Baker Seeks Multiplicity of Voices
In August Atria Books will release Everyday People: The Color of Life, an anthology of short stories by emerging and established writers of color and indigenous people. Edited by Jennifer Baker, a writer and longtime advocate for minority representation in literature—she has worked for the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books and hosts the podcast Minorities in
Publishing—the collection features work by more than a dozen writers, including Courttia Newland, Yiyun Li, Mitchell S. Jackson, and Nelly Rosario. Baker took on the project after Brook Stephenson, the writer and bookseller who conceived of the anthology, died in 2015. While Stephenson planned for the anthology to feature only Black voices, Baker expanded the project’s focus and began soliciting other people of color and indigenous writers for stories shortly after the 2016 presidential election. The result is a collection of stories that depict the modern lives of people of color as they struggle with contemporary social, political, familial, and personal issues. Just before the book’s release, Baker discussed her work on the anthology and her connection to its mission as a writer and editor of color.
Everyday People highlights the universality of human experience while also mostly adhering to contemporary social realism. When you were soliciting stories for the book, did you intend for this?
It was difficult for me to ask writers of color and indigenous writers to contribute to Everyday People so soon after the presidential election. It was and is a bad time, especially for marginalized people. The contributors are writers I contacted because their work contains a multiplicity of voices and topics. The fact that, in an increasingly tumultuous moment in history, people who are directly affected can create a high level of work in a finite amount of time that continually reflects our humanity speaks to their talent and professionalism. I gave no firm parameters to the writers for their stories, which may have helped them in the end to write broadly or tap into subjects that really speak to them.
Do you think social realism will continue to dominate the future of the short story? That depends on the author. In Everyday People, Courttia Newland’s and Allison Mills’s stories have speculative and fantastical elements rooted in culture and place that are political, personal, and real. To me those stories also encapsulate our society today by focusing on elections or sudden loss and how to get through loss. They may not be what publishing defines as “contemporary” or “true life,” yet they are identifiable, especially to a person of color or indigenous person.
The 2017 VIDA Count shows that more than 50 percent of the women and nonbinary contributors in prestigious U.S. literary magazines are white. Within this landscape, what do you see as the future of multiethnic American short fiction?
The lack of representation in the industry prevents more marginalized stories from being seen by a wider audience. It wouldn’t, I hope, curtail the fact that marginalized folks are constantly creating and finding new routes for this. That said, unless we see some paramount change from the top down and from the bottom up in all areas of the industry, we won’t see a real change.
In the wake of #MeToo controversies within the literary community, Junot Díaz’s story was dropped from the book. How did you come to this decision? Editors have a responsibility, in any and all capacity, to do what’s morally right and also what is right for the work they’re editing. As editors we have a hand in the titles we publish, and I quite literally have my name on this product. This is also an anthology; I’m not acting out of self-interest but for all those whose work is tied to this book. Hearing other women of color speak out about assault is not something I take lightly or something anyone should readily dismiss. As I told Atria when I made my decision, “This isn’t a PR move. It’s a moral one.”