The Saturday Rumpus Interview: Jennifer Baker

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I first met Jennifer Baker when we taught at an all-girls creative writing summer camp in 2007. When we weren’t herding twelve year olds we often shared our own writing and discussed our hopes for an MFA environment that valued diversity and inclusion. Nearly nine years later, Baker continues her commitment to diverse writers through her work with We Need Diverse Bookstm and her phenomenal podcast, Minorities in Publishing. I had the opportunity to speak with Baker about her work as an activist and author, and learn from her experience about what it will take for the industry to take substantive steps in welcoming writers from all backgrounds to share their stories.

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The Rumpus: You are involved in so many initiatives for increasing diversity in publishing. How did you get started and what have you learned in reaching out to so many diverse writers?

Jennifer Baker: I was invited to We Need Diverse Books (WNDB) by co-founder Ilene Wong Gregorio at the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators’s LA Conference last August. She and I were Twitter buds. So she asked if I wanted to do the nonprofit’s social media.

In terms of the Minorities in Publishing podcast, my former podcast partner and I had thought of it after WNDB got big and figured what wasn’t being discussed at the time was a lack of minorities in the publishing industry itself. I’ve worked in publishing for thirteen years, since I graduated with my BA. So I know first hand as a Person of Color (PoC) what it feels like to be one of a very few represented in publishing as an industry and also in books/media.

Rumpus: Since you started your work thirteen years ago, do you feel the discussion about inclusion and diversity has changed at all?

Baker: Well, in all honesty, as an entry-level person in publishing I never heard these things being discussed in 2002 or 2003. That may be because I simply wasn’t privy to that conversation because I was focused on my career. I always knew I was one of few PoCs. That was very obvious. And I did see that at times PoC tended to look out for me more than non-PoC in the work place. But I was also privileged and lucky in that I got along with people and people saw I was a hard worker. That isn’t always the case. And in an entry-level position you often get into situations where you’re afraid to speak up because of your “status.”

So to see the inclusion conversation so open thanks especially to social media is great because it makes you feel like you don’t have to shove it under the rug, or only speak to certain people about it, or that you’re not out of your mind to think that there’s bias around you.

Rumpus: How does social media encourage this conversation in a way that traditional media doesn’t?

Baker: It’s ongoing and has a fervor that traditional doesn’t. The voices on social media come from all walks of life. Ages, ethnicities, gender identities, and so on. Social media isn’t as “controlled” as mainstream news outlets. Look at how much we see in the news today especially in terms of politics. Often media doesn’t give an opinion rather it’s talking heads or vitriol.

On social media there’s compounding thought from all sides. Look at what Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi did with #BlackLivesMatter. It swept the country. People were outraged and are allowed to be outraged online.There’s no editing or censorship. Which can be good and bad depending on your perspective and politics. But in terms of social media joining people together it’s been a great uniter to show what microaggressions are and how ongoing we see them in major media outlets.

Rumpus: Do you think more people are invested in diversity? Or that the onus is still placed on marginalized groups to do the work of making more diverse spaces?

Baker: I absolutely think more people are invested. But I think people in power are not there yet. I feel like more marginalized people are still expected to educate others. It’s made me also realize that I should not expect people with disabilities or members of the trans community to educate me but be appreciative when someone from those areas takes the time to talk with me about their experiences. But I do have to *do* the work myself to be a better ally to those groups as well.

Rumpus: Sometimes I wonder that the term diversity means different things to different people…

Baker: Oh yeah. I have said on my podcast repeatedly that I know the word “diversity” means different things to different people and has become a safe umbrella term in a way. Marginalized voices tends to be the better descriptor. I’ve even had a couple people say “We’re not the minority” in response to the name of my podcast. But in terms of representation we are still very much a minority even if we’re not combined in terms of the overall US population specifically.

Rumpus: So diversity is more the “buzzword”?

Baker: Whenever I wear my WNDB button and people see the word “Diverse” they say “Oh yes we do!” So it’s a readily understandable word and easily digestible in circles and seems “safe.” Because “diverse” is supposed to be all inclusive of PoCs, religious minorities, people with disabilities, LGBTQIA, and so on. I know I see that word A LOT more over the past year. And I think some of that thanks goes to WNDB because of how big the campaign gained steam. Which is good. But I can see why people think “diverse” may not be enough or overused at this point.

Rumpus: It sounds like you think the increasing use of this term is powerful though, right?

Jennifer Baker: Yes. I think encouraging inclusivity itself is the core point of the argument. So if someone wants to use “diverse” or “marginalized” or “minority” I get what they mean and that, I’d hope, they’re being inclusive of all groups with those phrases of not being represented. I’d never want anything to distract from the core conversation and actual action to push forward inclusion.

