Starting with our May 2013 issue, The Conversant will be publishing excerpts from HER KIND, a digital literary community powered by VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. In order to introduce that series, we have asked HER KIND’s editors, Rosebud Ben-Oni and Arisa White, to answer the following question:
Could you describe your goals for HER KIND (the publishing context out of which it comes, its relation to VIDA, the types of discussions you seek to promote, people you hope to publish, etc.)?
Arisa White: I wanted HK to be a container—a space where we were creating a literary community of sorts. So VIDA is known for The Count, for the hard numbers that show the gender disparities in the literary world, and I wanted HK to be a counterpoint to that. For myself I need to see solutions to the things I find unjust—alternative visions for thriving that are not rooted in an oppressive paradigm. Because what that tells me is that we are creatively and resourcefully using our imaginations to bring about change.
Here is space for women writers to express themselves and their relationship to the written word, the written world, to articulate the textual bodies that we are.
While developing HK with Rosebud and Cate, my goal was to create a literary environment for play, spontaneity, and intellectual curiosity, where speaking freely is welcomed. Rosebud and I come up with crazy-interesting, and sometimes off-the-cuff themes, to let people know we want to be surprised and shaped by the content that comes our way. And for me it was a matter of how to do that without making anyone feel like they had to have a degree, a book, an award, a particular hue, or know someone in order to be published.
Rosebud Ben-Oni: Working with Arisa is half dance-party and half reflecting out on a sea of all seasons—HK has put a weight on my shoulders that I like. I want the kind of discussions that I at one time or another could not initiate or even join. On my mother’s side, which is Mexican, there is mostly oral history; listening to my mother and her 6 other siblings tell me of the things that happened to them, I’ve found if I put it all together that, rather than straight history, I know more about each individually. Contradictions burst with their own truths. My father’s side, which is Jewish, might come from a written-word history, yet due to his personal history, a lot has been lost. When I was a child, I could not initiate a conversation with him, or my mother, whom he’s entrusted with the better part of his life, his childhood. I knew there was a war (the Shoah), that my paternal grandfather had been married before, that he was much older than my grandmother and died while my father was a child. That my father grew up in hospitals watching him die. That he was poor. He told these things to my mother, and only her; I had to respect that she is his keeper. But I felt very incomplete, like I would never know my father, that he’d remain a mystery. For a long time I walked around with that burden on my shoulders. In college I discovered other young women who could not initiate or join certain conversations, for similar or different reasons.
It was this inability to ask, to know where to begin, which bonds me to the mission of HER KIND— from our writers, I’m learning how. I’m learning what it means to be a woman who performs as a drag queen, an activist in Librotraficante and Underground Libraries. I, too, was once young LGBT Latina who could not find herself in the books assigned in schools. This is the kind of writing we want to feature.
Arisa, we ask our Ladies in the House a series of questions, and I’d like to ask you two we’ve used in the past: Where do you begin? Where do you end?
AW: Now that you shared that RB, I too am thinking about the personal histories that make up my life. My mothers. The absence of my father. Learning to reconcile what is here and not here, said and silent. So where I begin is somewhere in the nonverbal. In a feeling place that calls attention to the ends that want to meet up. In many ways, I feel like my mother is one end and I am the other, and along the way we are creating a seam that speaks to and about our lives. Maybe in the end, the seam looks like a scar, but the result is a kind of healing. A way to let something go and begin again. To take what I deem a void, an absence, an emptiness and make a nest there. I’m a restless spirit, so I like beginning again, looking things over, thinking about how to speak this differently, how to be committed to this thing that doesn’t have language. How to labor the syllables out of it, the symbols, make a web from all that drool and spittle—because who said that any of this would not be messy? One of the great things about working with RB is that we share a similar kind of willingness and courage—to step out the box, then mischievously eye each other, and chuckle in that wise woman way because we knew this box had no walls. As editors we like to inject that mercurial, tricksterness into HER KIND. We are Wookin’!
RB, in thinking about HK’s April theme of Exquisite Foolishness, tell us what kind of trickster you are?
RB: A 7-Train trickster. A code-switching trickster. I still contain the contradictions of my upbringing, and those contradictions contain multitudes. Like how hybridity has its own purity. Its own origin too. A trickster of contemporary traditions. Meaning that, when once I taught an American Literature class, I had Junot Diaz, Gwendolyn Brooks, Sherman Alexie, a Hmong anthology. I was asked where is the canon. I don’t understand that question; compared to Jewish history, the United States is a young country. Its culture is still becoming. While I respect Hemmingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald, two of those men wrote during their time abroad. They were Europhiles. Why they are necessary and other writers are supplemental (like Women’s Lit, Latino Lit, African-American Lit) is where I’m certainly tricksterish. I know Standard English. I know various dialects. The difference between being alive and living. Hearing and listening. I’m along for the ride of the futures. I want to be the ride too. Ghost the rails and break night.
Arisa, you came up with our theme for August, Bitches. What prompted that? How do you define the word?
