How We Can Number Up: Sheila McMullin Continues Her Discussion on VIDA Count 2013

In 2012 The Paris Review dedicated a very small slice of its pie to writings by women. Fortunately, they took notice of their VIDA pie chart and rang the alarms. This past Count showed The Paris Review to acknowledge and celebrate more quality writing by women.

This is the work of The VIDA Count: to reveal an overall systemic problem and encourage a proactive change in how our leading publishing magazines and journals represent empathetic culture.

Former StS reader and blogger, now VIDA Count Coordinator, Sarah Marcus, says, “I believe that feminism is my responsibility, and being a part of VIDA has meant that I have another opportunity to support and advocate in a way that effectively changes public opinion and creates a positive academic support system for women and female identified people. We spend a great deal of time exposing the literary publishing reality, talking about inclusivity, and thinking about ways to bring our community into a compassionate and empathetic space where diverse and important voices are represented. I am accountable for ensuring that everyone has the same opportunities. Being part of VIDA also means that I am surrounded by a group of dedicated, inspiring, supportive, and empowered women, cisgender, and  non-gender normative people who are working towards a meaningful and common goal. I see this as win, win, win for me personally and for the greater literary public.”

If you would like to be a part of the social revolution working toward gender parity in publishing, here are lots of things you can do:

● It’s an old saying, “Knowledge is power.” Now you know, how will you respond? First and foremost we need to start a dialogue about these numbers on large scale terms. That is why VIDA has recently launched our member-supported private forums, as a troll-free environment for people to speak about diversity, respond to the numbers, and also (maybe most importantly) meet new allies. To learn more about participating in our forums visit here.

● Some concerned writers have cancelled subscriptions and written letters demanding change to editors whose numbers showed to be very problematic. Read Lorraine Berry’s open letter to Harper’s for inspiration and tips on language usage.

● If writing a letter or cancelling your subscription isn’t for you, you might consider exercising your purchasing power to buy a subscription to a journal who IS actively concerned with gender parity and diversity within their pages. Consider Ninth Letter, The Missouri Review, n+1, and The Gettysburg Review, Callaloo, and the list goes on. Purchasing a subscription from these journals will help them continue to do their good work.

● Beware of the gender diversity on your own bookshelves. Be active in broadening the range of stories in your home.

● Read what others have to say about VIDA in the press and start forming your own unique opinions on how you would like to react to gender inequality in all sectors, not just within the literary community.

● VIDA’s mission focuses on gender diversity, but is also concerned with ethnic, racial, sexual (among many other identifications) diversity and wants you to contribute to the conversation of planning how to accurately count writers of these identifications in the journals VIDA currently tallies.

● Submit your work! This cannot be reinforced enough! Write your stories! Share your stories! Submit, revise, submit again women, men, trans*, people of color, EVERYBODY!

This past AWP Seattle, the Peripheral Visionaries: Taking Action to Cultivate Literary Diversity panel with The VIDA Count Director, Jen Fitzgerald, Tin House editor Rob Spillman, Laura E. Davis (of Weave Magazine and Submission Bombers), and poet Ross Gay spoke to our cultural obligation as editors, publishers, and readers to demand gender parity in the material we purchase.

Rob Spillman took a deeper look at our obligations as writers to challenge social constructs that may feel prohibitive when considering publication. This is a loose quote, but he said to the effect that when he sends out encouraging rejection letters (with a major emphasis on encouraging meaning: please, please submit again!) 100% of the men resubmitted work, while only around 50% of the women resubmitted.

We are facing multilayered, complex sexism deeply ingrained into our culture. Spillman wasn’t saying that women just need to submit more, and that’s that. He was speaking to a dark nurturing our society promotes in the psyches of many of our women. On large scales, women are not socialized to be as confident as men. This is not to say, women are not confident. Remember that.

Hearing Spillman’s anecdote shot me into submission action, and fellow women, I hope it does the same for you. Submitting takes bravery, and you are brave.

