Like so many things great and terrible, this conversation on writing and editing, between an editor and four writers from across the spectrum of race, grew out of social media. It was informed by Rachel Syme’s “Pay Women the Money They Need to Make the Culture,” especially the last passage on editing and the question of who gets the final word. It was also informed by Claire Vaye Watkins’s 2015 Tin House essay “On Pandering”; by Marlon James’s response to Watkins both on Facebook and his talk covered by the Guardian; and then by the various think pieces on the whole shebang, such as Jessa Crispin’s “On Pandering … and Exclusivity.”
The morning we wrapped up our conversation, the results of the Diversity Baseline Survey, conducted by Lee & Low Books, were released.
Jennifer Niesslein: Although it’s weird for me to think of myself as someone powerful (the white woman editor that Marlon James might be talking about), given that I do so much of my work in my bathrobe with unwashed hair, the truth is, I do have power, or at least privilege. I’ve been on both sides of the editor/writer power dynamic. But I’ve only ever been white.
I’m hoping we can talk about your experiences.
Let’s start with this: I know my own voice changes slightly, depending on whom I’m writing for, both in the immediate (my editor) and in the big picture (the publication’s readers). One’s a little bratty and not-on-my-watch-people, and the other’s more magnanimous, but they’re still both me. I know other writers write with no preconceived idea of where the essay will end up. How does it work for you? And does the race of the editor or the readership play into your process?
Patrice Gopo: I don’t typically write with a preconceived idea of who the editor will be or who the eventual readers will be, whether I’m writing about a topic that deals with race or not. I write the story that I want to tell and then I think about where I would like to submit my work.
That said, I primarily submit my work to literary journals. My basic assumption (based on my experience with publishing and researching potential publications) is that the editor will more likely than not be a white person and the eventual readership will be predominantly white.
I have discovered that I often incorporate ideas/references into my work that may not be readily understood by a white audience. More than once an editor has needed me to clarify something that seems quite clear to me and other early readers who are also black. For example, a few years back, I wrote an essay about an experience dealing with racism. There were several back-and-forth rounds of editing with that editor. To be fair, it was one of my early essays, so I think that editor recognized value in the topic but still my writing was lacking. However, I do think some of the questions/concerns arose because I referred to ideas that, while common knowledge to me, weren’t necessarily common knowledge to everyone. As a result, I wove some information into the final essay that I suppose made it more understandable to others. So in this way, I do think my voice shifted at least a bit from the voice in the original essay.
This experience taught me that it can be helpful for me as a black woman who writes about race to get feedback from a white reader. Last year I wrote an essay that referenced my experience dealing with microaggressions and even included some examples. I received some feedback that it just wasn’t clear why the examples were problems or why they bothered me. Again, the “why” seemed obvious to me but apparently it wasn’t. I ended up framing that section in a way that still expressed the frustration but also sought to provide information. I’m not sure it worked or if the passage fully expressed the emotion I wanted to convey, but I also felt that if a reader didn’t understand why the statement a person made was a problem, then they wouldn’t understand a chunk of the essay.
I’ve received some feedback from white readers that they feel that I’m too soft at times in my writing about race. They feel like there is more outrage/frustration that I’m not expressing. Sometimes I wonder if this might be true but other times I wonder if that’s what someone wishes I was feeling or believes I should be feeling rather than believing the story I am telling.
Lisa Factora-Borchers: I have a pretty good sense of audience, readership, and editorial staff before I submit anywhere. My writing voice(s) are quite different depending on topic. For example, when I write an op-ed for The Feminist Wire, I know I can pull out all the stops in what I think when it comes to racism and expect the readers there to follow my trail of thought. For Refinery29, I wrote a critique of Eve Ensler but tailored it for a white, twenty-something reader. It’s all me, of course, but I know how to curb or expand based on what I know of the publication beforehand. Another example is the difference between how I sift through questions about race and culture in motherhood as an editor when I worked at Literary Mama and how I embody those very same issues in my own writing on motherhood for Revolutionary Mothering: Love on the Front Lines, an anthology centering the experiences of mothers of color. I’ve been very blessed to work with great editors, including on my own anthology on sexual violence at AK Press. So I can’t complain, but I definitely do a dance to make it work.
