I’ve had the good fortune of meeting these writers who have opened spaces for new literary communities as editors and activists. Brian Kornell is Fiction Editor at The Cossack Review, along with poet Ruben Quesada, the Co-Founder of Stories & Queer, a traveling reading series that features LGBT writers with audiences all over the country. Justin Lawrence Daugherty founded the journal and community Sundog Lit, which publishes voices that “emerge from the ruins, not what idles in the calm before the storm,” as well as “literature that rages.” Recently, Kornell took to Twitter to discuss his frustrations with the indie lit community, and it was then I remembered these very words of that mission statement of Sundog Lit. Here, Kornell and Daugherty debate the ideas of inclusion and exclusion (as well as diversity and equality) in the indie literary scene. This conversation provoked my own memories of living in Jerusalem, with its physical/religious/sexual borders, and how experience, identity and space are linked to whom we read and how we read. I also hope it provokes any previously held assumptions from readers. —Rosebud Ben-Oni
Rosebud Ben-Oni: Brian, can you fill us in on what originally led to your frustrations with the indie lit community?
Brian Kornell: Hi Justin and Rosebud.
First of all, thanks, Rosebud, for facilitating this conversation. It’s an important one to be had, because most people are under the impression that the lit community (and especially the indie lit community) is a place free of any sort of inequality.
A lot of my frustration with the indie lit community comes from how insular and non-inclusive it is. It’s a lot of white straight writers promoting, mostly, other white straight writers at the expense of including queer writers and writers of color. As an example, this year in Urbana-Champaign, where I live, there was the creation of a new literary festival, which was designed to be a literary compliment to an already well-established music festival in town. What a wonderful idea to bring literature to the community. Quite possibly, this would have exposed people in Urbana-Champaign (and those in-town for the music festival) to writers they wouldn’t have heard otherwise. The organizers said on their website that the inclusion of writers in the programming will make “the festival a more diverse and enriching cultural experience.” Who could disagree with that being a fantastic thing? Well, it would be if the lit fest line-up actually featured a diverse range of writers.
Fifteen readers were featured. Twelve of them white. There were only three writers of color and only one queer writer featured. On their site, the lit fest says, “our goal is to feature a small subsection of nationally acclaimed writers…” Narrow subsection might be a better way to phrase that.
The lit fest was an important opportunity for all kinds of storytellers to be represented in the Midwestern literary community. However, the organizers chose not to do that. The line-up sent a message that if you were not part of this very insular, almost exclusively white and straight, group of writers, your story was not important. At best, it represented laziness on the part of the planners. At worst, it showed a complete lack of awareness of what it means to curate an event that represents varied voices. This is not an accurate representation of Midwest literature at all.
The organizers of the festival, a graduate of the University of Illinois Creative Writing program and the editor of the MFA’s literary journal (which also had the institutional support of the University of Illinois), chose this almost exclusively straight, white line up despite being questioned about the lack of diversity and inclusion at other events they organize in town. The organizers of the festival also organize a local reading series, which has been continually criticized for their trouble with inclusion. Early on in the series’ life, the local community was outraged for the series’ failure to include women in their line-ups. And they adjusted to that criticism. However, in the four years of the existence of the series, they have only featured a few writers of color and only three openly queer writers. There has been, strangely, very little outrage in the community over this lack of inclusion. In fact, when my partner and I dared to speak out against this inequality earlier this year, we were harassed by members of the literary community here. We spoke out because during one of the March 2013 reading series events, one of the straight male writers featured read a very openly homophobic story. The audience laughed as he intended. My partner and I felt uncomfortable enough that we left. When we reached out to the organizers about this issue, they were very apologetic and said they wanted to do what they could to be more inclusive. However, they quickly cut off the conversation and refused to engage in it any further. Instead of waiting for them to do anything about it, we started our own reading series, Stories & Queer, to give space to queer writers and writers of color in underrepresented areas. So far, we’ve featured two dozen writers in over six states.
