On November 30, 2017, about thirty writers assembled in Boston at the headquarters of GrubStreet, one of the largest writing centers in the country, for an event organized by the Boston Writers of Color group. The night’s event, called a Local Editor Panel, featured editors of Massachusetts-based literary magazines and a nervous volunteer moderator: me.
Despite my efforts to contact magazines that employ an ethnically and racially diverse staff, none of the editors who had accepted my invitation to be on the panel were people of color. Should the event be cancelled? Shouldn’t representation be a prerequisite for a conversation that was to center, in part, on inclusion? Despite my misgivings, we didn’t cancel the event that night because I received advice from writers of color not to, and, of course, they were right. Too, the optics that night reflected a truth about the literary community: the vast majority of editors are white, and so are the writers whose work their magazines publish and promote. And so, what began as a night intended to educate writers summoned a candid, dogged, and sensitive conversation about the delicate relationship between editors and writers when they come from different racial and ethnic backgrounds and levels of privilege. From the writers, editors heard how their efforts of inclusivity were interpreted—which were meaningful and which were not—and after the night was over, several writers expressed how empowering it felt to share their concerns and skepticism with people in prestigious positions. How it felt to be seen.
While we were nibbling from the cheese platter, I chatted with two Boston writers, Jennifer De Leon and Tanushree Baidya, whose questions during the panel had intrigued me. The three of us wanted to continue the conversation begun that night so we could explore the truths about publishing that disproportionately affect writers of color. We invited Jonathan Escoffery, a local writer I’d never met but whose writing I admired, to join our conversation.
Conflicting schedules and far flung locations made coordinating an in-person meeting a challenge. Video or phone conferencing as an option felt both too formal and too casual for our intellectual and emotional pursuit. What we needed was to write our way into group discovery, so I created a shared Google Doc. There, we simultaneously pounded away at overlapping questions and answers in a chat-style of correspondence that allowed for rants and emojis, cheering on and interrupting. The result was both messy and honest. Here it is, all cleaned up. – Jenn Scheck-Kahn
Tanushree Baidya is a graduate of the Yale Writers’ Workshop and a member of the (GrubStreet-supported) Boston Writers of Color group. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Kweli Journal, 2040 Review, London Journal of Fiction, the Wrong Quarterly, GrubWrites, and Half the World Global Literati. Born in India, Tanushree has lived in Boston since moving there from Bombay six years ago.
Jennifer De Leon is the editor of Wise Latinas: Writers on Higher Education. She is a member of the GrubStreet board of directors and an assistant professor of English at Framingham State University. Her novel, Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From, is forthcoming from Atheneum/Simon & Schuster.
Jonathan Escoffery is a Jamaican American writer from Miami. He has received awards and honors from Prairie Schooner, Passages North, Solstice Literary Magazine, Kimbilio Fiction, Bread Loaf Conference, the Somerville Arts Council, Wellspring House, Writers’ Room of Boston, and elsewhere. He holds an MFA in fiction from the University of Minnesota.
Jenn Scheck-Kahn (moderator) is a writer, instructor, and the founder of Journal of the Month, a subscription service that delivers an assortment of print literary magazines. Her prose has placed in contests hosted by The Atlantic and Glimmer Train, and has appeared in a number of literary journals.
Scheck-Kahn: Let’s start this conversation with the mission of diversity. How do magazines run predominantly by white editors get it wrong?
Baidya: What I’d like to know is how editors define diversity. I’d like white editors to expand what it should mean. Because “people of color” is a broad group, the generalization tends to box us up in a way that emphasizes white voices further. That is a problem no one really seems to talk about. In most platforms where diversity is discussed, we get the usual white versus the generalized people of color, instead of Whiteness versus African American, Whiteness versus Korean, White versus South Asian (Pakistani, Indian, Sri Lankan), East Asian, etc. How often do panels or discussions bring up the nuances of an immigrant story versus stories by immigrant writers? POC (people of color), WOC (writers of color), and Diversity: these terms are too broad to be useful, beyond talking points. If the nuances of diversity and representation are not completely or properly addressed or understood, how do editors portion judgment and decisions in terms of selecting stories? Because I think there might be quotas, consciously or subconsciously, and they diminish diverse voices.