Deesha Philyaw: My writing usually falls into one of three categories:
1) I write something (usually fiction) because a story starts to take shape in my head, in which case, I write the piece and worry about editors/readers later.
2) I write in response to a call for submission that is detailed in nature. In this instance, I often think about what I can write that will be original and stand out. And unless it’s a niche outlet, I assume that it’s to my benefit to write something involving race or adoption or some other aspect of my life that’s likely to distinguish me from most of the others who are submitting.
3) I write at the request of an editor. In this case, unless the specifics of the request hinder me from doing so, I’ll proceed as with #2.
Overall, like Patrice, I assume the editors will be white.
My writing on parenting has been published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and elsewhere, but my parenting-related pitches to mainstream women’s mags have never yielded an acceptance. I’ve wondered if these editors are less inclined to see a black woman as an authority on parenting or as someone who can write about parenting in a universal way (as opposed to “black parenting”). Or do they believe their readers won’t identify with me as a parent, or won’t accept me as a parenting expert (not my words, but I have been referred to as such in media)?
I haven’t had to explain or clarify race-related issues to an editor, but I once had a team of editors insist that if I was going to attribute something to racism, I had better be able to prove it. But then they discounted my sources—primary and secondary research, including interviews with leading experts in the field who supported my premise (which, by the way, is a now-widely accepted fact). Instead, the main editor’s boss wanted me to find out what Cornel West thought about the matter. A quick Google search revealed no published commentary on the subject by Cornel West. Turns out, the editor’s boss had once met West at a cocktail party…
Ultimately, I realized that I was being asked to prove racism to a bunch of white women who just didn’t want to accept the veracity of my research unless it was validated by a black scholar one of them found charming. So I killed the story.
I like that Patrice mentioned who her early readers are. Pretty consistently, my early readers are two black women writer-friends. It hadn’t occurred to me to have someone who isn’t black—or, specifically, someone who is white—read my work before sending to a (white) editor.
Tamiko Nimura: So much of my response comes down to the simple “it depends”—sometimes I worry about readership/editorship later, sometimes I’m writing with a specific audience in mind. I have two regular gigs that have predominantly Asian American audiences, but I’m not heavily edited at either of those places.
I will say, though, that power does enter the equation forcefully when I am writing outside of these two gigs—that I am much more conscious of readership and editorship when I’m writing in response to a call for submissions for mainstream magazines, for example. I’ve been especially nervous when I’ve been negotiating edits with white editors that I’ve never met or worked with professionally. All the factors of “Will they be offended?” and “Will they just decide to pull the piece?” and “When should I just let it go?” come into play. But I think we can also attribute some of that to my newness in the freelance field.
Niesslein: Another question that you’ve all hinted at: Do you feel expected to fit into a certain racial narrative? And, if applicable, has the pressure to fit into that narrative changed over the course of your career?
Gopo: At times, I have. However, I think this pressure comes less from editors and more from writing teachers and perhaps even students in classes I have taken.
I remember once being in a class and writing an essay where I mentioned my mixed-race heritage. (Both of my grandfathers descend from India and both of my grandmothers are black). There was this huge discussion in the room about whether I was really as mixed-race as I was claiming. Cue several minutes of me trying to explain to the class and my teacher, writing out fractions and adding them, showing them that I really was what I claimed to be. Later, it occurred to me that perhaps the challenge was that, up until then, they had seen me as being a black woman and now I was changing the narrative they had for me. Perhaps it was difficult to shift the narrative they expected of me. Really, this is just a theory. I have no idea.
Has the pressure to fit in changed over the course of my (short) writing career? I think it has. I believe I am better able to recognize when I think someone (teacher, editor, etc.) may be trying to make my work fit a particular narrative. I attribute much of this to increasing levels of confidence is my writing abilities. So in the beginning when I was still quite new, whatever feedback came my way, I felt I had to take. I think now I am more likely to recognize that I have choices to make with regards to feedback. Ultimately the stories I am telling are my stories. Reminding myself of this helps me to sift through the feedback and the suggestions for improvement.
