Guns, Race, and Literary Responsibility
Last month, Proximity Magazine published our thirteenth quarterly issue. The theme was GUNS. Of the issue’s nine contributors, seven were female. All were white. Because gun violence overwhelmingly affects communities of color, we’re troubled that our lineup—full of thought-provoking stories by deeply talented writers—ignores the voices that should be at the center of this conversation.
More than that, we’re alarmed that our publication itself—not simply this issue—has become complicit in a national literary narrative that normalizes white voices, while tokenizing and erasing others.
Last spring, VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts released its annual snapshot of the disparities plaguing our literary landscape. The results, tallying which voices most often appear in mainstream publications, “were mostly striking in their bleakly white, straight, cisgendered male uniformity.”
Since our founding in 2013, Proximity has aspired to publish a wide range of voices. In an industry that prizes straight, cisgender male points of view, we’re proud to share the microphone with so many courageous and talented writers who are female, gender-nonconforming, and LGBTQ. Yet, of the 108 pieces published in our previous twelve issues, fewer than a dozen were written by people of color.
Clearly we have work to do.
As editors, we see this moment for our magazine within a larger context: a national backdrop poisoned by white supremacy and a hostility toward the vulnerable. In this environment, storytellers and artists have a choice to make. We have made ours: to re-establish and articulate our commitment to intersectionality, our commitment to passing the microphone, our commitment to a culture of literary resistance that demands better and demands more.
We have work to do, and it’s long overdue. We’re starting here in a group conversation with the Proximity editorial team, followed by new content throughout the week devoted to more deeply exploring the issues discussed here.
~ Shasta Grant, Carrie Kilman, Towles Kintz, Maggie Messitt, Stacy Muszynski,
and editor emeritus Traci Macnamara (February 2017)
So, let’s start by explaining how our issues come to be. How do we solicit pieces? How do we select contributors? How does that all happen?
MM: Each issue of Proximity is curated by a single editor. As we’ve grown, editors have also started working with an editorial fellow and sometimes readers. That editor chooses the theme, writes the submission call, and publicizes the call through various social media channels. I also publicize their submission call. We typically receive between 70 to 200 submissions for each issue — numbers that continue to rise. The issue editor reviews them, makes selections, and rounds out the issue as needed by actively soliciting pieces from specific contributors.
From day one, our goal was to have a traditional literary magazine submission process while also investing in our writers with a more trade magazine editorial process. We do not shy away from recognizing gems that need work and deep dive into developmental editing with a writer. We’ve discovered stunning flash essays hidden inside longform that wasn’t quite working. We’ve worked with narrative nonfiction writers to fact-check longform reportage and push each to think about what is fact and what is verifiable. We have supported experimental essayists while also negotiating the spaces where their work wasn’t transparent enough in its differentiation between fiction and nonfiction for our readership. And we have pushed back against writers who don’t see when their work is reinforcing problematic social constructs.
With a rotating editorship–similar to the collective model–each editor has her own considerations and aesthetics that inform their final decision-making, but our approach from issue one has always been to: seek exceptional writing and underrepresented stories across the spectrum of true storytelling, seek diversity in perspective and form, and seek narratives grounded in place. The latter–place–is critical and, bound up within there is our mission to cross borders, community, cultures, and race. The themes we have selected in the past have been focused on locations, emotions, experiences, objects, and ideas that transcend gender, nationality, race, and class. And our themes are simply a starting point; we’re not looking for the obvious and direct connections, rather we want our writers to push back against the obvious, get personal, and find new ways inside each subject.
Submission calls are distributed through social media, listservs, and a wide range of locations where people actively seek calls for creative nonfiction. Our lists are growing and slowly crossing borders. While each editor has her own approach, I can speak to my own solicitation process: I solicit (typically via email) with the aim to round out the content I have accepted through submissions, to increase our multimedia content, and for geographic diversification. I rarely solicit people I know, but like any editor, I have reached out to people I knew who had important work to share (like this and this and this). My cold solicitations typically come to be after I’ve discover a visual artist, multimedia storyteller, or writer who is working on subjects that uniquely filled the gaps in my issue (like this and this and this.).
