BackRoom: Extended Interview with Hush Harbour Press

Interview by Isabella Wang

ROOM: Hello Alannah and Whitney! Thank you so much for taking the time out to talk with me today. First off, I wanted to send my congratulations, for seeing Hush Harbour Press off its feet! Would you like to begin by telling me about your initial visions of this press? What did you feel was lacking in the contemporary publishing industry, that compelled you, in turn, to contribute this space that will allow for championing of Black queer feminist authors?

WF: So this press has just been a beautiful, growing dream in the sense that it is something that I personally have been thinking about or dreaming about, hoping to happen. And then, as me and Alannah, and so many other amazing supporters and Black folks are excited to join us on this journey, the dream is just expanding. When you are talking about what’s lacking in the contemporary publishing industry, oomph. Honestly, I have the answer that I usually give, but I’m a facilitator as well as an educator. So last night I taught a class—a program for BIPOC folks, BIPOC writers, and we had a really beautiful post-workshop conversation and one of the participants was asking questions:  “Is my work too narrow? Is my work too niche?” And it was very heartbreaking hearing that because somewhere along the lines of wanting to write and wanting to publish, voices, and gatekeepers, and white folks, and industry leaders, have told this student that their stories are not important. And it is just so hard as a teacher, facilitator, and a writer myself who is trying to create space for stories like mine and stories and others. It is just really heartbreaking to hear that response and already believing that their work is too small or niche or narrow, that really does speak to what [the industry] is lacking *deep breathe in*. And it is not that it isn’t there; me and Alannah talked about how we are not super worried that there isn’t a plethora of talent in this country—there is! I think the thing about the industry is like many industries that have been running for a while, particularly, like Canadian Literature: very often folks are used to what has worked in the past and that time is not very useful or friendly to Black folks at all. Alannah, do you want to speak to that?

AJ: I echo everything. When we talk about Black futures, we are inspired to imagine what that looks like, who’s going to be there, how are we sustaining these burgeoning futures, especially during this time where it kind of feels like there has been a shift in the world at large, and particularly to the Black folks within that narrative. It just felt right that we created a platform and space for us to bring folks along to the future, and to interrogate systems, dismantle them and rebuild them with a separate foundation that is then building on harm, or trauma. *Whitney snaps fingers* Our focus is not to just replicate, but dismantle and reimagine this future. It’s going to take time, it’s going to take patience, it’s going to take air, it’s going to take all these things and we are invested in that.

WF: Shoutout to [Isabella’s] cat who’s just like, yeaahhh! Dismantle! *collective laughter*

Right? Because I think a part of this work as well is understanding what you denounce so that you don’t replicate trouble. For us, that work then lies in the fact that we literally need to interrogate, we need to be present and look up these systems for what they are. Find like, what does that look like for us? Then set the build. And it’s not a linear build, right? That’s where we are at.

ROOM: What you are both saying here reminds me so much of what I’m reading: Pheng Cheah’s “What is a World? On World Literature as a World-Making Activity,” where he talks about writing as not merely a representation of the real-world but an imaginative process allowing us to revision alternative spaces and systems to come into place. But so often these days, I find, that what I read in theory, it is in the literary community, working with other writers, or in instances like these where I’m talking with you, that I see these approaches being enacted in real life.

WF: Ya, it’s really important to not just theorize, but to practice and make mistakes. Making mistakes are also part of the process. It’s about imagining and saying, oops! Maybe that imagining isn’t going to work!

AJ: We talk a lot about Afrofuturism, in the spirit of Octavia Butler. That work and what I got from that particular genre, earlier on, in my teenage-days, was that to imagine Black futures was a revolutionary act in itself. So, when we speak about this process, it’s not linear, we are imagining something that’s never been done before. So that’s where it’s at—the praxis comes into place. We are dreaming and we are theorizing. What does that look like in practice? And that also lends to the notion of liberation. When you talk about it, it’s like this theoretical thing. But when it comes to the framework and practice, it’s a whole new world.

WF: A WHOLE n’other thing!!

AJ: Liberation has not been something we’ve been born into. I just wanted to add that bit because I think it’s important and I think a lot of people get hung up on that—when we are starting this off, a lot of people have questions, and so do we! We also have questions and we are also curious, and we are also working towards building this press up. But we don’t have all the answers and that’s okay.

WF: Mhmmm! Two really quick things, because that’s what happens with this starburst thing: you say something and I get excited and then I say something and you get excited . . . One: for me, when you are talking about non-linear, I am constantly thinking about our ancestors and Black people on Turtle Island, I’m very sure, are the only peoples who have been oppressed in a particular way where they were not allowed to read. It was written into the laws.