Philyaw: I know that some editors may have a racial narrative in mind, but I’ve never had anyone try to edit my writing to fit it. I have, however, witnessed this happening to another black woman freelancer writing for a mainstream women’s lifestyle magazine. In some areas, she could push back and educate; in others, she relented in order to fit that magazine’s readership (as we all have to do). Because sometimes, the issue isn’t a specific racial narrative; it’s that the average white reader probably isn’t equipped to do, or particularly interested in doing, a deep dive when it comes to race as it intersects history, pop culture, politics, or the lived experiences of people of color. So an editor may ask a writer of color to water down the content. I believe the preferred terminology is to “make it more relatable.”
I think one reason I haven’t encountered the pressure over the course of my writing life is that I’m pretty much the same person now that I was when I first started: college-educated, married, with kids, writing about parenting. So when I think about “certain racial narratives,” I think about the struggling, single black mom narrative (not me), the angry black woman narrative (not me), the neck-rolling black woman narrative (not me). As my friend Washington Post columnist Lonnae O’Neal observes, when you don’t fit those narratives, you risk your writing flying under the mainstream radar because not all white readers and editors (especially those who are white women) are interested in engaging us as equals—educated, successful, married, with ideas about parenting in ways that don’t involve beating our kids for protesting in the street, for example.
There’s also limited interest in the nuance of not fitting those “certain racial narratives,” and also not being inclined to write critically about people who do fit them. Some editors and readers want the single story or an off-shoot of it. For example, you can be the “welfare mother” or you can condemn her. Lonnae wrote an excellent book in 2006, I’m Every Woman: Remixed Stories of Marriage, Motherhood, and Work, that should have made everyone embarrassed to talk about the damned Mommy Wars ever again… and that book got crickets. So while we do see a bit more mother-writing from black women now than when I first wrote about “mommy memoirs” in Bitch magazine in 2008, I still wonder how receptive white editors and readers are to black women as white women’s peers when it comes to writing about parenthood.
Nimura: A couple of incidents come to mind for me here. The first one involves a writing contest that I entered a few years back. While I was a finalist, I didn’t win the contest. I asked for a bit of feedback from the contest organizers; one of the responses that I got was that the project was “quiet.” I didn’t have the heart to ask for more about what they meant by “quiet,” and why that made the project less viable or sellable. By quiet do they mean internal, introspective? (But many memoirs are internal and introspective, as are the recent novels by Marilynne Robinson.) Is “quiet” code for something in the publishing industry? As an Asian-American woman, I felt—and I could be wrong here—that quiet meant “too quiet,” and “too Asian.” I’m not alone here in that feeling—both a white friend and an African- American friend picked up on the racial encoding right away, when I told them about the organizers’ response.
The second incident involves Jennifer as an editor, and I’m super-grateful that we were able to work this one through together carefully. After Jennifer accepted my piece for Full Grown People, she sent me a preview link. The piece was memoir, a parenting piece about the birth of my second daughter. The image Jennifer had assigned was of a woman who could be read as white, or perhaps light-skinned Latina. Though my piece doesn’t mention my race or ethnicity, it felt strange to have that image attached to my piece, a cognitive dissonance I couldn’t quite explain away.
I agonized for a bit. I was so excited to have my piece accepted, but wanted to raise the issue nevertheless. I didn’t know if she would just pull the piece altogether because it was too much work, too nitpicky, too PC, too whatever. One friend advised me to leave it alone. I sent a message to a few WOC writer-mentors, who gave me some language to work with. “Ask if the editor is open to conversation about the image,” my friend Christine said. Happily, Jennifer was open to that conversation and I loved the second image she selected.
But our interaction taught me that I was lucky to be working with a thoughtful editor, who was willing to admit, moreover, that she’d made an honest mistake. That the racial narrative in this case felt different for both of us, but that we could do something to change it. The more transparent we were about our own background and expectations, the better the conversation became.
Gopo: The story you shared, Tamiko, about the image and your interaction with Jennifer really made me think too about my own experiences with the images editors select.
One of the first pieces I had accepted was a short memoir piece for a parenting magazine. The publication just accepted the piece, and I had no input into the image or even saw the image they used prior to publication. The story I wrote had nothing to do with race and the image they picked was of a white woman with straight blonde hair. When I first saw the printed piece, it was jarring, but I told myself that 1) they didn’t ask me and 2) I suppose it wasn’t a piece about race, so why should the image align with me as an author?
