s a sup­port­ive out­let for writ­ers of color. Such ed­i­tors may, as Yee says, “have greater sen­si­tiv­ity to is­sues of peo­ple of color due to their own ex­pe­ri­ence.”

That’s how poet Kwame Dawes felt when he was hired as the first Black editor of Prairie Schooner in the jour­nal’s ninety-plus years of pub­li­ca­tion. “Prairie Schooner knew my record of suc­cess with var­i­ous pub­lish­ing ven­tures that have sought to be in­clu­sive and di­verse,” says Dawes, who serves as the magazine’s Glenna Luschei editor in chief. “So this was not a cos­metic hire; it was cal­cu­lated. The les­son: Change hap­pens when lead­er­ship changes and when those who run a pub­li­ca­tion make bold moves.”

An­drew Jimenez, the se­nior editor of F(r)ic­tion, also con­sid­ers writ­ers of color when se­lect­ing con­test judges, a choice that can en­cour­age writ­ers of color to sub­mit and trust that their work will be taken se­ri­ously. For the magazine’s most re­cent con­test, he in­vited Megan Giddings, Ce­leste Ng, and Tommy Pico to judge. “Rep­re­sen­ta­tion is very im­por­tant,” Jimenez says. “Our short story win­ner this round is Joe Mi­lan Jr., a Korean Amer­i­can writer.”

How­ever, Che­lene Knight, manag­ing editor of Room, warns against the trap of to­kenism. “It’s not enough to sim­ply of­fer up a guest edit­ing spot for a per­son of color and as­sume that’s inclusivity. A magazine needs to con­sider the tools and re­sources re­quired for suc­cess, such as an of­fice that in­cludes other peo­ple of color, eq­ui­table pay, and inclusivity and diver­sity mis­sions that are well es­tab­lished and in prac­tice.”

“I look at the mast­head,” says poet and fic­tion writer Man­isha Sharma, who adds that she seeks out ed­i­tors from a va­ri­ety of eth­nic and racial back­grounds when re­search­ing prospec­tive out­lets. Kothari also stresses the im­por­tance of diver­sity on a magazine’s per­ma­nent staff, a prob­lem that can be harder to solve for jour­nals pub­lished by an es­tab­lished in­sti­tu­tion than it is for those that op­er­ate in­de­pen­dently. “Ed­i­to­rial po­si­tions are of­ten tied to hires in English de­part­ments,” she says, “so for a jour­nal’s mast­head to change, the English depart­ment—or what­ever unit does the hire—has be com­mit­ted to diver­sity and cre­ate a po­si­tion within that depart­ment that wel­comes a wide range of ap­pli­cants.”

In ad­di­tion to hav­ing peo­ple of color on staff, “ed­i­tors should con­sider ways to sup­port writ­ers of color in ev­ery stage of their op­er­a­tions,” says Yilin Wang, for­mer po­etry editor of Ri­cepa­per, an Asian Cana­dian lit­er­ary jour­nal. “[This may in­clude] hav­ing an eq­uity and in­clu­sion com­mit­tee and look­ing for ways to pro­vide men­tor­ship for writ­ers of color and to reach out to peo­ple of color.”

Magazine ed­i­tors, whether they’re peo­ple of color or not, can more ef­fec­tively de­velop and com­mu­ni­cate a prac­tice of inclusivity by be­ing ac­tive par­tic­i­pants in the lit­er­ary com­mu­nity. They may at­tend con­fer­ences, fes­ti­vals, com­mu­nity lit­er­ary events and read­ings or serve as guest fac­ulty at work­shops and re­treats. “Talk­ing to peo­ple face-to-face is much more wel­com­ing than a pro forma state­ment about com­mit­ment to diver­sity,” Kothari says. Chloe Gar­cia Roberts, the manag­ing editor of Har­vard Re­view, agrees. “We main­tain re­la­tion­ships with pro­grams, or­ga­ni­za­tions, and pub­lish­ers that pro­mote diver­sity, such as the Fine Arts Work Cen­ter in Province­town, [Mas­sachusetts,] where Ma­jor Jack­son, our po­etry editor, is on the board,” she says.