Stop by the VIDA website for our latest articles, which are published on a rolling basis (contact aking@vidaweb.org with a proposal if you are interested in writing something for the site!)  Introduce yourself, tell us about your publications, ask questions and for advice, participate and mentor! You are welcome at VIDA!

If you missed Part I, be sure to read Sheila McMullin’s Why We Should Number Up

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Sheila McMullin runs the feminist and artist resource website, MoonSpit Poetry, where a list of her publications can also be found. She is the Website Assistant for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts and Contributing Editor of poetry and the blog for ROAR Magazine. Her chapbook, Like Water, was a finalist for the Ahsahta Press and New Delta Review chapbook competitions, as well as a semifinalist in the Black Lawrence Press chapbook competition. She works as an after-school creative writing and college prep instructor, and volunteers at her local animal rescue. She holds her M.F.A. from George Mason University. Follow her @smcmulli.

 

Former StS Blog Editor Sheila McMullin on VIDA and Why We Should Number Up, Part I

Did you know that in 2013, 39 men and 33 women were published in Fence Magazine? Or that, in the same year, Conjunctions published 50 women and 51 men? How about that 55 women and 49 men appeared in New American Writing? And that Callaloo published 78 women and 65 men? Or that 2013 also saw the Paris Review publish 48 women and 47 men?

But why, you ask, are these numbers important?

Because literary publications that achieve near contributor gender parity are in a strict minority. Furthermore, the publications noted above who have actually featured more women than men in their pages are even more of a minority. It is not typical that a literary journal or magazine believed to be a “thought leader” within the arts community will publish or review an equal number of men- and women-identified writers. What is quite typical, though, is that a publication’s table of contents will skew heavily toward male writers. But see the numbers for yourself. Check out the pie charts graphing this male/female dichotomy of writers published and reviewed in our country’s leading creative journals and magazines.

All numbered out?

Some of these numbers are probably worse than what you expected, right? I felt the greatest devastation when seeing McSweeney’s publishing of 13 women compared to 43 men. We know sexism is not dead, but we always hope for the best in people, right? And when it comes to the artifacts we create, we want to believe it’s the art that speaks for itself, not the gender of the artist. But this isn’t the reality. Women’s voices have been and are consistently hidden, and because of this it is “easy” for a general public to believe/assume that the inequality doesn’t exist.

In Sarah Vap’s newest, The End of the Sentimental Journey, a vivisection of language, gender, and poetics, she writes at one point about the severing of a dog’s vocal cords during scientific experiments to prevent the dog from barking. In the silence, those conducting experiments were able to avoid hearing the dog express pain and fear and begin pretending it did not feel at all. She compares this to human to human interaction and to the way minority communities are forcibly silenced to offer the privileged majority a reprieve.

Silencing of a community on mass scales, in turn, encourages complacency and a denigration of our human rights. Bringing those voices back into the conversation is the work of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts and it is the tireless volunteer work of VIDAs who have brought you these statistics. For more in-depth reflection on The VIDA Count 2013 numbers read Amy King’s “Lie by Omission: The Rallying Few, The Rallying Masses.”

VIDA is changing the tide.

For four years now VIDA has tallied and published the results we’ve always suspected but did not yet have the hard data to back us up. (It is part of the reason why so many women have chosen to write under masculine pen names.)  In the words of Count Director Jen Fitzgerald, “Each year women from across the country dedicate thousands of combined hours to perform an arduous task: we manually, painstakingly tally the gender disparity in major literary publications and book reviews.  We do this to offer up concrete data and assure women authors (and wayward editors) that the sloped playing field is not going unnoticed.  We do this to ignite and fan the flames of necessary discourse.  We do this each year because our literary community can only benefit from a range of voices.” If you are curious as to how VIDA counts, you are welcome to review the methodologies.

The New Republic publisher and editor, Chris Hughes, responded to the latest VIDA Count saying, “VIDA [has] released a breakdown of the genders of contributors to the major literary magazines in the country, including The New Republic. Unfortunately, we were near the bottom of that list. Our print contributor breakdown looks more like what you would expect from 1964 than 2014, and it must change. We will hold ourselves to a much higher standard in 2014.”