A while back, I used to regularly write pieces for an online publication. With that editor as well, she never asked me about the images selected for my articles. When images of people (or parts of people like hands or feet) were used for my articles, in all but one article the image was of a white person. The piece where the editor used a black person was a piece about race. Even as I type this, I realize that my default setting is that images for basically any article or essay will be of white people unless the particular article, essay, etc. actually deals with an issue/story where race plays a role. And I am disheartened realizing that this is my default setting.
Last year I wrote an article about race in children’s books. And I remember one of the commenters mentioned that she was frustrated that the vast majority of illustrations in children’s books where the storyline has nothing to do with race feature white characters. The commenter was making the point that these stories could easily feature children, families, characters, etc., of other races, but they don’t. This makes me wonder if others feel that the general default for images for articles/essays feature white people? When in fact an essay written by a white person could certainly feature a person of color in the image. Are we trained to see images of people of color and then assume that the piece we are reading will deal with race? Actually, Jennifer, I would be interested to hear more of your perspective as an editor and how you go about choosing images, particularly images where you feature people and the story isn’t necessarily related to race.
Niesslein: Here’s my perspective on art as a white editor: After my screw-up with Tamiko’s piece (and I’m also super-grateful that you spoke up, Tamiko!), I’ve become more conscientious about trying to match the art to the writer’s look. It’s not always easy, given that I have no budget for anything, so sometimes, I go abstract. I do this for essays by white writers, too.
I do think that white is the default setting. Did you all see the essay by Roxane Gay about weight, and the art was a photo of a white woman’s thin ankles on a scale? (It’s since been changed.) Someone actually had to point that out to me. So, yeah, I think we are programmed to think of white as the default race.
But I also think sometimes that it’s more calculated. If a magazine that’s not especially well-known runs a black or Latina person on the cover (for reasons beyond the scope of this piece, I think that some Asian-American people—not all—get a pass as “honorary white” in the image game, although obviously not in life), I think there’s a fear that white readers will think, “Oh, this is a niche that isn’t for me.”
On the flip side, I’ve also seen white-run publications include images of people of color on the cover to seem inclusive, but actually are not. To me, the latter is actually worse because the editors didn’t actually do the work of soliciting writers of color.
And it is work—and I know because I didn’t always do it, mostly because I was overwhelmed with my other job duties. (I’ve always worn multiple hats.) But I never pretended I did the work with the art. With Full Grown People, I do solicit writers of color intentionally because otherwise, it turns into this loop of exclusion: if you don’t see anyone like yourself being published in a magazine, why the hell would you send your most tender writing to its editor?
Philyaw: And representation is important in the masthead as well as in the pages. But of course, it’s all a chicken/egg thing.
Niesslein: Some of you have talked about your first readers, but I’m wondering if you have an ideal reader? I read this lovely nuanced piece by Brittany K. Allen, and I loved what she said about writing about “girls like me.”
Gopo: I must admit I’ve never really thought about an ideal reader. But I really appreciated the article you linked too, Jennifer. And actually this quote from the piece helped me think through the idea of an ideal reader:
The perfect retorts to those micro- and macro-aggressions occur to us now only in the dead of night, years later; they wake us and fill us with sharp, righteous anger, anger doubled by the fact that in not speaking out when we were first offended, we tacitly accepted the system that is forever diminishing us.
When I read that, I thought, “Yes, yes, yes!!! I feel that too, I know that experience. It’s not just me who has experienced that.” I felt this weird wave of comfort in my experience being in solidarity with another. I primarily write stories of my life through personal essay and short memoir-type pieces. In telling these stories, I realize I want others who have experienced life in a similar way to read my words, and shout, “Yes, yes, yes!! Me too.”
As a black woman who grew up in a predominantly white environment (and really still exists in one), I think there is a sense of isolation and loneliness as I sift through my life and wonder if the injustices I have experienced may not be real, or may be insignificant, or maybe I’m too sensitive, etc. So when I read something that affirms the realness and rawness of my lived experience, I feel less of that isolation and less alone. I want my work to be able to do that for someone else. So I would agree with Lisa that my ideal reader is a person like me (at least for pieces that deal with racial injustice).
