I’ve been on an interview kick, it seems. Peter Tieryas Liu queried me and Jennifer Derilo for an interview about our work as Kartika Review editors. So in between tasks involving caring for the baby (nap, feed, comfort, play, etc), I sat down and answered a few questions about what happens behind the scenes at Kartika with Jennifer for HTMLGiant. We discussed the slush pile, Asian American literature, and why we published what we publish.
Category Archives: Fiction Editor
The new Spring 2013 issue of Kartika Review is live! As the Fiction Editor, I’m particularly proud of the pieces by Wah-Ming Chang, Kaitlin Solimine, Anu Kandikuppa, and Sharon Hashimoto–though I’d like to also give a wink to my friend Jackson Bliss whose work is featured in the Creative Nonfiction section. And don’t miss our interview with the amazing Monique Truong.
VIDA* recently released its statistics on published work along gender lines in major literary magazines. If you haven’t heard by now, the results revealed that men dominate. By a mile. Consistently. Across all magazines. What ensued is a wave of dialogue about the disparities, one that VIDA* begins by saying:
“But as these facts come to light–no longer imagined or guessed at–so does the truth of publishing disparities, the unfortunate footing from which we can begin to change the face of publishing. We are no longer guessing if the world is flat or round; we are wondering how to get from point A to B now that the rules of navigation are public and much clearer. Questions long denied will lead us to new awareness, to challenge current publishing practices, and to query the merits of selection on the level of individual publications and review journals alike.”
The Southern Review’s Jeanne Leiby did a count of the litmag’s past publications (as well as its submissions). The count revealed a slight favor towards male writers…and the submissions reveal the same. The result? More questions than answers from Leiby:
“I’m pleased with these numbers, but I still have more questions than I have answers. I want to know why there isn’t parity in the slush pile. Are there simply more men writing? Or are there more men submitting? I’m seeking a way to see the larger landscape, the whole industry, the biggest picture possible to give context to what we’ve discovered. What are the percentages of women and men in undergraduate and graduate creative writing programs? Is there a break occurring someplace in the chain? What is the ratio of male to female literary agents? What is the ratio of female to male editors? Publishers? Does the gender of the editor or publisher have a direct correlation to the work she publishes? Some of these statistics shouldn’t be too hard to come by, and gathering the numbers is an important first step. VIDA has shown us that there is a problem. Now what can we do to fix it?”
Brevity also jumped into the discussion, with a concerned, but brief post about their most recent issue, raising again, more questions than answers to the issue of gender disparity.
And Kartika Review, the litmag for which I was Fiction Editor, did a quick count of all of our past issues: 49% of the published literary work was by male writers, and 51% of the work by female writers. We didn’t do a count of the submissions–we haven’t been tracking gender. Did we favor women? Or is this a reflection of our slushpile? Do Asian Pacific American women (for our litmag is an APA-focused litmag) submit more often? But then again, the slush pile isn’t all writing from Asian Pacific Americans–we’ve published a number of works written by non-Asian Americans, Kelly Luce and Jill Widner included.
As a litmag editor, I didn’t let gender or ethnicity sway my decisions–but I was still very conscious of each issue’s selections. Was there a balance between gender? I tried very hard to achieve that–sometimes going so far as to reach back into the slushpile to select an additional piece (but not replacing pieces) to do so. Was there equal representation between all the regions of the Asian diaspora? Though impossible to represent every region of Asia (Southeast Asian, South Asia, West Asia, East Asia….), I was conscious of representation throughout my tenure as Fiction Editor.
As Fiction Editor, I was also conscious of my position as a gatekeeper–a bouncer, if you may. We at Kartika Review are humble enough to fully admit that we’re not the “hot club” on the street–we’re the small, neighborhood dance club off the beaten path. The line outside our door may not be as long as those of other litmags. But–I was still a doorman/bouncer.
And I felt, many times, like the bouncer in “Knocked Up,” played with apologetic brillance by Craig Robinson, admitting the entrance system is unfair, “It’s not cause you’re not hot, I would love to tap that ass. I would tear that ass up. I can’t let you in cause you’re old as fuck. For this club, you know, not for the earth.”
