Roomie and fellow writer Chelene Knight asks Nailah King and Christina Cooke a few questions about their writing experiences, what it means to them to be editing a Women of Colour issue, and their advice for all those Women of Colour who are struggling with whether or not to submit to Room. Nailah King is a lover of pop culture, gifs, and literature. She is an alumnae from UBC in English Literature and is now co-editing issue 39.1 Women of Colour. She is currently working on a web-series, a novel, and retaining her sanity. Nailah was the co-fiction editor of 37.2 Expanding the Voice and co-editor of 37.1 Fashion, Trend, and Personal Style. Christina Cooke is co-editing 39.1 with Nailah. She holds both Bachelor and Master degrees in English Literature with a Prose Writing focus. Her fiction, poetry, and creative non-fiction has appeared in various publications both within and beyond Canada. Christina also edited 37.4 Claiming Space. (Photos: Co-Editors Nailah King and Christina Cooke.)
Room: Not only are you both editors of Room’s upcoming Women of Colour issue, but you are both writers. What do you feel inspires your writing, be it other writers, books, movies, life experience etc.? What makes you say, “Ok yea, I need to write, NOW”?
Nailah: I have to say I’m influenced and inspired by many things and those inspirations are interdisciplinary. In terms of writers I’d have to say Toni Morrison and Gabriel Garcia Marquez are the most influential on my writing style. Magical Realism I find to be a style of writing that works best for me, and one that I find to be empowering. Visual Art, Music, Popular Culture and the Internet are also great sources of inspiration. I’m a child of the internet and writing online on Livejournal (if anyone remembers that site) definitely changed how I saw writing and spaces appropriate for writers.
These days, Tumblr I find to be a particularly good source for art in general. It has its foibles but generally I find it to be an inclusive space, particularly when you identify as a woman of colour or occupy “alternative” categories. Much of mainstream media excludes women of colour so nothing is more empowering than seeing work from people who look like me. My mom is also a great source of inspiration as she used to tell me stories about the characters (or caricatures depending on your point of view) on her street in Barbados. Finally, moving to Toronto has been really influential. I totally get why Drake is constantly rapping about it now.
Christina: I'm gonna be honest: I hate these sorts of questions. As a writer, it's near-impossible to avoid conversations around unearthing what makes us tick (which too often acts as a sheep's clothing for "so tell us about your feelings"). Writers are not mythological creatures. We are not gods nor are we the special snowflakes the hype around the industry makes us out to be. We're people doing a job. If you happen to know a writer's name from something they wrote that you liked - gosh, that must mean they're doing their job well.
So what inspires me to write? The same things that inspire anyone who completes a job set out before them day after day. Some days it's because I need to eat. Some days it's because an editor/deadline told me to. And some days it's in pursuit of a singular vision, a frenzied attempt to actualize something I see lacking in the world.
Room: Nailah, what is it about Toronto you find inspiring? Is it the people? The feel? How the city supports writers?
Nailah: I feel like I have to tread lightly with this question since I’m from Vancouver. I find you can get a lot of vitriol for being from the west coast and actually enjoying Toronto. Though, there is definitely a different feeling if you move to say, New York. Somehow that is seen as a more legitimate move for a writer, which says a lot I think about how people view Canadian Literature.
I have had the opportunity to interact with on a larger scale with writers of colour here, which has been really affirming as a woman of colour. I didn’t really have that growing up or in those formative stages of becoming a writer. For me the move has created a greater sense of pride for who I am: a black woman who is an artist. I’d have to also say, for me it’s the feel. It’s definitely a lower pressure environment. I don’t have to like Yoga, or be into running. More importantly, I don’t feel pressure to consolidate my identities. I’m Caribbean and Canadian, among many other things, all at the same time. The ability to embrace all of our identities at once, freely, makes for stronger writing.
Room: Can you tell us a bit about your experiences as a Woman of Colour when it comes to writing and sending out your own work?
Christina: When I sit down to write, I don't think of myself as being "of colour." Hell, I don't even think of myself as a "woman". I'm just Christina, holding a pen. When I send out a story, however, I go through the opposite process: I'm acutely aware of myself as being a "woman" "of colour." My stories feature non-white female characters. Eventually, whoever's assessing my story may start to wonder if I'm a non-white woman too. None of that would give me reason to worry if it weren't for how "women" "of colour" are negatively treated in the world today.
It's important to underscore again and again that these sorts of gendered and racial classifications have been forcibly placed on people by the societies we live in to keep some of us in our place. So when I send out a story, it's like watching a balloon deflate into the dark night: because of my position as a "woman" "of colour", my chances of reaching publication start to decrease from the moment I click "Send". But I keep doing it anyway. Because I'm stubborn, borderline masochistic, and stupidly hopeful that if another woman further on in my family line decides to be a writer too, her balloons will float for miles before losing an ounce of air.
Nailah: I think that’s a good point, Christina. Categories or names that can be inclusive for some can be exclusive for others. I still think there is a good community around women/people of colour classifications, though.
As for my own experience as a writer of colour, to be honest, I just started sending out my work. My experience has been limited but positive. I definitely recommend to anyone submitting that they research the editorial boards and content of any magazine or journal you hope to see your work in.
It definitely will improve your chances of your work being published. Writing as a woman of colour, I’m definitely influenced by oral tradition. I remember being a little girl and being told stories about the colourful characters living on my mother’s street. They were all told in a very descriptive way because people had to be entertained and as such storytelling is a much-revered skill in Caribbean culture. For me how a story is told guides my writing. Thanks, Mom.