It’s worth, before we begin our digital roundtable, to also remind ourselves of the mission with which we launched this quarterly collection of true stories:
Let’s acknowledge the fact that we’re all white. Is this a relevant detail? What role do you think this plays in our submissions and acquisitions process?
SG: It’s absolutely a relevant detail. I think it probably plays a bigger role in the submissions we get than the submissions we accept although the two are inextricably tied, of course. As an adoptive mother of a black child, I’m frequently engaged with questions of race. I’m a member of two Facebook groups – one for transracial adoption and one for multicultural families and the best lesson I have learned in those spaces and can extend into literary spaces is this: white people need to shut up and listen. In these groups, the voices that are traditionally marginalized are privileged, so adoptees and people of color get to speak first. While I think it’s great that we’re having this discussion, part of me is afraid that we’re amplifying our own white voices. So I’m very happy that the rest of this series will feature the voices we want to privilege: writers of color. I think the most important thing we can do is shut up and listen to what they have to say.
TK: Maybe one way to frame this would be to acknowledge that while we are all white, we each have diverse backgrounds that have shaped our perspectives on diversity: specifically, the desire for it despite some of the cultural barriers that can make it difficult to achieve in a fledgling lit mag.
CK: Yes, it’s relevant. I guess I’m not sure how we could argue otherwise. Sure, we each bring different experiences to our work, but we also each bring a lifetime of white privilege. That’s always relevant. When we know that predominantly white spaces can feel unwelcoming or hostile to people of color, I think we’re obligated to confront the ways we’re reinforcing messages of exclusion. And I would be shocked if our all-whiteness *doesn’t* affect our submissions and acquisitions process.
SM: I believe that an all-female, all-white masthead doesn’t by itself create the makeup of its submitters and contributors, but it goes a long distance in doing so. While I see Proximity‘s mission as the absolute antithesis to “gatekeeping,” it’s our job as editors to build the connections and lay the groundwork necessary to increase diversity–across the wide spectrum of intersectionality. Within a PENAmerica digital roundtable (similar to this), Poet Gregory Pardlo argues that the dearth of books by writers of color is not exclusively solved by having more editors and agents of color. Rather, he points to education as the root of the problem. Perhaps this is true, but I’d love to see how a fulsome selection of editors, guest and otherwise, can help.
MM: It’s clear that the makeup of our editorial team is relevant, but I think there’s so much more to consider here than the obvious. It’s worth breaking down what Pardlo has said a bit more. If we take a few steps back–from publication to submission calls to writers seeking publication in a literary magazine–we can’t help but find ourselves deeply connected to academia and MFA programs–overwhelmingly populated by female and white writers. In 2014, author and Co-Founder of VONA, Juno Diaz started a conversation around race and the MFA. In short, he wrote: “That shit was too white.” And, he is right.
If MFA students represent the majority of literary magazine readers and submitters, then we shouldn’t be naively surprised that our submissions reflect that population. We, as editors, however, need to address this (internally and externally) as much as MFA directors need to address this. I don’t think the solution is simple — the answer isn’t just about education or the diversity of our editorial team; There are many affecting layers to unpeel. Creating a space for global, intersectional voices–a large part of our founding mission–is an intentional and ongoing process.
Looking beyond our masthead, what other obstacles do we face as we seek to be more inclusive of diverse voices?
SG: I do think that’s our biggest obstacle and we should look at making our staff diverse. As readers and writers and editors, we should also be expanding our circles — reading works by writers of color, connecting to a diverse group of writers on social media, etc.
CK: I agree with Shasta that the overwhelming whiteness (and apparent straightness and apparent middle classness) of our editorial staff is our biggest obstacle. I would add to that a couple of things: First, the fact we’re not able to pay contributors and guest editors (we’re working toward this, but we’re not there yet). And second, the way we word our submission calls. I think we have to be vigilant about challenging the language we use that, unintentionally or not, reinforces privilege.
