Telling a Different Story
How to Cultivate Inclusivity at Literary Magazines
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are amplifiers of a cultural milieu, launching original work by new, important voices that might previously have gone unpublished.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