This is tremendous news, and the actual goal of VIDA: to encourage all of us to hold ourselves to a higher standard.

Check back next week for Part II of VIDA: How We Can Number Up.

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Sheila McMullin runs the feminist and artist resource website, MoonSpit Poetry, where a list of her publications can also be found. She is the Website Assistant for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts and Contributing Editor of poetry and the blog for ROAR Magazine. Her chapbook, Like Water, was a finalist for the Ahsahta Press and New Delta Review chapbook competitions, as well as a semifinalist in the Black Lawrence Press chapbook competition. She works as an after-school creative writing and college prep instructor, and volunteers at her local animal rescue. She holds her M.F.A. from George Mason University. Follow her @smcmulli.

Feminism is… pretty simple: Fiction Editor Liz Egan Cuts to the Equality Chase

I did not start identifying as a feminist until I was in my mid-twenties. Like so many women (and men, too), I didn’t understand what the word “feminist” really meant, and because I grew up in a conservative household, I thought I was protecting myself by staying away from the label. I thought “feminist” meant not letting my dad open the car door for me, or thinking less of my mom because she stayed at home to raise me and my brother. I thought “feminist” meant male-bashing and being angry all the time. But as I came into my own as a young woman with big dreams and big ideas about the kind of world I wanted to live in, I discovered the true meaning of feminism—the idea that women and men are equals in the workplace, the home, and society—and I realized I’ve probably been a feminist since before I cut my first tooth.  It feels that natural to me to say I am a feminist, and always have been.

As troubling as it is to see women who hold a prominent place in our culture publicly reject the label “feminist” (here’s a recent round-up), I can also sympathize a bit, because feminism as a movement does have a history checkered with negativity and militancy, and not all women who call themselves feminist actually use that word to mean they value true equality.

Instead of listing all the things feminism is not, I want to showcase all the things that feminism is. By reframing the word in this way, I feel I’m doing my small, little part to dispel the negative energy that surrounds the word “feminist” and to encourage all humans everywhere to embrace the label for what it is:

FEMINISM
IS…

Equality,
pure and simple.

FEMINISM
IS…
For everyone.

It’s more than just a gender binary. Feminism is for all who are straight, gay, lesbian, trans*, bi, or questioning. Feminism is for everyone, because feminism is the belief that all humans are equal, regardless of how they were created.

FEMINISM
IS…

Inclusive.

There’s a brand of “white feminism” out there that ignores the concerns of ethnic minorities. But feminism is a wide umbrella, and there’s room for everyone under here.

FEMINISM
IS…

Global.

It’s initiatives to bring health care and education to women in parts of the world that are struggling to develop these resources. It’s the women who’ve risen to top political roles in countries around the world, and the men who have supported their rise, and the citizens who seek simply the best candidates, regardless of gender, skin color, or sexual orientation.

FEMINISM
IS…

Aware

of biology. That is, feminism is aware that men have penises and women have vaginas. But feminism is aware, too, that biology isn’t always that simple.

FEMINISM
IS…

Most often associated with women, and the ideal that women have an equal place in society with men. Some fights women have won on this front include the right to vote, the right to serve her country, and the right to make choices about her body. These rights are often challenged, and so a lot of feminists carry with them a feeling that their work is never done, particularly in the face of ongoing legal, social, and political challenges from equal pay in the workplace to affordable contraception; from the right choose an abortion without fear of harm or harassment to herself or her physician, to the right to marry whomever you love. (The list goes on…though it shouldn’t.)

FEMINISM
IS…

About believing men are humans, too. A lot of women feminists are perceived to be (or are) anti-men, and that’s not the point of feminism.  Feminism is all humans working together to raise each other up, not tear each other down. It’s a disservice to our cause as feminists to issue ad hominem attacks against an entire gender in order to make our point. (Women sure don’t like it when their gender gets smeared in
hurtful and hateful ways, so why do it to men, too?)

