What It Means To Be an Inclusive Literary Journal
Zinzi Clemmons on the Importance of Editors of Color
In 2010, I was part of a group of writers of color that founded Apogee Journal, the literary magazine that serves writers of marginalized identities—including race, gender, sexuality, class, and ability. At the time, there were no prominent magazines doing what we were doing. Literary journals that focused on identity were grouped in silos—there were outlets for African-Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, LGBTQ people… but no one publication that engaged each of these communities. We became that journal, first as a publication of Columbia’s MFA program, and then, the larger literary community. I no longer work for Apogee, but serve on its Advisory Board. (As such, the following represents my own opinion, not that of Apogee’s staff.)
In 2013, after two successful issues funded by university grants and an Indiegogo campaign, four key members, including myself, decided to move the journal out of Columbia and bring it to the larger public. Part of the reason was that our relationship to Columbia was contentious. After two issues, the administration still hesitated to be associated with us, and for a while, didn’t want us as an official university-sponsored publication. Predictably, when we eventually found success, that position changed, but by then we were resolved (and a bit resentful), and were motivated to cut ties.
Becoming independent entailed a huge amount of work in two key areas—first, we established a strong web presence, and then, most importantly, we raised funds. We spent many hours of unpaid time writing grant applications and undertaking a second crowdsource funding campaign. All of us were balancing work and writing—with the exception of me (I was living off a fellowship and inheritance in order to write my first novel)—with basically no support from our families. Apogee’s success in the literary world has been solid, not spectacular, but in view of our resources, our achievements amount to a small miracle.
In 2015, The Offing launched with a focus nearly identical to Apogee’s. As a channel of the LA Review of Books, The Offing benefited from the resources and reputation of its parent company. From the moment it arrived, it dominated the attention of the small group of literary magazines that cater to people of color. (In fact, around the time of its launch, as we were conducting an editor search, our top candidate had to be crossed of the list because she had already signed on with them).
Casey Rocheteau’s recent essay on her decision to leave the magazine brought to light issues behind the scenes that were shocking to many. A small group of white people in charge of a huge group of unpaid minorities has uncomfortable parallels. But the problem goes beyond what she mentioned in her article.
The Offing’s association with LARB meant that it diverted attention from smaller journals actually run by the people they are meant to serve, who—historically and pretty much across the board—lack resources, financial and otherwise. That attention is then directed back at the white-run enterprise, further benefiting them. This is how inequality prospers, within and without the literary landscape.
Although their mission statement claims, “The Offing actively seeks out and supports work by and about those often marginalized in the literary conversation,” it seems, in retrospect, and given Rocheteau’s essay, as well as the recent tone-deaf Hollywood Reporter profile on LARB, that one of the reasons for the journal’s launch was to pre-empt criticisms of LARB’s lack of diversity, which was evident in the aforementioned article’s much-talked-about photo.
I spoke to Rocheteau last week, and she confirmed the inorganic nature of The Offing’s structure. She described a leadership group, editors and otherwise, out of sync and lacking a real connection to the magazine’s mission. In the wake of her resignation, she signed on to helm two independent journals with inclusive missions: Kinfolks Quarterly and Heart Journal Online. In both cases, she was offered the job by editors at those magazines, after they heard about the circumstances surrounding Rocheteau’s resignation, and—in some way—wanted to right the wrong that had been done.
I’ve always felt that The Offing’s content feels focus-grouped—often very good and relevant, but without direction. On many levels, The Offing reads as a white person’s idea of what “other” people might like, without much curation.
Their decision to remove their white leadership, and to publish Rocheteau’s essay signals a step in the right direction. The hiring of Chanda Prescod-Weinstein as editor-in-chief was welcomed by many, including me, and though I would have liked to see a long-time editor or writer from our community take that role (Weinstein is one of the few black women physicists in the US), I have great hope for her tenure.
It is nearly impossible to be a writer and not be complicit in white supremacy; it becomes even less possible the higher we climb the ladder of achievement. Though it is everyone’s responsibility to assess how the institutions we associate with contribute to the oppression of others, the marginalized feel this pressure more than others. I do not write this to suggest that I am not complicit, or that the editors of The Offing have in some way failed as minorities if they do not satisfactorily address the mechanisms of oppression in their organization. I write this as someone who was, and is, passionately committed to publications that, against all rational judgment, remain fundamentally hopeful in the power of words to change the world.