However, I think my ideal reader (for pieces that deal with racial injustice) is also a white person (or perhaps a person with certain privileges in society that I don’t have) that has at least some degree of openness to hearing about the experiences of others. Years ago, I led a few workshops and discussions about race and racial reconciliation. In those discussions, white people wanted to understand the experiences of people of color and consistently asked them to share their stories. However, this can get very stressful to always be a person having to make yourself vulnerable in a room in order to help someone else understand injustice. But, at the same time, I recognized that someone can’t begin to understand if people aren’t sharing. And later when I started writing, I realized that personal essays are such a powerful way to share stories and actually can impact the way people think without necessarily having to sit in front of someone and explain. So long story short, I believe I also write for that white reader who actually does want to know more.
Nimura: Often, my husband is my first ideal reader—he actually does read almost everything that I send out. He’s my ideal reader in that he’s intelligent, respectful, and an artist himself. Because he’s a composer, we’re able to talk about craft (structure especially, diction, syntax) in amazing ways. And he reads things the day that I send them to him! My husband is white; my friends and ideal readers include people of color as well as white folks. But I have other ideal readers as well, often my friends from grad school who have a shared network of experiences, cultural references (we’re around the same age), and interests (multicultural literature, social justice). My ideal imagined reader? Someone who’s also interested in my broader interests, I guess—including the arts, culture, history, memory, family. As well as someone who doesn’t expect to be interested in these things but finds themselves drawn into a piece nevertheless.
Factora-Borchers: I struggled all my life with growing up in white-dominated communities. Part of me learned how to look past things, swallow invisibility, forgive hyper-visibility, and take the high road when it came to ignorance. As I moved more into writing about my passions—feminism, faith, spirituality, parenting—I found that I have a lot of white readers. That scared me. I wasn’t writing for them and I kept putting pressure on myself to write for readers of color. Having a white readership gave me anxiety, like I wasn’t really a woman of color dedicated to issues of race and power. I was a sugar pill. Easy to swallow, easy to digest.
In 2012, I attended the Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation (VONA) workshop, which is exclusively for writers of color. I took a memoir class with Faith Adiele and confessed my fear: no matter what I write, I have a large white readership. I want to write for women of color and for women like me.
Faith cocked her head. “Let me get this straight. You’re afraid of privileged people liking your work so much that they spend money to buy it?”
We laughed and had a long discussion about readership. And I realized that my ideal reader(s) is a person like me: a non-white person of color with some privileges and power wanting to think critically about issues that matter to the soul. If, along the way, I gain a white readership, Faith advised me not to be afraid. “In this industry, don’t turn away anyone who wants to support your work.”
I think about that advice on a weekly basis.
Philyaw: Faith Adiele is cherished friend of mine. I know that head cock! 🙂 She hasn’t lived here in Pittsburgh for many years, but in my early writing days she was very encouraging and supportive. And she still is, albeit much farther away now.
I think this raises a question about mentors: as (women) writers of color, where do we find them? Can white editors effectively mentor us?
Nimura: When I left the academy for the writing life, I flailed around for—ahem, sought out—writing mentors, and I’ve been very lucky to find a few, both white and WOC. They are all effective, but effective differently. When the issue of race and artwork in FGP arose, I specifically asked my WOC mentors what they thought, and they gave me great advice. But my white mentors—I call them my “writing fairy godmothers” have also been wonderful in helping me navigate where and when and how to publish. All of my mentors are also great cheerleaders, but they’re also willing to ask me the harder questions.
Gopo: I actually have only one person right now who I would consider a writing mentor (more long-term rather than maybe one conversation or interaction). She is white and was a teacher I had in a class a while ago. She has been a huge, huge encourager of my work and has been extremely helpful in terms of giving me useful feedback for my essays and encouraging me to submit my work to places I would never have considered.