By par­tic­i­pat­ing in the lit­er­ary com­mu­nity, ed­i­tors not only make their pres­ence vis­i­ble, but they can also make con­nec­tions with emerg­ing writ­ers who they may solicit or en­cour­age to sub­mit to their pub­li­ca­tions. By sim­ply get­ting out and meet­ing writ­ers, ed­i­tors can com­mu­ni­cate an im­plicit or ex­plicit di­rec­tive about their magazine’s mis­sion and the kinds of writ­ers and work they seek.

An­other way to make in­clu­sive pub­lish­ing prac­tices and diver­sity of con­trib­u­tors known is through a jour­nal’s web­site, where writ­ers may have eas­ier ac­cess to the kind of work a jour­nal puts out.

“The web­site re­mains the front door of a lit­er­ary jour­nal,” says Prairie Schooner’s Dawes. “So our ap­proach is to cre­ate projects on the web­site that fea­ture more in­ter­na­tional writ­ers and writ­ers of color. Fu­sion, Air Schooner, our blog series, and our use of press re­leases and Twit­ter feeds helped to cre­ate that char­ac­ter long be­fore we saw an im­pact in the ac­tual jour­nal.”

With more space for photos and bios to ac­com­pany pub­lished pieces, web­sites also have the abil­ity to of­fer prospec­tive con­trib­u­tors a clearer un­der­stand­ing of who they’re pub­lish­ing.

“Pho­to­graphs of au­thors, ed­i­tors, and stakeholders of a magazine show who the magazine is by and for,” Strass­mann says.

IT’S ob­vi­ous but true: Pub­lish­ing writ­ers of color begets the pub­lish­ing of more writ­ers of color. “Two years ago, af­ter we pub­lished a poem called ‘Our Leg­end’ by Nige­rian poet D. M. Aderibigbe, I no­ticed an in­crease in sub­mis­sions by other Nige­rian writ­ers,” says Jen­nifer Bar­ber, editor of Sala­man­der. “We’ve sub­se­quently pub­lished poems by ‘Gbenga Adeoba, Ne­be­liosa Ok­wudili, and David Ishaya Osu, and we look forward to the word con­tin­u­ing to spread in this way.”

Writ­ers of color con­firm that when they see other writ­ers of color in a jour­nal, they’re more likely to sub­mit. “I usu­ally check the ta­ble of con­tents be­fore I send my sto­ries to a lit­er­ary magazine,” Sharma says.

“If I see all white au­thors,” says cre­ative non­fic­tion writer Brian Broome, “I won’t bother.”

A name, how­ever, can tell you only so much about the iden­tity of a per­son. Photos can be a way to of­fer greater trans­parency in terms of a magazine’s con­trib­u­tors, but space is of­ten lim­ited in print mag­a­zines. What writ­ers of color of­ten seek in­stead is a sign­post—a sig­ni­fier in the writ­ing that might in­clude cul­tur­ally spe­cific words, places, or rit­u­als that are likely to be un­fa­mil­iar to most read­ers. Broome con­sid­ers the sub­ject mat­ter as well as the iden­tity of past con­trib­u­tors when de­cid­ing where to sub­mit. “The is­sue with writ­ing while Black is that you’re not al­ways writ­ing about be­ing Black,” he says. “So I do look to see if there are writ­ers of color in the ar­chives. But I also want to know what these writ­ers are writ­ing about. My ex­pe­ri­ences have all been pretty pos­i­tive with lit­er­ary mag­a­zines; I’ve been very lucky. But ev­ery piece I’ve ever got­ten pub­lished has al­ways specif­i­cally dealt with be­ing Black. I don’t know if I nec­es­sar­ily want that all the time. Some­times I write about other things.”

