By Hila Ratzabi
This year the literary world has been witness to an unfortunate pile-on of debacles that highlights serious problems with race and representation. Just as we were reeling from “poet” Vanessa Place’s use of virtual blackface on Twitter, we were treated to an offensive and ignorant blog post by Kate Gale, managing editor of Red Hen Press. Still reeling, with little time to process, we discovered that Best American Poetry 2015 published a poem by a white man pseudonymously posing as a Chinese person, Yi-Fen Chou. It seems to be taking more and more time from busy writers’ and editors’ lives to keep up with one shameful spectacle after another.
So why add my voice to the chorus of angry responses? Others have had their say much more eloquently than I feel capable of right now (see Brian Spears, Amy King, et al., Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo). Yet I can’t watch what is happening in the literary world, and the world at large, without saying something. I could have posted this on my personal writer website, but I chose, instead, to share this here, as editor-in-chief of Storyscape, because my response as an editor matters more than as a writer, though both are intertwined. (In fact, Storyscape didn’t have a blog until now. We had been planning to start a blog, but when these unfortunate incidents in the literary world started becoming more frequent, I realized it was time to get this blog up now and speak.)
To the white man who decided to don an Asian name to get an affirmative action style advantage in getting published: are you freaking kidding me? Not only did he quickly admit to the lie when his work was accepted by Best American Poetry, but he proudly explained the reasoning behind it in his very bio, and the editor, after extensive hemming and hawing, chose to publish it anyway. I do not agree with Sherman Alexie’s reasons for including the piece, and I would not have done the same. (Only once in Storyscape’s history have we, knowingly, published a piece under a pseudonym, and it was at the writer’s request and for her own protection due to the sensitive subject matter of a personal essay.)
At Storyscape, we are interested in how people define capital “T” Truth; it’s in our mission statement. We like to challenge and play with Truth categories, and allow our contributors to determine where their work falls on the Truth spectrum. This playfulness does not extend to misrepresenting one’s own identity, and certainly not when that misrepresentation involves taking on the garb of another’s race in order to make a point about lack of opportunities for white men. How is this not a no-brainer?
What is perhaps most horrifying is not just the exposure of racism in the literary world, but that it is happening against the backdrop of equally alarming current events in the country at large. A name I loathe to type, Donald Trump, is making overt racism look acceptable to a mass of eager right-wing nationalists, who seem relieved to finally be divested of the veneer of political correctness. This on the heels of the racist massacre in Charleston, South Carolina, on the heels of a parade of cops killing innocent black men. The racism that has always been latent in this country, exposed or suppressed at various points in history, is rising to the surface again, and seems to be feeding on itself.
So when I read Gale’s cringe-worthy blog post and the news about Best American Poetry, I became more incensed. It’s not that racism in the literary world is new, it’s that suddenly it has become so much louder. Do we hold writers to a higher standard of ethical behavior because, in theory, literature sensitizes us to each other? Should we be surprised that white people in the literary world are rushing to defend themselves against the burden of political correctness, and that their defenses are so sloppy and irrational they sound like children’s tantrums?
What frightens me is that, apparently, within certain circles, these defenses are acceptable. That some white people were just waiting for the cue that now it’s okay to say what they really felt all along, whether in the literary world or elsewhere.
Perhaps I respond with more shock than this topic deserves. Black and brown people who deal with these assaults daily are more wary than surprised. I grew up in a bubble, in one of the most diverse counties in the country: Queens, New York. The people on my block, if not Jewish like myself, were Asian, Muslim, Spanish (yes, from the actual country of Spain), Italian, Indian (from the actual country of India). They were not black, which does say something, but the norm was not white. I did not experience anti-Semitism. It was normal to fall somewhere along the spectrum between black and white, and everyone’s family came from somewhere else. It was only much later in life that I began to parse the differences and complicated overlap between white people and light-skinned ethnic minorities, like myself. I have always identified as Jewish before anything else, but I can’t un-claim the whiteness that my appearance affords me. I assume people view me as white first, if vaguely ethnic (?), and that privilege counts.
Still, I am slightly more sensitive about racism because I am Jewish, but I am mainly sensitive to it because racism is fundamentally wrong and morally abhorrent. It shouldn’t take any special knowledge to get that. What is happening right now in the literary world is shameful, and as an editor, this matters to me.
The topic of blind submissions has come up in the discussion of diversity in publishing, so I would like to address this. First of all, if you use any type of online submission manager, you can’t not see the name of the person submitting. So there is no such thing as blind submissions. Nevertheless, I do try to be as fair as possible; like other editors, I am primarily concerned with quality. I usually try to look past the name, unless I recognize it, and then pass the submission on to another editor. Otherwise, when I read a submission, I don’t look at the cover letter or bio right away. I read the submission first, and if I’m interested in the piece (or totally weirded out with it, to be honest), I take a peek at the cover letter and bio. Sometimes a bit of context is helpful. I try not to give special privileges to any submitter, but if you read the journal, you might see some of my biases come through: on average, we publish more women than men, and we have a good mix of writers of color and non-straight writers (though we could always do better).
A blind submission process is never totally possible, and that’s okay: it shows editorial vision. This is why soliciting work is a good thing. I occasionally solicit work from writers I admire (though it does represent a small percentage of the work we publish). In the past, I didn’t think of this in terms of diversity, but of highlighting great work that I hoped would set an example of the type of work we like and raise the level of submissions (which keep getting better year after year).
However, one solicitation in particular made me think differently about the process. Somehow I got up the nerve to ask one of my favorite poets, Terrance Hayes, to publish a poem of his. I don’t know how this happened, but I do know how awkward and bumbling I sounded in my request. Shockingly to me, he said yes, and we were privileged to publish “Black Confederate Ghost Story,” a poem that continues to blow me away every time I read it.
What I didn’t expect was to later receive a submission from a poet I had never heard of, whose poems also blew me away, and to discover upon reading his cover letter that he chose to submit to us because he saw that we had published that poem by Terrance Hayes. Wow, I thought. Lucky us. The poet was Danez Smith.
That’s when I realized that soliciting not only writers I admire, but writers of color that I admire, actually means something. Here was proof, in the form of an unsolicited poetry submission: a gift. We weren’t consciously trying to publish more writers of color, but we accidentally learned that if we did publish great writers of color, we’d attract more. Really good writers, I learned, are actually reading our literary journal and paying close attention to what we publish. Therefore, we should pay close attention to what we publish and be aware of who is getting space on the page and why. That goes for our conferences and literary organizations. We can’t turn a blind eye to the obvious disparities in representation in the literary world. Ultimately, you come down on one side or another, and the position you take should be crystal clear. If you have to (meekly, vapidly) apologize later for your actions, you’re doing something wrong.