On Monday, June 6, 2016 VIDA presented Intersectionality and Activism in the Literary Landscape at Housing Works. The conversation featured writer-activists Jennifer Baker, Cat Fitzpatrick, Hafizah Geter, Jyothi Natarajan, and Kathi Wolfe discussing their experiences and work to change the literary landscape, and the best ways to continue the conversation, get involved, and be an effective ally. In this Q&A they continue the discussion, expanding on more ways to get involved, raising new issues of accessibility, and pointing us to the writers, activists, and social media movements that have them excited.
Sarah Fawn: You each spoke about your writing, your editing, your activism, your teaching, and the ways you do your work in the face of opposition. What are your current projects and/or visions for your work? What do you hope to accomplish with this work?
Jennifer: The work I do spans a few areas. I plan to continue my Minorities in Publishing podcast, which hit the two-year mark in late August. Upcoming episodes include those with interns new to the publishing industry; their enthusiasm is infectious. In addition to that my nonfiction work most notably touches on the racial disparity in the United States, however, I always aim to humanize people in my writing rather than solely portraying “the other.” I don’t want people to see Black people as constantly disadvantaged and under someone’s thumb so to speak. My writing aims to show the range of humanity (and our connections) in the stories of myself, my family, and others I encounter through life in fictional and nonfictional contexts.
Cat: I am publishing poetry books by KOKUMO and Kay Ulanday Barrett. They are both amazing. I hope they will transform our expectations for transgender poetry.
I am publishing my own poetry book, Glamourpuss. It has a picture of me in a wet dress on an inflatable pink flamingo on the front. I fell into the pool. All the poems are horribly embarrassing. I hope I will embarrass myself horribly.
With the wonderful Casey Plett I am editing an anthology of Speculative Fiction from Transgender Writers. It is tentatively titled Meanwhile, Elsewhere and I am so joyfully surprised at the way it moves beyond the “isolated transsexual” trope to imagine and reimagine trans community in incisive and liberating ways.
With Tom Leger I am supervising the release of several TRIOS- short books each containing work by three new trans woman writers, coming out of the trans women’s writing retreat/workshop Topside just organised, and compiled by the writers appearing in them. The hope is, they not only showcase these writers’ work, but also encourage them to talk, collaborate, and edit each other’s work.
Kathi: I live at the intersection of disability, gender and sexuality. My work flows out of this experience. As a journalist, essayist, and opinion writer, I aim to bring the voices and views of people living on the margins into the cultural radar screen. I try to do this in an engaging way. I’d like readers of my pieces to be provoked, energized, amused, engaged – if I’m really hitting the jackpot – transformed. I don’t want folks to feel like they’re being told to eat their spinach. (No dis intended towards veggie-lovers!)
In the process of doing my work, I hope to provoke myself. As a cisgender white woman, I want my work to engage with racism – with transphobia. As a writer, I’m challenging myself to try to be an ally to transgender people and to people of color. In a way that’s helpful – that isn’t just putting more work on people who are oppressed.
I’m revising a manuscript for a new poetry collection. I’m aiming in it to strike a balance: between poems that reflect my engagement with queerness and disability and poems that deal with the usual, “universal” subjects of poetry: love, sex, death, art and the meaning of life. (I’m the Darth Vader of the plant world–so you won’t find much nature in my poetry.)
One of the things that I most enjoy is reading my poetry and speaking with college students. I hope to continue doing this. The young people I talk with are great! They’re bright, empathetic and open to change. It’s, also, a way to be supportive to disabled and queer students.
Poetry, as Auden famously said, doesn’t make anything happen. I disagree. It’s true – one poem of mine or of any poet – isn’t going to overturn an unjust law. But bit by bit poetry can change hearts and minds. Some of my poems feature my Uppity Blind Girl character. Uppity, 25, lives with her girlfriend in Chelsea (Manhattan). After the reading, a young, blind woman said to me, “It’s scary walking around in my neighborhood. With my white cane, I never know what kinds of things people will say to me.” She added, “Now, I won’t be so scared. I’ll channel Uppity.”
