It’s no secret that the literary world is dominated by white, male voices. But some writers and editors of color are trying to shift the focus. The Stripes EIC, Aisha Oxley, recently sat down with Taylor Campbell, editor of THIS. magazine, to discuss the up and coming magazine’s recent release of Issue BLK, which featured only black authors.
Read their conversation below.
AO: How would you paraphrase the mission statement of THIS.?
TC: The goal of THIS. is to foster access to nontraditional voices. Contemporary literature is largely white and male — we try to highlight the other voices. That’s not to say, of course, that we don’t publish white men. We’re just inclusive. For a lot of our early issues, I individually recruited writers I discovered online who were doing good work, and invited them to submit. As the magazine gained traction, more people began to submit on their own and the magazine is now able to sustain itself that way.
AO: So now that you are submission sustaining, what is the selection process like for THIS.? What do you look for and value in pieces?
TC: We seek content that is vulnerable and visceral. Raw. Stuff that’s provocative and experimental. The issue I have with a lot of mainstream, contemporary literature is that it’s redundant and stale. So many writers are riffing about the same thing in roughly the same way. We want to create a space for content that is fresh — like the piece we published in our most recent issue, by Yona Harvey, which consisted mostly in blanks. Hers was a creative way to approach writing a story. Amber Atiya’s “In Loving Memory of Martina Lark, 1976-2014” is another example.
I have several readers who get two weeks to review submitted content and make recommendations to me in light of two ideas. First, that art should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. The second idea comes from Ushio Shinohara, in a documentary about his life as a painter. In the midst of an emotional breakdown, trying to describe to a judgmental brother why he’s devoted his life to art, Shinohara says: “This is difficult. This is so hard. This is fantastic. Now I’ve got nothing. We are the ones suffering the most from art.” My readers make selections in light of these ideas.
AO: Was there something in particular that you were looking for when selecting pieces for Issue BLK?
TC: Yeah, black writers. [laughs] Obviously, the main impetus behind Issue BLK was to foster access to writers of color, specifically black writers. But I also wanted to illuminate the diversity of work black writers are producing, the different things that they’re talking about… the different styles. And ultimately, I wanted to highlight these writers by creating a space for them to be celebrated.
AO: So was Issue BLK something that you had always been thinking about or was it triggered by race related events as of late?
TC: I’ve been gearing up for Issue BLK for about six to eight months. I knew I wanted to do an issue featuring black writers exclusively long before we went live with the inaugural issue of THIS. I recruited over the course of three or four months — tons of different writers and submissions. Since last August it’s become increasingly relevant and appropriate to do an issue like this so, yeah, the release is timely, but I think issues like this will always be timely because of the nature of the country we live in.
AO: Why do you think it’s important that black people have exclusive spaces such as literary journals?
TC: When I started planning for Issue BLK, I had a white colleague say to me, “Oh you’re gonna do an issue with only black writers in it? That’s racist.” I laughed because his response was ironic to me. Look at The New York Times’ 2015 summer book list and you see only white writers. Who’s mad about that? Don’t get me wrong, the Timesgot flack from different corners of the literary world for that, but they didn’t get enough. It illustrates how there’s this default voice we’ve accepted and come to regard as “normal” in contemporary lit. Whenever it’s disrupted, we’re like “what’s happening?” Because we’re so used to this being the way that writing works.
Literature is dominated by white and male voices. It happens in film, in art, in tons of different mediums. But there are some new spaces for black writers. Like The Offing. And Buzzfeed is launching a new lit mag helmed by Saeed Jones. Folks are trying to create spaces for new voices. That’s why so much of the stuff you read in The Offingand Buzzfeed, for instance, is stuff you might never read in the New Yorker or The New York Times. Because they’re shifting the center. They’re fucking with the narrative. I’d like to think THIS. is doing that, too.
I don’t want to give the sense that there’s a deficit of black and brown writers out there, either. That’s not the case at all. Black and brown writers just aren’t getting play. So Issue BLK was about putting those voices on the radio.
