OUTSIDERS ON THE INSIDE
SEVEN WRITERS WHO EXIST ON THE MARGINS—WOMEN OF COLOR, DISABLED WOMEN, AND QUEER WOMEN WHO HAVE NO MFAS, LITERARY AGENTS, OR INDUSTRY CONNECTIONS—HAVE FORGED THEIR OWN PATHS TO PUBLICATION. HERE’S HOW THEY DID IT.
Seven writers who exist on the margins—women of color, disabled women, and queer women who have no MFAs, literary agents, or industry connections—have forged their own paths to publication.
SANDRA Gail Lambert took a roundabout path to publication. She didn’t start writing or publishing in earnest until her fifties, after working for years as the co-owner and manager of Charis Books, a collective feminist bookstore in Atlanta. She doesn’t have an MFA or connections to a major publisher. She’s a sixty-six-year-old woman and a self-identified lesbian who also uses a wheelchair. Diagnosed with polio as an infant, Lambert spent her childhood as a military brat, rarely staying in one place for long and moving with her parents to countries such as England and Norway. Along the way she developed a deep love of reading and an intense connection to landscape and nature, which is reflected today in her fiction and essays. The first person in her family to graduate high school and get a college degree, she began working at Charis in 1980. During her time at the bookstore she attended numerous literary events and readings and began to dream of being a writer—one who got to go behind the ropes at book fairs and participate on panels at literary conferences. Today she is living her dream. Her debut novel, The River’s Memory, was published in 2014, when Lambert was sixty-two. Her memoir, A Certain Loneliness, is forthcoming from the University of Nebraska Press. She also received a 2018
NEA Fellowship in Creative Writing and recently took on a mentorship position with the Association of Writers and
Writing Programs’ Writer to Writer
So how did an outsider like
Lambert—an older, disabled, gay woman with no MFA or literary agent—break into the seemingly insular
American literary community? The answer is as multifaceted as
Lambert’s life and as complex as the concept of the outsider itself.
Although the history of Western literature is rich with legends of outsider writers who found success, the scales have always been tipped in favor of men. This imbalance continues today, as evidenced in the annual count conducted by VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. Since 2010 VIDA’s researchers have collected and analyzed data representing gender disparity in publishing, surveying bylines and coverage in fifteen top print publications each year. The 2017 count, which was released earlier this summer, reveals that men still dominate the industry. Only two of the fifteen publications analyzed achieved parity between male and female writers. Writers from other marginalized communities—writers of color, queer writers, and disabled writers among them—experience similar exclusion from much of the mainstream writing and publishing world.
The literary community in the United States is only now beginning to explore the ways that racist, sexist, homophobic, classist, ageist, and ableist attitudes have limited the production, relevance, and reach of literature in America. And the U.S. literary market is starting to discover just how hungry readers are for outsider stories. But despite increased awareness and inclusiveness in some corners of the industry, the fact is that outsiders must still speak louder, write better, and work harder to have their voices heard.
Who exactly is an outsider? Is it a self-defined status? Is membership required in what the Supreme Court calls a “suspect class”—those who have historically faced discrimination? Or are outsiders people who have that status thrust upon them whether they like it or not, and then decide to embrace the designation? The writers I spoke with for this piece share a few things in common: They are all people who belong to marginalized communities, who don’t see people like themselves equitably represented in literature or within the publishing industry. And either by choice or necessity or a combination of both, they found publishing success not in the mainstream, but in small, independent magazines and presses—those outlets that so often lift up outsider voices.
LIKE many disabled children of the midtwentieth century, Lambert was subjected to medical interventions that now seem strange and even brutalizing, including lengthy hospitalizations that separated her from the natural world. As a young adult her love affairs, backpacking trips, and political activism were accessorized with leg braces and crutches. Ultimately the pain, fatigue, and muscle weakness of post-polio syndrome led her in middle age to begin using a wheelchair. As she has noted, the phrase “wheelchair-bound” is a misnomer—using a wheelchair has freed her, making it possible to focus her energies on what matters most to her: writing, traveling, activism, and spending time outdoors.
Lambert published a few stories in small literary magazines in the late 1980s but soon thereafter stopped submitting work. In 2006 she renewed her sights on publication and received acceptances from magazines such as Gertrude, Brevity, the Southern Review, and the Alaska Quarterly Review. She eventually found a home for her novel with Twisted Road Publications, a small press in Tallahassee, Florida, whose mission is to publish marginalized voices. Then, without the help of an agent, she informally pitched her memoir to the University of Nebraska Press at the 2017 Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference. The editor asked for a sample, and after months of e-mails, phone calls, and a full manuscript review, Lambert was offered a contract. A Certain Loneliness will be published in September.
