Yes, Your Writing Is Shaped By Your Identity—But What You Publish Is Too

Rachel Charlene Lewis

These days, the lit world is spending a lot more time thinking about the role of identity in writing and publishing. With recent shifts toward a greater acknowledgment of the role of identity and the influence of privilege on what we write, read, and publish, more and more think pieces are spanning the web.

Many of us are asking the same question: How on earth is the lit world going to support people of marginalized identities in a society that has shown itself time and time again to be incapable of the same task?

Over the summer, Electric Literature posed the question “Should White Men Stop Writing?” on The Blunt Instrument, its monthly advice column for writers, with an answer that can be boiled down to, “No, don’t stop writing; just work toward good writing and don’t cast yourself as the white savior. Oh, and stop doing the weird white guy thing of submitting work over and over again . . . even after you’ve been told your work is low-quality.” (Get more of the column’s author in a Q&A over at Vulture.)

Many responses followed in the lit world. The Atlantic’s June 6th response piece, “Letter to a Young (White, Male) Poet,” gave a different set of advice that largely suggested the idea that white male poets shouldn’t stop writing, unless, of course, they’re bad at the craft.

But we’ve come up with no solution. And why? Are we looking in the wrong places? At the end of the day, maybe the responsibility to publish diverse perspectives falls onto publishers and editors.


Where are the diverse writers?

Let me be straight with you: I am a giant feminist, and as such, I’ve followed all of these conversations pretty closely. I regularly read diverse publications, like THEM, Plenitude, The Fem (disclaimer: I work with them), Blackberry Lit, Quaint, Kalyani, and Two Serious Ladies. I keep up with campaigns that fight for inclusivity in the literary world, like #WeNeedDiverseBooks and the VIDA Count. And it’s really interesting because, at least from the outside looking in, these publications don’t seem to be having the same massive struggle of not being able to find diverse writers that some editors claim is the reason for the whiteness, the straightness, and the maleness of their publications.

What I am frustrated about is the lack of responsibility that editors themselves seem willing to take about the maleness and whiteness of the lit world.

If lit mags are publishing problematic works, they’re unlikely to have diverse writers vying for the chance to get their work in their now misogynistic/racist/ableist/classist/homophobic journal. Editors can’t be shocked when women don’t want to submit to their magazine when they just published a misogynistic piece last week. The same can be said for other marginalized identities.


Editors—learn the meaning of diversity

If we publish in terms of talent and actively seek diverse voices, we'll even out the playing field—but first, this requires a basic understanding of what diversity is, what inclusivity looks like, and how identity influences writing.

Our identities shape our perspectives, making all of us privy to the majority perspective per media (and literature’s) constant re-tellings of what it is to be straight, white, and male, and leaving only those of us with identities marginalized in our current US context (people of color, queer folks, trans people, people with disabilities, etc.) with access to certain perspectives.

For writers not to acknowledge the role that who they are plays upon how they move through the world is to make their experience seem as if neutral, as if their writing is just about the “human” experience, not about the experience of any individual and their identities.


We need diverse editors

On July 1st,  @MizCaramelVixen, creator of #BlackComicsMonth (with comics being another overwhelmingly white space within the art world), tweeted, “We need MORE editors of color as well as creators of color. Period.”

And they’re not the only one having this conversation. The Twittersphere, especially Black Twitter, has hashed this issue out via tweets on many occasions, both literary and not.

We can talk in circles about the role of identity and who should and should not write, but what’s become clear to me from the many think pieces spanning the Internet about the topic is that there’s no single solution. The fun part about focusing instead on the role of editors is that there is an answer—we need more diverse editors, and we need editors who do the work.

The fun part about focusing instead on the role of editors is that there is an answer – we need more diverse editors, and we need editors who do the work.

How does an editor select a piece? Do they look for something that makes them feel something? Do they look for something that speaks to the human experience? We can act all we want as if 1) editors are totally objective creatures by the nature of their craft, or 2) that the human experience is not often a cover for the straight, white, cis, able-bodied, male experience.

