Baker Seeks Mul­ti­plic­ity of Voices

Poets and Writers - - Trends - –NAMRATA POD­DAR

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.”

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