De Leon: I was on one committee where we were choosing a writer to award a $20,000 grant for work on a novel. In the twelve-year history of the award, there has only been one winner who is a POC. So here we were, in year thirteen, and I thought it was a no-brainer. Choose finalists who are WOC. Nope. It came down to two writers: one white woman and one Black woman. The white woman had a Harvard pedigree, multiple degrees, etc., and the Black woman was willing to commute from another state for this fellowship. Her story was fascinating. I advocated for her. It was like 12 Angry Men in there. I won over some people, but ultimately, I felt run over when another POC committee member said, “But if we pick the Black woman, then everyone will think we picked her because she’s Black.” What I’d like to know: who is “everyone”?
Escoffery: Jennifer, this reminds me of when I was the fiction editor at Dislocate during my MFA program in Minnesota. Most of what we’d receive were dozens of stories about deer hunting—some brilliant, most not—all with default white protagonists, but the one time we received a story that took place in Chicago, featuring two Black characters, presumably written by an African American woman, one of my readers accused me of moving the story forward unfairly. Specifically, she said, “You only like it because . . . you know . . . well, you know. . . .” The story was solid and deserved to get as far as it did in our selection process, but look what we’re up against. Even my subordinate felt empowered to air her belief that stories about and by POC only get included as part of a diversity initiative. Imagine what happens at magazines with zero POC on staff.
Baidya: Stories like these make me wonder if there is an unspoken presumption that publishing a WOC somehow means compromising on quality or signaling tokenism. Does the fact that POC are already so underrepresented create a subconscious and regressive mindset that selecting them confers some unearned representation at the expense of someone more deserving? A vicious, flawed cycle. I worry that diversity is going to become a genre, or already is, and a magazine can easily say, “Yeah, we don’t do that particular genre anymore.”
Scheck-Kahn: If we can circle back to the event at GrubStreet that started this conversation we’re having: what was your initial reaction when you entered the room for a WOC event and saw a panel of all white faces?
Baidya: Strange as it sounds, I was glad to see an all-white panel. WOC events tend to happen in a bubble. They are curated, facilitated, represented, and attended predominantly by people of color. Even though they are an important and safe place for writers of color to discuss challenges and how to effect change, what is lacking in these conversations is the participation of white editors, the ones making the majority of editorial decisions in publishing.
De Leon: Maybe it’s a bad thing, but it didn’t exactly jump out at me. I guess I’m used to most editors being white.
Escoffery: We should get to hear from white editors what they are looking to publish, since they are so often the people to whom we are submitting our work. I don’t know that it would have been more helpful to assemble a panel of editors of color, who already know there’s a diversity problem in the field. An all-white panel closely reflects the demographics of the publishing world, although the lack of POC in editorial positions is problematic and represents the uphill battle that WOC face.
De Leon: Everyone needs to be a part of this important conversation.
Baidya: But it tends to become our onus.
De Leon: And it shouldn’t be.
Scheck-Kahn: Have white editors responded to your writing in ways that have surprised you?
De Leon: White editors, in my particular experience, respond well/enthusiastically to stories they are familiar with, stories with themes and plots and settings and situations that ring “true” to them because they have some affinty for the characters or other aspects of the story. It’s really eye-opening.
Baidya: In a way, diversifying literary magazines has to be a movement. Editors need to challenge and change perceptions. They need to encourage, expand, extend—hell, redefine—literary excellence and aesthetics, narrative styles, and the art of storytelling. These questions need to be asked time and again to raise awareness that we all have implicit biases that need to be interrogated; there are no easy answers or solutions.
Escoffery: There are two concerns here, as I see it. Editors value the familiar, both in content and form, but they also lean toward publishing safe stories, the ones least likely to challenge the status quo. It’s risky for a writer like me, whose stories and essays confront and criticize current power structures, because I need people in power to put my story out. But there’s also the question of whether white editors feel comfortable publishing stories that confront issues within a community they don’t belong to. I’ve published stories in which facets of Black culture, or Black and white American conceptions of race, are critiqued, and I’ve heard from some white readers, “Don’t you know the Black experience is beautiful?”
De Leon: But you have every right to write the characters and plots and settings you so desire. We all do.