We had been hopeful that the organizers of the original reading series, and now, the literary festival, would stay true to their word to be more inclusive. However, when the line up for the literary festival was announced it became very clear that the literary festival organizers’ words were empty gestures. I felt moved to speak out about it because silence on this issue is exactly what they want. In fact, the organizers directly told me to keep quiet on this issue back in March. Further, Smile Politely, the indie arts and culture online magazine in Urbana-Champaign, edited by the founder of the music festival, had approached us about an interview to promote our fundraising campaign for the reading series. However, the interview was canceled as soon as the editors found out we had started the series, in part, as a response to the consistent homophobia and racism displayed by the organizers of the reading series. The community here is small, so the majority closed ranks to support others like them, instead of trying to champion for the inclusion of all voices. This isn’t just happening in Urbana-Champaign. At AWP, my partner and I talked to many writers of color and queer writers who have experienced the same sort of discrimination in their lit communities across the country.
RBO: Justin, you recently tweeted: “Writing is largely populated by folks more liberal and open to the change you seek than probably anywhere.” I have noticed that the magazine you edit, SunDog Lit, does include an array of diverse voices including women, writers of color and LBGT writers. How would you respond to Brian’s experience here as a writer, an editor, a reader? Does it challenge any beliefs that perhaps you previously held about literature, literary communities or indie presses?
Justin Lawrence Daugherty: To echo Brian: Thank you, Rosebud, for opening this forum up to this topic. It’s a discussion that continues and needs to continue to be had, and is necessary if any change at all is bound to come. I will say, first, that I do not believe that most people involved in the indie lit community see the community as a “place free of any sort of inequality.” That is a generalization about a diverse group of writers and publishers who often actively engage in the very types of discussions we are having here. There are certainly problems that arise. This experience at the festival in question is troubling in its problems with inclusion. Perhaps in relation to this topic, the actual organizers of the event would be better suited to this discussion than I and would lead to a (hopefully) fruitful deconstruction of what went on at this year’s event.
That being said, I will start by talking about my position as an editor, as that seems more pertinent specifically to the discussion of the literary festival. As an editor, I am always aware of the need for inclusion and mindfulness in that regard. It is a stated goal of Sundog Lit to seek out a diverse array of writers. As Rosebud pointed out, we have published women, people of color and LGBTQ writers. I want diverse voices from all experiences and backgrounds. One of my concerns with doing a games-themed issue, for instance, was that the theme might turn off women. We actively asked for women to submit and the issue was 48% female writers, I believe. Issue Four, released last week, was 56% women. Can we do more? Of course. As an editor, inclusion and the representation of diverse people and voices is important to me and, I believe, needs to be taken more seriously by the lit community overall. However, I do believe that the lit community, and especially the indie lit community, is largely aware of these issues and actively seeking change both within and outside of this small crowd.
To speak specifically on the issue of inclusion of queer writers at literary festivals, I agree that the lack of representation is problematic. I cannot speak to what went on there or why the calls for diversity and inclusion do not seem to have been answered, as Brian illustrated. I will say that it is often privilege that perhaps blinds organizers and publishers and writers to the issues of inclusion and diversity. Writers operating from positions of privilege (straight, white men, specifically) need to be mindful of where we are, and question the positions we hold, and actively seek change as well. If we are not mindful of the lack of inclusion, and are not actively seeking to change the dynamic, this problem will persist. Privileged writers and publishers must engage their privilege and be a part of the solution. There are always going to be issues. However, series like Stories & Queer, and multiple magazines publishing queer theme issues, open up a dialogue that writers operating from privilege should engage and participate in. We need to constantly interrogate our positions and be advocates for the change we wish to see in publishing and in the world.
As a (white, straight, male) writer, I’m uncomfortable being involved with readings, magazines or events that feature mostly writers like me. I want to hear everyone’s voices. I want diversity and inclusion and equality. I try to be aware of my own position and try to advocate for change. I, of course, can do more, too. Experiences like Brian’s are troubling, and help me to continue to interrogate the issues at hand and to continue to be vigilant about advocating for inclusion and equality.