But what does it mean that the people looking for something to connect to so often share so many of the same characteristics? Those of us involved in chats about diversity often talk about the businessman who pulls aside a fellow straight, white, male, able-bodied young businessman and say, “You remind me of myself, son.” Lookie there—privilege.

Julie Dillon/Buzzfeed

Julie Dillon/Buzzfeed

And this isn’t just an issue in business. What does it mean if editors are imagining their past writer selves in writers whose identities match up with their own? What does it mean if reading and the ability to enjoy a piece is tangled up in being able to see oneself in the main character or narrator?

Buzzfeed published an article in 2014 by Daniel José Older titled, “Diversity Is Not Enough: Race, Power, and Publishing” that discussed this issue in terms of the book publishing industry. When presented with a story headed by a person of color, one agent said, as quoted in the article, that they couldn’t relate to the character.

Again—we end up in a sea of, more or less, the same perspectives.


But can’t we just look for talent?

If what we seek is a world of invisible identities where everyone somehow has an equal shot without effort on the editorial level working to make our publications more diverse, we are completely failing at our task.

There is a lot to “talent.”

I remember sitting in my sophomore year English class and learning about the debate about whether rhetoric could be taught or not. I thought, wow, it must be fantastic to be able to convince people that you carry a skill that you, and only people like you, are capable of being born with.

I’ve found so much solace in the literary world in these past few years. I’ve shared pieces that rubbed me the right way with my closest counterparts as a means of discussing everything from newfound queerness to sexual assault. I’ve laid in bed with these pieces on my phone at 5:00 in the morning and been like, holy crap, this is what not being in absolute solitude feels like.

But I shouldn’t have had to feel so grateful to find writers like me. It shouldn’t be so difficult to stumble upon a piece by a queer, biracial woman. But, goodness gracious, be sure to tweet at me if you have one to recommend. If talent is the only thing holding these people back, then we must seriously be terrible writers.

What does it mean if reading and the ability to enjoy a piece is tangled up in being able to see oneself in the main character or narrator?

It’s too easy to push the blame on the writers

White male writers disappearing isn't necessarily the answer to leveling the publishing playing field, because it's not as if all white male writers think the same way and have no perspective to offer—here, I do agree with the author of The Atlantic piece. And, again, being white and male says nothing about talent.

What I want to talk about more is the editor. How do we switch up the editing game to make it more accessible? How do we include more voices?

If there's any question to ask, it's how to regulate the seeking and publishing of diverse voices—not whether certain people should stop writing.


Editors, it’s on you

There are a number of journals who commit to publishing the works of diverse authors and to being inclusive in their publications. These are the spaces where editors take a step back and say, “What are we doing wrong?” when the only submissions they’ve selected are those of straight, white males, instead of saying, “Welp, guess they are just the strongest writers!”

These journals do not all go about their work in the same way. Apogee Journal, “a literary journal specializing in art and literature that engage with issues of identity politics: race, gender, sexuality, class, and hyphenated identities,” does not read blind. In a July letter from the editors, they say, “Blind submissions don’t actually protect writers from the existing prejudices of editors, and they alone do not contribute to editors reading inclusively.”

Vagabond City, a small quarterly literary journal that seeks to publish poetry and prose that fits outside the mainstream literary scene, asks writers to list their identities along with their submission. (Disclaimer: I edit this journal, so I’m biased.)

It’s the little things and the big things. It’s having submission fee-free periods. It’s promoting your reading periods in spaces beyond expensive magazines. It’s making it clear that you’re a safe space for marginalized voices.

Other spaces don’t necessarily shift their reading practices, but instead make their commitment to inclusivity, diversity, and social justice obvious in their social media presences. The Offing is an excellent example of this. They are continually taking stances on social justice issues like police brutality and mental health in POC communities. Whether their publication is diverse because of their social media presence or vice versa, whatever they’re doing is clearly working, as they’ve continually highlighted the voices of marginalized writers.