Sarah Nichols, a poet in her midforties, doesn’t have a book contract, but she does have four chapbooks coming out this year with small presses. Nichols, who has managed a major depressive disorder her entire life, knew since childhood that she wanted to be a writer. She dropped out of high school and eventually earned a GED, then let go of formal education. When she first started sending her poems to literary journals, she felt intimidated by the contributors’ bios.
“Everyone seemed to have an MFA,” she says, “and I felt silenced by that.” A feminist working to tell women’s stories, Nichols has written persona poems in voices as diverse as the Black Dahlia and the characters from Grey Gardens. She also writes ekphrastically; one of her 2018 chapbooks, How Darkness Enters the Body (Porkbelly Press), focuses on the work of photographer Diane Arbus.
MICHELE SHARPE writes poetry, occasional political pieces, and nonfiction, including the memoir Walk Away, which was published as a Kindle Single in 2016. A high school dropout, hepatitis C survivor, adoptee, and former trial attorney, she lives in North Florida.
For Nichols success means showing up and doing the work in spite of the rejections that she now takes in stride, and it means disciplining herself to write and submit regularly. Her outsider status frees her writing practice, Nichols says, as she answers to no one.
Majda Talal Gama is another poet without a college degree. Rather than “outsider,” she prefers “misfit,” a term recently popularized by Lidia Yuknavitch in her TED talk and subsequent book, The Misfit’s Manifesto (TED Books, 2017). The daughter of an American mother and a Saudi father, Gama grew up in the Middle East and in her teens moved to the United States, where she immersed herself in punk rock culture. When she began writing, she imitated the male Beat poets, in search of her voice. As she read and wrote more, she developed her own voice, themes, and subjects, including the punk aesthetic and the life and landscapes of the Middle East. As a poet writing in America, she has shouldered a common outsider’s burden: being misread based on preconceived notions about her culture. In Gama’s case this has often meant editors and readers interpreting her work as sinister or violent because of their own biases and misconceptions about Middle Eastern culture.
“It’s an othering within American poetry that truly keeps you on the margins,” she says. “It’s exhausting to have to contextualize this world for others.” Gama’s work has been published widely in venues such as the Normal School and the Beloit Poetry Journal. She is the poetry editor of Tinderbox Poetry Journal and was part of a panel at the 2018 Split This Rock festival on the poetry lineage that Middle Eastern and Asian writers take with them into the diaspora. Recently she Googled herself and learned that people she doesn’t know are in dialogue with her poems on social media platforms like Tumblr and Twitter. She counts that, too, as literary success.
A writer who has experienced success in multiple genres, Shannon Connor Winward is the 2018 winner of the Emerging Artist Fellowship in fiction from the Delaware Division of the Arts and the author of the poetry chapbook Undoing Winter, which was published by Finishing Line Press in 2014. A bisexual, pagan woman with disabilities, Winward identifies as an outsider. But what makes her feel most like an outsider in the literary world is that she writes outside of academia. Working full-time to support herself while managing her disabilities meant it took her eight years to finish a four-year college degree, and she stopped there. She finds that writers with MFA degrees have the advantage of connections— they have access to a network of other writers and often publish one another in the journals and small presses they edit.
“They are cohorts in a culture that I’ve never been a part of,” Winward says. “Getting into certain venues, getting noticed by the literati seems unlikely for a suburban cleaning lady’s daughter with a self-directed and spotty literary education.”
Does formal literary education like an MFA lead to publishing success? There are more than two hundred MFA programs in the United States (see page 85), and new programs are cropping up each year. In a 2017 Literary Hub article, “MFA by the Numbers,” Amy Brady estimates that twenty thousand people applied to these programs in 2016 and that MFA programs in the United States graduate approximately three thousand writers each year. Creative writing degrees can certainly lead to publishing success for some writers: Between 2010 and 2017, each winner of the American Poetry Review’s annual Honickman First Book Prize held an MFA (though this year’s winner has only a BA in creative writing). Conversely, only 13 percent of the authors on the New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list for July 8, 2018, have MFAs, and a quick survey of the recent history of that list shows it’s rare for more than one or two writers with literary degrees to appear on it. In short, while an MFA can be useful to a writer’s career, it’s not a guaranteed path to publication.
FAR away from the literary world, Jenna Lê is very much an insider: She is a practicing physician and a professor at Dartmouth College’s Geisel School of Medicine. But she’s also a poet and essayist, and within that world she lives on the margins. As the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants growing up in the Midwest, Lê had a talent for math but also felt drawn to literature.