Room: As we all know, writing is subjective. “Good” writing doesn’t look the same for all editors so what are you looking for in a good Room Women of Colour submission?
Nailah: I’m lucky enough to surround myself with frankly, some weird people. My constant refrain to my friends is “I just heard the craziest story!” I love hearing something that I have never heard before. Truth is stranger than fiction as they say. Anything unconventional really excites me. I don’t necessarily mean in an experimental way, but either taking a typical or rather, familiar narrative and turning it on its head, or combining a weird or impossible series of events, to me makes for interesting literature. I love compelling characters, rich descriptions, and poetic language. I love to read something unique.
Christina: Polished writing, whatever that looks like for you.
Room: Why do you think it’s important for Room to have a Women of Colour issue? What kind of impact do you think this will have on readers and future submitters?
Christina: Because every issue before 39.1 has implicitly been The White Women issue. Be mad at me, if you want, for saying it, but that doesn't make it any less true. There have been issues with non-white authors as the featured writer, sure. Or other issues with a few pieces from non-white contributors, absolutely. But when was the last time an issue of Room featured predominantly non-white contributors in all 91 pages?
Put another way: when has an issue of Room flipped the usual racial disparity and made the submission from a white author, instead of one from an Indigenous or black author, into the Token Diversity Piece? Again: be mad, etc., etc., but it's freaking 2015. It's time we paid something more than lip service to correcting inequality.
Nailah: I struggle so hard with this question despite having posed it many times to many people. The fact that this is even a question given recent VIDA stats, and frequent testimony from women of colour that they do not feel as though there are inclusive spaces for them, are several reasons to have a women of colour issue.
I’ve talked to several women of colour excited to be in the issue because it seems like such rare opportunity. That makes me kind of sad but I’m also glad to be able to provide that kind of space. The impact, I hope, would be that this issue would give women of colour confidence to keep continuing submitting to Room to ensure that the magazine stays diverse well beyond 39.1.
Room: What can Room and other magazines do to ensure they consistently provide space for racialized folks and other marginalized groups?
Nailah: I’ve heard a lot of magazines and publishers lament about how they simply “don’t know” any writers of colour, which I do not believe. Change has to come from within an organization. I think if magazines want diverse content they need to diversify their editorial boards, and contest judges.
Room definitely started from a less inclusive place, as Christina already pointed out. As the collective diversified, grew and changed, so did our content, and I’m finding just from speaking to folks at events, more women of colour are interested in the magazine, and submitting to it. That said, it is a direct result from our outreach efforts to the communities we want to reach. The outreach is something that has to be continual, in order to be consistent.
Christina: Before any conversations around increasing inclusivity can begin, there needs to first be an acknowledgement of the current lack of inclusivity within the literary world, and the roles major magazines play in perpetuating that oppressive environment. It saddens me to see how many organizations can’t bring themselves to master that basic first step.
Like Nailah said, many organizations use the excuse of not knowing any writers of colour to shirk the responsibility of changing the status quo. But quite frankly, you don’t need to know us in order to publish us. You don’t need to be able to “find yourself” (i.e. find something relatable to whiteness) in order to accept a piece as strong and legitimate. What is required, in my opinion, is an openness beyond liberal double-speak (i.e. reveling in discussing race theory, but standing dumbfounded when confronted with a racialized person). If blackness is something you struggle to understand, be honest with yourself and others about that fact. From there, seek out the resources necessary to broaden your understanding (books, articles, anti-oppression workshops, etc. Google is your oyster). But don’t just take that information and pat yourself on the back. Seek out actual people of colour and include them at every level of the field: as writers, editors, critics, and consumers. Real people will always have additional bits of wisdom that haven’t yet made their way to books. But most importantly, never become complacent. Never stop trying. There’s no way we can completely undo centuries of trauma with a few new friends and spiffy new books.
Room: Could Room benefit from another women of colour issue in the future?
Christina: Yes, though my hope is that Room (and the publishing world at large) will eventually reach a place where specialized issues around identifiers such as race or sexuality will seem silly: there’ll be so many women of colour fluidly finding homes for their work in journals like Room that dedicating an issue to only them will be seen as an extravagance. But we’re not there yet, not even close. So till then, issues like 39.1 will help to fill the void.
Nailah: Yes! I hope to have another iteration of this type of issue in the future. Again, as Christina already pointed out, there are significantly fewer women of colour only issues in this history of this magazine.
My hope is that woman of colour continue to submit regardless of theme, but I think devoted issues in the future could only benefit Room, and give us a chance to discover, nurture and provide a space for emerging writers of colour.
Room: What advice would you give that woman thinking about submitting to this issue, but isn’t sure if she should?
Nailah: It can be scary to put your work out there, but when you submit there’s at least a chance to be published, but when you don’t there is none. I think it is an opportunity to be a part of a great issue in an even better magazine. Then of course, research the editors (if you haven’t already), and to read the issues.
Christina: Do it. The only thing you've got to lose is less than the cost of an americano and a few minutes of your time (unless you're a white woman, in which case: don't do it. Save that shiny submission for 39.2).
Room welcomes writing and art about the experience of being racialized, dealing with racial discrimination, grappling with representation, defining one’s identity or identities, lost and reclaimed histories, as well as stories about loss, love, heartbreak, and triumph from Women of Colour until July 31, 2015.