What pulses beneath the soil? What do our roots seek when they dig deep? What sap rises in spring to feed the branches that reach for the stark sky? Place an ear to the trunk of Arkana to hear the hushed voices at work beneath the bark.
It’s an ongoing issue; marginalized voices struggle to find a place in the publishing world, and when they do get their foot in the door, some feel pressured to conform their writing to fit a market dominated by and designed to accommodate the tastes of white, cis, straight, non-disabled readers.
If we look into the statistics of those who work in the publishing industry, we can see that diversity among those who control literary spaces reflects the market that publishing highlights—creating a divide between marginalized authors and their potential audience.
In 2015, Lee and Low Books, a publisher of children’s books with a focus on presenting the work of authors of color, created a study called The Diversity Baseline Survey to highlight the lack of diversity in the industry as a whole. In this study, they found that the majority of people in the publishing industry overall identified as white (79%), cis-woman (78%), straight (88%), and nondisabled (92%.) In 2019, Lee and Low ran their survey again—and the numbers didn’t change much. Overall, the industry was staffed by a 76% white majority who were also largely cis-woman, straight, and non-disabled.
The homogenous nature of the industry has created a kind of paradox; while the demand for diverse literature is climbing, those in power are ill-prepared to champion these works into a market not just for its current audience, but for the audience that has long been ignored.
In our MFA class, we discussed how this lack of diversity in the publishing industry could create a disadvantage for marginalized authors, and what we, as editors for Arkana, could do to make sure we upheld our mission to present those voices even if our experience doesn’t align with those of our authors. In the end, there wasn’t an easy answer, but acknowledging our biases and lack of experiences is a start.
In Lee and Low’s study, one category held promise; the diversity in the intern field was much more varied, with only 51% of interns identifying as white, 51% as straight, 78% cis woman, and 78% non-disabled. While the numbers didn’t all stray from the overall average, diversity in race and orientation stood out compared to the overall numbers. Between the growing diversity in those seeking a career in the industry, the creation of diversity offices within publishers, and recent openings in top positions, the future of the publishing industry promises change. In four years, if Lee and Low runs their survey again, we may see a vastly different set of numbers—and a richer literary world as well.
Brandi Lynch is a second-year student in the Arkansas Writer’s MFA Workshop at the University of Central Arkansas. She writes YA fiction and SFF, and her videogame characters have pointy ears and pointy weapons.
What is diversity? And what does it mean to the publishing world? More than one is perhaps the simplest definition of diversity, which is interesting when considering how there is more than one way of being diverse. For many journals in recent years, diversity has been the inclusion of more non-male writers in their issues. This effect is seen when flipping through years of statistics provided by the VIDA website. In 2015, about one-third of the writers featured in The Paris Review were women. That number jumped to nearly half of the journal’s total featured writers that did not identify as male.
The publishing industry has been male-dominated for most of its existence in America. The simple truth is that equal civil rights do not mean equal representation which is why Erin Belieu and Cate Marvin created the VIDA Count in the first place. In an interview, Belieu mentions that the creation of VIDA was not an effort to create a quota, but rather simply highlight the realities of gender representation in modern literature. The result was more journals making a conscious effort towards including women and non-male writers in journal issues.
In the foreword of the 2019 VIDA Count, author Marcia Douglas describes the potential for evolution of the VIDA Count as, “one which pushes beyond gender to engage multiple measures of accountability.” According to the “Directors’ Note” this evolution will include a new type of VIDA Count released in 2021 called the VIDA BIPOC Survey whose purpose is to focus on data concerning race in the literary world. Why does the inclusion of the VIDA BIPOC Survey matter? As Douglas puts it, because “[there] is power in who gets counted, and how, and by whom.”
As this year draws to a close, its unique stamps on the calendar of recent history will never be silent. 2020 will be remembered by many for a variety of things, but one major reason is the reopening and expanding on topics surrounding diversity and racial justice in American systems. As history unfolds before us and continues to shape the ways we look at culture, we at Arkana continue to have conversations about diversity and inclusion to maintain our goal of using literature to uplift marginalized voices.
One of the biggest challenges of diverse representation in literature is unrecognized biases. Many of the systematic problems in America are a result of unchecked and ignored attitudes towards particular cultures, races, sexual orientations and genders. This is why the Arkana team is committed to continuously asking ourselves questions about individual biases that could impact our reading process. Searching for preconceived attitudes and confronting why those attitudes exist is the first step to tearing down the gates that keep many talented writers from stepping into the literary world.
