A “woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write”. Woolf finishes that statement with ‘fiction’, but I think it is true for all kinds of writing. And also I think ‘woman’ does not have to be ‘woman’. I think many of us need rooms of our own in order and in which to write. Sometimes recently these are called ‘safe spaces’, which meets with a lot of derision (as if it is somehow an outlier to want to be safe). But really they are just places we know we can go into for the extended, vulnerable undertaking which is making new worlds and unmaking or remaking the ones we have.
Recently a well-respected magazine editor made it clear that he is unwilling to examine his aesthetics and vision for unconscious bias, and, therefore, that making openings in his magazine for writers whose work might fall outside that aesthetics is not a priority. What do I mean by this. I mean that as a white person, I was not taught to think about race in literature, except when reading a black writer, an Asian writer…because ‘white’ was unspoken, it became background. Ordinary. The norm from which difference was established. Which meant also that people who wrote like that (meaning: descended from a long tradition of writing mostly, sorry guys, by white men from Europe; later also by white men, and some women, from Europe and the US) wrote ‘normally’ and everything else was inflected, tinged by what were once called identity politics. As though identity, or the politics thereof, were a kind of contaminant. As if the invisibility of whiteness were not a politics of its own. As if a literature that invisibly aligns itself with whiteness (by saying ‘canon’ or appealing to certain habitual ways of making text) were not a politics. As if neither required examination. As if preferences were natural and not conditioned. As if I could ever just read a text by a writer not operating in that white sphere, without the history and practices I had been taught, surrounding literature, acting as lenses (lenses that generally say, this is no good, which means this doesn’t look like what I’m used to, without the hmm, why am I used to what I’m used to moment).
In response to this, someone in a conversation floated the idea of editors of journals who are committed to supporting the work of writers of color (and other minority writers) might have a sort of badge on their site. Some discussion followed, pointing out the difficult logistics of this (would it be quantified? Who would adjudicate? How would decisions be enforced?) as well as the way in which a ‘badge’ might operate essentially as a congratulations or reward for white editors who are doing what they should do anyway, i.e. reading openly and widely, soliciting from writers of color, examining their own learned and invisible biases (and the relation of these to power/white supremacy/kyriarchy…).
This is a short forum for a long idea. And pausing for a moment on this idea should not erase the fact that this moment is a small one in a long chain of moments which are experienced and narrated in complex and multiple ways by the people who live in and through them. I mean that I am by no means positioning myself as a be-all, end-all. And this text-moment is not thorough or complete. And my own education is ongoing and humbling. But.
I would not have a badge like that on 111O. I do not want to be noticed for publishing women, writers of color, or any other ‘underrepresented voices’, even though that is absolutely what I feel my remit is. I do not want to call attention to that. That seems self-aggrandizing and goes against my gut sense of what my job is. I feel it is my responsibility as an editor to seek out those voices and to listen to them (even to ones I don’t publish in the end. Especially). I want readers of 111O and MIEL’s books to see by our list whose work I am willing to read and support. (The list is not there yet. Nine out of fourteen writers are white. This is something that will change as the 2016 list comes out.) I don’t want a badge to tell anyone how I’m doing. I don’t want an official seal that somehow says “accomplishment unlocked!”. Paying attention to privilege is ongoing work for me. It doesn’t have an end moment. Learning to read again is perpetual and necessary; I have thirty-plus years of having been taught/having learned to read in that erasing way. If writers of color are going to feel comfortable with my publishing them, I think it will only happen if/when they can see that I have an ongoing, extensive commitment to hearing other writers of color and to supporting work regardless of whether I have learned to read it yet.
I deeply desire for MIEL and 111O to be homes—rooms—for writers who need that space, writers who haven’t necessarily had that space, and writers who don’t feel welcome in other spaces by virtue of the way who they are intersects with how they write. That’s what I feel called to do. I don’t want to talk a lot about it because I also feel that my job is to be modest, humble, and invisible wherever I can; certainly not to celebrate myself. But I wanted to write a little about why markers like this rub me the wrong way. They seem like patches over a huge wound; ones that soothe those of us who aren’t bearing the larger part of that wound.