An­other con­cern among writ­ers of color is that a magazine may have an un­spo­ken quota for rep­re­sen­ta­tion. If a magazine pub­lishes a story by a Lat­inx writer in one is­sue, for ex­am­ple, will it be open to pub­lish­ing a story by a dif­fer­ent Lat­inx writer in the next? For his part, Jim Hicks, ex­ec­u­tive editor of the Mas­sachusetts Re­view, doesn’t be­lieve in quo­tas. “We’d be more likely to fa­vor a piece that has res­o­nance with some­thing we’ve al­ready ac­cepted, rather than not,” he says. “In our ta­ble of con­tents I like to cre­ate clus­ters of sto­ries and es­says that speak to one an­other, and cer­tainly writ­ers from the same coun­try or the same re­gion could over­lap, or per­haps con­trast, in in­ter­est­ing ways.”

Ask ed­i­tors what per­cent­age of their con­trib­u­tors are peo­ple of

color and many won’t know, but the Mas­sachusetts Re­view has mon­i­tored its de­mo­graphic in­for­ma­tion of con­trib­u­tors for years. “Given the legacy of our magazine, with its his­tory of pub­lish­ing Black Arts and Black Power writ­ers, as well as sec­ond­wave fem­i­nists, we fig­ure we’ve got a his­tory worth liv­ing up to,” says Hicks. “Al­though we’d never de­cide against a writer be­cause of ori­gin, we do keep track of cat­e­gories, and we even count, just to keep a check on our­selves and not as­sume that bi­ases won’t some­how creep in. So far, since I’ve been editor, we’ve av­er­aged be­tween 20 and 25 per­cent peo­ple of color in our is­sues; that’s up to 30 per­cent in the past two years. And in terms of gen­der, we’ve ba­si­cally got par­ity.”

The ed­i­tors at Prairie Schooner don’t track the race and eth­nic­ity of their sub­mit­ters, but they do flag in­ter­na­tional sub­mis­sions based on ad­dresses or dis­clo­sure in cover let­ters. “It’s mostly just to help us get an at-a-glance sense of how many of our sub­mis­sions are in­ter­na­tional,” says manag­ing editor Ash­ley Stros­nider, “and a visual re­minder to in­ter­nal read­ers and ed­i­tors to read with an eye to­ward inclusivity.”

Should ed­i­tors track the race and eth­nic­ity of their con­trib­u­tors and sub­mit­ters? It’s un­der­stand­able that writ­ers of color might not want to draw at­ten­tion to the par­tic­u­lars of their iden­tity in a cover let­ter— as many have faced dis­crim­i­na­tion, pi­geon­hol­ing, or ac­cu­sa­tions of un­earned ac­co­lades in this process—and it’s also un­der­stand­able that ed­i­tors might shy away from ask­ing them to do so. But Sven Birk­erts, the editor of Agni, be­lieves there are ben­e­fits to hav­ing sub­mis­sion guide­lines that ask writ­ers of color to self-iden­tify.

“I don’t check a writer’s bi­o­graph­i­cal in­for­ma­tion un­til af­ter I see some­thing in their writ­ing I ad­mire and de­cide it’s a con­tender for the magazine,” he says. “But if I like a piece and find out that it’s by a per­son who’s part of an un­der­rep­re­sented pop­u­la­tion, I’m even more likely to find a space for it in our pages.”

Pub­lish­ing themed is­sues can be an­other use­ful method for en­cour­ag­ing sub­mis­sions from a di­verse pop­u­la­tion of writ­ers. “A call for sub­mis­sions with a fo­cus on heart­break, for in­stance, has an open­ness about it that tran­scends iden­tity,” Strass­mann says.

“We try to have a wide range of themes,” says Hat­tie Fletcher, manag­ing editor of Cre­ative Non­fic­tion, “in hopes that it will help us ap­peal to a wide range of writ­ers.”

“I sub­mit­ted to Cre­ative Non­fic­tion be­cause the theme was ‘Child­hood,’” Broome says. “We’ve all had one of those.”

Al­ter­na­tively a lit­er­ary magazine might choose to fea­ture a spe­cific com­mu­nity of writ­ers as a fo­cus for an is­sue, as the Com­mon’s editor Jen­nifer Acker did af­ter spend­ing a year in Abu Dhabi. There she met Jor­da­nian writer Hisham Bus­tani, who be­came the cocu­ra­tor of an is­sue com­posed en­tirely of Mid­dle Eastern voices that car­ried the theme “Ta­jdeed,” or re­newal in Ara­bic.