AJ: Mhmm!

WF: Right? And we are starting this Black queer feminist press—that is science fiction! I just had to put that somewhere . . . Two: we are creating something new, but we are also creating something off of legacy. So, it’s really crucial and important to recognize the contributions of Sister Vision Press and the brilliance and work that came out from there as well. It’s really important, because I do find that we aren’t placing homage where homage is deserved. I wanted to speak to that and bring that up as well.

AJ: Ya, we are building.

ROOM: Starting an independent publishing press is not an easy feat. Especially in this time, against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, where many established presses are facing economic and other setbacks. But you weren’t in it for the easy, were you?

WF: Nooooooope! *laughter*

AJ: So, this is a great question, I just wanted to say, because a month of conversations leading up to this, we definitely spoke about the implications of perhaps, a COVID-19 recession and what does that mean for us? But we never internalized it like, we shouldn’t do this because this is happening right now. It was more so like, why not? And I think that is where the reset comes into place that I was telling to you before.

WF: *snaps fingers in the background*

AJ: Reimagining has definitely been a part of this whole period because all the structures, all the institutions looked to me in the world we were living in, has been unveiled to us through such a different way. And our Black lenses are particularly wide open to what is happening. I speak to that in terms of capitalism, right? like there is just so many conversations and there is so many insights about how capitalism does this thing we all abided to or fell into, however, not that for lack of a better word—now that the world is in “shambles”—how does who, what, where, the winners and losers, what are the players and stakeholders and all this, has definitely been more examined in this time. There are also so many instances where it is unveiled that we have no other choice—this generation, this particular bodies of people, have no particular choice. Choicelessness is happening. Why not? Why not start a press during COVID-19? What else do we have to lend to where we don’t go knocking on the doors of white, colonial institutions to be like, let us in? We know that is not going to save us, and even larger than that, capitalism is not going to save us in this Black life. So, I think for us, starting this press is making space, and also providing narrative to what is going on in Canada and also the Canlit scene. Definitely a reset in the world; a re-examining of our consciousness.

WF: That was AWESOME!!! I’m here for it! The gospel of Alannah Johnson has spoken!

AJ: We talk about ethical economics, and I know Whitney will go into this, but when I say we are reimagining a future where we are not going to knock on a door that’s not built for us, we no longer are invested in that. We need to tear down those doors.

WF: Well, this humble Aries only has a little bit to say after that. *laughter* When I think about the way that we are building this press, it comes back to the idea of Black futures—back to Octavia Butler’s work and her premise of that God is Change: that everything we touch, we change, and you know, you change everything that you change, touches you.. That is the only lasting truth. For me, this is massive. This pandemic is a massive change; a massive rupture; a massive awakening. What is the right word?  . . . It’s like a paradigm shift, and the work of [Butler] is so brilliant in the fact that she situates Black, primarily female or femme-gendered characters who will have full agency over themselves or some semblance of agency in spite of the post-apocalyptic world that they live in. For me, just as a reader, and for us as creators of this press, that is not only remarkably inspiring, but also it gives us tools. She talks about adaptability; she talks about pivoting; about how if God is Change, and if you are aware that change will come, how do we change and adapt? This has me thinking about in your question, how established presses are having a difficult time. And [while] I feel for them, what is their adaptability? How did they adapt to this?

AJ: And as Black-identifying women, we know about adaptability very well. *Laughter*

WF: Preach!!

AJ: Like, you know, we move. Adapting is part of this life, period.

WF: If we don’t move, we don’t continue.

ROOM: I just want to block quote everything you two are saying and put it at the very top. *Laughter*

AJ: I love that part about Octavia Butler, because it’s so true. Online, you know, they say that Octavia knew. That’s the line—Octavia knew. Octavia was writing a lot of these projections from the seventies. How is it still so relevant? But also have that lens to the future; there wasn’t necessarily a single investment right now in the present times looking to the future. I’m sending a warning basically.

WF: Nope! Not a prophecy. It’s a warning. There’s a difference.

ROOM: When you visit, the first you see (and hear) is a repository of voices by Black, queer authors, expressing first hand just how much it means to have a literary press like this. Let’s reverse the perspectives for a second. As gatekeepers, how important are their voices to you? What is the role of Black storytelling, in responding to the world as we know it, and in shaping the world in the future years to come?

WF: Ooooh! I have so many thoughts! First thing’s first, I love this question; however, I will gently push back the labelling as a “gatekeeper”. I think we are more like door stoppers . . . or like the wedged thing that keeps the door open? *laughter*

ROOM: I like that!