Sometimes, I swear, I wish I could include that quote in my rejection letters from Kartika, which I
haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaated dreaded sending out. As a fellow writer, I felt like each rejection letter was a sucker punch sent out into the universe.
Editors and agents are gatekeepers. We have responsibilities to art (we have to pick the very best), and we also have social responsibilities (we have to be conscious of what our selections represent).
What few people, if any, are bringing up around the VIDA* count is that publishing does not only have gender disparity issues–I feel there are issues around race, too. (Yes, I’m going there). The awesome, always-keeping-it-real-who-can-now-add-Pulitzer-Prize-Winning-to-his-descriptors Junot Díaz, alluded to this issue of representation at AWP. In my friend Elizabeth Browne‘s AWP summary she admitted, “I giggled uncomfortably when Junot Diaz told us how white we were (‘there’s Boston white, and then there’s AWP white’).”
I love that VIDA* has opened the door to a dialogue that needs to begin in earnest. I love that VIDA* has opened the door wider to consciousness about gender disparity in publishing. That we have questions to answer. Important questions to answer. Because these questions might, and hopefully, lead to self-examination and revision of our processes. Because these questions will wake a publishing conscience.
But I think we must also apply these questions about equality to categories beyond gender. I am going to take the liberty of taking Jeanne Leiby’s thoughtful questions and add color:
“Are there people of color writing? Are writers of white European descent submitting more than people of color? What are the percentages of people of color and whites in undergraduate and graduate creative writing programs? Is there a break occurring someplace in the chain? What is the ratio of literary agents who are white to literary agents who are of color? What is the ratio of editors who are of color to editors who are white? Publishers? Does the ethnicity of the editor or publisher have a direct correlation to the work she publishes? If there is a problem…what can we do to fix it?”
I quailed before posting this–because I’m no activist in the realm of activists. But this is also an excellent opportunity to broaden the discussion. This is an excellent opportunity to DO something, even as my friend Margaret La Fleur uses these numbers to address HR3 (the “no taxpayer funding for abortion act,” not even for rape victims, not even when the mother’s life is at stake).
We all count.
When I first started writing my novel
eons ago, I wandered my novel’s terrain, unaware of its edges, allowing my character to explore his life and purpose. There are writers who don’t put down a single word until they outline, but that’s not me. I have to let my character wander, before I develop both the bigger picture and details to develop plot.
However, I’m also not someone who can complete a draft without an outline, either. At some point, after I began to see the landscape, I wrote an outline for my novel, with an ending in mind, and milestones in between.
I completed my first draft based on this outline and structure.
But even as I mostly followed the outline, I allowed myself (and my character) to detract from the pre-planned journey. There were (and are) times when my character led (leads) the way, and that’s when I feel the exhilaration that I seek as a writer. After all, part of a reader’s excitement and sense of surprise and delight with the text results from when the writer allows herself to be surprised and take delight in unexpected detours.
The things that changed the most, at least for me, were the endings of chapters. I don’t mind when this happens–I welcome it; I know the story has a life of its own when this happens. Even when the chapter concludes at an anticipated point in time, the mood might be different than previously imagined. Sometimes the character decides to do something different, thus affecting the ending point of a chapter. And because my novel isn’t yet finished and needs a few more revisions, there are chapters that don’t seem to end at all.
The endings of chapters are sometimes obvious, and sometimes intuitive. Sometimes the mood shift tells me that the chapter has ended. Sometimes, the character has achieved all he has set out to do, thus indicating a shift in story. Sometimes, the character defies the outline and ends up in an entirely different setting, and demands a new chapter.
I’ve said before that as much as I pour my life into my novel…my novel informs my life, too.
Sometimes, I am not sure when a chapter in my life has come to an end. It is only when I look back years later and recognize, “Ah, that was a point in my life when things shifted.” Meeting my husband falls under that category; I had no idea at that point in time that a new chapter had begun; only that I had met a tall, dark haired, olive skinned young man to whom I was drawn with unprecedented tractor-beam intensity. Would he be a blip on the radar or a lifelong commitment? There’s no way I could have known; I feel like stalkers are the only ones who insist that a person they barely know and just met is The One.