Below, I offer a list of independent journals that, like The Offing, are dedicated to amplifying the voices of the marginalized, and in so doing, seek to level the playing field of literature. I spoke with several of these journals’ editors, and also offer their reactions to The Offing’s public drama as part of this list. It amounts to something of an oral history on what Yasmin Belkhyr, founder of Winter Tangerine Review, called The Offing’s “gentrification” of this small, but growing, literary scene. They all tell a similar story—starting off with no money, little staff, only a dream and an urgency to see voices like theirs represented in literature. They are all female-identified. And, they were all uniformly happy to participate in this article, grateful for the publicity for their journals that The Offing is able to take for granted.
The problems of inclusive journals are very much aligned with the problems of independent journals in general. And, as is often the case with writers on the margins, they are doing some of the most interesting work in literature. Together, these editors are probing the most important ethical questions in publishing: What does it mean to be a gatekeeper? Is it possible to read objectively? And, as The Offing is now doing, albeit late—critiquing their relationships to institutions and using this analysis to guide their actions.
One of the lessons of this saga is that we should be aware of who and what is behind the magazines we submit to and read, and understand that they are often different than advertised. Read the journals named below, and if you’re so lucky to be in the position, donate to them. They can use your dollars. And we will all be better for it.
Cecca Ochoa, editor: When The Offing first launched, I was optimistic. LARB’s radical step-child, with inspiring folks in the editorial ranks. Several of their editors have worked with and supported Apogee, or we’ve had the pleasure of championing their writing. To my mind, the more publications looking to prioritize diverse voices, the better. I do also believe that strategic alliances with established institutions can mean real exposure and opportunities for writers. But, in the case of LARB and The Offing, this didn’t work out. Perhaps a classic case of the means not aligning with the end?
We can relate to that. Our founders made the decision to break with the school, as any benefit garnered by way of association with Columbia would have undercut our mission. Our end goal was to cultivate a network of readers and writers invested in challenging the literary key-holders and their assumptions about storytelling and poetics, aesthetics and representation. We aim to create a space for work that has something real and lived to say about the identities and histories relevant to us.
At Apogee, our staff is majority POC and queer or woman-identified, entirely so in positions of leadership. Creating our journal is not a charitable act, or a band-aid solution to an institution’s diversity problems. We are the community we represent.
I’m excited to see where The Offing goes with their new independence. I hope that the combined presence of literary spaces that prioritize diverse voices, like Kweli, Nepantla, and Apogee, to name just a few, continues to shift the literary geography in a way that creates more abundant opportunities for writers and artists.
Kayla E., editor: Visibility has so much to do with resources, and the amount of resources a publication starts out with makes all the difference. If a magazine is lucky enough to start out with any sort of institutional backing, there’s a built-in financial scaffolding, network, and readership that independent magazines have to work for years to catch up to. Also, where a publication is located is incredibly important. Though it’s never easy for independent publications to find funding, as I understand it, magazines based in hubs like New York or Los Angeles generally have far greater access to grants and financial scaffolding than those based elsewhere. In Texas, for example, grants for projects like Nat. Brut are virtually nonexistent.
When I took the helm of Nat. Brut in 2014, we had no funding, no staff, and a very small readership. I was privileged enough to be able to work from home while running Nat. Brut full time, so I was able to dedicate 12-hour work days to building Nat. Brut into a model for responsible art and literary publishing. I was also lucky to have access to a number of talented friends from college who were willing to volunteer their time and effort to help develop and operate the magazine.
Even with these assets, though, Nat. Brut‘s growth has been slow because of our lack of financial and institutional backing. Without these, visibility is difficult to achieve, much less a solvent business model. I’ve had to learn the hard way that producing exciting, engaging print issues is incredibly expensive, and without grants or an established readership, crowdfunding can only get you so far. I’ve had to pay for a decent portion of our projects out of pocket, despite barely being able to afford rent. The Internet is flush with magazines, and now that our lack of funding has led us to migrate entirely online, we’re up against the increasingly difficult task of gaining and maintaining visibility in a sea of other publications. Like many other independent minority-run litmags, we do our best to recognize and amplify others whose efforts we respect and admire, which helps foster an open, supportive atmosphere within the community, but establishing a publication and gaining visibility beyond this small community is a different story, and, unfortunately, requires more than just working hard and showing love.
Though it’s important for magazines like The Offing to make the admirable effort to become independent of powerful institutions, the playing field is not – and will likely never be – level. Literary entities like The Offing and other well-established organizations do incredible work, and for such a high-profile publication as The Offing to be so openly dedicated to those who are continually marginalized is absolutely vital. Unfortunately, however, it makes little difference that these entities are creating models for responsible publishing because their models aren’t necessarily replicable by those seeking to grow an independent literary magazine who don’t have access to institutions or personal wealth. I’m sure The Offing has a tough road ahead, but they will still benefit from what they gained from their connection to LARB, and independent publications will still have to brave a long, steep climb before reaching any comparable level of visibility and recognition (if at all).