I have no grand illusions that my work will change the world. But I hope my work will continue, in at least a small way, to engage in what the poet Carolyn Forche calls the “poetry of witness.”
Hafizah: I don’t know if there is a specific vision or end point that I am driving towards. I think now, more than ever, I am primarily concerned with survival—survival of the soul and the body in the face of institutional and structural violence against women and black and brown bodies and the perpetual exhaustion that comes with it. Currently, I am working on a series of poems under the title of “Testimony,” each one dealing with unarmed black people gunned down by the police or black people who have died unnecessarily while in police custody. So far, I’ve written ones for Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Kyam Livingston and Tamir Rice—our country is killing us faster than I can write. I guess you could say my current project is trying to make our souls heard, or maybe this is just my psyche needing someone to be held accountable for these deaths, even if they will only ever be held accountable on the page in front of me.
Sarah Fawn: What additional advice do you have to people who want to get involved? How can people get involved and be good allies? What can we do as individuals to help those outside our experience? How can we help spread the word about issues, events, and challenges using our privileges to benefit others?
Jennifer: There’s a wide berth of things people can do. Retweeting or sharing online petitions, articles about issues marginalized people face are some of the easiest and require the least effort. But what about voting? What about writing to business owners when you notice that their establishments are not accessible for people with disabilities or writing your politician when you see they support issues you don’t agree with that would adversely affect a group you may not directly identify with? What about learning more about how systemic racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and other forms of oppression remain pertinent issues in this country and others? Understanding where those feelings stem from and how the federal laws have abused this treatment of citizens can really help guide how one reacts, talks to people, sees the world.
By educating yourself you help make a larger change in this world. But also by acting you make a change. When you put your money behind artists of color, LGBTQ, disabled, and/or religious minority spectrums you’re showing the industry and those artists that you think they should be paid for the work they do, that their voices are necessary. That sends a message. Ally-ship relies in action more than lip service. People pontificate online a lot, social media is a void in that way, but how are you helping these groups while not overshadowing them? How are you helping to educate your own group(s) rather than asking marginalized people to educate you (especially for free)? How are you stepping up to the challenges of being an ally (and yes there are challenges and a lot of self-reflection and unpacking) that don’t make you a savior or center you in the conversation when it may very well not be about you? And if you choose to call yourself “an ally” what does that mean? Does that mean you care about the offenses another group deals with as much as you would about your own? Because if you don’t how can you really ally yourself to them if you don’t care as much and only want to alleviate your own guilt?
Cat: I think meeting Tom Leger and Riley McLeod and Julie Blair and Casey Plett and a few other people in like 2013 really changed my life, because, I’d always just been writing and feeling like it was up to other (cis) people to “accept me” or “publish me” or something but what they showed me was that you can just do it. I mean, that’s especially true now, with the internet and POD and so on. You can’t just wish away systematic inequity but also you are almost never totally without agency either. The flipside is if you do stuff you will make terrible mistakes and people will be awful to you and it will be exhausting, but it’s probably worth it.
For people who want to be allies- well, I am really trying to figure this out myself too. But specific practical advice on how cis literary people can help trans writers- ok 1) select us for things- if you’re ever in a position to judge people’s work, and you’re not selecting any trans women, ask why not and do something about it and 2) most important, buy our books! They exist and they are good. You can buy the books we publish at topsidepress.com, and you should also check out Metonymy Press, Biyuti Publishing, Trans-Genre Press, and the stuff Jamie Berrout is doing. And if you like what you read, please please say so on Facebook, Amazon, Goodreads, or any more formal outlets you have access to.
Kathi: Listening to what people who are oppressed have to say is vitally important if we want to be good allies. Listening – without saying what you think what folks should do – if often hard. It is for me, and I suspect for many people. And, no matter how much you want to be a helpful ally, you have to be helpful in ways that folks who are oppressed feel are helpful.
Social media is a very effective way to spread the word about issues and events. Mentoring is another important way to use our privilege to help others. Opeds in the mainstream media or posts in social media are a way to get issues, events and challenges into the conversation.