But sometimes a new chapter is immediately obvious in the way it presents changes in circumstances and setting and psychic change and shifts in responsibilities. Moving into my freshman dorm. Graduation from college. Starting my first job. Quitting my first job. Buying a house. Getting married. Being published for the first time. Starting an MFA. A death in the family. A health and writing setback in the form of a stroke.
In that vein, a new chapter’s about to begin for me. (No–I’mNotPregnant).
I had had no idea just a few months ago, that one minor change in my life would lead to a cascade of significant decisions. I’ve referred to these changes before, but now I can announce some of the changes.
The upcoming Fall/Winter 2010 issue of Kartika Review will be my last as Fiction Editor. (We’re about to put the issue to bed). I’ve really loved working with Kartika, but since finishing a 1st draft of my novel earlier this year, I’ve had nearly zero time to revise my novel between my two paying jobs, being Fiction Editor, and my personal commitments. Something had to change. I didn’t want to have to make a change, but after months and months of frustration, the “had to” overcame the “want to.” So I resigned to resign…wrote a resignation with resignation.
Since resigning, I’ve felt a bit of lightness, not the least of which was due to the fact that I had shed a responsibility in life and made more time for my novel. But I was also surprised at other reasons for this change in mood. I realized that it was an amazing experience, but that I’d been uncomfortable in the role of being the “arbiter” of fiction. Secretly, I wondered if I was creating horrible karma for myself. Ridding myself of this previously unrecognized dread was a surprising and good thing for my writing.
And so I was left with my teaching and my HR job and my novel. I spent all my spare time grading papers, but I love my students and am dedicated to them, so I didn’t want to/couldn’t shirk on my teaching responsibilities. I believe, as Sherman Alexie puts it in his essay, “Superman and Me,” that I am saving lives by teaching. And I have a deep commitment to my HR job, too, as dry as it seems to the outside world.
So I plodded on, trying to juggle responsibilities. My novel was suffering. I knew this. I had fantasies about writing residencies. Weeks and months went by as I wrote, thin-lipped and lock-jawed.
And then–out of the blue: a Deus Ex Machina. An unbelievable, sudden solution to a problem. A surprise offer involving a change in setting. Quick logistic calculations. A rushed decision. I’m changing my life’s setting for a few months.
I’m taking a leave from teaching Spring semester; I worked with my mentor and fellow staff so that an amazing teacher is taking my place for Spring term. I have arranged a community-oriented project (a culturally-focused cookbook with essays/paragraphs accompanying each recipe) in class that is both fun and a token by which to remember each other. I am doing this with a renewed, guilt-laced vigor. I feel awful, but exhilarated all at once.
My students in my Learning Community English class (some of whom I’ve worked with for 3 semesters straight) have been so sweet and loving and generous with their send-off. If I were them, I’d be unhappy that my teacher was ditching me after semester-end…but no, they’re wishing me well, and even the most stoic and ‘gangsta boys who sit in class with their black hoodies up over their heads have given me hugs and whispered good wishes.
And a change in physical setting further marks this life chapter shift. I’ll be in one of my favorite places in the entire world.
I’m nervous. I’m excited. I’m anxious. Despite how adventurous I may seem, I have a hard time dealing with change, even if the change is going to benefit me in uncountable ways. I am hoping for a smooth transition. As little stress as possible. Lots of happiness. Lots of productivity and creativity. A finished draft.
And I can’t help but think that perhaps the changes won’t end here–that perhaps more positive changes are to come, and if I keep being positive and keep working hard, my novel will benefit. Perhaps there will be more amazing and exhilarating and joyful deus ex machinas in my writing future.
I had no idea that one little change to drop a volunteer job would lead to such phenomenal changes in my life. I resigned as Fiction Editor to make more time to write and revise my novel and then…a stream of other developments and changes and decisions have made it such that I now have the time to truly focus on writing my novel.