AO: What do you think is the importance of the literary and artistic tradition for black people, and is that something you thought about while planning Issue BLK?
TC: I mean, for me, there’s added urgency when a black writer steps to the page, just because of the nature of our historical experience — not only in the United States, but in the global diaspora. Writing has always been and continues to be a medium of survival as much as expression, a way to claim agency, a vehicle of protest. It’s our way of saying, “We are here and we will be here.” Anyone can write, sure, but there’s so much more at stake when you write as a conscious, black writer.
In her piece for Issue BLK, Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie writes “our poetry and the way that we live are intertwined.” I liken black writing to historically black genres of music — anyone can make music, but then there’s jazz. You know? Or the blues. Or hip-hop. They are so much more than just genres. There’s more gravity. They are about story and voice, a way of proclaiming that we are here. It’s sticking your flag in the dirt. It’s solace.
AO: So how do you see exclusively black or black-focused literary journals fitting into a literary landscape that is so white and male? And how do you see these journals informing white readers of the black experience?
TC: When it comes to conversations about race in the United States, we need to acknowledge that most Americans aren’t equipped to have them. They’re either oblivious or ignorant or lack perspective. The best thing for white participants in particular to do in these conversations is listen. So I conceive of exclusively black literary journals and literary issues as convenient opportunities for white readers to do just that. But more importantly, these journals and issues allow us to create safe spaces for ourselves in a literary landscape that displaces and devalues our voices. Or at least, that was my objective with Issue BLK.
Up until Issue BLK, the audience of THIS. was primarily white. I especially enjoyed releasing Issue BLK to a largely white audience because, one, I like to piss people off and make them uncomfortable. That is, I like to afflict the comfortable. But it was also about fostering access to great, black voices in a forum that was unfamiliar with them. And it was about expressing solidarity, too. A fist bump to my black and brown readers.
Exclusively black journals create safe spaces in what Junot Díaz refers to as the Great White Universal of Literature.
AO: Given that your audience was mostly white prior to this issue, how has the response been to Issue BLK?
TC: Out of every issue we’ve published to date, we’ve received the best response to Issue BLK — and part of that’s just the momentum of a growing magazine. But besides that one colleague who cried racism a few months ago, I haven’t heard any complaints. People seem to be enjoying the content and it’s gotten a lot of traction on social media. I also think that publishing this sort of issue has allowed us to get some new and fresh readership. Overall, I’m very pleased.
AO: You mentioned that your intent is to foster access to a diversity of voices – what are your plans for future issues with exclusive themes like Issue BLK?
TC: Part of me wants to publish an issue highlighting every underrepresented demographic out there, just as a way of expressing solidarity and elevating them. And maybe I will. I think we’ve shown thus far that we’re serious about amplifying fresh and suppressed voices, so our readers can certainly look forward to issues highlighting specific groups of writers. I’m not sure about the timeline for those issues, but know that I am working hard to recruit writers and artists. Everything is in the works. It’s just a matter of doing it well and doing it justice. If you’re gonna highlight a specific group of writers, it can’t be shit. It’s gotta be fire. So we will do it, and it will be fire.
AO: That’s dope. A couple fun questions to end: What was your favorite piece from Issue BLK? And what is your favorite part of editing THIS.?
TC: It’s all so great. But the piece you’re featuring by Hanif is dope. I’m also obsessed with Tania’s stuff. Derrick Weston Brown would round out my top three.
My favorite part of the process is when I get illustrations back from the artist. I feel like they add so much life to the pieces. Each artist reads between the lines and paints what’s there. It’s wild. Every time I get that text from the artist about illustrations, I have to wait, prepare myself and sit down with a cup of tea or something ‘cause it’s a good moment.
Stay tuned for a special feature from Issue BLK on the Stripes. In the mean time, you can read all of Issue BLK, here.
This interview is the first in a series featuring conversations with writers and editors of color, entitled Writing While Black.