Split This Rock is a fab group working for poetry and social change. Becoming a part of the Split This Rock community is a wonderful way for poets to work for social justice. Check it out: www.splitthisrock.org.
Hafizah: I think, first and foremost, educate yourself. Ignorance can be no one’s ally. If you say you are an ally of the disenfranchised then you must understand what disenfranchises us historically, socially, systemically. Don’t try to put your two cents in to the calculus of the problem if you don’t understand the basic math of it. Counting on the disenfranchised to help educate you to how we suffer is selfish allyship. We have too much work to do, are too tired, and have too much PTSD for that kind of allyship. Libraries and the internet offer countless historical and current day evidence and information. Please don’t make us do that work again.
Sarah Fawn: Something that came up several times during the discussion was the importance of self-education, not relying on others to list off “diverse writers” or turning to the same voices again and again as way to fill a diversity quota. Can you speak more about why this is essential to prevent tokening writers and instead showcase a range of voices within marginalized communities?
Jennifer: The issue becomes when the same big names are the only ones to speak on matters of marginalized they become inundated as the “diversity representatives,” similarly those with different viewpoints are unable to convey a viewpoint that may lead to a different conversation all together because they’re not seen as important or relevant.
If you continue to look to certain queer writers who are cisgendered, how does that help amplify the transgendered community? If African Americans always speak to Black issues what about those who are African or from the Caribbean and can bring a whole other reflection to the conversation outside the United States?
If those with visible disabilities are often asked to speak up on disability issues we’re not hearing from those with invisible disabilities who can expound on how it feels to not have your marginalization recognized in some circles. There’s diversity within diversity. So when that variety of perspectives, voices, and experiences isn’t recognized it becomes more about a specific story that fits with a narrative constructed by those outside of the group(s). By having these “quotas” it tells a new generation that they may not be as needed or that they have to discard their voice for one that seems to be more popular and desired by an industry that already isn’t very representative.
For years I was trying to mimic voices on syllabi and so on which hampered my voice as a woman, a woman of color, and a woman of color with vary specific experiences. It took a long time for me to find that voice and even still it’s a work in progress that can allow for others to keep wanting to alter it rather than recognize that this voice needs to be honed rather than morphed.
Cat: I think it’s very frustrating when “there can be only one.” It’s frustrating when you are the one, and it’s frustrating when you’re locked out. So it’s nice when people realize there is a whole scene and we’re all reading and learning from and fighting with each other. But the big thing I want to say is just: you won’t regret it. There is good writing and it will be fun.
Kathi: People on the panel (my sister panelists) spoke brilliantly on this issue during the panel! I don’t have much to add. Except this: too often, it’s assumed that there’s unanimity of opinion within marginalized communities. It’s like people think, I’ll invite writer X, and she’ll be able to speak for the women’s, transgender, people of color, queer, disability, etc. community. If we step back and think, we all know it’s not like that. Opinions vary widely in communities. So, if you want to try to represent a range of voices from within a community, you shouldn’t always turn to the same writer.
Hafizah: I touched on this a bit in the previous question. When someone asks me for a list of diverse writers, I suspect that they can’t be trusted with the work of those writers. I just don’t see why, if you aren’t reading diversely, you should be trusted to decide whether or not the work is valuable or worthy of publishing. To me, it just sounds like another unsafe space you’ve invited us into. It is essential for those in spheres of privilege to do this work themselves, and this goes for myself as well. I, too, must interrogate the privilege I hold. But this isn’t charity work. I’m not here to save anyone. Inviting others into the room saves me. Love yourself enough to do the work. It is only in the intimacy of knowing the inner life of the “other” that we are any good, that we are saved.
Sarah Fawn: The discussion also brought up the importance of paying writers, the ways others can profit off discussions of marginalized communities, and the inaccessibility of things like Submittable, readings, and conferences. What are some other issues of accessibility that we need to consider?
Cat: I think a lot of this stuff is quite well established, but we don’t or can’t fix it. I do see cis people repeatedly doing stuff that alienates trans people it would be easy to stop (like talking about vaginas as if they were synonymous with womanhood and vice versa). But that’s discourse, and the solutions are 1) think harder and 2) know trans people.