I know that there are problems and that change is still a process. I am not blind to the position of privilege and think more privileged writers and publishers must do more to advocate for change. There are advocates, though. We are here and we want to be a part of that change. I would ask Brian: What more can we do? What specific things would you like to see happen to help bring about this change? How can we continue to collaborate and work together for change?
BK: While the local event that I discussed before is certainly troublesome and became a springboard for this discussion, it really just represents a larger problem. One that you can fully participate in, Justin. As I said before, at AWP, there were writers who said they felt uncomfortable identifying as queer at a reading because the environment didn’t feel hospitable. These were places in DC, Seattle, even NYC. When my partner and I drove across the country we heard from people in Santa Fe, Nebraska, Colorado, Iowa, Texas and Los Angeles that there wasn’t space for queer writers and writers of color. Why is that?
Part of the problem is organizers and editors not being thoughtful about diversity when putting a reading line-up or issue of a magazine together. Luckily, we’ve seen increased awareness about the need for gender diversity, but where is that same awareness for other types of diversity? What you say, Justin, about inclusion is exactly the right thing to say. However, there’s a difference, as we know, between speaking and action. The indie lit crowd has learned to say the right thing, but I see very little action on those words. It becomes all about the rhetoric of doing the right thing, as opposed to actually doing the right thing. They can say they support writers of color or retweet links to the queer issue of a particular magazine, and it gives the appearance of advocacy and support. However, if you look at what those people are putting out into the world (their writing, the events they organize and take part in), that rhetoric doesn’t hold up. It’s a distraction technique. They don’t want anyone to look closer at what is actually happening, because it’s safer for the straight white majority if things stay how they are. It’s a way to avoid responsibility. This generation of younger writers has grown up in a world where they are rewarded for simply showing up (e.g., I show up to class, so I should get an A; I showed up to the race, so I should get a medal). This attitude extends to the issue we’re discussing here. Well, they said the right thing, so that should be enough. It’s not.
What can be done, Justin? Action. A willingness to stand up and speak out when you see an injustice happening. Every time. Not just when it’s convenient or from the safety net of social media.
Justin, you say you’re uncomfortable when you’re part of a reading that isn’t inclusive, but do you speak up about it to the organizers? Have you canceled an appearance at an event in protest for the lack of inclusion?
JLD: I would be interested to hear these other voices, and get a larger picture of the problem you discuss here. As I mentioned, I think a larger forum/discussion would be fruitful to expose and discuss the problem of inclusion. Why are organizers and editors not being thoughtful about inclusion? How pervasive is this issue? What do organizers and editors have to say for themselves? What about a reading space has made these readers feel uncomfortable?
I would caution against, again, generalizing about a community and categorizing it in essentialist terms. I do not believe that this generation has simply learned the right things to say, or has learned that showing up is enough. I think that oversimplifies a population and degrades people in the indie lit community who actually engage in action. Certainly, there are those who do the easy advocacy of retweeting links or posting statuses about equality and inclusion. And maybe it’s problematic that everyone is not doing more. However, it’s still advocacy. Just because it’s not the most desirable advocacy does not devalue it. Part of advocacy is community and solidarity. Are there still those who “talk the talk” and do nothing? Sure. Of course. That needs to be addressed. And people like myself and people in the queer community need to continue (or, start, in some cases) to speak up and make clear their positions on this issue. One can refuse to be a part of an event that does not represent the population, does not include queer writers or people of color or women. One can hold organizers accountable and ask the right questions in social media, and engage in a larger discussion about why this problem exists. I think what you are doing with S&Q is a great step in the right direction: increasing awareness of the problem and also increasing visibility. Organizers need to be mindful of how they put events together and who they ask to read or be a part of these events.
Speaking up is key. Engaging in activism against lack of inclusion is essential. Do we all do it all of the time? Probably not. Do I think that’s it’s pervasive and endemic? I don’t know. I want to know how deep this issue spreads, how many writers feel they are still not being included. I think, again, a large forum to discuss and increase awareness of this issue is another good step. I do not deny that this is an issue.