“I worshipped a literary canon to whose authors and characters I bore no outward resemblance,” she says, and “envied Elizabeth Bennet and Jane Eyre for not only their Anglo surnames, but also their fluency in the norms of their respective sociocultural milieus.” Being an ethnic outsider didn’t end when she left the Midwest. After her first book was published, Lê was invited to join a poets group, most of whose members were white.
“One of the most vocal members frequently went on obscene bilious tirades about his belief that writers of color derive an unfair advantage from their race,” she says. “When I objected I was told I was oversensitive.” Feeling personally targeted by the man’s statements and often thrown into emotional turmoil, she left the group.
“I will not be anyone’s token or human shield,” Lê says. “And this experience taught me that I actually do much of my best and freest writing alone. Preserving some degree of solitude helps me maintain the integrity of my unique voice.”
Lê’s first collection of poetry, Six Rivers (NYQ Books, 2011), was named a Small Press Distribution Poetry Bestseller. Her second collection, A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora, published by Anchor & Plume Press in 2016 and reissued by Indolent Books in 2018, won second place in the 2017 Elgin Awards. She also publishes fiction and essays, and her work has appeared in influential journals including AGNI and the Massachusetts Review.
A writer’s racial or ethnic background and lack of academic credentials, coupled with controversial content, can also lead to feeling like an outsider. Shanon Lee, an African American freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area, takes on complex topics like marital rape and the legacies of slavery, subjects that aren’t always welcomed among mainstream publications. Lee began her career blogging with DivorcedMoms.com, where she found a community among other divorced mothers. A month after she joined, DivorcedMoms was syndicating her content on HuffPost, and Lee decided to work toward expanding her subject matter and her reach.
“So much of getting work as a freelancer is who you know,” she says. “And I knew nobody. I learned early not to put a lot of energy into trying to figure out whether to do stuff. I just did it.”
Institutionalized racism also influences Lee’s self-identification as an outsider. “I’m usually the only POC at local readings and one of the few on media panels in D.C.,” she says. Lee was the first Black writer selected for an Inner Loop writing residency at Woodlawn
Plantation in Fairfax County, Virginia, a cultural center with, ironically, a long history of slavery.
Lee feels successful when publications seek her out—the Lily, for example, an online publication run by women, recently reached out to her to write about #MeToo—and when she hears from writers and readers whose lives she has touched. But she gets frustrated, too, because it’s easy for Black writers to be pigeonholed. “Writers don’t want to be put in a box,” Lee says. “Racial background and ethnicity can definitely affect the stories writers of color are assigned and the publications we want to continue relationships with.”
A member of the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) speaker bureau, Lee advocates for survivors of sexual assault and also mentors new writers. “You’re supposed to be writing the stories you want to write,” she tells them. “An opportunity will open up for you to do that.”
WRITING as an outsider often means navigating cultural borders— those between the conventional and the unconventional, the powerful and the disempowered. Outsiders inhabit the liminal spaces between those borders, the spaces from which new knowledge, heroism, and insight routinely spring. But cultural borders can be oppressive, just like national ones.
Naomi Ortiz lives in the Arizona desert, about forty miles from the U.S.– Mexico border. As a disabled mestiza (indigenous, Latina, white) woman for whom physical space is often inaccessible, and with family on both sides of the border, she sees herself as inhabiting a literal and figurative borderland. Another writer who has made success for herself without an MFA, Ortiz also ventured into writing without a mentor.
“Nobody in my world has been a writer or in the arts,” she says. “I’ve had to [do] everything on my own.”
If not for modest advances in technology, Ortiz would not be able to be a writer at all. She uses Dragon Dictate speech recognition software to get her words onto the page and out to the public. She is a longtime disability justice advocate, speaker, and facilitator, and blogs about self-care for writers, encouraging her readers to be mindful of what their bodies are telling them. Her book, Sustaining Spirit: Self-Care for Social Justice, was published in June by Reclamation Press. Like many people with disabilities, Ortiz’s process can be slow; she advises others to trust what feels right for them in terms of process and to trust the universe as
far as outcomes. “We work for days, months, years,” she says, “and ultimately our work is an offering to the world.”
Although she identifies as a literary outsider, Ortiz has been very much an insider in the disability rights movement. She managed a national youth disability project for an organization called Kids as Self Advocates, through which she deepened her understanding of disability culture and pride. Being affiliated with that group gave her an insider credibility when she was interviewing activists from different movements while conducting research for her book.