Escoffery: What’s underneath their impulse is a flattening out of people seen as “other” into representative ideas. Take, for example, the dedicated viewers of Fox News, for whom the definition of thug is “any young Black man.” The “don’t you know Black people are beautiful” thing is, similarly, a failure to see us as individuals and a failure to see our humanity. It’s the flip side of what we think of as overtly racist thinking, yet it’s not the opposite of racist thinking but rather a fraternal twin.
We are, to a portion of well-meaning white liberals, an accumulation of Black History Month lessons. We are victims of subjugation, or we are triumph in the face of adversity—we are 12 Years a Slave, or we’re Hidden Figures—but we are not allowed to be anything else. We are not allowed a full range of doubts and mistakes and ugliness, as comes requisite for the human experience. I’m not claiming these two manifestations of racist thought are equally heinous—there is a more evil twin here, the one that visits frequent and lethal violence upon those who look like me—but liberal racism is insidious and should be identified as such.
Baidya: Looking specifically at the literary journal landscape, there doesn’t seem to be much of an appetite to understand the nuances and aesthetics that don’t align with white liberal conceptions of what comprises diversity.
De Leon: When expectation doesn’t meet “demand,” then there is a problem.
Baidya: And if the writing challenges the viewpoints or stereotypes editors have of other cultures, they appear reluctant to engage. The demographics of writers and readers are evolving. And here, I really do empathize with literary journals and magazines because they face multiple challenges of resources, space, funding, and time, and I realize those challenges make the responsibility to diversity even harder. Is there an incentive for them?
De Leon: I recently had a story accepted at the Iowa Review. When I was at AWP (the annual conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs), I went to their table. The woman who had read my story and promoted it was there. Is it a coincidence that she was a WOC herself? Maybe. Maybe not. I’m leaning towards maybe no because I had sent that particular story to about thirty different journals over the years.
Baidya: When I look at my stories that have eventually been accepted in comparison with the ones that were rejected (oh so many times), I see a glaring pattern. Because of that and my belief in conscious or unconscious quotas, I tend to submit stories where race and ethnicity are central, or I make it so for publishing, checking certain buckets for grievance or injustice, the immigrant experience, etc. These are good stories, although my range and scope of work is broader than they allow. It is a challenge to publish or even tell a story that is unraced, and simply human, if the character is not white.
Escoffery: The importance of having people of color involved in editorial decisions can’t be overstated, but even if there’s a POC on the other end of the submission process, it’s not a given that they’ll relate to your point of view. In fact, it can at times be the opposite, if what you’re writing doesn’t line up exactly with their politics. Many people have a difficult time understanding that you can love and critique the culture you exist within. Often, you critique it because you love it. I know that for the African American community, it’s frowned upon if you’re not holding the line, so to speak, and questioning what it means to be a member of this community is blasphemy. Some within the community understand that you are striving to show the variation and range and freedom to ask questions of your culture, while others think you’re encouraging division or airing dirty laundry.
Baidya: When you start peeling the layers, getting deeper into the topic of diversity and what it really means, you realize how complex and convoluted it is. It can make well-meaning white people uncomfortable to hear it. I am uncomfortable saying this out loud. It feels as though WOC are supposed to represent something bigger than ourselves. We need to be pure and unflinching in some ways. Our stories, too, need to embrace certain narratives or aesthetics that are familiar, or are in the realm of familiarity for white editors.
Scheck-Kahn: What other constraints have you encountered? What are the implicit writing rules from which mainstream white writers are exempt and about which white editors might be oblivious?
Baidya: I have noticed that if a character is white, their race is never explicitly mentioned. You just assume they are white. But POC are expected to introduce every character with their race, cultural background, context, etc. Our stories cannot be unraced. We may try to tell a story that explores those identities, experiences rooted in that which isn’t necessarily clean or clear-cut. The extra space we take to illustrate “cultural information” can weigh down a narrative, and it’s our responsibility to ensure that it doesn’t. White editors may or may not appreciate this extra work that we do.
Escoffery: One craft idea that fails my characters at times is “show don’t tell.” I have to “tell” because the cultural cues aren’t always going to be the same when I’m writing characters who have one foot in the Caribbean and one in the United States, assuming a significant portion of my readers don’t also have that experience.
Baidya: I hear you, Jonathan. If you explain too much, it’s exposition; if too little, then “they” don’t get it.