WF: What’s the word? Like a door wedge?

AJ: A door stopper works too.

WF: Aw! We are so cute! We keep the door open!

AJ: So cute!

WF: Ya, I would say, we are publishing and we are aware of power dynamics in the world at large, and aware of power dynamics within our press and figuring out creative and ethical ways to de-center that power. We are also aware that in the literary world, we have been taught that the industry gives us a yes and no as writers. Something really interesting that I like to talk about with Alannah, but also with my students, is that the writer has a lot more power than we think we have. Because without the writer, the storyteller, without the griot, these industries cease to exist. I also want to gently challenge that idea of gatekeeper as well. Definitely, there are gatekeepers that allow certain stories to be published and widely distributed, and other stories to be suppressed and silenced. However, there is a lot of power in creating stories and a lot of choice:  choosing the press you choose to go with, choosing an agent you wish to represent you, and choosing whether or not you want to even engage with the industry here or an industry elsewhere. So that is like my little love letter to writers as well, that the gatekeepers will not stop you from telling your story if you deeply believe in it yourself. Bringing it back to Hush Harbour now, good gosh! What is the role of Black storytelling in responding to the world? To me, it’s everything!

AJ: A lifeline!

WF: It is the lifeline! And the thing is, Black folks have gone through many apocalypses before. We do not have the proper language to fully understand what happened during the transatlantic slave trade, what happened before and also what has continuously happened afterwards, right? This post-traumatic stress/slave disorder—there is no language for that. And that is a type of apocalypse that needs to be recognized. It’s a type of genocide. It’s a type of so many different words that needs to be honoured. And also needs to be reckoned with. And in the world, [when] we are thinking of mass destruction, when we are thinking about futures, Black folks got it.

AJ: These questions are probing questions, if that makes sense. They really open up so much more. [Whitney], I really loved what you said about this notion of rupture, and I wanted to also speak to the fact that there is no reversal. *Whitey snaps fingers* There is no going back, no reversal to that. And so, in the larger context of this, yes, the world has shifted and changed, and there has been this reset. What we’ve known in the past is only going to make a guiding map, and a road map for the future. Because it’s set, already happened. There is no reversal. And I guess that goes back to the question of adaptability and how we move. I don’t want to situate Black lives and pain and suffering as a foundation for building the future, but it’s definitely there. And so when it comes to actually creating life for ourselves, there are those aspects of pain and suffering where we are working beyond that. And storytelling is the lifeline to that, right? Like we know our past trauma, our present as precarious, and then our future as expansive as possibility.
WF: Yes, yes! And I also want to jump on the idea of what do these voices mean to us? As a press receiving those voices? And the sacredness of receiving those voices. And don’t know if you want us to tell you about the process.

ROOM: It’s funny. I had also wanted to ask you about process!

WF: We contacted like fifty Black folks who we believed we were connected to, who we had personal relationships with, and who we believed had already done a lot of work around the intersections of Blackness and feminism and queerness and creativity and art and literature . . . and just asked the simple question: What does a Black queer feminist press mean to you? And that is also a big part of Hush Harbour’s allegiance to community. We must ask community what they need. We can’t just be on our high hunches and just put out the work that we love. We have to put out the work that the community needs. We have to put out the content that Black folks need. Right here, right now. And I wanted to touch on the actual voices as well, because we could sit here and starburst until the cows come home, but we also have to be . . . not just accountable, but really committed to the voices of community.

AJ: And be responsive. it’s one thing to ask, but also propel that voice, [which] is also part of the work that we do and we are going to evolve through as a process.

WF: High five! *laughter*

AJ: Everyone, high five!

Hush Harbour is dedicated to the imagining of Black feminism in the tradition of Octavia E. Butler. We create and envision Black futures through literary and sonic storytelling with an emphasis on the revival of short fiction.

Room 43.4 TwineAmong the many nuanced stories within Black communities, Hush Harbour seeks to build a home for allour histories and create a platform beyond binaries and borders.  Our Black feminism must be readily available to the working class, the mother, the academic, the youth in transition, the cousin and everyone in between. We believe Black culture will heal us and storytelling is one step in the direction towards healing.

Please visit our website, to learn more about the press and ways to support at this time.

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Editor: Shristi Uprety
Assistant Editor: Ruchika Gothoskar
Shadow Editor: Tara Preissl
Cover Art: R.Y.B by Doan Truong

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Editor: Rachel Thompson
Assistant Editor: Ellen Chang-Richardson
Shadows: Melissa Barrientos, Lena Belova
Cover Art: Ebb from the Vestiges Series by Amy Friend

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