Recognizing equality among all humans means recognizing that men have the same snowflake-like individuality among them as any other human does. Men, like women, are complex beings with feelings, ideas, fears, and dreams. Magazines and blogs are always publishing lists and articles that try to “explain” one gender to another, such as this one, which suggests that what’s true of one man is true of all others (among other offensive claims). These lists are terrible examples of how both genders are demeaned, marginalized and caricaturized in pop culture—and especially in dating culture.

FEMINISM
IS…

A school of literary and rhetorical thought, a lens through which to view and understand issues that affect women as they are depicted in literature. (Feminism is also shelving the works of prominent female writers next to their male counterparts, not off in some other “women’s lit” section.)

FEMINISM
IS…

Supporting the choices of others who are not like you. Feminism advocates for the freedom to make the life choices that are right for individuals, based on their particular, individual circumstances. For women, it’s about ending the “mommy wars” and being supportive of each other’s choices as women: breastfeed or use formula; spring for the epidural, or don’t; give birth at home or in a hospital—or not at all. For parents, it’s supporting those who choose to work, those who choose to stay at home, and those who choose to do both. For all of us humans, it’s about supporting each others’ decisions and abilities to procreate, adopt, or remain childfree.  Feminism is about seeing past cultural norms and looking at each other as real people, with real choices to make, many of which are quite hard. Feminism is understanding that just because someone doesn’t do something exactly the way you would do it, that doesn’t mean they’ve done a wrong or bad thing.

FEMINISM
IS…

Strength
in the face of adversity and courage in the face of life’s challenges. It’s about keeping a positive attitude, seeing beauty in the mirror, and embracing your self-worth. Feminism is a way of life, not just a label. There’s a lot to like about feminism and people who are feminists, and a lot more to be done to shine a positive light on this term that means equality for all. It is my hope that more and more humans will encounter the word “feminism” find within it the warmth and hope for the future that I have found.

 

Reclaiming Agnes: More musings on Fairy Tales by Assistant Editor Christina Collins

The Little Mermaid’s Predecessor That Most Feminists Don’t Know About.

Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” is a goldmine for contemporary feminist fairy tale re-writers. Regardless of how they choose to respond to the original tale, they find plenty of material to work with. What they emphasize, what they change, and what they reject all together provide insight into whether the little mermaid, as she initially stands, should be considered a positive female figure. One of the tale’s more sensitive issues among feminist writers is the notion that the woman must cater to the man’s world and adapt to his life. To feminists’ disappointment, Andersen’s mermaid willingly adapts.

Most rewriters of “The Little Mermaid,” however, are not familiar with the little mermaid’s surprisingly progressive ancestor, Agnes, from the medieval folk ballad “Agnes and the Merman” (sometimes known as “Agnete and the Merman”), an early literary example of exogamous marriage. In the first half of both the folk-song and Andersen’s tale, the protagonist immigrates to the man’s world, leaving her own world behind. The second half of Agnes’ story, however, will surprise and interest feminists. It is necessary to disclose what becomes of the human girl, Agnes, after she has immigrated to a merman’s world, for her ending may be the very ending that feminist rewriters unknowingly seek.

After Agnes lives with the merman for many years and bears him seven sons, she soon longs to return home. The merman gives her leave to visit the land as long as she promises to return to her “children small” (Olrik 114). Instead of keeping her promise, she chooses to remain on land and abandon her mer-husband and children. When the merman comes on land to retrieve her, he beckons to her: “Heed now, Agnes, what I say to thee! / All thy little children are longing after thee” (115). Agnes’ answer is harsh and surprising: “Let them long as they will, let their longing be sore, / I shall return to them nevermore” (116). Indeed, she rejects her role as wife and mother. Even when the merman tries to exploit her maternal sympathies by asking her to think of their children, Agnes remains firm in her final answer: “I think not of the grown ones, nor yet of the small, / Of the baby in the cradle I’ll think least of all” (116). She rejects all that is traditionally thought to be a woman’s lot in life: marriage and motherhood. By refusing to return to the sea, she rejects the limitations of this ideal, as well as the notion that a woman must cater to her husband’s lifestyle.