That being said, though, shake-ups like The Offing’s gain visibility by nature of the magazine’s prominence (and perhaps serve to gain the publication more visibility), Casey Rocheteau’s and Chanda Prescod-Weinstein’s transparency is a step toward raising awareness of the gap between independent magazines and those that emerge with a head start. Casey’s decision to speak her truth so openly and thoroughly and Chanda’s statement on difficult issues and restructuring within The Offing are deeply meaningful gestures in a field where transparency is woefully lacking. This sort of transparency and open dialogue (see also: Apogee’s statement on blind submission policies) should happen more often within – and among – both established and independent publications. We must seize every opportunity we can to mindfully and self-reflexively confront issues regarding operations, resources, and visibility. I think that begins with acknowledging that, though we’re all in the same water, we’re not all in the same boat, which bears considering what we all can do to keep minority-run independent publications from being left in the dust.
TAYO Literary Magazine
Melissa R. Sipin, editor: There is a roundtable discussion called “Equity in Publishing: What Everyone Should Be Doing” by PEN American Center that everyone should read. The results are scathing: 89 percent of the publishing industry is (still) white. When we talk about equity in publishing, what are we actually talking about? Does this really mean just diverse books? (Answer is: of course not.) Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Gregory Pardlo, probes even further: “Why are there so few people of color in influential gatekeeping positions in the publishing industry? Well, why do we ask? […] If we want aesthetic diversity in the books that come to define our culture, then I don’t buy the argument that diversifying the shape, configuration, and hue of the faces of editors and agents will get the job done. There is no reason to expect people with different phenotypes to have different cultural tastes and allegiances if they all have similar educational backgrounds. My sense is the problem is in the education.”
I agree full-heartedly with Gregory Pardlo: in my mind, we must talk about decolonizing our literature before we can even begin to talk about equity in publishing.
This is why I cofounded TAYO Literary Magazine seven years ago, back in 2009 when I was a fresh-faced junior at USC. I started TAYO with my college roommate, Kristine Co, who wanted to begin a passion project that would help fundraise for the Filipino American Library. I believe that Filipinos have a long and tumultuous affair with literature, and maybe it is because we were colonized by the Americans, and English was forced into our mouths; or, because our nation was birthed by a novel, Noli Me Tangere, and I don’t know of another nation whose birth is so intrinsically tied to the written word, to a sense of national identity. Back then, though we founded TAYO with the infant belief that this journal would help push the stories of Filipinos into the world (I call this infant because our stories are here, and have been here for a long, long time) TAYO grew and politicized as I grew and politicized as a writer of color. We pushed ourselves harder in our second birth, after the first staff moved on and a second staff—”manned” by three badass women of color writer/editors—came into being. It is a publication that is continually growing and is dedicated to not just Filipino voices, but to all who have felt marginalized, lost, adrift.
I believe we must always work at decolonizing ourselves, as writers, editors, artists, to find solidarity with other journals and presses dedicated to social justice, to always strive to decentralize whiteness—white supremacy—and centralize ourselves, voices that have historically been erased, silenced, stifled.
Lastly, this is why we partnered with The Feminist Press and created a debut book prize dedicated to women/nonbinary writers of color: The Louise Meriwether First Book Prize. Now, I don’t believe necessarily that this debut book prize will serve as an answer to the systematic racist, gender, ableist, and classist problems that plague the writing industry; but, I steadfastly believe it is a step forward, and a huge one at that. I, too, believe the answer to the equity problem in publishing is education, is critical consciousness, is—quite simply—decolonizing our literature. This—and TAYO‘s heart and mission—honors just that: publishing and celebrating one of the very best works by a woman/nonbinary writer of color whose book and spirit embodies a kind of freedom we must always fight for.