That said, I believe one of the reasons this particular relationship seems to be working is that in her own life, she does a lot of reading/thinking about the topic of race. In the past, when I’ve worked with some other white teachers, they have struggled to get past some of, I guess, the distressing nature of what I might be writing about in order to give me useful feedback for my work. In fact, I’ve been in more than a few workshops where I felt the conversation was primarily about my subject matter rather than ways that I can improve my work. Even with those experiences in workshops and working with some white teachers, I still have found those teachers to be helpful and would say that they have mentored me in smaller ways. One in particular showed me how to begin submitting my work, another gave me helpful advice about how to interact with editors, and another told me that she had, “faith in [my] future,” which is a statement that sticks with me.
I believe a writer of color can, to some extent, be mentored by a white person. There is so much to learn about the writing and publishing world. I have never had a mentor who was a woman of color. I believe there is much I could learn from such a person. And perhaps she might also help me connect with a broader community of writers. A few years ago, I took an online class with an instructor who was a woman of color (and it was a great experience). Reading all your thoughts, it makes me think I should have reached out to her more in the aftermath of the class. Perhaps I still can.
Factora-Borchers: There’s so much to unpack in one’s identity. The learning never stops. The evolution continues at every age. Although I feel most at home in pedagogy and insight from a women-of-color-focused praxis, I can’t deny some of the absolutely wonderful mentors I have had—in writing and spirituality—from white women and men, who were devoted to unpacking their own racial biases and white privilege. Those experiences revealed that, for me, it is possible to have white mentors.
In the literary world, I’ve learned that I need different mentors for different components of my writing, editing, and work-life balance questions. I pushed aside the utopian expectation that there is a perfect mentor, perfect writing community, one-stop-fits-all kind of relationship.
Both fortunately and unfortunately, I have come to find many mentors of color for my writing, but not until I enrolled in writing experiences like VONA or my current MFA program. While I’m so grateful that I have found them, mentorship should not be an exclusive benefit that comes with affiliation or privilege.
I hope to practice what I preach as I grow and mature into a mentor for some young ass-kicking feminist Brown writer out there!
Lisa Factora-Borchers is a Filipina-American writer, poet, and editor of Dear Sister: Letters from Survivors of Sexual Violence. Lisa is a long-time contributor and editor with feminist publication make/shift magazine and has also worked as a nonfiction editor with Literary Mama. Her work can also be found in online publications such as Refinery 29, In The Fray, TruthOut, The Feminist Wire, and Bitch magazines. Her work in spirituality, racism, and sexual violence has been cited in academic texts, her poetry anthologized in Verses Against Haiyan: A Storm of Filipino Poets, and her newest prose is anthologized in Revolutionary Mothering: Love on the Frontlines (Winter 2016, PM Press).
Patrice Gopo is the child of Jamaican immigrants and was born and raised in Anchorage, Alaska. Her essays have appeared in a variety of publications including Full Grown People, Gulf Coast, and online in the New York Times and the Washington Post. Patrice lives with her family in North Carolina, and she is at work on a collection of essays.
Jennifer Niesslein, who is white, is the editor of Full Grown People. She’s edited two anthologies, Full Grown People: Greatest Hits, Volume One, and Soul Mate 101 and Other Essays on Love and Sex. She’s also the author of Practically Perfect in Every Way and co-founder of Brain, Child magazine. Her work as appeared in many publications, most recently in Creative Nonfiction.
Tamiko Nimura is an Asian-American (Sansei/Pinay) writer who grew up in Northern California and now lives in the Pacific Northwest. Her recent publications include pieces in HYPHEN, FamilyFun, Kartika Review, Avidly, Edible Seattle, and Full Grown People. She contributes regularly to Discover Nikkei, the Seattle Star, and the International Examiner. She has received awards and honors from the Ford Foundation, the Japanese American Citizens League, the University of Iowa, and the Asia Pacific Fund.
Deesha Philyaw is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer and co-author of Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households After Divorce, written in collaboration with her ex-husband. Her writing on race, parenting, gender, and culture has appeared in outlets such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Rumpus, Essence magazine, and Bitch magazine. She’s also a Fellow at the Kimbilio Center for African American Fiction and a recent Pushcart Prize nominee for her essay in Full Grown People. Deesha is a two-time recipient of an Advancing the Black Arts in Pittsburgh grant from The Pittsburgh Foundation and the Heinz Endowments. As a parent, she hit the mama-trifecta: she’s a biological, step-, and adoptive mother.