Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Marginalized Writers vs. Marginalized Voices

One of the first questions to come up in the Submission Bombers group was "How do you define marginalized?" At first I was irked because I didn't want everyone to get weighed down with spiraling political discussions that won't have a resolution. However, after I got over my deep-seated fear of debates, (what if I say something wrong!? what if I sound stupid?!! what if I forget how to spell words?!?!) I knew it was important to discuss this topic. Since, you know, the whole basis for the group is to help the marginalized.

I started with definitions. The dictionary is usually a good starting point, even if the definition is problematic, it gives people a framework to push on and examine. Here's a few:
The first definition included a few nouns that articulate my evolving definition of marginalization as it applies to writing, but first a bit about editing.

I started my lit mag, Weave, with the intent of showing off the diverse voices of my peers and mentors. I solicited a lot of women. People outside of academia. People who didn't call themselves writers, but who wrote the occasional poem. It was important to me that we be as diverse as possible and to feature at least half women. Last year I created a Google Form for my contributors about their demographic (and other) information. I realized that we were doing really well in certain areas: more than half of our contributors are female writers, a large percentage of LGBT writers, and a handful of emerging writers. Areas in need of improvement were writers of color and writers of age (Weave is mostly white, with the next largest racial demographic being Asian/Pacific Islanders; we also lean heavily toward writers under 35).

I wondered, how do I improve in these areas without wandering into affirmative action territory? The only solution I'd come up with was to advertise Weave in journals that feature only people of color. But, should it matter whether a black writer or an octogenarian wrote this poem or that story? It's about birds! That doesn't have much to do with their race or age. Besides, what I really care about is the writing itself. Is the writing solid, nuanced, boundary-pushing? Is it discussing topics we don't see addressed that often? Is this a story that we haven't heard yet?

Then I began to think, does marginalization mean minority? Are they synonymous? That seemed wrong, because at some point it gets exclusive, rather than inclusive. By that theory, a young, white, able-bodied, heterosexual, middle-class male would not be allowed in Submission Bombers. It felt weird to draw the line somewhere and say, "You aren't welcome here!" Mary Stone Dockery, a lovely poet, who's been helping me promote and motivate the Submission Bombers, had some great points to make about marginalization and minority status:

I don't think marginalized is synonymous for minority. When I think of "margainalized voices," it makes me think of anyone who has a particular kind of writing style, or ...who writes [about] certain subject matter, and [their words] not being out there for everyone to read, or this kind of writing is suggested as only for a particular kind of publication (for example, writing about women is only for women's magazines). So, to me, a margainalized voice is one who has something to say that's different somehow, or someone saying something in a different way and who rarely gets the chance to be heard.

I was hesitant at first. If the writer's (gender) identity isn't what's marginalize, but rather her voice, the writing, why all the fuss about numbers? What's the point of the VIDA count? And if it does matter, shouldn't we be counting everyone? If the writer's gender matters, why wouldn't other things such as race, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, ability, age, etc. matter? But those numbers aren't as easy to obtain. (Neither is gender, for that matter, though we can make assumptions based on names. Anyone know how VIDA gets their numbers? I've always been curious).

Eventually I began to sway. To bring my point back around to that first definition, the discussion should be about our concepts or ideas. Obviously it's about the writing. We (editors) say this all the time, but before, in the back of my mind I couldn't reconcile the part gender plays in the writing itself. And helping women is important to me. Sometimes gender is addressed in our writing. Some of the time, it's not. At times, a writer of color tells a story that deals with race. Sometimes a writer who's a grandparent writes poems about grandparenting. Sometimes a writer who is blind writes an essay about living without sight. But those same people also write about other things. And maybe they write about them in new and fresh ways. Maybe not. But as an editor, I want to publish new voices writing about new ideas/experiences AND publish high quality writing. I'm not going to publish a story about erections just because a queer person wrote it and I need to up my stats (unless of course, the story nuanced and fresh, though, erections are rarely subtle). But I'd publish a well-written, compelling poem about single parenthood or mental illness by a young, white, able-bodied, heterosexual, middle-class male. Those subjects interest me and, quite frankly, their gender and all of the other labels shouldn't matter. The writing matters most.

So as writers, how does this affect us? Obviously our identities affect our writing and its themes, subject matter, structure, syntax, etc. These areas often overlap. But I think when we talk about being marginalized as writers, we're really talking about the marginalization of our voices, our ideas, our words. Or, at least we should be. Sometimes our words directly address our marginalization; after all, our writing is a part of us. But not the whole of us. And if we writers let the part of us that is marginalized keep us from saying what's on our mind, they truly nothing will change.

I think the VIDA count is one piece of the puzzle, but certainly not the whole. And since we can't count every part of us that gives us "marginalized" status, maybe counting isn't the answer. Perhaps it's time to stop counting and start writing. And when we're done writing, we must turn off all those voices in our minds that tell us, "Who's going to care about this story or that poem?" because we all can come up with a million reasons not to send our work out into the world. We must refuse to accept the marginalization of our voices and shut off the noise. Because we only need to listen to one voice - our own voice that whispered the words we've written down, labored over, tweaked and edited and rewritten. That voice deserves to be heard. So what if 20 journals reject you? Take their feedback and constructive criticism into consideration if you want, show it to a friend, workshop it some more, polish the rough edges and send it back out there.  Because you put those words on paper for a reason. Trust your own creative impulse. Don't allow yourself to merely count from the margins and instead say, "Listen to me!" Make us listen. Tell us what you have to say.
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