Have I spoken up about lack of inclusion before? Yes. Every time? I have given relatively few readings and those few were inclusive. Do all of us search the table of contents in the magazines we’re published in to account for inclusion or lack thereof? I’d guess not always. Should we all do that, all the time, and speak up when there’s a problem? Yes, of course. But, again, visibility and awareness is key. I do not discount the value of social media activism and the power of words. Action is needed and words alone are not nearly enough. We all need to do more. Do you engage organizers actively and open up discussions with them when you see a lack of inclusion, when there seems to be a problem? What have these organizers and editors said in response?
BK: Justin, I agree, there should be a larger forum to discuss this issue with more people. However, that doesn’t erase the need or responsibility of smaller, one-on-one conversations like we’re having now. Not everyone is willing to do this. When I’ve tried to engage organizers or editors about lack of inclusion, they have simply refused to discuss it. If it doesn’t directly impact them or makes them uncomfortable, for whatever reason, they disengage or try to deflect the conversation to a different point. Change happens through everyday interactions, through the things that might seem small, like speaking up. Part of the problem is indifference. Most people are not going to admit to their prejudice. Some of them might not even be fully aware of it, which is why they become immediately defensive when called out. When I’ve questioned organizers about the lack of inclusion in their events, I’ve been told that I’m the one being the problem. Why? Because I pointed out something they didn’t want to think about or thought they could get away with? The other part of the problem is that people don’t know how to talk about these issues. They haven’t been equipped. I think we’re seeing this a little bit in your responses, Justin. Sure, you don’t deny it’s an issue, but you keep trying to give people a way out (e.g. counting “easy activism” as activism, asking if it’s a pervasive issue or not, which implies you think it’s isolated) instead of wanting to hold people accountable—or just by repeating what I’ve already said about awareness and speaking out.
So how do you equip people? How do you get them to care about others outside of their immediate professional and/or social circle? We cannot pretend for one second that the indie lit community is not insular. You say that advocacy is community and solidarity, and I absolutely agree. However, the indie lit community, most of the time, only shows solidarity as long as you’re white and straight, and preferably male. You see it in the events they organize, in the table of contents of their magazines—the same white, straight names over and over again.
To address your concern about “overgeneralizing,” we are talking about a general problem, Justin. Yes, there are people who are advocate and who do the right thing, but the environment is such that it creates an overarching problem. AWP 2013, for example, with its hundreds of events, had very few queer-focused reading events. Queertopia, one of those events, had fifty readers in order to accommodate the need for space for queer writers. The environment in the indie lit community is such that one writer, published by a prominent small press, said to me via email after the March incident I mentioned earlier that, “I’m going to write all the homophobic, racist, misogynistic, murderous, pedophiliac, juvenile, offensive, suicidal, kitty-crushing characters I want. And, if I so choose, I’m going to do it without any kind of moral context or social counterpoint. Literature is not supposed to teach us something about the world.” This is a sentiment I’ve heard from others as well. This attitude, this recklessness in what they put out into the world through their writing, is present in how they interact with people, with the public at large. It’s what creates a hostile environment in the lit community, so that people don’t speak out more. Not to mention that not using your platform as writer to enact change is just a waste. To entertain is not enough. As Paul Monette said in The Politics of Silence: “It is simply not enough to be an artist unengaged. If you live in political times, if the lightning rod of history quivers with fire on your roof, then all art is political.”
Obviously, as a writer and editor, I value the power of words, which is why I’m concerned about the state of the indie lit community. There are not enough people being responsible and thoughtful with their words. It’s noise for the sake of noise. Writing for the sake of writing without doing anything meaningful. Yes, people should take to social media to express their views. I do that all the time. But a lot of people retweet, post on social media because it’s safe and easy. For those who are supportive, they have to get past the fear of confronting conflict in person, in their local community as well as on a larger scale. As a gay man, I deal with confronting homophobia on a daily basis. Standing up to people, to go against the majority, can be scary. But it’s my responsibility as a person, as an artist, to take a stand.
How do you get people to not be afraid to challenge the status quo? To take a stand?