Scheck-Kahn: What you’re saying reminds me of a talk I attended recently about queer writing and how most readers expect straight and cisgendered characters unless explicitly stated otherwise. If you are going to show, you need to really show because readers will try to straighten out your characters if you leave the smallest margin of that possibility.
Escoffery: Right! If you leave any room for misinterpretation, readers assume the dominant narrative. I like to grapple with questions of identity very explicitly in my writing; it’s not necessarily that I’m getting explainy for a white American audience so much as I’m asking questions that even I, as the person who has lived the experience, want answers to. I want to make sure I understand how the given events went down, because I don’t have the road map of how to experience these things: I never or almost never see them in literature.
Scheck-Kahn: There aren’t canonized examples of what you’re doing because it isn’t yet part of the “universal” experience currently represented in literature. How do you describe what’s currently included in that experience?
Baidya: That makes me think of something Roxane Gay said in an interview about what kind of stories she likes: “I love literary fiction so long as it is not about (a) writers, (b) sad white people in sad marriages or (c) sad white writers in bad marriages.”
More seriously, it is very hard to articulate what should be considered universal. Whiteness is such an innate and universal construct in publishing that it is hard to deconstruct it without making people uncomfortable, and getting uncomfortable yourself, especially if you’re a new upcoming “immigrant” writer without a platform. Growing up in India, I read and marveled at the short fiction of Salinger, Hemingway, and Raymond Carver. Because of these stories, I fell in love with the short story form, but it was only after reading story collections by writers like Jhumpa Lahiri, Ha Jin, and Yiyun Li that I felt open to the possibility of being able to write my stories; their work bridged the lack of universal experience for me.
Scheck-Kahn: We are talking here a lot about fiction writing or creating fictionalized accounts of lived experiences. I’m curious if, when you write creative nonfiction, you find a set of restrictions and/or opportunities different from those you encounter in fiction. Are there any challenges unique to the genre? Because readers can guess the ethnic background of the narrator based on the author photo, are you freed from managing reader expectations? Or are there other, different expectations inherent in the genre?
Escoffery: That’s a great question, Jenn. In a way, it is really freeing not to have to establish my race in the same way that I worry about establishing the race of my characters in fiction. At the same time, if I’m writing about race and identity and power structures and I’m saying POC have more challenges getting published, there’s less distance between me and my writing—there’s more opportunity to offend that white editor who would like very much not to see themselves as part of the problem and who might actually feel a little fatigued with POC talking and writing about race. When I’m writing creative nonfiction, I have to worry more that I’m shooting myself in the foot by taking on certain subjects that are important to me and the community.
Scheck-Kahn: Interesting, Jonathan. Sounds like it might be easier to say the hard truths with fiction than creative nonfiction.
Escoffery: I think so. In fiction, I might have many characters with many viewpoints, and they’re all coming from me. With creative nonfiction, I feel more exposed, like if I say something, I’d better say it right and be prepared for the consequences.
Scheck-Kahn: So, technically, creative nonfiction might be more appealing, but fiction seems to offer more freedom, more cover. The result is less confining.
Escoffery: I’d say there’s a lot of truth to that.
Baidya: Judging from what gets published, there seems to be a lot more appetite for engaging and understanding the consciousness and tradition of another culture, and the complexities of storytelling, in creative nonfiction.
De Leon: In general, I think creative nonfiction allows more room for the “telling” we were talking about earlier. So there’s that. I love writing creative nonfiction. Essays are all about trying (essayer, in French) to untie some knot, to figure out something, to ask questions. So it’s natural to have more voice, more conversational narration, I guess. I also love nonfiction because no one can challenge it in the way one can challenge the veracity of fiction. No one can say, “Yeah, but that would never really happen.” It’s like, no . . . it did happen; I’m telling you it happened, and I’m right here. There is a kind of power in that. Testimony. Witnessing.
Baidya: I agree with Jennifer. I am not an essayist, but I’ve begun to write them. They are a powerful tool for expressing myself, and they get stuff out of my system that might be too “explainy” for fiction. Very cathartic.
De Leon: I will also add this: traditionally, many POC are hesitant to air their family secrets and all in creative nonfiction. We weren’t raised to do that. Many in the Latinx community were told by family not to share your personal sh*t with the world. I’m not saying writing fiction is easier than writing nonfiction, but there is a kind of liberating aspect to it. “But it’s not me, and it’s not my family,” for instance. The impulse comes from a tradition of being silenced. That’s slowly changing.