Sydney Austin is a MFA student and Graduate Research Assistant at the University of Central Arkansas. When she’s not writing fiction, Sydney enjoys devoting too much time to stacking Tetris blocks and drawing. She lives with her husband and cat in Little Rock.
A Review of As One Fire Consumes Another by John Sibley Williams
Review by Mel Ruth
I have a system. Whenever I approach a new book of poetry, I do certain things: I look for a dedication and/or epigraph, I analyze the organization—does it have a proem, how many section breaks there are, etc.—I read the blurbs last. But all of this comes after I’ve flipped through the book, holding the weight of the pages in my hands, gauging its feeling.
During my initial scan, one of the first things I noticed was the regimented, unified form of every poem, a blocked format that never changes. I was intrigued. After all, what does this form do for the collection that various other forms could not?
I quickly found my answer.
In the proem, “Instructions for Banishment,” we are introduced to multiple themes—war and death, music, a return to nature, the language that ropes around it all—but the most pervasive is the timelessness of it all. A timelessness that is reflected in the books form.
In the block style, the form does quite a lot of work. As said by Simone Muench’s review of the book, “Williams’ poems are composed of casket-like rectangular frames, their feral energy throbs against justified lines.” Similarly, Sean Thomas Dougherty says that “Williams offers us a book of little boxes, ‘each one contained eternities and histories.’”
But the box style does more than just frame or contain. It reveals.
The format mimics the galley style of newspapers and magazines, as if these poems are reporting events in a form that transcends time, much like the poems do.
What I found most fascinating, however, is that when these poems are placed one after another, they become a moebius—a loop with only one side and one boundary, that has the mathematical property of being unorientable. In this way, the poems, and the book, become cyclical creating one eternal feedback loop. Where one event ends, another begins, overlaps, becomes timeless.
Like in “American Quanta,” where it says, “before my name there were other names, & after my name, the same.” The ampersand is especially important, as it lends to the quick pacing and repetitiveness of a loop like a speedy reel in a movie theater.
But above all, these poems are about bearing witness to the cyclical nature of history—of the past, present and future. Like Muench said, these poems act as “witness to lives lost and interrogations of America’s violence as well as its willed amnesia of that brutality.”
Similarly, in “I Sometimes Forget This Isn’t About Us,” the speaker posits that “in no particular order the dead return to us, palms open, as if in apology or self-defense.” This is just one of many instances in which the cycle is juxtaposed against violence. In “Harm,” the speaker equates “harm: hurt: home: etc.” insinuating that home is pain, and that violence is learned at home
This cycle continues throughout in different ways, but it is always a cycle of death and rebirth. We begin with life then move on to religion-hate-war-death-fire to cleanse it all-then rinse and repeat.
This violence is also found in language, another thing we begin learning at home. In “Of Milk & Honey,” the speaker says that “the language of the town hasn’t quite caught up with the dark-skinned girl left half dead in the watershed,” and that they “bleed the body of its language.” In this way, language is connected to blood and skin. And yet not all hope is lost.
Sibley-Williams claims this language, this history as his own, as something he has to grapple in order to create a better world for his son, and for others. We must all claim this history and break the cycle or, well, you know the rest.
What Literary Journals Could Learn from Nonprofits
by Stephanie Meincke
The most critical concern in literary publishing today is the sustainability of literary journals into the future. What will they look like? How can we make them financially productive? Are there too many literary journals cluttering the landscape? As a longtime CEO of various nonprofits across the country, I follow these discussions with a sense of déjà vu. I have spent a lifetime trying to find the financial sweet spot in order to continue to do good in the communities I have served. Like literary journals, nonprofits have also seen the rise of thousands of competitors for too few charitable dollars. Unlike literary journals, most nonprofits accept this. It is just how it is. So, if we cannot change the landscape, then we must change our perspective of the landscape. Changing our perspective can then change the status quo by bringing in new ideas, practices, and outcomes.
For example, due to rising production costs and changing cultural norms, journals have been quick to see the value of publishing online either in part or in total. Still, this move has not improved financial bottom lines unless you are scrapping a print journal for an online one. Nor has it culled the proliferation of competing literary journals. Rather, it has expanded the number of literary journals. It has not brought in dollars to pay authors. It has not changed the status quo.
Changing our perspective on the status quo, then, may offer real change in the world of literary journals. By publishing online, journals have been able to expand reach. Reach represents community, and community represents loyalty and commitment to your literary journal. Loyalty and commitment to your mission and product can eventually translate into funds through the purchase of subscriptions, attendance at literary events (post COVID) or in donations. In other words, learn to operate on a capitalist playing field without sacrificing your literary journal’s mission and art. Know your market.