Whether or not one agrees with Agnes’ choice, her self-directed and unapologetic repudiation is remarkable. Her ending presents an alternative to the little mermaid’s outcome—the possibility of liberation from the traditional path through a means other than death. For this reason, Agnes’ liberating ending may indeed be the ending that feminist writers seek but cannot find in their revisions of “The Little Mermaid.”  Feminist revisions, after all, seek to expose, question, and challenge the implausibility of traditional gender constraints and social expectations, and, above all, liberate the original text and its readers from those constraints and expectations. Agnes is the embodiment of that liberation—a kind of radical feminism far ahead of its time—but, unfortunately, her story has been lost. Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” as a newer tale of “the double world” theme, was so popular that medieval Agnes was inevitably forgotten. Perhaps feminist rewriters of “The Little Mermaid” are, without realizing it, attempting to reclaim some trace of Agnes. Or if they’re not, then maybe they should be.

Three writers in particular have striven to reconstruct Andersen’s protagonist: Barbara Walker in “The Littlest Mermaid,” Joanna Russ in “Russalka or The Seacoast of Bohemia,” and Emma Donoghue in “The Tale of the Voice.”  They each have something different to offer, but all three respond in some way to the problems of voice and autonomy in the original tale. Interestingly, none of these revisions responds to the original little mermaid’s goal of immortality. All three stories focus only on her secondary goal of winning the prince and attack her pursuit of a romantic ideal. This focus may perhaps be explained by the fact that the romantic ideal and the notion of self-sacrifice for romantic love are dominant in the minds and lives of contemporary women.

Ideally, a feminist version of Andersen’s mermaid would remain able to rely upon herself for success rather than upon another. Perhaps, even feminist revisions cannot break free of certain contradictions; perhaps we still embrace the notion of woman as self-sacrificer. It seems, then, that the most realistic goal is to find a happy medium. Perhaps there is no definitive way to achieve this medium—perhaps Andersen’s mermaid can only be happy in death, and perhaps Agnes’ abandonment of her mer-family is not an ideal model of behavior—but in the end, every little mermaid should maintain the human right to pursue her own ends on her own terms, with her own voice intact to guide her.

Works Cited

Olrik, Axel, ed. A Book of Danish Ballads. Trans. E.M. Smith-Dampier. Freeport, New York: Books for Libraries Press, 1968.

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Christina Elaine Collins, in addition to serving as So to Speak’s Assistant Editor, is a Pushcart Prize-nominated fiction writer, an MFA candidate and English instructor at George Mason University. Her fiction can be found in various literary journals such as Jabberwock Review, Poiesis Review, Weave Magazine, and Rose Red Review. She has been a writer-in-residence at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts as well as the Art Commune program in Armenia. You can find her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/CElaineCollins.

 

Using the Common Thread of Connection to Craft Character and Story

March 12, 2014 by So to Speak · 1 Comment
Filed under: Fiction, Nonfiction, Opinion, Uncategorized 

Kelly Ann Jacobson on the feminist path she walked to write her novel Cairo in White:

I discovered feminism in a very strange place: a Critical Methods literature class during sophomore year of college at George Washington University. Critical Methods was a requirements for an English major—the major I switched into after realizing that Environmental Studies majors actually had to take science classes—and the instructor was Todd Ramlow, a professor who taught both English and Women’s Studies courses. Though he was a wonderful professor, I could have cared less about linguistic theory, and so I was surprised to find myself unexpectedly rapt when we read an essay about the pressures placed on women. He also taught us to look at how strong and supported our arguments were, not whether we agreed with a position or not. I took another class with Professor Ramlow the next semester, this time a Women’s Studies course, and then the next semester I took another one…and suddenly I was a Women’s Studies major.

In truth, my Creative Writing classes were what had convinced me to switch into English in the first place. I still pursued my passion for Fiction as a minor, and as I learned more and more about feminism, it began to creep into my creative work. I was dating an Egyptian man at the time who, when asked about the gay men and women in his country, told me there were no gay men and women in Egypt. So, a character emerged in a short story (later to be the first chapter of a novel), a woman of color, a Muslim lesbian struggling with feminism in her own country and then in ours. As my boyfriend explained Egypt’s lack of gay acceptance, Zahra was born. Even a little bit of linguistic theory made its way into Zahra’s life.