MM: The current state of our submissions is a huge obstacle: plentiful, but (mostly) lily white. While we work to shift the balance of submissions, we’ll need to focus on diversifying through solicitation. But, when I listen to editors discuss diversity, I am uncomfortable when people start implementing quotas and researching writers to see how they contribute to their goals for a diverse line-up. The truth is: so much of race, gender, disability, and intersectionality cannot be directly identified in someone’s prose. And for those who research their contributors, these qualities are often unidentifiable in bios and headshots. So, what we must begin considering the ways in which we can more effectively present our publication as a safe and welcoming space for everyone.
TM: When looking to expand and connect in any way, I think change can be a big barrier for everyone. We get comfortable within our circles of friends or within our neighborhoods or within our established ways of reaching out to others. It takes vulnerability and courage to break any established way of being or working, and it takes a lot of mental and physical energy to think and act in new ways. As editors of a literary publication that has been established for a few years now, we have grown into a comfort zone. But, we’re now taking a serious look at that niche and pushing back against it; our goal has always been to be wider, more inclusive. We’re confronting these obstacles because our larger goal of sharing a wide variety of voices–that is important.
SM: Proximity‘s 13th issue was my first. I thought my topic would bring in submissions from all corners. I hoped to see more essays of gun violence and the right to bear arms. I hoped to hear from more writers in rural areas and urban centers and the spaces in between. I hoped submissions would cross race, class, and gender lines, and push us to think. At first I approached it in a “build it, will come” way. My submission call was posted in the usual places, but I also took a lot of time to find new groups of writers via social media to share and invite. Inside these new spaces, my submission call was met with an underwhelming response. I’ve realized: I need to do more and stay patient as I build relationships.
As editors, how do you think about matters of intersectionality when putting together an issue? Does the race, sex, nationality, ability, orientation, and/or immigration status of potential contributors play a role in your decision-making process? Not only in what pieces you accept, but more broadly in where you publicize submissions calls, how you choose issue themes, etc.?
SG: I’m currently putting together my first issue and intersectionality has definitely played a role in my selection process. It’s been my priority to present a range of voices speaking to the topic of inheritance and that simply can’t be done by publishing all white writers. I finalized my selections last week and the truth is: I’m lucky that my submission queue was quite diverse. In thinking about which voices to include, I was looking for inheritance stories that I hadn’t heard before, ways of looking at it that I hadn’t previously considered. With this as my guide and a uniquely diverse submission pool for Proximity, I was delighted to see what might be our most international and racially diverse issue to date.
MM: After living and writing in South Africa for eight years, I find myself working to make sure that submission calls are making their way into the hands of transnational and African writers through facebook groups, email listservs, and a print newsletter. This hasn’t necessarily translated into submissions, but it has garnered more readership globally, and I’m slowly hearing from international writers. This is deeply important to me, and it feels like slow work that will pay off in the long-run. Our inability at this time to pay has been my primary obstacle when soliciting any writers, but our long-term goal is to remedy this. I similarly seek to get submission calls into non-academic circles, but this has proven more difficult. I will admit, I am naturally drawn more to writers who can bring me inside communities or cultures unlike my own. This is what I want to publish. But, at this time, when I review submissions for the issues I edit, I struggle greatly with finding a balance between 1) choosing from the outstanding (unsolicited) writing in our submission pool (dominated by white, female writers), and 2) soliciting content that represents the level of diversity and global place that led us to launch Proximity.
Since day one, our goal when selecting themes has been to consider the ways in which they can be interpreted both directly and abstractly in different communities, states, regions, and countries. In doing so, we hoped for the universal connective tissues around what it means to be human would rise to the surface, despite class, nationality, gender, and beyond.
Why does all of this matter? One reader has suggested we’re being too hard on ourselves here. What do you think?