Scheck-Kahn: In what ways have your characters or narratives been misunderstood by a “whitestream” readership?
Baidya: One of my stories, which eventually got published in a UK-based literary magazine, had a narrator who was a middle-class, educated Indian man, who happened to have a maid. I got very useful and meaningful feedback, which truly helped me improve the story, but there was one piece of common feedback that I received: “I wonder how the story would be if written from the point of view of the maid. It would let us see the real India.” Now, this was good feedback, an exercise that tested different points of view and narrative styles, and eventually helped me explore my characters more deeply, but it also made me a bit uncomfortable. Real India? What did they mean by that? In fact, one editor blatantly said, “I want to see more slums. This is Bombay, after all.” But that wasn’t the story I was trying to tell. My narrator would not venture into a slum. And like any other new writer trying to get published, I struggle to discern which feedback I should follow. Was this a good critique to act upon, or did it simply come from the whitestream perception of how a story set in Bombay should be told? It could be both. So that’s an added layer.
Escoffery: This might sound asinine, but Black people have dealt with oppression for so goddamn long in this country, and we’ve dealt with it, in part, by cracking jokes. It’s a coping mechanism, and it’s all over our writing. The way we employ humor is linked to class, too: the poorer you are, the more powerless you feel, the more likely you’ll rely on it to get by. I wish editors would understand that some of the dialogue in Black people’s fiction is not meant to be harsh; it’s humorous coping, often in the face of insurmountable adversity. I feel like one in four white editors really get this. Do I have actual stats? Of course not. And I’m laughing as I write this. But I’ll hear from one editor that she thinks my character is hilarious while another three don’t get why he’s so mad. So, yeah, there’s another challenge.
Scheck-Kahn: Jonathan, what you’ve said gets to the core of the problem here. Why don’t they pick up on humor? Because they are unconsciously biased to assume anger, perhaps, but also because they just don’t get the tone. Isn’t there some famous saying that you don’t understand a culture until you find their jokes funny? Nothing denotes insider/outsider mentality like humor, but because of the power dynamic, you’re the one placed as outsider.
Escoffery: Right! I’ve heard from editors who did publish my writing that they had argued with their readers/editors about how to understand the tone.
Scheck-Kahn: They don’t hear it because they don’t have models for it. How do you teach someone how to interpret a tone they haven’t heard?
Escoffery: How indeed.
Baidya: The simple answer is that they need to broaden their horizons and publish more writing that showcases different voices. Editors need to overcome the reluctance to engage or understand stories outside certain familiar arcs.
Escoffery: Does fiction have to present a dramatic arc at all? When you write stories that are not about a character’s final push to achieve a goal, but are instead more interested in answering a dramatic question or demonstrating the exhaustion associated with battling an oppressive system, the narrative structure might not look like an arc at all. If you’ve lived through this battle—if you are currently fighting it—the story shape makes sense. If not, and you’re an editor at a literary magazine, you might say the story doesn’t have the shape you expected.
Scheck-Kahn : The shape you suggest, Jonathan, of circling an idea, is more common in personal essays, but why can’t fiction borrow this form for its purpose? Are there other decisions you’ve made that feel unexpected to the editors with whom you’ve worked?
Escoffery: This isn’t intentionally genre-bending, but from a few editors I’ve received feedback that my characters’ experiences “feel too specific,” and I worry that this feedback suggests that the events of the story read as “stranger than fiction” because they aren’t familiar to editors.
Scheck-Kahn: How so?
Escoffery: Here’s one example: many of the stories in my linked collection-in-progress follow the journey of a multiracial, first-generation Caribbean American character who lives in Miami. I get the sense that this is too complex a character makeup for some editors. They ask, “Well, is this a story about Miami or the Caribbean? Is it about immigration, or is it about being multiracial? Is it about racism or intraracial colorism? Pick one! And what does any of this identity stuff have to do with the plot?”