JLD: One-on-one conversations are crucial, of course. I’m not saying this is not part of what needs to happen as a way to address the issue. If editors and organizers are simply refusing to be a part of the discussion or refusing to acknowledge their own problematic, negligent actions, they need to be continually made aware of these issues. Using social media as a platform to do this, as one example, is critical and, I think, useful. One part of the problem may be that when people are called out, an immediate response is defensiveness, rather than introspection. When we say, you are failing to include (queer writers, women, people of color) in your readings/events, people are, I’m guessing, prone to respond as if they’re being attacked—instead of actually engaging their own problems with inclusion. That needs to change. People need to be willing to change and address their own biases and issues. It’s easy for people to be indifferent or unwilling to call their own actions into question. It’s easy to speak out when someone else is not being inclusive, and not address one’s own issues.
I think “easy activism” is part of the machinery of change, Brian. I do not believe I’m giving anyone a way out or questioning that there is an issue, at all. I simply want to know how big the problem is, how multiple others in the community have experienced this issue. I am not involved in denying you that the issue exists. I think you categorize my argument un-charitably. Part of the problem, here, is painting even advocates whom you see as not doing quite enough as the enemy, too. When you question and degrade even those who are on your side, you degrade partnerships and alliances that could be fruitful. You say that I’m giving an easy way out or that I’m “repeating” what you’ve already said, which is incorrect and not helpful for the conversation or fruitful in the grand scheme of what I imagine us to be doing here. I’m simply uninterested in engaging whether I am or am not performing advocacy correctly. As I’ve said elsewhere, I could be doing more. We all could. Maybe I am not doing enough and I need to interrogate my own subject position more, and be more engaged in more activism. That’s something I need to do. But I think we need to move away from simply pointing out who is or is not doing enough and engage in actual collaboration and movement. I am on your side. There are many of us who want to help and advocate and be a part of change. What I’m more interested in—in this project and conversation—is actual collaboration toward change. I’m not interested in argument about whether this is or is not a pervasive problem. It is a problem. I simply want to hear the voices of those affected, to see the individual experiences made public and available. Homophobia and racism and sexism are very real problems that persist and still need vigilance and constant activism for change.
What I would suggest to redirect this conversation is this: I would like to see that larger forum—on The Conversant or wherever—featuring the voices engaged in this experience, and a larger discussion of how to bring about change. I want this conversation to be a collaborative effort, not a combative one.
What I’m asking for in this conversation is a solution, or a movement towards one. How do we actively get people to question their own positions and think about where they are in relation to this problem? What kinds of things can we do right now to start to change things?
I see right now, at least in regards to this conversation, a few things to be done: 1. The development of a forum of queer writers telling the stories of their experiences (as we’ve already discussed). 2. Some group—like VIDA—to actively engage in the open questioning of representation and inclusion. (You are, of course, engaged in that action already with S&Q, but I wonder what else we might do to make that project even more vocal and visible to the larger indie lit community.) 3. A conversation leading to more products/projects aimed at increasing not just the visibility of this problem, but aimed at forcing people to question their own positions. Is that a reading series that involves queer and straight writers using that forum to promote both inclusion and art? Is that working toward a forum/panel at AWP and other events?
What else? I think visibility and collaboration are parts of chipping away at that fear of speaking up. What else can be done? How do we work together and do the work of making change happen?
BK: Sorry, I won’t give kudos to armchair activism. A panel at AWP would be great, if AWP would accept such a panel. Historically, AWP has not given space to such discussions. They should. However, we’ve been given a forum here on The Conversant, and instead of engaging the topic with your specific thoughts, you have avoided it by repeating the same bullet points about awareness, as well as distancing yourself from the conversation by your continued calls for a larger forum. We don’t need to rehash that again.
What I see here is your unwillingness to state an actual position. To take a stand. You ignored the part of my last response about artistic responsibility. What are your thoughts on that?