TK: This matters not only because of the events that are currently shaping American culture, but also because I believe that the strongest publications offer readers diverse stories written by people of diverse backgrounds. We all have so much to learn from one another.
SG: It matters because what we publish is reflective of our personal and collective values. We value inclusion and diversity.
TM: From the outset, we’ve defined our publication as a quarterly collection of true stories that explores place, space, and connections in the modern age. We’re interested in connections and in the stories that bind people together. In a divided time, we need to lift up these stories surrounding divisive issues that offer insight into how we can move beyond division and into that place of connectedness. In order to do that, we need to hear from a diverse set of storytellers.
SM: The history of progress is as long as the history of the world. It’s personal, and it takes work. It takes each of us doing our part, and doing it together–for the long haul.
MM: Sure, we’re probably particularly hard on ourselves, but I think that’s, in part, because this conversation is grounded in Proximity‘s founding mission. This is what we’ve sought from day one. It may feel more glaringly necessary in the current political climate, but change in this regard has always been necessary.
For the past month our editors have been discussing how best to move forward, how we can live up to the full potential of our mission to share stories “across real and imagined boundaries… from a variety of places, cultures, and perspectives.” While we continue these conversations internally, we know that we alone do not have all the answers.
As a result, we’ll be joined over the next week by other writers and editors who will expand upon the questions and issues posed here. These voices will include Purvi Shah, poet, anti-violence advocate, and a contributing editor to Aster(ix); Jael Richardson, memoirist and Founder/Artistic Director of the Festival for Literary Diversity; and Melissa Chadburn, journalist, essayist and a Fellow at the Economic Hardship Reporting Fellowship; among others.
Beyond this week, we’ll continue this conversation on TRUE, Proximity’s new blog space for weekly conversations around telling true stories, via solicited and pitched posts.
And we welcome readers to join in the conversation, too. (You can start by scrolling down and posting a comment.)
This is the first installment in a series on race, gender, intersectionality, and literary responsibility. Melissa Chadburn‘s “Economic Violence,” our second installment, was published on February 15th. Brief Essays by Purvi Shah and Jael Richardson, among others, will be posted over the coming week. We encourage you to share this series and join the conversation in the comments section of each post. All published posts within the series can be found here.4
One of the things that bothers me is being OVERLY concerned with issues other than what is good art, no matter who the artist is.
I agree that diversifying the staff would definitely go a long way.
How about a No-MFA contingent or something similar. If you could break out of the middle and upper class group you would find more diversity immediately. But writing has become such a learned thing, schooled into us, that you might have to broaden ideas of “good writing.” What is considered “good writing” has largely been determined by the dominant culture, i.e. white men, and some women. (In fact, what is considered a “good resume” has also been largely determined by the same forces).
Or try a topic like Poverty.
“The theme was GUNS. Of the issue’s nine contributors, seven were female. All were white. Because gun violence overwhelmingly affects communities of color, we’re troubled that our lineup—full of thought-provoking stories by deeply talented writers—ignores the voices that should be at the center of this conversation.”
Your post elides the main issue, which is being relevant. If your theme is guns and none of your writers are of color then your magazine is on its way to irrelevance in modern American culture. The issue isn’t that writers of color should be centered; there are more guns than people in the US so nearly everyone has a relationship to a gun or gun violence. Given that, why should writers of color be centered? But of course writers of color should participate like anyone else. But perhaps allow that “gun violence” may not be how they relate to guns, either? Not pigeon-holing can do wonders for attracting artists who dislike being imprisoned by the biases and insular worldviews. No artist worth his/her salt will want to write for anyone who thinks because they’re black (or Latina or LGBTQ etc, they only write about X topic.
I marveled at this post, mainly because I’m not sure what’s being communicated in so many earnest words. Including Others isn’t rocket science. Literary spaces for people of color are normal and exist the world over. And it’s laughable that your first two commenters pushed back to this post with concerns that race/ethnic diversity will mean pivoting from good art or requires that you broaden ideas of what good writing is. Seriously. I laughed.