I guess I will say that, in terms of trans women writers in particular, I think people don’t realize 1) how broke they all are and 2) how totally hopelessly excluded they feel, even by explicitly queer literary culture. A $25 fee for a retreat application or a competition is a big deal for a lot of people, especially when they feel completely convinced they won’t be selected, because no-one like them ever is.
I guess I will also say that I think American activists need to be way better around issues of madness. Like, I am saddened by how rarely activists here know about mad pride or have functional critiques of psychiatric power and psychiatric discourse, and how bad they are at accommodating psychiatric survivors and other crazy people.
Kathi: Submittable is working on the accessibility issue. But it’s still not accessible. I hope editors will put in large, bold print on their websites an email address where blind and visually impaired writers, who can’t access Submittable, can submit their work.
This isn’t disability accessibility. But, childcare is an issue that conferences should consider. Some people on the autism spectrum have accessibility issues. To my knowledge, prisoners can’t submit their work online. Some writers with low incomes may not be able to afford computers or tablets, and may not be able to submit their work online.
Hafizah: What I try to do, is look around the room and see who is not there and invite them in. To not just give them a seat at the table, but to also hand over the podium.
I think in terms of accessibility, I’d ask people to question their expectations. If you invite someone in from a marginalized community, one that you are not a part of, what stories do your expectations allow them to tell? What stories do your expectations value? Do you only want stories of black people overcoming racism? Of differently abled people writing about how society physically and emotionally locks them out of spaces? What marginalized communities need is for others to stretch their humanity so they can see ours. We need the space and the empathy to tell the stories of our full, lived experiences. And those stories don’t always hover around our marginalization.
Ask yourself, how big is your world? Then, make it bigger. The fact that I exist at multiple points of marginalization does not absolve me from the work of interrogating how and when I have rendered another group invisible. It is exhausting work, but I would rather die than refuse to learn. In 2016, we know now, better than ever, that what you chose not to see (humanity, fragility, hands up in the air) can get someone else killed.
Sarah Fawn: What do you wish you knew when you started as a writer and activist? What has surprised you the most?
Jennifer: What I wish I knew when I began as a writer is that it’s okay to take your time and figure out the stories you want to tell. I think new writers, in fiction as well as other genres, tend to make their work very biographical at first, which can have a very specific scope. What I wrote about in my twenties was utterly boring. It was the usual coming-of-age story we’ve come up with not looking deeper into what the characters were facing. Once I lived life and experienced more I wanted to tackle issues I wasn’t seeing in much prose and get out of the formulaic storylines, though that may still be part of how I write because of what I read, what I was taught, who is being published. I wanted to discuss friendship, insecurity, family destruction, but from middle class families of color that weren’t always in poverty. I wanted my Black characters to like rock music not only rap/hip-hop. They enjoyed figured skating or not sports and weren’t necessarily fitting into certain molds we always saw. In pushing to write more of what I’d like to see instead of what the industry sought can be a struggle to find a home, but it also means I’m coming more into my own voice.
As an activist I think one of the biggest things I’ve learned was how much feelings are involved in people’s responses and actions. How when you say “That was a racist comment” the person who said it can hear “You’re a racist!” even when that wasn’t even said. The massaging of vocabulary is a big part of activism to get some people to listen and it can be very exhausting on one end. But for some it can be necessary to break through the first core to get to the next. There’s a lot of work, planning, understanding, action, and listening done as an activist. It’s not something you can be in and out of. Activism has issues that always have to be worked through. And when you’re an activist you also have to understand what you believe and what causes you are about. You don’t have to only be “about” Black Lives Matter, yet if that’s a focus recognize that’s a place you want to focus while also supporting and helping uplift others doing similar work. If you’re doing this as a formal organization you have to have a mission statement, people need to know what you’re about. As an individual you may not be able to be all things to all people, but that doesn’t mean the learning ever stops.
Cat: I wish I knew I could talk to other trans people. I wish I knew writing is always for an audience and so you need to find one you want. I wish I knew that if you build it they will come. I am most surprised by how not alone I am, for better or worse.