I’ve always been confounded by narratives that set protagonists into action without reflecting on the characters’ cultures and how their cultures inform their decisions. Stories like that could never take place in a city like Miami, at least not with any plausibility. In Miami, people want to know “What are you?” In part, this is because it’s an international city and a high percentage of the population is racially and ethnically mixed, whether they identify as such or not. People want to know “what you are” in part because they wear their biases on their sleeve, and if they can’t tell whether you belong to the particular ethnic group they hate—or love—they don’t know what to do with you. For learned people in the Northeast, this is inconceivable since, for many of them, talking about race, let alone directly asking a stranger what their race is then overtly treating them differently based on the answer, is the last thing they would consciously admit to doing, so the premise can feel farfetched.
Scheck-Kahn: What strikes me as dangerous here is the reliance on the familiar for believability. It feels akin to the charge of likability, which is laid heavily on female authors and female characters. Female characters, or narratives that center on feminine experiences, are too easily dismissed if they don’t demonstrate behaviors or attitudes that are likeable, a requirement that isn’t also borne out in male-centered narratives. What are the criteria for judging art capable of communicating a universal truth? How can superficial details or gendered assumptions obscure those truths?
Escoffery: Right. The same level of credibility that is assumed of straight white men isn’t assumed of the rest of us. Because the events in a story are removed from an editor’s perceived reality, at best the editor believes they could only have been experienced by the author as a singular occurrence and are irrelevant to that editor and their readership.
De Leon: That brings up the subject of audience. Who are we writing for?
Baidya: It’s tricky. I am a huge reader and patron of literary magazines, but, wonderful as they are, many of them aren’t all that diverse. I don’t see enough stories that speak to me. And I don’t necessarily mean I want a lot of stories of urban, educated women from India.
De Leon: I hate the assumption that we exist in silos, that only Latinx readers will respond to a Latinx author. It’s crazy talk. What happened to the idea of having windows and mirrors in literature, in all art and entertainment?
Scheck-Kahn: How do you handle the submissions process? What’s it like for you?
Baidya: When a piece doesn’t get accepted, I do wonder what was missing. When I get cryptic feedback like, “I wasn’t able to viscerally understand why . . . ” or, as Jonathan mentioned earlier, “character is too specific,” I can’t help but wonder about the issues we’ve discussed here around perceptions, implicit bias, and realm of familiarity. I have to remind myself I have no control over that. I definitely cannot use that as an excuse to give up. As a writer, sitting at her desk, with her rejected story, I accept that the story wasn’t good enough or isn’t finished, and focus on the craft of revision.
De Leon: There’s this notion of acceptance or “being let in”—and how oftentimes many WOC take rejection a lot harder than non-WOC. I know these are generalizations, but they do ring true to me. In my experience, it is so hard to get the guts to write, to revise, to revise some more, to deal with rejection after rejection on top of the self-doubt and thoughts like, Shouldn’t I just go to law school and make my immigrant parents happy? and then to do it all over again with a new story. Getting accepted to a literary magazine is about so much more, or it can be. I don’t think editors think about that when rejecting a WOC. I’m not saying they need to baby us, but I do think that if they are serious about including marginalized voices in their issues, they need to change the way they provide access to admission. For instance, what if they accept a story that needs a major revision and they commit to working with that writer? I know it’s more work. But it will have a ripple effect that will be fruitful, short-term and long-term, I think.
Baidya: In the lit mag world, a personalized rejection is the next best result to an acceptance; it signifies that the story was almost there. A story of mine recently received personalized rejections from two literary magazines with specific and encouraging feedback before finally being accepted by Kweli Journal. What’s interesting is that while I received similar feedback about the story from Kweli, my editor there, Laura Pegram, decided to work with me for the revision because she saw the bigger vision of the story. Now, similar to Jennifer’s experience with Iowa Review, and her point above about “working with that writer,” is it a coincidence that Kweli Journal is committed to diversity and publishes writers of color exclusively? One read of their journal, and you know there’s absolutely no compromise on quality in there while showcasing rich and diverse stories.
Escoffery: We have to hold two ideas in our heads. Yes, it’s unfair that we even have to be having these discussions, but yes, if you put in the work and do your research and keep at it for a while, you’ll get there. I talk to young writers of color at events; they come to mind when I have these discussions, more than I worry about myself, maybe because I’m too many years into this to feel discouraged. I mean, we all feel discouraged at times, but we can’t allow ourselves to be deterred. Just keep at it; don’t lose heart!