Of course, as soon as I became a Women’s Studies major, I started questioning my writing. I took a class on Standpoint Theory, and as I read the arguments for and against writing from “the other’s” point of view, I began to reconsider my novel. Was it wrong to write Zahra’s story? Should her story only be written by an Egyptian? A lesbian? A Muslim? What if I got something wrong? What if I quoted a bad translation of the Qur’an, or misinterpreted it by accident?

Eventually, I put my doubts aside. This was a story that had to be told, and as Zahra and then her daughter appeared again and again in my writing, it seemed that I was the one to tell it. I couldn’t give up on my project, so I did everything I could to get close to my characters. I learned Arabic. I asked my boyfriend (and then fiancé) everything I could about Egypt. I visited Cairo. I spent hours poring over Internet descriptions and photographs of the sites in Cairo that passed in a blur during a whirlwind trip, recreating the city for my reader and for myself.

The key to writing this novel, in my experience, was finding my own connections to the characters’ experiences. I, too, questioned my own sexuality. I came from a religious, conservative family, and my borderline Green Party ideals, protests, Egyptian fiancé, and Women’s Studies pursuits didn’t always fit. And, at the same time, I struggled to reconcile some claims of third wave feminism with my Pennsylvania upbringing. Aisha was easier, since I was an American seeing Egypt for the first time and, like Aisha, trying to impress my religious future in-laws.

No, I’m not a Muslim, Egyptian lesbian, but maybe I don’t have to be. Perhaps writers, in order to do justice to the characters and the cultures they write about, just need to find the common thread that connects their experience to their characters’. To empathize, and to work hard to understand. I followed that thread for six years and through countless drafts, and, though it wasn’t easy and though I’m not sure I got everything right, I finally completed a work that I am proud to call my own, my first novel: Cairo in White.

Excerpt from Cairo in White:

Zahra woke in a sweat, her silk nightgown plastered to the curves of her body under the light sheet. The shadows on the walls indicated the time was past noon, and by the feel of the air around her, the temperature was more than thirty degrees Celsius. She turned on her back as the repetitive whoosh of the fan struggled to mask the heat. The oasis between her thighs was wet like the rain stored in a succulent’s leaves. A dream, perhaps, of another sleek body, half-covered and close.

She kicked the sheet off, a scorned lover still damp with her perspiration. Usually she woke to the sound of her mother heating milk in the kitchen or clattering pans as she baked, but only silence met Zahra’s ears. Once her feet slid into the worn cotton slippers at the foot of her bed, she stood and faced the heat like a warrior. Miriam was not in her bedroom, where she sewed loose prayer dresses in flowery patterns. She was not in the kitchen, where she spent her time with the bags of cumin, coriander, and cardamom, combining these lovers into Dukkah mixtures and Mulukhiya. And she was not in the living room, where Baba’s clocks ticked the seconds of a new day.

Zahra looked out the balcony window at the pyramids—sentries that hovered in the distance, reminders of the toil of her people. At the glass, she pressed her palm against the warm window. Zahra judged by the missing grocery bags that her mother would not return for at least four hours… enough time to take a risk, to prove that Zahra owned those wonders as much as any other Egyptian.

__________________________________________________________________________

Kelly Ann Jacobson is the author of the novel Cairo in White. She recently received her MA in Fiction at Johns Hopkins University, and she is the Poetry Editor for Outside In Literary & Travel Magazine. Her young adult novel, Dreamweaver Road, is forthcoming from Books to Go Now, and Three on the Bank, her novella, was a finalist in Iron Horse Review‘s Single Author Contest and is forthcoming from Storylandia! this summer. Her work, including her published poems, fiction, and nonfiction, can be found at www.kellyannjacobson.com.

Find a copy of Cairo in White at Musa Publishing or any major online bookseller.

 

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