It’s the little things and the big things. It’s having submission fee-free periods. It’s promoting your reading periods in spaces beyond expensive magazines. It’s making it clear that you’re a safe space for marginalized voices.

Screen Shot 2015-11-05 at 9.43.33 PM.png

And it’s worth it.

I crave a world where I don’t have to scroll or flip through page after page or publication after publication to find a queer woman of color. And I’m not the only reader craving this. I am not the only writer terrified for her future. I am not the only person fearing for the moment when the trend to include diverse voices from the literary world passes and we’re left floating in the same sea with no solutions in sight and few editors left to fight the good fight.


What You've Missed in Simon Jacobs' Exclusive Series: MASTERWORKS

Simon Jacobs had an idea for a recurring series: flash fiction pieces in which the characters reenact famous works of art. Being a home for art and lit to meet and clash and mix, Paper Darts couldn't say no.

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Part 1. Part 2.

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Recommended for: Pedophobes

I asked you once if you’d ever considered having children—not because I wanted to have them, but because there was a silence I was either trying to fill or stretch endlessly into infinity. You were standing at the window with your hands on your hips as if surveying your kingdom, and there was something in the dismal, squat, slowly emptying buildings beneath us that reminded me of posterity. I was barefoot, which was unusual.
It worked. I’d barely gotten the words out when you broke into a peal of crackly laughter. “Have you ever seen a baby in a medieval fresco? They look like fucking monsters.”

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It involved a cat that I fitted with feathery wings and a harness. We named him Peter, after the fact, and like most cats, he was a breaking point.
We were living in an empty theatre in a once-central part of town. Beneath the spotlight, you, as Oedipus, draped a patterned tablecloth over your otherwise-naked form in a tasteful way fitting the conventions of nineteenth-century French oils (no bush), I adjusted the pulley system so the hook dangled at just about chest level, and then I retrieved our sphinx. The cat—who often roamed the neighborhood in absence of its people—was lean and feisty and the color of beach sand, but once I latched his harness he went limp, hanging dejectedly in the air like the pendulum of a grandfather clock.

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My favorite sequence comes, of course, from Platoon, when Willem Dafoe, abandoned by his company on the jungle floor, bursts from the trees with swarms of VC at his heels, theatrical explosions rending the background, gets shot about a dozen times in slow motion, and then finally, falling to his knees, reaches his arms up, Christ-like, at the passing helicopters of his squadmates. I’ve always had a bit of a jungle fetish and a knack for pyrotechnics . . .

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“A lean-to,” I say to myself, momentarily contented with my knowledge of this terminology, as if, in some entirely separate life, I might be a woodsman or a gatherer, someone who uses his hands and wits as a replacement for technology, with full body hair and shapely calves.

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Reading time: 2 minutes Recommended for: Craft enthusiasts

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Recommended for: Craft enthusiasts

I build the baby octopus first—the mouth-kissing one—as a test of my construction methods.
Literally, the Japanese title of the 1814 Hokusai print translates to “octopi and shell diver”; the woodcut design—each strand of hair, suction cup, and cresting wave meticulously detailed—is beautifully tender. Its principles engage in an amorous, onomatopoeia-laden dialogue printed in the background, cramped and ecstatic, the whole work a testament to an era of floating world pleasures and higher lung capacity.
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Prince! Poetry! Oh my! The events at this year’s AWP are anything but the typical dry literary readings from your English major days in college. By now, you’ve probably had several lists of AWP events people are excited about thrust in your face or passively posted to your Twitter feed. The monotony is over! Here are our picks of AWP events tailored to our feminist friends—or for anyone who celebrates the weird and visionary in the world of literature.

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Rebekah Bergman writes fiction and poetry. She is a recent recipient of a fellowship from Tent and a residency at Art Farm in Marquette, Nebraska. She is pursuing an MFA in fiction at The New School and works as an editorial intern at Tin House. Her work is published or forthcoming form Spittoon and Banango Street.