AW: For some time, I have been afraid of bitches. The dogs too. In the face of aggression, I want to quickly turn away. Too much directness makes me feel seen, like someone is pointing at me and saying, this is who you are. That’s a bitch to me. And we need that. We all need that. I can’t be a full human being if I do not embrace that warrior/fighter me, that part that is courageous to speak her truth, speaking loud and with pride—no stutter or pause—and as a result, splits through our illusions. Bitches feel like earth to me. You can’t deny the truth of the earth, her mysterious ways, her quakes, and seasons. It is our point of reference for being.
At AWP I kept going up to the VIDA table and asking, Where my bitches at?! There is a truth that VIDA wants to bring to the table, an open dialogue, that requires vulnerability and trust, and a willingness to look at our shortcomings and acknowledge that in order to be fuller, actualized individuals, we have to work collectively to expand our view.
The bitch holds us accountable to each other.
When conceptualizing the Lady in the House department, I wanted that bitch energy to be brought to the fore. Alpha ladies laying the ground for how we think about literature/writings in our lives, provoking us to think beyond what is right in front—to see the forest for the trees, the trees for the forest and the forest for an afro.
RB, you are a woman of many border crossings, misreadings, and people wondering who and “what” you are and where you are from—I was thinking of you when we revamped our Global Woman department. What were you thinking?
RB: “The bitch holds us accountable to each other.” I love that. She does, doesn’t she? I love all of what you said. I want to go and break free all the bad candy in the bodega.
Wait, I already do that.
With Global Woman, I really loved this idea that travel writing doesn’t need to be “I went to X and experienced the beaten-path and hung with the natives and therefore, became enlightened.” I spent a lot of my childhood on the Gulf Coast, and there were always a lot of tourists who’d come to South Padre Island. My mother told me the land used to be mad cheap, but they didn’t even have that, so they couldn’t buy and invest. I thought about what’s it like living so close to both a tourist spot and the U.S.-Mexican border, a place where people mostly pass through. It opened me up to new ideas of dominant and home cultures. Being uncomfortable, not speaking the lingo more so than the language. That as a Jew (and that’s contested by many as my mother converted from Catholicism) I have the Right to Return to Israel and my former girlfriend—a Christian Arab Israeli—was born and bred in Jerusalem yet always feared going abroad, that they’d block her returning. I mean walking into Saks Fifth Avenue at 18 for the first time wearing a $5 jacket from Joyce Leslie just to see what all the fuss was about. I mean AWP for the first time. I mean among people with occupations, with new passions. The Global Woman is an outlaw of sorts, an interloper, a miscreant. She’s candid on the sheet of paper, in retrospect, when perhaps she couldn’t be in the moment. She’s more than just displaced; she’s confronting; she’s in that “now” still; she was fully engaged in an environment. I mean getting beyond yourself, the personal feeling of Otherness. She might even be out of body—which brings me to a new question.
Can you share your thoughts about our pieces that focus on sexual identity and gender, like “‘Woman’ is the Gateway to Full Humanity: A Conversation With Poets Jill Hammer and Joy Ladin” as well as “My Tribe” by Monique Jenkinson?
AW: Yes, free the candy!
Yes, too, to the Global Woman being out of body!
Oh, the body. The conversation with Jill Hammer and Joy Ladin had me thinking about body in a different way. The body as amendable, changeable, not fixed at all. We try to hold it down with our labels and constructs, but the body is of many terrains.
Jill Hammer writes: “I don’t think we should deny our body experience; we should embrace it. To me, that doesn’t mean embracing easy dualities about gender, but it does mean taking our bodies seriously as sites of being.”
Taking her words into consideration, I often challenge myself to embrace all of my body’s experiences and to see where they take me. So it’s interesting to hear about and read the stories of women making those treks within and without and expanding our interpretation of womanness. We are made the more free when others are willing to step outside of gender expectations and defy those same gendered roles.
Monique Jenkinson, a woman who performs as a drag queen, just blows my mind. She takes the performance of gender to a whole other level—when a woman performs being a woman, what is she really doing, what is she forcing us to consider? I do not have the answers to those questions, but the questions compel me to know and explore these deep ponderings swirling inside.
Which makes me consider, what/who is woman? Who/what is a woman writer? Are we at HER KIND promoting and nurturing a feminine expression or a woman expression?
RB: Woman isn’t just biological. I believe that. Nothing is fixed. Very few things are beyond change. I do believe nature can second-guess itself; that is to say, after one is born, one might be in the wrong body. Did you ever see Paris is Burning? I was still in elementary school when that came out; I saw it later in college and had dreams about Octavia St. Laurent for the rest of the year. It was a searing sort of crush in which I wanted to be with her and be part of her. It did not compute to me at 18 that she was born a he; it would not have mattered anyway. It did compute that she was an icon of grace, beauty and style. I fell for Octavia as a woman, but that’s too simple a way to put it as well.
When I think of who or what is a woman writer, what follows for me is: whom does she read, and who reads her? If someone tells me “I identify as a woman,” then I’m going to identify that voice as a woman; what experiences, quirks and tastes make up the individual is far more interesting than biology. I hope we are promoting and nurturing the women we feature; a number of our writers found us at the VIDA table for AWP. There were many hugs, some tears and lots of “finally we meet in person” revelations; of course, the dance party really started when you dropped by, Arisa, asking where the bitches were. I have to refrain from doing that in other public spaces.