Rumpus: Do you find that different magazines, journals, and publishing houses respond to the call for diversity in different ways?

Baker: Simply sending a tweet that says, “Hey I want more diverse writers for my literary journal or magazine” is not enough. Yes, word spreads but you need to find these people. Not everyone is on social media. Not everyone is in Ivy league colleges. Not everyone is enmeshed in the publishing or writer communities the way others are. Lots of places have reached out to me or WNDB or me via my Minorities in Publishing podcast to spread the word. That’s great! But what else are you going to do because I am just one person.

And if I’m one of the few marginalized people you know, that is also a problem.

Places like Writers of Color has been great to actively build a list of PoC writers for editors to find people. It’s a database of PoC writers. They have an active Twitter and constantly RT things they get from magazines and editors to their public. The creators of Writers of Color, Jazmine Hughes, Durga Chew-Bose, Vijith Assar, and Buster Bylander cannot do it all themselves all the time.

Rumpus: It sounds like the problem of representation is more complex than simply reaching out to people.

Baker: Oh, it’s definitely more than simply saying “Hey we want you too! Now submit!” For instance Writer’s Digest has this post of thirty literary agents seeking diverse work.

Awesome, but… (1) Where were they before in terms of advertising they wanted more diverse work? (2) There may be a catch-22. In that some people who are not marginalized writers or haven’t a clue as to how to respectfully include diversity in their work may see that and say “Hey! That’s an automatic in for me to get an agent. Lemme add a gay male to my book…” And (3) Are these agents equipped to work with people from various backgrounds and have that knowledge of specific communities but also see the story for what it is if being “other” is not a factor to the story? Will you be bringing your biases to this call?

Rumpus: Do you think there is a risk for marginalized writers to get tokenized?

Baker: Absolutely. It’s a big concern. I mean look at the few PoC writers especially who get great acclaim. Roxane Gay. Junot Diaz. Ta-Nehisi Coates. Jacqueline Woodson. Isabelle Allende. Janet Mock. It starts at a young age and in literacy advocacy. Which is why WNDB focuses on the younger sect because this is where it starts. If we’re taught to see difference or “otherness” as being educational rather than part of life what does that tell children? If we learn about Native Americans (and not even accurately learn about Native Americans) in US history only around Thanksgiving. If we learn of Latinos only during Latino heritage month or Blacks during Black History. We’re looked at as tokens for a specific period rather than part of the natural history of this country in particular. And don’t even get me started on global history. In the US it’s confined to European and *sometimes* Asia. Rarely Central/South America, Caribbean, or Africa.

Rumpus: I remember a writing workshop where I was drawing on my Cuban-Jewish background as the backdrop to a story. A lot of people were completely fixated on the ethnic background of the characters. It really baffled me, because the story actually wasn’t about that at all.

Baker: I’m not surprised you got that response at all. I’ve had agents say that to me about pieces I wrote. “Where’s the racial aspects in this piece?” There are none in this specific piece. I think people in general definitely want this culture to change. Not just us Millennials. But Baby Boomers too and Gen X.

I also think some people can be more resigned. As in, “Things will never change in my life time so why bother?” It’s such a systemic thing. This bias and idea of privilege and marginalization is so embedded in our thinking it’s not an easy fix. So, for some, it’s worth the push to fight and for others it may be, “Whatever, I’ll just do me over here and stay within my communities.” I get both mindsets. But change will only stem from constant and persistent action, listening, learning, empathy, reaching across the lines to others, and so on. It’s not easy and we may not even see change for a couple generations if action remains steady. I know my grandmother and mother never expected to see a sitting US president who identifies as Black. But seeing that shows progress. Not a fix, mind you. Obama in office does NOT equal a post-racial US at all. But was this conceivable in 1921 when my grandmother was born? Nope, not at all. And it took almost a century for this to happen in her lifetime.

Rumpus: I know in discussions about representation in film, people often discuss the importance of diversity behind the camera. Do you think change is more likely when there is greater diversity within publishing houses and literary magazines? Or is that just one other piece of a very complicated puzzle?

Baker: It’s absolutely important behind the camera as well as in the industry, which is why I had started my podcast. Because it’s a circuitous problem. There’s no one area that it all falls under. We need more diverse agents and diverse people in the industry and diverse booksellers and authors/illustrators and distributors and librarians.

Rumpus: How do you decide on the people you will talk to and feature in your podcast? Are they people you know personally from years in the industry? People you seek out directly?

Baker: Both and also recommendations. Initially my former podcast partner and I made a list of all the marginalized people in the industry we could think of. Not a big list as you can imagine.