Kathi: I wish I knew that I didn’t have all the answers, some questions will never be answered, we need, as Rilke said, “to live the questions” and having a sense of humor is essential. My friends call me Eeyore. I’m surprised that justice, though often in frustratingly small bits, continues to break through oppression and resistance.
Hafizah: How painful it can be, but too, how intimate.
Sarah Fawn: While there is plenty to be discouraged about, many of you spoke about the excitement of witness. What writers, scholars, and journals on our bookshelves are you living for right now? What are you witnessing via social media that get you pumped?
Jennifer: For one, I’m excited about the pending Queens Bookshop that’ll be opening up in my borough soon. To see three women and two of them of color pursuing opening an independent store in Queens is very heartening to see.
I’m also psyched to see so many women of color and different intersectionalities being honored for their debuts that tell different stories via awards and publication. Authors like Yaa Gyasi, Kaitlyn Greenidge, Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, Kia Corthron, Lisa Ko, Mia Alvar, Tracy O’Neill are expanding my bookshelves. I’m excited for emerging voices like Vanessa Martir, Glendaliz Camacho, Ennis Smith, Sharda Sekaran to get their break because their work is the kind of stuff I’d have loved to read as a student.
In terms of social media Black Twitter is a sight of strength and power. It’s amazing to see how quickly I get revived by the discourse that happens there but also how unifying it seems and how many people are forced to understand we’re not going anywhere. They may not listen but they do see how influential these voices can be when a community is formed online, in tandem, and without apology.
Cat: Oh Man. Well, the people I am publishing, obviously. I think KOKUMO especially is an astonishing poetic genius of precision, wit and deadliness and if you don’t buy her book Reacquainted With Life you are losing out. And delving into our back catalogue, Sybil Lamb’s I’ve Got A Time Bomb is both one of the best and one of the strangest books I have ever read, and I read a lot.
Outside of us: I adore Tommy Pico, his new book IRL is innovative but also joyful, and says important things about queer and Native American lives; I cannot wait for Jeanne Thornton’s next book, which is apparently about the Beach Boys, everything she does is so weird and funny and devastating, and the stuff she publishes at Instar Books is great too; I am excited for Jia Quin Wilson-Yang’s Small Beauty and the other stuff coming out of Metonymy Press. I am looking forward to the argument around Sarah Schulman’s Conflict Is Not Abuse; I will always read any think-pieces by Katherine Cross and any reportage by Meredith Ramirez Talusan; and above all, if you ever, ever get the chance to see Cecilia Gentili tell stories, seize it, she is a genius.
Kathi: The anthologies QDA: A Queer Disability Anthology and Beauty Is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability pump me up. (A few of my poems are in each of these anthologies. That’s not why they pump me up.) I eagerly look forward to reading the anthology The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race. I’m rereading Beloved. I’m blown away by Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine. I’m a fan of the poets Jennifer Bartlett, Sheila Black and Meg Day. I wish I had more time to read the many fab poets and writers out there today!
Hafizah: Camille Rankine’s Incorrect Merciful Impulses, Cathy Linh Che’s Split, Robin Coste Lewis’ Voyage of the Sable Venus. Aracelis Girmay, Carl Phillips, Jean Valentine, and Nick Flynn’s entire body of work and I’ll read anything with Susan Sontag’s name on it. I am looking forward to reading Natashia Deón’s Grace, and to the release of Kelly Forsythe’s Colorado Perennial and William Brewer’s I Know Your Kind. The work that Saeed Jones over at Buzzfeed is doing is hugely important, as is the work of Darnell L. Moore over at Mic.com and the founders of the official #BlackLivesMatter Organization, Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi and Alicia Garza. The podcasts “About Race” and “On Being.” I can literally pinpoint to how those podcasts have made me a better human being.
Sarah Fawn: And finally, how do you see the landscape changing? What changing aspects continue to inspire your work?
Cat: Everything around trans writing and community is changing so fast, I feel like a survivor of Atlantis. And probably for the good, backlash aside. Despite this, I am currently mainly inspired to write, publish, organize, not by the difficulties we might face in the wider world, but above all by what happens within our communities, for good or ill.
