By Leslie Caton
It’s Pride month! Instead of changing my profile pic to a rainbow, I’m going to talk about diversity in writing.
Diversity is an important concept in every system from microbiomes to our society. In the U.S., we used to think it meant “not just white,” which was a start. The dialogue in our country progressed from being ethnically- and racially-minded (I’ll use the race concept since it still holds a lot of weight around here) to include non-hetero sexualities, and most recently we’re thinking about gender in new (to many of us) ways. Cool. So, some (maybe most?) of us want spaces that are populated with people that aren’t just white, hetero, misters or misses. Why? Because it makes us better. Do a google search for “study proves diversity” and that sentence is finished with a long list of findings showing diversity makes us smarter, more productive, and more financially successful. When we’re around people who aren’t like us, we think differently, are challenged to find common ground, and are exposed to new ideas. We need diversity to grow.
When I was in school, we devoted a lot of time to discussing the white male-dominated cannon. Oh BOY did we dissect Faulkner and Conrad’s racism. Yet while the literary academics poo-pooed sticking to classics, something weird was happening in the graduate writing classes.
Men, white men, were deciding that there should only be so many “trauma stories” in circulation, which meant almost every woman’s coming-of-age narrative. There should only be a few black writers in the mix because they focused too heavily on “social justice.” Non-binary writers seemed to be expected to write about their gender performance first and foremost. And we had special classes for writers from other countries; they didn’t belong with the rest of the bunch.
What woman in the U.S., a country that’s ranked third most dangerous for sexual violence against women in the world by the Thompson Reuter’s Foundation (yes, really), can write about life without any instance of trauma? What black writer can write about life in the U.S. and not mention their experience with race, which affects almost everything for all of us from big systems to relationships to view of self? When does a trans person get to just exist, without their very being called to question? And I didn’t mention other people of color and tons of other groups of folks who have important things to say about the world but are pushed away. There was a place for these marginalized voices, but it was most definitely still in the margins, paraded out when it felt convenient and in small doses.
It seemed obvious that by starting a literary magazine from scratch, we wouldn’t have a slush pile (submissions) dominated by straight, white, male voices. [I will pause here to say I feel compelled to add some version of “I don’t hate white men,” or convince readers that I think straight white male voices are a welcome and crucial part of our dialogue. But I won’t, because I want to challenge the idea that expecting someone not to dominate a conversation is an insult or a dismissal.] But as we read, and the word got out, and more people submitted, we realized we get more submissions from presumably white men than any other demographic. Why?
This is all speculative, and if it’s muddying the waters or I’m part of the problem, by all means call me out. I need it sometimes.
I think it has to do with acceptance. I think men are more sure their work is worth looking at. I can’t count the women who’ve told me they want to submit but won’t because their work just isn’t good enough, and non-binary and non-white people are even more reluctant. I wonder if that’s because in our America, they’re not practiced at putting themselves out there without the potential for horrible repercussions. Fear of rejection is one thing; fear of violence is another.
Oh, man, do I want to make things safer.
If it really is a history of fear and violence and repression that stops us from hitting that send button on a piece of writing, then I can encourage and coax and push all day long and it won’t change anything. I can say “it’s cool, just go for it, SUBMIT” all day long and it won’t erase a lifetime of, or even a few scarring incidents, of bullshit.
So maybe I, and the other editors at Backchannels, can do a little better--we can prove it. We can’t accept all works. But we can read and appreciate, send some love your way, and be truly grateful that you trust us with your work. We can make a safe space. We want your heartfelt essays about being a woman. We want men’s photos of your world through a lens you’re not so sure about yet. We want poems from trans guys about birds and not one word about gender identity (unless you want it). We want to know what it’s like to be an immigrant. We want stories about being a black girl in Iowa or a gay human in Sudan even if, especially if, it keeps us up at night. Give us the fuel to make this thing happen right. If we don’t treat you right, let us know--we’ll listen.
And until we can just accept each other as we are all the time, Happy Pride.