And in some cases it’s not easy. Not everyone is open or readily identifiable in communities. Someone may be biracial but favor more European American features. Someone may be homosexual, someone may have depression or bipolar disorder, and unless they’re okay with being open about this aspect of themselves I may not know. For me I tend to know a lot of African Americans in the industry because I am African American so those ties were very easy. But I am also aware of wanting to represent more than just PoCs. I’d like to represent everyone in the marginalized area who are working hard to bring more inclusion to publishing as a whole, whether as an editor, publicist, bookseller, librarian, writer, illustrator, and so on.

I want the audience who listens to know who these people are and that they exist. This diversity does exist in the industry. Maybe in small doses but it’s there so it’s not impossible to find a Latina agent or a Muslim editor or a Queer writer with a disability.

Rumpus: We talked about the changes you’ve seen in the past thirteen years—what do you hope to change in the future for the publishing world?

Baker: I hope for more people to recognize inherent biases they may be unaware of. Because that’s a huge stall in progression. You know, the whole “I’m not racist!”

When people have biases they don’t want to acknowledge that’s kind of a “silent” problem. So perhaps if you only read White, male, straight authors then maybe, just maybe, go outside of that box for yourself and explore work by marginalized voices. Teach that work. See that the work can be more than about “the issues” of being marginalized.

In life, the more it becomes less about seeing one type of book by marginalized people. So if more editors look for these books, if more agents look and have the editors to sell these books to, if the business owners and CEOs and publishing managers see these books and back those books and recognize these books can be profitable, I hope we’ll see change. Marginalized bestsellers aren’t flukes here. The difference between bestsellers and books that aren’t often is the publicity. And not all books can get heavy duty publicity but if more marginalized voices got that push than just the ones talking about the problems than perhaps it’d be seen as more of what audiences want to see. Terry McMillan’s books sell for a reason. Because she found her audience.

Readers don’t want one thing. But if I see a certain book plastered all over the New York Times and the New York Review of Books or all over Book Riot I’m going to get that stuck in my head as being “good” when I have no idea if it is good for me or my cup of tea. What I know is that that book got major push from its publisher or the author knew someone and could capitalize on that.

We have to actively search for what’s different, which reflects a problem with the industry if it’s not there or not even a blip on anyone’s radar.

Rumpus: What other projects are you working on right now? Do you feel that your work as an activist shapes your work as a writer?

Baker: Well, I’m still with WNDB doing social media and now panel organization for the nonprofit. My Minorities in Publishing podcast is steadily going and I’ll start new interviews in January.

As for writing I’m a methodical writer so it takes me a while to get my ideas to a point where I’m comfortable. So a short story collection about an interracial family as well as a YA book from dual perspectives on kids of color in a penitentiary setting.

For me what I have always said is I didn’t want to write PoC story in a stereotypical manner.

When I started my story collection I wanted to make sure to put “positive” perspective of the Black male. In that I didn’t want there to be any absentee dads in the Black families I presented. Because I saw that or see it so much in fiction. I didn’t want to see that in my fiction. I wanted to present a Black family as flawed but not suffering. It’s part of what I like so much about The Turner House by Angela Flournoy. She presents a varied Black family of flawed people at various aspects of life. And yes, race is a factor, but it is not the factor in their day-to-day associations with themselves and others. It reads to me as a story anyone could relate to and I’m sure that’s why it’s gotten so much acclaim. And it deserves it.

I think everyone has their own type of story to tell and mine would be similar in that aspect. Which is also why Zadie Smith‘s work stands out to me. She writes about families, families of color, but primarily dissects the familial experience of relationships through time.

My aim in my work (written and activist-wise) is to let people know they’re not alone. That’s a huge factor in the fear of speaking out or being oneself—the idea of being the sole person to feel this way. Am I the only teen girl who thinks she’s hairy? Am I the only person afraid to be intimate with someone? Is it odd that I am not sexually attracted to (this person or anyone)? Is it normal for me to hate my dark skin?

These ideas are pervasive and keep you wanting to live a lie, as Janet Mock said in her recent SuperSoul Sunday video (I encourage everyone to watch it). And I think it’s why Roxane Gay’s writing hits so many people on a visceral level. The vulnerability to say “This is who *I* am. This is what makes me afraid. This is my day-to-day and maybe it’s not like yours but it’s mine.”

And I know I wrote at an early age stereotypical work because it was what I saw it seemed “normal.” It wasn’t though. We’re all unique. And I’ve embraced that aspect of myself as a cis-gendered Black woman. So I encourage other people to know you’re not alone. Your voice matters. Strive to be you and be better every day.

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Photographs © Liz Maney.


Arielle Bernstein's work has been featured in the Atlantic, Salon, IndieWire, and RogerEbert.com, among other publications. She teaches writing at American University and edits TORCH at The Rumpus. You can follow her on Twitter at @NotoriousREL. More from this author →