Nonprofits, too, have operated in a capitalist and a gift economy as described by Megan Garr in her article, “Hold the Damn Door Open: Idealism is No Currency.” The nonprofit has become more capitalist than is sometimes comfortable for those serving needy communities. Shrinking federal budgets, too many competing needs, and the notion that the work nonprofits do should be at no cost and no profit have all led nonprofits to embrace capitalistic methods of raising cash.
In my experience, charging fees for high quality training opportunities helped leverage training grants to realize a profit of $30,000, which was used to fund programs for those we served. Developing membership categories in several of the statewide associations I managed brought in more than $60,000, which was renewable every year. Literary journals are now facing the same compromises as nonprofits in the same ways for the same reasons. Selling what we know – the art of writing., may be one way to change the status quo. Perhaps, literary journals could also register for a 501(c)3 tax designation to attract donors with a tax exemption. Know your value, create a structure that supports it and charge for it.
Another way to change the status quo is to focus on literary citizenship. What does it mean to support and sustain a literary community, the art of writing, and the sustenance of readers’ souls? We will pay for what we value. If crowdfunding has shown us nothing else, it is that large amounts of money can be raised by many people who support a cause. Give your readers a chance to buy into your mission. Think of ways to engage them and keep them to give for years to come.
What are other ways to disrupt the status quo? Data and benchmarking are one way. How can we make decisions if we do not know who our audience is and why they selected your journal above the many in the field? How many patrons do you have and what is the depth of their engagement? Do they read every submission, every issue, comment, offer suggestions, submit? You can understand how valuable this information would be, not only to develop readership, but to also develop a funding source and improve your content. In short, use this information to build a responsive product and your journal’s brand. Create a why for the consumer, not a what.
To cut through the noise of the glutted market and other numerous reading outlets, literary publishers and editors, like nonprofit leaders, will have to step into the fray and create a value for reading new literature from gifted writers as an end into itself, rather than as something you do between everything else you are doing. A strong literary community keeps the art of literature alive where it lives best, in the hearts and minds of writers and their readers. For this to happen, in the words of Jane Friedman, veteran author and publisher, “Literary publishers [and editors] must be a beacon amidst the noise.”
Stephanie Meincke is a first-year student in the MFA program at the University of Central Arkansas. Her writing life began later in life after a 35-year career managing statewide nonprofits. She is the mother of five children and more animals than is considered sane.
“We started out all wrong, did it how everyone tells you not to do it.” In a small classroom, Seth Pennington sat at the front of the room. The desks were arranged in a square while Seth addressed the room. He came to our Editing & Publishing classroom to explain how Sibling Rivalry came to be, and how they thrived in a diminishing publishing industry.
Sibling Rivalry is a small independent publisher based out of North Little Rock in Bryan and Seth’s house. They have since become a beacon for minority writers everywhere.
“In 2010, Bryan was publishing in Ganymede, a New York City based literary journal for gay men. The creator of Ganymede offered to make a book of Bryan’s poetry. He was going to create a press to make it look official.”
But two months later, he was gone.
“People started talking to Bryan, wondering what was going to happen to their work in Ganymede.” Bryan went to New York to arrange a memorial issue and reading, celebrating Ganymede’s legacy while also mourning the loss of it.
It was there that Ocean Vuong, who had been published in Ganymede, asked Bryan if he would publish a small chapbook for him. And Bryan did. In the meantime, Brain started a new literary magazine, Assaracuss, which was the only gay men’s poetry journal at the time.
“I went to UALR” — University of Arkansas in Little Rock– “to study with my friend, poet Nicole Brown. There I met Bryan through an anthology reading about being gay and religious.” Bryan and Seth clicked, and it wasn’t long before Seth took over design for Sibling Rivalry, in which he designs 99% of the covers.
Bryan and Seth are full-time paralegals in Little Rock, a job that while demanding, allows them to do what they love–publishing.
“We wanted to invest in Arkansas.”
And they did.
Sibling Rivalry is recognized by the Library of Congress where they are included in the rare book and findings room. They are also the independent press to win a Lambda Literary award in Gay and Lesbian poetry.
But that’s not as important as their commitment to their community.
“Our main focus is on minority groups. We wanted to find something common in the language of people who have been othered. We want to believe in the work, but we want to believe in the people most.”
Seth and Bryan worked with poet Randi Romo, a queer activist who started as a spoken word artist, then worked their way to the page. Bryan and Seth worked with them on craft, execution, manuscript building, and more until their book, Othered, was released.
In June of 2019, I went to a wine bar to attend the launch party for “Stonewall 50,” a book of poetry celebrating the fifty-year anniversary of the Stonewall riots which catapulted the LGBTQ+ civil right movement. I was able to meet Randi Romo and listen to other minority poets read their work.