…And start a new chapter.
Moral of story: make good changes in your life, even if seemingly small. They may lead to your dream scenarios.
Kartika Review‘s long awaited Spring 2010 issue is finally available for reading! I’m proud of the writers who are in this issue, one that features Meditations on Home by established APA voices, Elmaz Abinader, Peter Bacho, Alexander Chee, Justin Chin, Tess Gerritsen, Porochista Khakpour, Don Lee, Min Jin Lee, Yiyun Li, Ed Lin, David Mura, Shawna Yang Ryan, Lac Su, Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai, Thrity Umrigar, Sung J. Woo, and Bryan Thao Worra. We had a lot of fun putting this issue together.
Also in this issue is a writer, Peter Tieryas Liu, who happened to have appeared alongside me in Yomimono’s most recent issue #14. Total coincidence, but definitely a delightful one.
Not too long ago, I wrote a post about being a fiction editor at a litmag and specifically, about the deep regret I feel about rejecting writers with whom I empathize. I myself get several dozen rejection letters a year. It sucks. And being on the other side of the judging table makes rejection all the more complicated for me.
Today, Colleen Lindsay blogged about what NOT to do when you get a rejection from an agent, over at The Swivet. She gave a very specific example in the form of a response to a polite rejection letter she’d sent out. The letter goes like this:
Thank you for making it clear, through your response to my query, that you are unquipped (sic) to represent fiction writers who are working at the very highest level today.
Best of luck with your list of minor writers, third-rate writers, irrelevant writers, non-writers.
You lose, silly woman.
Do NOT write a “fuck you letter” to someone who rejects your work (unless you are Norman McLean after having written A River Runs Through It to critical acclaim, whose object of fury was the editor of the publishing house who “played games” with his first manuscript before thoroughly rejecting it).
And I have to say–I get “fuck you emails” at the litmag on a regular basis, despite the fact that I write personalized rejection letters that I make sure are polite and respectful of the writer. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth, and erases any regret I might have had in my decision.
I’d understand a “fuck you letter” if I accepted your piece, played mind games with you and your piece, and then ended up rejecting it anyway–but not when it’s a response to a polite, straightforward, rejection letter.
I’m the fiction editor over at Kartika Review, an Asian American litmag founded by Sunny Woan several years ago. I love my work there, which includes going through the slushpile of submissions, reading occasional snarky emails, sending out acceptance letters, working on special projects, and courting and then interviewing Famous Writers, most recently Chang-rae Lee and Nami Mun.
There is one thing I abhor: sending out rejection letters.
Just today, I sent out a big wave of rejection letters communicating, “Thank you but no thank you, and please don’t be disheartened and good luck,” albeit posed in kinder phrases to ease the blow. (Nothing eases the blow–and I know this firsthand). Now I’m ducking from the karma. I hate sending out rejections. I’ve been sending out rejections for over a year now as fiction editor, but I don’t want to reject stories. I want to fall in love with all of them and I want to be able to publish all of them.
This is what it’s like to be an editor, to be an Arbiter of Fiction, lobbing back the hopes of writers. Perhaps other editors love this position but being a fiction writer myself, there’s a part of me that is sickened by empathy.
And here’s the honest truth: sometimes after I send out a rejection letter, I experience a wave of self doubt. I think, “Crap. Maybe I should have accepted that one.” That is only followed by a massive internal scream that can best be described as, “Fuuuuuuuuuuuck!!!!!” (This “Fuuuuuuuuuuck!!!! is only beaten by the “FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK!!!!!” I hear when a brilliant piece is accepted by another litmag before I can accept it).
But in the end, I have to make choices. How much time will this piece take to be edited/revised to its full potential? Does it pierce my cold heart? Was my heart colder that day than another?
I email the writers whose work almost thawed my heart, to please submit again. And I hope they submit again.
(And as a writer, I’ll keep submitting work, too).
Update: A friend of mine, who is also a teacher, mentioned a similar struggle in grading papers: B or A? Could be an A, but it’s not a perfect essay…so…B+ or A-? Hrmm…B+?