RBO: If I can step in for a moment, I’ve been thinking all day about what you’ve been writing. I’ve been thinking particularly about experience, identity and space. Having lived in Israel as a bisexual and a Jew of mixed race, I’ve struggled with identity. What is a Jew without practice? What is an agnostic Jew? What is a Jew like me, with a Mexican mother, born Catholic, who converted before my birth? What is a Jew who prayed on El Dia de Los Muertos for the spirit of her maternal abuelo to return to her? What is a Jew who failed to make a life in Israel? Am I still a Jew? And in all candor, that last question for myself is akin to asking: Am I still relevant?
My faith has always been inseparable from my culture; I’ve encountered homophobia, racism and sexism in Israel. I’ve been thinking about what you are both saying, and what it means to be a writer: The desire to claim space through word, and thus, establish a secondary but powerful existence. And when one is denied the right to claim space, identity becomes tied closely to the loss of that space. And for me at least, the loss is always there.
For a few years, I lived on Har Hatsofim, an Israeli enclave in Arab East Jerusalem. I remember walking up to the Arab side where there was no railing and the drop-offs were sharp. I remember feeling a certain urgency to understand what it was to be connected to a land conflicted over identity and space, and yet sensing that I was very afraid of understanding the very fear that brought me there—to that brink, to the fear of losing my place there. I was already on the edge of leaving. And I would have to live with that, that I could not look at myself in the mirror and invalidate the experience of poets like Mahmoud Darwish (even if I read Rahel and Yehuda Amichai in the original Hebrew, and know them, and love them in a way that binds us through heritage and spirituality alone). Because I read these poets for much more than self-identity; I read them because they are relevant to understanding a larger picture. Because even if I found a poet exactly like me in terms of race and religion and experience, it wouldn’t change my own relation to space and identity. Because I will never get over the heartbreak of failing to create an established identity in Israel, and so that failure (to join the inclusive, so to say) becomes part of me. Fragmented, I am relevant, and how does that fit into our fixed notions of space via nationality, race, religion, all these labels that fix us to one particular location?
Brian, you discussed what it means to state a position, to take a stand. I think, for me, it actually took coming out as a bisexual to my family in my mid-20s. My mother was not at all happy. She told me: People won’t accept you; you’re already mixed. You’re female. Why do you want to make your life harder than it is? What if you make others feel uncomfortable at your work place? What is strange (and my father pointed this out to her) is that my mother’s father said almost the exact same things to my mother when she wanted to be with my father, a Jew, and his family. They said the same thing to my father about my mother. We keep having similar fears of losing a space if “someone else” comes along and seeks to establish a place in it. Then who is the norm? Who gets to call the shots? That then led to opening up to my father, who is a staunch Zionist, about my divided feelings on Israel. We have had many an uneasy conversation since then, and this week I’m headed to Toronto to a synagogue to speak openly about all these experiences. It’s so small considering the world, the world. But it is a start. This dire necessity for me to hold an identity, even if it is not static or ever final.
It is a larger problem that informs us as writers and editors. It hits us all at home, in the workplace, in public. I feel like I get Justin’s stand on the problem (and correct me if I’m wrong), and that he sees his own artistic responsibility as joining in a collaboration, which supports you. So that your experience, Brian, is visible; it is shared; it is ingested. I really love the idea of the forum of queer writers—and you could curate and select the writers yourself, Brian, if you have the time—telling the stories of their experiences, and I can’t help but wonder if that’s Part 2 of this discussion. Justin, did I have you right there? Would you like to add anything about artistic responsibility?
JLD: I would say, first, to Brian: Your frustration and anger are heard and felt, even if I cannot be in the same place as you. We are in different bodies and have different identities, but that does not mean that I do not have relevant things to say, that I am not a part of this, too. This kind of conversation breaks down when we fail to understand or represent what the other is saying or feeling. I write this at four a.m., unable to sleep, thinking all night from a position of frustration, myself, that I am not being heard. Your experience is visible, and I am trying to offer only what I can: solidarity and attempts at understanding in order to engage in a productive discussion about what might be done. When you say that I have not taken a stand or that I am repeating myself, you misread me and degrade my thoughts and words.
