How Can Journals Do More to Improve Representation?
In late November, members and friends of the GrubStreet Writers of Color Group met with editors from local literary journals and magazines to talk about the publishing process, the concerns facing writers of color when they submit to magazines, and what journals can do to improve representation of writers of color. Group member and GrubStreet instructor Daphne Strassmann gives us the key points of the discussion, including what both writers and editors can do differently when it comes to submissions.
Writers wrestle many demons of insecurity when it comes to submitting work for publication. For some authors, like myself, self-doubt becomes the barrier between writing and publishing. While rejection is part of any writer’s existence, being a writer of color adds another level of kaleidoscopic complexity to the hesitation of submitting work. The more questions we have about whether or not journals are looking for—or value—stories from writers like us, or how much of our identities it’s acceptable to include in our work, the less we might submit. I am a writer of color and can’t always find reliable answers to any of these questions, which is why I was thrilled when a “Local Editor Panel” event popped up on the GrubStreet Writers of Color group’s Facebook feed. Instinctively, I clicked “going.”
On a late November evening, we filled GrubStreet’s largest classroom to capacity. There were tasty snacks within reach, free literary journals for the taking, and on the board up front I recognized familiar ask-the-editor questions: “Common pitfalls in submitting,” or “What makes you reject something?” Then there were other ones, such as, “What does diversity mean to you?” I locked onto this one, interested to see what direction the panelists took this question.
Panel moderator Jenn Scheck-Kahn, co-founder of Journal of the Month, framed the discussion by asking editors how gender and race are represented in their respective literary journals. The panelists—Bill Pierce, senior editor of AGNI; Jennifer Barber, editor of Salamander; and Jim Hicks, executive editor of The Massachusetts Review—thoughtfully answered questions, sometimes asking each other to chime in with other points of view. With every answer, we the writers leaned in, took notes, and at times nodded in unison. The editors themselves were curious about what they could improve in order to attract diverse writers to a body of work which is traditionally represented by white males. We responded candidly because we had a dynamic and open place to be heard.
As Hicks began to answer a question about the rate of acceptance for his journal, he meditated a bit on the word “submission.” We must have all followed that thought with him because the room grew quiet. He said that in his experience, unlike male writers, women do not resubmit if they receive encouraging rejections. A positive workaround for journals would be to invite writers to submit again, and to check in from time to time on the progress of the relationship. When submitted work “comes alive on the page” for an editor, said Barber, that connection begins planting seeds for a long-term relationship between journal and author. For writers of color, this means we should adopt the mindset of an average white male writer, who, as the editors noted, are more likely to submit work in the face of rejection.
A discussion around the “sensibility of language,” as Pierce, referring to Flannery O’Connor, put it, led to a conversation about how race and culture play a role in forming editors’ misperceptions and expectations of what an author of color is “supposed” to write about. One of the writers recounted an experience of working with a well-meaning editor who surmised, due to the writer’s race, that her work should reflect racial and cultural themes. Other writers interjected and shared similar stories.
Many of the writers expressed their frustration at not knowing how much explanation to offer in their writing, when the language of our respective cultures is the only way to achieve that unique sensibility of language. I am American born and the daughter of immigrants. I have spent a lifetime trying to figure out where and how I fit in. When society gives us neat categories of race and language, being the “other” becomes a restless place. So, if I may speak to my own experience, I don’t want to continually write to explain difference or otherness. If I expand a reader’s thinking or awareness it should be because the prose evokes curiosity, not because I am obligated to teach lessons on cultural identity and race.
The group suggested that editors pay closer attention to moments when their expectations of stereotypical tropes are dominating their responses to a piece. When revising work written by writers of color, editors need to understand how content can suffer if their edits cut soulful language, structure, deliberately wonky grammar, or voice. A guiding principle of the editing process should be to practice more than enough curiosity about a writer’s intent versus a preconceived notion of what the piece should be.