I think part of the nurturing also is trusting the writers, especially in voices and styles we ourselves are unfamiliar with. So what would you say, then, you look for in a HER KIND submission?
AW: I like pieces that show a sense of expansion and introspection. There is an individual self, but there is a self with a sense of the world around it. Submissions that take the larger world into consideration appeal to me. That can link the personal with the political, cultural, environmental, and spiritual—that illustrate their interconnectedness, their webs of being. I like for there to be some sense of transformation—what did you learn and how did that shift the way you are in the world; and what discoveries were made, what got activated, what got let go? I like story that weaves in the lyrical. I like submissions that come at things from a different perspective—peculiar, weird, distinctive, unexpected ways of seeing through content or form. For our Body theme last year, we had some compelling submissions—some that we worked closely to shape into existence. Nancy Gerber’s “Facing the Knife,” which was about her research into bariatric surgery; Teilor Good’s artwork rendered the female form into animal-like amalgamations that were visually intriguing and provocative; Kate Durbin’s critique of women as objects gave us a way of rethinking consumerism. Ultimately, I want to be surprised.
RB, what would you say is your editorial philosophy?
RB: Like you, I want to be surprised. I want voices that swell with pushing-the-limits candor, especially in our Lady in the House feature; Rachel McKibbens in “The Ghost Daughter Speaks” blew me away. For On My Mind, I like essays that reground the reader in a new place, that stay with you longer than the moment. For Conversations, I like pairing writers familiar with each others’ work and writers very different in style and aesthetics. And why limit ourselves to one kind of literacy? Visual artists, performance artists, social renegades— all are welcome to submit.
Arisa, HER KIND will be a year old this April. I’m mad excited. What do you hope for HK in the coming year?
AW: More play and wonder, which is why I’m EXCITED by our search for The Exquisite Ones, in celebration of our anniversary. We have already started the year off nicely by switching from being called a blog to an online literary community. That alone states our intentions more clearly, because an online community aligns more closely with HK’s vision and mission.
In thinking about community, I want a way to physicalize HER KIND in the world. Anthology. Postcards. Conversation Starter Kits. A panel, a reading. As well as nominating some of these fabulous works for literary prizes. To continue to expand our readership and make ourselves known to all variety of women writers—I want to see more young women writers submitting to HK.
I’m already brainstorming themes for 2014: Superwoman; Lisa Bonet; Latch Key Kid; Food?; Period; Used; Love; War; Women’s Movement (Redux ?)—and so many more to be considered and/or revised.
And to continue to be open to change, so that we can evolve and shift in necessary ways to remain relevant.
And you, what are your hopes for HK for this coming year?
RB: For themes: Ghosting the Rails; Showgirls; Late in the Evening; Saints & Sinners; La Llorna and other Crying Games; Touch Me; Out(rage)(ous); Mirage.
HER KIND 3D is the future. Organize readings where we are both based, New York and California, and then spread across the States. Mixers styled like a block party or at a roller-skate rink. A short play festival too perhaps for our playwrights, an exhibition of visual arts—why not? More than anything, I want to build lasting communities. Exquisite ones, indeed.
Born to a Mexican mother and Jewish father, Rosebud Ben-Oni is a 2013 CantoMundo Fellow. A Leopold Schepp Scholar at New York University, she won the Seth Barkas Prize for Best Short Story and The Thomas Wolfe/Phi Beta Kappa Prize for Best Poetry Collection. She was a Rackham Merit Fellow at the University of Michigan where she earned her MFA in Poetry and was a Horace Goldsmith Scholar at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A graduate of the 2010 Women’s Work Lab at New Perspectives Theater, her plays have been produced in New York City, Washington DC and Toronto. Her work appears in Arts & Letters, B O D Y, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review and Puerto del Sol. She writes the series “On 7 Train Love” for the blog of Sundog Lit. Nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize, her debut book of poems SOLECISM was published by Virtual Artists Collective in March 2013. Rosebud is a co-editor for HER KIND at VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. Find out more about her at 7TrainLove.org
Arisa White is a Cave Canem fellow, an MFA graduate from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and is the author of the chapbooks Disposition for Shininess and Post Pardon, as well as the full-length collections Hurrah’s Nest and A Penny Saved. Her debut collection, Hurrah’s Nest, was nominated for a 2013 NAACP Image Award. Co-editor for HER KIND, a literary community powered by VIDA: Women in Literary Arts and the editorial manager for Dance Studio Life magazine, White has received residencies, fellowships, or scholarships from Port Townsend Writers’ Conference, Rose O’Neill Literary House, Squaw Valley Community of Writers, Hedgebrook, Atlantic Center for the Arts, Prague Summer Program, Fine Arts Work Center and Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2005, her poetry has been widely published and is featured on the recording WORD with the Jessica Jones Quartet. White is a native New Yorker, living in Oakland, California with her fiancée and is currently working on adapting her chapbook, Post Pardon, into an opera.