Rosebud, you are right, here. Because of where I am, because of the space I have inhabited, my artistic life has never been a political one. Such a thing has had to be cultivated and deliberately constructed. As a straight, white man, I am always-already living and writing from a position that is different than either of yours. I cannot access the political in the same way. As such, my art has never had to reflect the political in me. When I try to access the political, when I want to understand and stand with you, I do it coming from a place where I’ve never had to experience a real looking-back from outside. I’ve never been oppressed because of my identity. I don’t ever really know what it’s like. I take a stand merely by choosing to engage in this conversation, by trying to offer insight and produce something towards movement. It would be so easy to stand back and say nothing, to occupy the space of spectator, never involved, never engaged. That stand, such as it is, is not—and never is—enough. I must be engaged and participate. I must act. My artistic responsibility has always been to understand and voice a loneliness and alienation I have always felt. It has been to attempt to reach out to anyone, in hopes that I’ll be heard and that someone will feel the way that I have throughout my life. At the most basic, I think that’s what we all write, what we all want. In that way, I am able to access the detachment and frustration you feel, even if I cannot access it directly through experience. And, then, yes—my responsibility is to move from that position of loneliness and feeling of detachment, and, when I see your experience, to say: Yes, I feel you, I hear you and I am here, with you.
BK: Rosebud, thanks for sharing your story with us. I think we can all agree that sharing our stories is what makes us stronger and resists any attempts for us to be silenced. If I may quote Paul Monette one more time: “The will to silence the truth is always and everywhere as strong as the truth itself. So it is a necessary fight we will always be in: those of us who struggle to understand our common truths, and those who try to erase them.”
Being political is not a bad thing. Don’t be afraid of it. Writers can simply be political by not representing the status quo. Writers create art about their experience, so value other experiences. For a long time, I didn’t write about being queer. And once I did, I was told by the now director of my MFA program that I was too focused on my gay identity, simply because I had started to write about gay characters in my stories. I’ve sat through editorial meetings at the national magazine associated with my MFA program and had students reject a story because it was “too gay,” when all it did was tell a story featuring gay characters. Did I speak up? Yes. Was I out-voted? Yes. My point is that this mood to not include, to silence voices that are different, is present in all facets of the literary community. Institutions are sanctioning it, either intentionally or not, by allowing their money to be put towards non-inclusive events and products. I assume the institutions are unaware, which is why it’s even more important to have a chorus of voices to help get the message heard.
And Justin, I appreciate your willingness to be part of this conversation. Obviously, our experiences are far different. However, that doesn’t mean the conversation isn’t worthwhile. It doesn’t mean you can’t become political. It doesn’t mean that when you see a member of the lit community make fun of someone else because of the way they walk or dress is deemed to be too gay (I have seen this happen first hand) that you should not say something because it might make things uncomfortable. Enacting change is risky, because it causes the majority to fear losing their power, and they will fight in any way possible to maintain it. In this case, it means not being inclusive in events. It means refusing to have a discussion about it. This fear of losing power manifests itself when someone in the majority turns the conversation around to say: Oh, you’ve misread me or you’re the problem because everything would be okay if you just didn’t say anything. Both of those things have been said to me.
So where do we go from here? Collaboration, as Justin has mentioned, is a wonderful idea. Literary magazines, and reading events, need to make it part of their mission to incorporate queer writers and writers of color beyond just special issues or events. These authors need to become part of the fabric of the lit community. Those of us engaged in the fight have to be persistent even if it makes us unpopular. Vigilance is key. I know it can be exhausting, but it’s far more important for the people impacted to not let intolerance stand. Those who support queer writers and writers of color also need to be vigilant to say to those not being inclusive: We see you, we see the harm you’re doing, and we won’t be quiet about it.
Brian Kornell is the co-founder of S&Q, a reading series for queer and queer-friendly poets and writers, as well as the Fiction Editor for The Cossack Review. He completed his M.F.A. in fiction from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
Justin Lawrence Daugherty lives in Atlanta and runs Sundog Lit.