Some of the writers explained that we wanted journals considering our work to simply “get us” and to understand our work by taking it at face value. Having to explain any part of who we are or where we come from devalues the work. A lot of us offered different variations on what it meant for us to be “gotten.” I have been asked “what are you?” so many times that the only way that I want to answer the question is: “Why do you care?” To the inquiring person’s assumptions, I look like I could be from one place, but behave and speak like I am from another. I’ve run out of ways of politely answering why I don’t speak English with an accent. Socially, trying to find civil ways to address my perceived exoticness is exhausting. I don’t want my writing, my race, or culture to be fetishized. If these unsolicited expectations also came from an editor or journal evaluating my writing, then who is ultimately responsible for adjusting those presumptions?
The general idea of “getting us” is further complicated by the fact that our names might or might not always convey our identities. Some in the panel considered the question of whether or not writers could—or should—explicitly indicate their race or ethnicity in their bio as a way of offsetting the first impression created by a writer’s name. My name, for example, does not instantly signal that I am Mexican and Dominican American. To some, my last name, “Strassmann,” sounds like I should be “a white Jewish woman from the Upper West side of Manhattan,” as a candid colleague confessed after meeting me. When a name becomes a calling card, the work assumes the writer’s identity before an editor begins to read it. If I insert Spanish words, or Tex-Mex idioms into my prose, will an editor consider it a less-than-genuine affectation? I have deliberated writing under my maiden name, “Santana,” in a half-hearted attempt to authenticate a personal narrative I’d like to publish. Santana might be better suited to describe plátanos as my remembrance madeleine while Strassmann could be a distraction. Then again, using Santana could dispatch me back to a place where an editor will presume I should write about what I know, in other words, draw on my Latin heritage.
Circling back to the meaning of diversity in literary journals, the panelists and writers agreed that work authored by writers of color should not be beholden to a mission statement or a numbers game. Editors claiming they have enough writers of color for an issue or volume doesn’t move the discussion forward. Hicks asked the writers if theme-based issues offer an inviting space for writers of color to feel like they can submit because themes with broad appeal open possibilities across gender and race. We agreed that it was a solid start. A call for submissions with a focus on heartbreak, for instance, has an openness about it that transcends identity. A broken heart? That’s universal. However, some of the writers in the group further explained to the panelists that if journals are seeking to be more heterogeneous, the fixes are simple: recruit and hire a diverse staff and use the masthead to showcase a journal’s commitment to diverse content and writers. The obvious prescription is that journals should actively demonstrate an interest in diverse voices by writers of color. One would imagine that in doing so the readership would also become more diverse.
We were still deep in conversation when we realized we had gone over our scheduled time. It flew. We could have talked for many more hours, and both the writers and the editors had a sense of a door opening on both sides. I don’t mean to make this sound like we were brokering the Paris Accord all over again, but speaking about race is never a straight line and the topic tends to make people feel uneasy. So, thanks Grub, Sonya, and Shuchi for making this exchange of views possible. And, of course, we are grateful to the generous editors, and to the moderator who kept the conversation focused and open.
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. The Ying that Grub creates needs to find a Yang in the publishing world. Editor panels like this one allowed writers and editors to talk about why there isn’t more diversity in published work. What we were ultimately discussing that evening was how to nurture a relationship in which editors are working to represent more diverse work while writers of color are seeking more publications in which to be accepted, in every sense of the word. More than just offering an illuminating perspective, the dialogue shaped up to be a useful tool in our writers’ arsenal.
The intimate model of these events continues to validate our place as writers who happen to be of color. I invite other writers to join our Facebook Writers of Color group and join us for our next event, a social on February 28th at home.stead bakery and café in Dorchester.
Daphne Strassmann is a memoirist and teacher who writes about the intangible spaces between her Latino heritage and her American life. She’s intrigued by memoir as craft and its relationship to memory, and how that relationship can be irrevocably transformed in the digital age. She teaches writing at the New England Conservatory of Music, at Lesley University, and is one of GrubStreet’s newest instructors.
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