#LitMagLove: The Offing's Chanda Prescod-Weinstein

Interview by 
Rachel Thompson

The Offing is an online literary magazine publishing creative writing in all genres and art in all media. It publishes "work that pushes literary and artistic forms and conventions" and seeks out and supports work by and about those often marginalized in literary spaces. Their new editor-in-Chief, Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, is one of fewer than 100 Black American women to ever earn a Ph.D. in Physics. She is an expert in theoretical cosmology and is also internationally recognized for her anti-racist, feminist, and pro-queer writing and activism. Room's Rachel Thompson interviewed her by phone and email.

ROOM: Who are your first readers at The Offing and how do you make decisions about what appears in the magazine after first reading?

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: In most departments, our first readers are the editors themselves, although some departments have readers. How decisions are made vary from department to department, but in most of them the editors do some version of triaging and voting. I generally stay out of it unless there is a reason for me to be actively involved, like if they ask for my input or the copyeditor has flagged something problematic in the piece. I think that this can be risky because mistakes can be made, but I just try to prepare myself for that possibility by being ready to take responsibility for it. Art isn’t supposed to be safe, and the publication will be less interesting if I am constantly trying to control what we put out.

ROOM: Your editors are in four countries and on three continents, what has this geographic diversity meant for your editorial vision?

CPW: I hope and believe it has influenced us to publish more broadly than we might otherwise do. For example, I know that our two science editors are both living in different national contexts than me and thus seeing different stories in the media and their everyday lives. Arianne is in the UK and Mark is in South Korea, and while I know the time zone difference can make communicating difficult, I think there’s value in having diverse standpoints. Our translation editors have for the most part been people living outside of the US, and I have seen firsthand how that affects what they curate.

ROOM: The Offing publishes creative writing in all genres and art in all media. Is there anything you wouldn’t consider for publication?

CPW: I was going to say at this point I wouldn’t consider music, but as I started to type that I realized that this was false! If Samora Pinderhughes came to us and said he was interested in sharing work similar to his recent EP, I would absolutely consider that literary, even though it is being sold as jazz in mp3 form. 

This probably wasn’t the intention of the question but obviously, we are not interested in being purveyors of racism, transphobia, and other -isms and -phobias, so I would like to think that insofar as we are competent to recognize discriminatory work, we wouldn’t consider it for publication. Milo Yiannopoulos would never get a publishing contract with us.

ROOM: What is the most common “mistake” you find writers make when submitting to The Offing? Any examples?

CPW: I personally find it annoying when it’s clear that someone’s work hasn’t been copyedited carefully and it’s fraught with unintentional typos. We have to put our time into reading it, so people should respect us enough to send us something carefully put together. With other departments, it doesn’t look great when the person clearly didn’t think carefully about whether the department was a good match for their work. I know some of our departments are unusual, which is why it’s good to read what is published in them to get a feel for the types of works they look for.

ROOM: The writing you publish can be described as “experimental” and you also focus on publishing writers who are often marginalized in literary spaces. You mentioned that these two things have been conflated before. Why do you think that is and what does that reveal about how writing “from the margins” is received in the literary world?

CPW: Right now it’s very obvious that marginalized voices are considered by the mainstream publishing industry to be experimental and risky. This is problematic for obvious reasons but also represents an ontological bind: are we by definition experimental because of this? A corollary to this is the idea that marginalized writers will offer something different than the more amply represented and therefore “more traditional” white, male literary figure. I’m torn. I actually do believe that there is epistemic value in dehomogenizing the voices that we hear from. I do believe that this changes the nature of the work. But I recognize that not everyone sees it that way, and many of us did not volunteer to be part of “changing the conversation.” In my work as a theoretical physicist, I wanted to be known as a good theoretical physicist, not as a barrier-breaking queer Black woman in particle physics. Nonetheless, I am, and I do think it influences the way I engage science praxis. That may not be true for everyone. Ultimately, I think it’s okay to say that we like to publish boundary-pushing work, whatever form that takes. Recently our associate poetry editor Luther Hughes has really clarified for me the importance of publishing writers who haven’t had a chance within the literary establishment. Whether or not they sound like Jane Austen, giving the unheard a space to shout their language pushes boundaries. 

ROOM: What is the most rewarding experience you have had publishing work by and about those marginalized in literary spaces?