Kathi: There’s been much progress in LGBT rights. Much, much more remains to be done, but I think the cultural landscape is becoming more aware of, and inclusive of, LGBT voices. Disability rights and the voices of disabled people have been largely absent from the cultural landscape. But this is beginning to change. The New York Times’ opinion section has been running a terrific series of pieces on disability. The series has featured the bylines of Jennifer Bartlett, Sheila Black and other women writers. This is a huge change! Getting the voices of writers with disabilities on the pages of the Times is a cultural tipping point.
Hafizah: Well, it’s not the landscape that needs to rise to the occasion, it’s the people.
CAT FITZPATRICK teaches literature and politics at Rutgers University – Newark. She is the Poetry Editor at Topside Press, and facilitator of the Trans Poets Workshop NYC. Her zines include At Least It’s Short, I Walked Through The Desert and Dances With The Joys Of This World. Her first book, Glamourpuss, is out this fall. Her website is catfitzpatrick.net.
KATHI WOLFE is a writer and poet. Her most recent poetry collection The Uppity Blind Girl Poems, winner of the 2014 Stonewall Chapbook Competition, was published by BrickHouse Books. Wolfe’s work has appeared in Poetry Magazine and other publications. She is a contributor to the anthologies QDA: A Queer Disability Anthology and Beauty Is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability. In 2008, Wolfe was a Lambda Literary Foundation Emerging Writer Fellow. She is a contributor to the “Washington Blade,” the LGBT paper.
JENNIFER BAKER is a publishing professional with 14 years’ experience, instructor for creative nonfiction and social media director for Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, contributing writer to Forbes.com & Bustle.com, long-time team member for the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books, and creator/host of the Minorities in Publishing podcast.
HAFIZAH GETER received her BA in English & Economics from Clemson University, and her MFA in Poetry from Columbia College Chicago. She is a South Carolina native currently living in Brooklyn, New York. Hafizah is a Cave Canem Fellow and was a semi-finalist for the 2010 “Discovery” / Boston Review Contest. Her poem “paula” received an Honorable Mention in RHINO‘s 2011 Editors’ Prize. A 2013 Blacksmith House Emerging Writer, recipient of a 2012 Amy Award from Poets & Writers, and a finalist in the Fifth Annual Narrative Magazine Poetry Prize, her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in BOXCAR Poetry Review, RHINO, Drunken Boat, Columbia Poetry Review, New Delta Review, Memorious, Vinyl, Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, Hot Street, Pinwheel Journal, Linebreak, Narrative Magazine, Gulf Coast, Blunderbuss, H.O.W. Journal, and Boston Review. She was a 2014 Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship Finalist. Hafizah also serves on the board of VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts, co-curates the reading series EMPIRE with Ryann Stevenson, is a poetry editor at Phantom Books and was formerly an assistant editor at YesYes Books. She is on the poetry committee for the Brooklyn Book Festival.
JYOTHI NATARAJAN is an editor and writer who has worked in publishing and journalism for the past 10 years. She is managing editor at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, where she edits an online arts and ideas magazine, The Margins, and runs a fellowship for emerging writers. As someone interested in the intersection of writing, social justice, and education, she helps run IndyKids, a social justice-oriented newspaper written by youth ages 9-13. She is currently on the nonfiction committee for the Brooklyn Book Festival.
SARAH FAWN MONTGOMERY holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from California State University-Fresno and a PhD in creative writing from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she teaches and works as Prairie Schooner’s Nonfiction Assistant Editor. She is the author of Leaving Tracks: A Prairie Guide and The Astronaut Checks His Watch (both from Finishing Line Press). Her work has been listed as notable several times in Best American Essays, and her poetry and prose have appeared in various magazines including Crab Orchard Review, DIAGRAM, Fugue, The Los Angeles Review, Natural Bridge, Nimrod, North Dakota Quarterly, Passages North, The Pinch, Puerto del Sol, The Rumpus, Southeast Review, Terrain, Zone 3 and others.