Continuing on with what is now looking like a series of blog posts on submissions and publishing, I want to reiterate that I’m writing all of this to think out loud about my presentation for the PAWA 07/30/2011 workshop. I am anticipating a relatively specific community of writers, most likely emerging local writers of color who participate in local and grassroots arts orgs, and who have limited publishing experience.
As well, and again, back to author and friend Sunny Vergara’s blog post on self-promotion, as well as thinking back on so much of the writing I do here, as well as thinking about my recent conversations with Anthem Salgado including the Art of Hustle podcast interview, I believe there are cultural and even political reasons for the reticence I see in this community.
A friend of mine, a fellow writer, recently held a women writers submissions party somewhere in the Bay Area. I did not attend, but it was interesting to see the comments thread on Facebook. There really was a lot of articulated and admitted fear. I don’t know anymore what this fear is about; it’s no longer my experience. Maybe it once was. But the very reason why I am offering this workshop is because of those kinds of articulated and admitted fears.
I am thinking back over how I learned to do what I do in publishing, what my mentors taught me, what I learned through trial and error, and what I learned during my years as a Maganda magazine editor. I do know that editors can be cruel. A lot of it is being overwhelmed and fatigued, having taken on editing as a non-paid, extracurricular activity. For me, the fatigue came from the sheer volume of creative submissions, and also the sheer volume of cultural trope executed in various ways, many quite unsuccessfully. We came to learn how to articulate why some executions were more successful than others. I also know that editors can tell when a writer is not quite there and has all kinds of wonderful potential. Sometimes the work just needs a little bit of editorial work. There were a lot of these in the Maganda submissions piles, and not enough time to work with every single one of these writers.
I also know that editors can have their socks knocked off by some amazing, surprising, unanticipated work. One of my cooler memories as a Maganda magazine editor around 1993 was reading a certain Nick Carbó’s poems for the first time. No one in our critique sessions knew who he was. According to his cover letter, he was a recent Sarah Lawrence College graduate, and that didn’t mean anything to us at the time. He hadn’t yet published his first collection, El Grupo McDonald’s (Tia Chucha, 1995), or the anthology Returning a Borrowed Tongue (Coffee House Press, 1995). I read his poems going, “WHOA! Who is this guy?!” the whole time. We accepted all his poems, and these, I learned a couple of years later, were included in his first collection. And of course, years later, Nick became a mentor to me, an enthusiastic supporter of my growing work, and a provider of some of my earliest publishing opportunities.
As writers in the submission process, I’d guess we all hope to be that one who knocks the socks off a group of exhausted, jaded editors. Sadly, sometimes we’re just not.
So the anxiety and reticence which Sunny has discussed, and which Anthem and I have discussed in the podcast interview, among the writers (many emerging) in our local community. Anthem and I discussed the importance of the artist as a producer; there really is so much value to this, knowing firsthand, participating in what happens “behind the scenes.” This reassured me that publishing is not a mystical phenomenon, even for young folks of color who feel they have no access to major publishing.
I don’t know how many of you out there grew up never seeing published writers who looked like you. That’s how I grew up; it was not until college that I ever saw published writing, books authored by APIA women — Amy Tan, Maxine Hong Kingston, Jessica Hagedorn, Fae Myenne Ng, Hisaye Yamamoto, Jade Snow Wong.
Thinking back on my K-12 education, I don’t remember reading any published work by any women of color, not even the women of the Harlem Renaissance. No Zora Neale Hurston. No Gwendolyn Brooks, not even “We Real Cool.” Forget about any later 20th century and contemporary WOC writers.
This is why I was blasted wide open in college. Not a new story here. I nearly jumped out of my skin when I first saw Maxine Hong Kingston on the UC Berkeley campus (she was cheering us on during one of our protests); I thought about Whitman Ah-Sing of Tripmaster Monkey when I’d walk along Strawberry Creek (you know, how he added a part of himself into the primordial ooze experiment). This is why I flipped out when my professor Oscar Campomanes brought both Jessica Hagedorn and Ninotchka Rosca into our post-colonial lit class.
This is why I believe publishing is nothing to take for granted or be quirky and hip or disaffected about; it is a marker of pride for me, and something that I really believe we need to empower our community, folks who frequently lament not seeing ourselves on bookstore shelves, simultaneously distrustful of the English language and those who “master” it. We need to reassure our community that we can do this, that it should be a higher priority than our delicadeza and pakikisama, deeper than our own individual bruised egos and hurt feelings, certainly more important than po-biz.