Winter Tangerine Review
Yasmin Belkhyr, editor: When Winter Tangerine first started, we had no real funding or institutional support. We raised $570 from an Indiegogo campaign and that went entirely towards the costs of printing our first issue. After that, we always got by, but money was tight. Somehow, miraculously, we existed and we grew. Our staff is predominately made up of minorities, including people of color, queer people, women, and differently abled people. Collectively, we put in thousands of hours of unpaid work. Over the past three years, we’ve joined and built community. And then, suddenly, The Offing launched, a magazine that had the resources to do what we all were doing but on a larger scale. To an extent, it felt almost like literary gentrification. Independent magazines were undertaking grueling work to help construct a contemporary literary landscape, and suddenly, we were overshadowed by the prestige of The Offing, a magazine backed by the LA Review of Books and run by a cis white woman. I deeply respect the work The Offing does. Their editors are phenomenal and the work they publish is necessary. The dialogue between The Offing and Winter Tangerine has always been productive and supportive. However, I believe that the attention and support given to The Offing needs to be distributed more evenly. In this world, the work of disenfranchised people is consistently invalidated and ignored. There are dozens of independent publications run off the unpaid labor of marginalized people. It is, as many say, a labor of love. We are doing the work. We are publishing writers that also deserve to be read and shared. We are here, and we’ve been here, and we’ll continue to be here. We need the support too.
Joanna C. Valente, editor: So often, I feel like writers and editors—especially editors—find themselves in sticky situations when they are affiliated with big institutions, like LARB or a university where they don’t entirely control their funds. When you don’t control the direction of the magazine entirely, it can really affect everything—from the leadership to the content. Two of the major issues that Casey brought up that I am so grateful for (because I agree with them wholeheartedly) are: payment (or the lack of) and who is capable of leading an organization with a marginalized focus for POC.
Payment in the literary world is a joke. Most of the time, writers and editors are expected to give up their time and art for free. While I know many small presses just legitimately can’t pay their contributors, in a case like The Offing, a magazine backed by an institution with funds, it’s just exploitative. As someone who has worked for literary organizations for free (that could have paid me—especially at a time where I was juggling many part-time jobs just to survive and be able to work at said organizations), I understand this sentiment too well.
Casey put it perfectly herself when she stated: “First, the editorial protocol asks for 10 hours of unpaid labor weekly. While unpaid labor is often the standard for lit journals, The Offing’s staff is largely comprised of folks who come from marginalized communities, or folks who can least afford to work for free.”
Casey went on to say, which is the second point she brought up that I think we all need to think about as writers and editors and “gatekeepers” (because let’s be real, all editors are gatekeepers, even if small ones): “This might not be so problematic if The Offing weren’t—like most of the literary world—a magazine founded and driven by an able-bodied, straight, white cis-woman, as an official channel of the overwhelmingly white LA Review of Books.”
I recently was speaking with a close friend and poet about this very sentiment. As an editor and writer who is white and queer, I agree with Casey. I find it entirely problematic that a journal supposed to be focusing on marginalized voices isn’t run by someone who can actually understand what that entails. Does that mean she can’t be a supporter and ally? Of course not.
But does that mean she can be a leader of a movement? I don’t think so—just as I can’t speak about what it’s like being a POC. I can talk about, and own, the fact that I am queer, and have had my own experiences as a result of that. Can I talk about what it’s like being a survivor of assault, and talk about living with trauma? Yes. I write poems and essays about this, because I can, as someone with personal experience.
However, I can’t pretend, nor would I ever want, to think I can lead an organization where I’m not actually informed in the way I should be. It is a privilege to think that because you empathize, or have diverse friends, or publish poetry, or have progressive ideas, that you can be a spokesperson for a movement simply because of those things. And I think the lit community has routinely ignored that logic—which in my opinion, should be common sense.
From their website: As/Us is a space to showcase the creative literary expressions and scholarly work of both emerging and established women writers from around the world. We are interested in publishing works by underrepresented writers particularly Indigenous women and women of color.
We are open to works that span a variety of topics—work that challenges conventions and aesthetics either on a narrative or formal level, work with purpose, vision, and something at stake. Send us work that you think deserves a space in the world!
Aster(ix) doesn’t state an explicit focus on inclusivity, but it publishes mostly women and queer people of color. Adriana E. Ramírez, co-founder and Publisher, says that this choice was deliberate—they wanted to highlight the work without self-marginalizing. Ramirez was very focused on the idea of exploitation raised in Rocheteau’s essay. She is very mindful of, “Who’s winning, and who’s taking the risk.”
Aster(ix) recently partnered with the University of Pittsburgh, where Ramirez is on faculty. “We had to have a long and hard discussion about what it means to be backed by an institution. Longstanding institutions tend to protect whiteness, and specifically male whiteness. I’m not sure we have the right answer, because at the end of the day, institutional support is important. At the moment, Aster(ix) is choosing to be a little poorer.