CPW: I worked closely with Stacy Parker Le Melle and guest editor/advisor board member Khadijah Queen on A Hashtag, A Movement, A State of Mind: Black Artists and #BlackLivesMatter, and I am extremely proud of that work. It is the only work I have solicited for The Offing, and Stacy spent a summer interviewing Black writers for it. I am really proud of how it turned out, and I think it offered a unique perspective on #BlackLivesMatter that I haven’t seen elsewhere. In the process, I got to know both Khadijah and Stacy, and I value what I have learned from them immensely.  

ROOM: The Offing went through a big transition this year—separating from the LA Review of Books, changing its editor-in-chief (to you). In what ways has this impacted your approach to submissions and contributors to the journal?

CPW: I don’t think we’ve changed our approach to submissions and contributors very much, although I suppose others might say that we have oriented toward working even more through a race justice framework where combating anti-Blackness (among other things) is central. Perhaps the biggest external change is that we’ve added a science-ish department, Back of the Envelope. We’re the first literary journal to have a science department, so that’s a departure from the ways The Offing broke barriers when we were a channel of LARB. 

ROOM: Why do you think it’s important to remain a volunteer-based organization, with unpaid board members?

CPW: Actually, my ideal is that our editors be paid, and that is a goal that I always have in the back of my head when I’m thinking about our financial situation, what we might want grants for. Our staff represents people who experience a multiplicity of marginalizations, along gender, sex, race, sexual orientation, and disability axes. As much as possible they are exactly the people who should be compensated for doing the hard work of elevating voices that are often ignored and forms that others are afraid to touch. We don’t have the funds for that right now, but I am constantly thinking about how to change that without fundamentally changing what we do.

Separately, I believe more that people should not be paid to be members of our board primarily because it limits liability, but also because the work is essentially done entirely by editors. (All of the voting members of our governing board are editors, so in my ideal world they would be paid—for their editing work.) 

ROOM: Have you had any negative feedback about charging for submissions to certain genres? (We did at Room and ended up cancelling our submission fees.)

CPW: I know in the past people have not been happy about this, and I have mixed feelings about it. But at this point we can’t afford not to because Submittable annual fees are not cheap. (And overall it’s a great service!) I think we’ve found a livable compromise which is that there are instructions on our Submittable page on how to submit for free for people who feel that the $3 fee is a hardship that would otherwise prevent them from submitting. (We only keep $1.86 of this, by the way.) I looked into cheaper alternatives to Submittable and there really isn’t anything else manageable out there. In my ideal world though we have such great funding sources that we can take submissions for free. 

ROOM: You’re a theoretical physicist, an activist, and a lit mag editor. What is something you’ve learned from one discipline that affects how you look at another?

CPW: I edit my physics research writing totally differently now! I think I am more critical and therefore better. I also think now that when I am managing my own research group, it will seem less daunting because managing a staff of about 30 editors has taught me a lot about leadership and keeping things going. As an outsider who hadn’t really been involved in editing since being on my high school newspaper and literary magazine (a zine, really), I didn’t appreciate the managing skills that a managing editor or an editor in chief needs. But so much of what we do is the business end so that the content curators don’t have to think so much about that stuff. I get that as a professor in science (one day soon, I hope) I will be tasked with doing both, and I think I understand better now what those demands mean in practice.

I also think obviously I bring my social justice framework to everything we do. I’m constantly thinking about what groups are underrepresented on the staff, in our published works, and even our submissions. Definitely, I am always adapting what I learned from thinking about this in a scientific context to what it means in a literary context.

ROOM: How does the term “diversity” differ or compare between these disciplines?

CPW: I think in the literary world it is much more widely accepted that diversity of people equals diversity of ideas. In science, this can be controversial. Some scientists from traditionally underrepresented groups want to be recognized as being no different in thought from the white men who have traditionally populated the field. I do work in philosophy of physics, and my research in that area is premised on the idea that your standpoint does matter, so I don’t subscribe to the idea that minoritized people won’t bring something different to the table. But I also see why people have that perspective, and maybe I am wrong!

ROOM: What other literary journals do you read? Any recent issues you read that you found exciting?

CPW: I am super excited about Luther Hughes’s new QTPOC poetry journal the Shade Journal, which is currently accepting submissions for its second issue. Luther is not only a phenomenal poet, he also has a keen eye and an interesting agenda for changing the literary scene. Similarly, I’ve been into Anthropoid, which I think shares in common The Offing’s vision for pushing boundaries with form and content. Their issue 2 had so much great stuff in it, including some especially incredible writing by women of color. 

I also do enjoy keeping up with more traditional venues like The Walrus and London Review of Books (a long time fave).

Rachel Thompson is the former Managing Editor at Room and a current editorial board member. She teaches a course about getting published in literary magazines through her project, LitWriters.co.

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