“It was an enor­mous un­der­tak­ing,” Acker says. “Twenty-six au­thors, five artists, and eigh­teen trans­la­tors rep­re­sent­ing seven­teen coun­tries con­trib­uted. Hisham and I are con­tin­u­ing to work to­gether to make the Com­mon a home for cut­ting-edge Ara­bic lit­er­a­ture.”

HOST­ING events specif­i­cally for writ­ers of color is an­other way to cul­ti­vate inclusivity. Ed­i­tors might hold an Ask the Editor night at a lo­cal book­store, or a read­ing, work­shop, or Live Twit­ter event, in which they ex­plic­itly iden­tify writ­ers of color as wel­comed par­tic­i­pants. The lit­er­ary or­ga­ni­za­tion GrubStreet sup­ports a Bos­ton Writ­ers of Color group with more than 670 mem­bers and a re­lated monthly event series, which in­cludes in­for­mal Q&As with prominent writ­ers of color, so­cial events, and a Sub­mit-a-Thon. “Our goal is to cre­ate op­por­tu­ni­ties, share re­sources, and build com­mu­nity among fel­low

writ­ers of color,” says GrubStreet staffer Sonya Lar­son.

“It’s no un­der­state­ment that writ­ers of color have found a home at GrubStreet, which for years has been fa­cil­i­tat­ing hon­est con­ver­sa­tions about race in the lit­er­ary com­plex,” says Strass­mann. “The in­ti­mate for­mat of these events con­tin­ues to val­i­date our place as writ­ers who hap­pen to be of color.”

De­spite the im­ple­men­ta­tion of strate­gies like these, Jimenez be­lieves writ­ers of color still face sig­nif­i­cant bar­ri­ers to pub­li­ca­tion. “This in­dus­try is very An­glo-cen­tered in its world­view—so much so that even some­one like my­self is used to a spe­cific type of story. Too much of that can make you con­flate a well-told story of that type with the idea that it is the only ‘cor­rect’ way to tell a story. Writ­ers of color don’t nec­es­sar­ily tell sto­ries that have a dif­fer­ent sub­ject mat­ter; they tell sto­ries dif­fer­ently.”

Those dif­fer­ent styles of art-mak­ing should be en­cour­aged to flour­ish, and editor Ros­alyn Spencer has de­signed an on­line lit­er­ary magazine to do just that. “Rig­or­ous was cre­ated by peo­ple of color, is edited by peo­ple of color, and of­fers artists of color the free­dom to ex­press their art and find plea­sure in the merit of their writ­ing with­out the pa­ram­e­ters set and de­fined by Euro­pean minds. I am proud to have had Black, In­dige­nous, South­east Asian, Chi­nese, Haitian, His­panic, queer, trans, gay, les­bian, women, men, and bira­cial peo­ple fea­tured in my magazine. Ac­cord­ing to some, be­cause I do not fea­ture artists of Euro­pean de­scent, I do not in­te­grate. I’m not in­clu­sive. To them, the ab­sence of white­ness is the ab­sence of all else.”

When it comes to in­clu­sion in the lit­er­ary in­dus­try, there’s still a lot of work to do. But as new mag­a­zines like Rig­or­ous emerge and older mag­a­zines re­struc­ture to make inclusivity an in­te­gral part of their mis­sions, mast­heads, and outreach, the land­scape has seen a slow but marked shift. As GrubStreet’s Lar­son puts it, “For many sys­temic rea­sons writ­ers of color are se­verely un­der­rep­re­sented and un­der-cham­pi­oned in the lit­er­ary and pub­lish­ing worlds. We’re chang­ing that—en­er­giz­ing our own ad­vance­ment and sup­port­ing one an­other.”

Daphne Strass­mann, au­thor

Kwame Dawes, Prairie Schooner

Geeta Kothari, Kenyon Re­view

Brian Broome, au­thor

Sonya Lar­son, GrubStreet

An­drew Jimenez, F(r)ic­tion

Man­isha Sharma, au­thor

Ros­alyn Spencer, Rig­or­ous

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