Disability activism has begun to take on a larger presence in the literary community, with writers like Ortiz working to ensure that literary event spaces are more accessible. But the issue of inaccessibility continues to be a challenge. In a February 2017 blog for Academe, Stephen Kuusisto, a poet, author, and scholar who is blind, writes: “That disability is a matter of culture; that the cripples are among the concertgoers, the literate, the citizenry is hard for academics to fully grasp.” Progress has been spotty, especially when disabled people are not consulted about how to effectively accommodate disabilities. The Disabled and Deaf Uprising collective’s “Report From the Field” on the 2018 AWP conference in Tampa, for instance, detailed how disabled attendees had been told there would be an accessible shuttle from the hotel to the conference. But when they arrived there was no such shuttle. People who were unable to walk from the hotel to the conference were forced to pay for private transportation, if they could find and afford it. While awareness about accessibility in the literary community has improved somewhat in recent years, there’s still a long way to go.
IN FEBRUARY of last year, I went for a ramble with Sandra Gail Lambert at the Sweetwater Wetlands Park in North Central Florida, which opened to the public in 2016. As we passed through the gate that keeps bison and wild horses out of the parking area, me on foot and Sandra in her power wheelchair, a long, loud wail hit the back of my neck like a piercing alarm.
“What the hell is that?” I yelped. “A limpkin,” Lambert said calmly. “There’s some courting action going on.”
Lambert has lived in Gainesville for more than twenty-five years, since leaving her job at the bookstore because of her worsening post-polio syndrome. A skilled outdoorswoman from years of kayaking through Florida’s marshes and waterways, she is well versed on the birds that inhabit these ecosystems. Sure enough, a limpkin soon flew overhead, followed by a second that let out another banshee shriek.
It’s the diversity and ferocity of nature that intrigues Lambert most. Although she is fond of alligators— “Northerners are so fascinated by us getting close to them,” she says—she feels most connected to dragonflies. Flying, she says, they can change direction instantly and with such power that their flight skills have been studied, unsuccessfully, by the military. They look fragile, but they are fierce and even fiercer in their larval stage. They will mob you at dusk, knowing your breath
is a lure for mosquitoes, their favorite food. Their multifaceted eyes see colors that are invisible to humans—Lambert has spent many hours observing dragonflies and wondering what they see that she does not.
When she was a kid, not unlike many young girls, Lambert didn’t know where she fit in. But being disabled in an able-bodied community made her feel even more different. When other kids went to gym class, she was sent to learn how to type— which in retrospect was a good thing for a future writer. Her circumstances often kept her on the outside, but they gave her an appreciation for personal freedom and the ability to tolerate isolation. Her memoir, A Certain Loneliness, explores the conflicts of asserting her independence in a world that expects her to rely on others and the tensions between that independence and loneliness.
Being part of a writing community has resolved some of those tensions. Reading stories made Lambert feel better in times of stress and loneliness, and in her dreams of being a writer her goal was to make others feel better too. When she was first starting out, her writing was about explaining her disability to the abled world. That, she says, was demeaning, and she never wants to do it again. Today she writes about her life with no apology or explanation, and she accepts that some readers will get it all wrong. Her definition of success has changed over the years; in the beginning it was about finishing a piece, then it was about publishing a piece. Now Lambert is in the process of finding an agent for her next novel. And always, she says, success is about expanding her writerly community and helping other writers on the margins. Lately that has meant helping new writers through the AWP mentorship program and coediting an online anthology, Older Queer Voices: The Intimacy of Survival (olderqueervoices.com).
Lambert used to joke that if she were seen being happy in public, then she’d done her political work for the day. That doesn’t mean she hasn’t been ferocious in defending her integrity when uninformed strangers tell her how brave she is to be out on her own in her wheelchair, or when they have the temerity to try to touch her—something she says happens often. When she writes of such incidents, as she did in her personal essay “The Laundromat,” published in Hippocampus Magazine in 2016, you can’t help but experience some righteous indignation on her behalf. If your own body or integrity has been violated in such a way, you can identify with her story. And even if it hasn’t, you might begin to understand what it feels like.
Like all lasting literature, outsider stories and poems are a paradox: They invite the reader both to identify with a stranger and to respect, and maybe even understand, their differences. Like the dragonflies, outsider writers can see what others cannot. Their perspectives are multifaceted and offer readers a new take on our shining, complex world—a glimpse of how it appears through their eyes. In a word, outsider stories open a door. They invite you inside.
Like all lasting literature, outsider stories and poems are a paradox: They invite the reader both to identify with a stranger and to respect, and maybe even understand, their differences. Their perspectives are multifaceted and offer readers a new take on our
shining, complex world.
Majda Talal Gama
Shannon Connor Winward