“I’m very hopeful for the future. You’re always going to have people who are gatekeepers, you’re always going to have power. For a long time, publishing has been white with the occasional person of color. And I think that’s slowly changing. Support brother and sister publications and make more of them.”
The James Franco Review
Their tagline reads, “an open door is an open door”. Wondering about their name? The answer is laid out on their website: “Years ago my friend Erin and I joked that we should submit some fiction under a boy’s name. Aaron Sroka and Carl Manning. A younger professor told us, solemnly, that wasn’t such a bad idea. Neither of us had the guts to do it. But when we started seeing James Franco’s name in magazines, and then saw his book of poetry from Graywolf, we joked again: let’s submit some fiction under James Franco’s name and see what happens.
“This joking was more out of opportunity than jealousy. In the New York Times Book Review article ‘James Franco, Poet,’ David Orr put it this way:
‘This book wouldn’t be published by Graywolf (I hope) if James Franco weren’t ‘James Franco.’ For that matter, James Franco wouldn’t be getting reviewed right now if he weren’t ‘James Franco.’ In fact, if James Franco were just another MFA student struggling to catch the attention of the two part-time employees of Origami Anthropod Press, he’d probably be reading this piece and fuming about all the attention being given, yet again, to James Franco.’
“Harsh words, but here’s the opportunity I saw: what if we were all James Franco? How would this affect visibility of typically ignored writers? It could be that certain phrases would have to be questioned, such as the one which, as a former mediocre MFA student, I heard more than a dozen times from literary agents and editors: ‘The great work rises to the surface.’”
- “This project is about visibility of underrepresented artists and narratives. Not [James Franco].
- “We have a desire for diverse literature and are questioning literary journals and the publishing industry. What happens when work is considered blindly? What happens when editors are asked to question where their tastes came from?”
From their website: “Kweli is an online quarterly that celebrates cultural kinships and the role of the literary imagination in writing. Our contributors come from many countries and include acclaimed writers like Jeffery Renard Allen, A. Igoni Barrett, Jennine Capó Crucet, Angie Cruz, Nana-Ama Danquah, Camille Dungy, Martin Espada, Santee Frazier, Ru Freeman, Cristina Garcia, Nathalie Handal, Charles Johnson, Lorna Goodison, Victor LaValle, Ed Pavlic, Quincy Troupe, Chika Unigwe, Neela Vaswani, Xu Xi, Tiphanie Yanique and others. In 2014, Kweli invited three esteemed guest editors to solicit and screen work for publication: Jeffery Renard Allen, Jennine Capó Crucet and Danielle Evans.
Kweli Journal is a small community. We launched as a biannual journal in December 2009. Since our humble beginnings, Kweli has grown into a multifaceted community organization that offers numerous writing opportunities, including an Annual Writers Conference, Professional Development Workshops, and our Kweli Scholars program.”
From their website: Launched in 1998, Mosaic is a print tri-annual (February, June, & October) that explores the literary arts by writers of African descent, and features interviews, essays, and book reviews.
Mosaic has featured such artists Tiphanie Yanique, Lorna Goodison, Lucille Clifton, Bernice McFadden, Walter Mosley, Staceyann Chin, Major Jackson,Chimamanda Adichie, and Willie Perdomo among others and provides a unique space to preview upcoming releases through book reviews and author interviews. Each issue is supplemented with lesson plans based on our content and mission.
From their website: “Nepantla: A Journal Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color is an intentional community space. Our mission is to nurture, celebrate, and preserve diversity within the queer poetry community. Through this journal, we are attempting to center the lives and experiences of QPOC in contemporary America. Thus, we view the journal (and our reading series) as part of a whole artistic project and not individual fragments of work. We believe that (here) the high lyric must encounter colloquial narrative. Here, we must provide space to celebrate both our similarities and our differences. We are one community with an array of experiences; we write in different formats, in different tones, of different circumstances. Nepantla is not the sort of journal that can project a singular voice (not if we want to reflect the various realities of our community). Nepantla is a journal of multiplicity, of continual reinvention.
“Nepantla is not an apolitical literary journal. We stand strongly against racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, classism, xenophobia, etc. We do NOT believe in the notion of ‘craft’ as an excuse to justify oppressive language. If (for some reason) you, the reader, feel discriminated against by the language used in our poems then please let us know. Keep us accountable. We have done our best to provide a safe space for the QPOC community. We hope you enjoy the fierceness!”
Nepantla is sponsored by Lambda Literary, and run by Christopher Soto, who also was behind the Undocupoets, the group that started a petition to remove citizenship requirements from poetry contests, that prompted many prominent contests to change their guidelines.