As an indie for-profit press, Seth and Bryan are able to be involved with their writers in a way that most presses aren’t. “We don’t want a board to undermine decisions.”
In addition, they created the Sibling Rivalry Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to lifting the voices of minority poets, such as Undocupoets, a coalition run with Amazon for undocumented poets to help offset the costs for submissions and events.
Seth and Bryan are also working in conjunction with Queer Arts Arkansas to try and bring more queer artists to Arkansas, hoping to put their home state on the map for queer artists.
Since they’ve begun, Sibling Rivalry has published chapbooks by poets such as Kaveh Akbar, Saeed Jones, Carl Phillips, Franny Choi, and more.
So how are they able to do all of this?
Sibling Rivalry works with a print-on-demand system run through Ingram in Tennessee. They use Lightning Source, where they can fix errors between printings without investing in a lot of stock. This not only allows them to minimize stock, but also cut the costs related to big publishing.
Sibling Rivalry’s chapbooks typically cost around ten to twelve dollars and thanks to their system, Sibling Rivalry is able to afford a generous royalties package of around 30% with copies. “Ninety cents of every dollar we earn goes back into the press. The other ten cents goes into funding book launches and other projects.”
Although they are on a hiatus for 2020, Sibling Rivalry typically reads manuscripts–both chapbook and full length–from March 1 to June 1. While they tend to be poetry focused, Sibling Rivalry also publishes fiction and non-fiction. Instead of the traditional reading fee, Sibling Rivalry has you purchase one of their books.
“Choosing a publisher is like choosing a family. We want writers to support each other. If money is a barrier, the fee is dropped.”
As Seth prepared to leave, he parted with a promise of things to come. “We hope to do more in the future.”
J. Frank Jamison talks about his short story, “Catfish,” from Issue 8 of Arkana.
INTERVIEWED BY Liz Larson (ISSUE 8 FICTION EDITOR)
Liz Larson: How do you approach writing voices different than your own?
J. Frank Jamison: I try my best to inhabit the character. My favorite way to do this is to interview them. I imagine them sitting across from me and I speak out loud asking them questions. Sometimes nothing comes back, but sooner or later, after repeated attempts, I seem to feel the response and “hear” their manner of speaking. Of course, if you write from your own experience, you already know the sounds, tones, and inflections of your character, so I suppose it ends up being a blend of both these approaches.
LL: Your descriptions of the landscape your characters inhabit is vivid. It draws the reader in and grounds them. Do you begin writing a story with place, character, or event?
JFJ: I have done all three, so I can’t say I always begin with any particular one of those. I have a story, unpublished, that began with a picture of a doorway. I am working on a story now that began with the idea of an adult little person, and that image quickly moved into the setting of a carnival. The story “Catfish” began with the image of the old black woman, Bibi, rocking on her porch, so it was a blend of both character and place.
LL: Given that 2020 is such a fraught year, what keeps you writing? Do you have a writing routine that keeps you focused? What is your best practice for writing these days?
JFJ: I’m not being facetious when I say “2020 keeps me writing.” This fraught year cries out for sanity, and writing helps ground me. I have tried writing about the year’s challenges, but I feel too emotionally involved in it to do justice to fiction about it. I have written some poetry in reaction to it. I’ll probably write more about it or at least use it as setting and background material, but as I said, I’m too emotionally involved in it now.
My routine is to wake early before six o’clock and make a cup of coffee. I don’t look at any screens or read anything until I’ve sat at my desk with pen and paper and written stream of consciousness for at least fifteen minutes. I write for an hour or a little more after that and usually during the day I will write some more. Before I go to bed at night, I read over what I’ve written. That seems to keep my mind working as I sleep so that fresh ideas are at the surface when I wake. To be honest, there are days when it’s a struggle to write anything at all, but those fifteen-minute sessions are a requisite for me. It’s amazing what comes out of those little sessions, sometimes the germ of a story, sometimes a poem, often nothing else, but that’s OK. It seems to set my mental stage for the day.
That’s my routine and I suppose my best practice. I would add that I read a lot. I usually have two or more books going at once. Some would argue that isn’t a very good idea, but I’ve always done that. Another thing I do is to date everything I write, even the fifteen-minute fast writes. All that dated material becomes my journal and it’s amazing what a story it tells when you go back to read over it after some time has passed.
LL: Is there a writing tool you use when you are mapping out your story? Do you thoroughly outline your story before writing it? What do you do when you get stuck at a certain point in a draft?
JFJ: I’m not very good at mapping or outlining my story at the beginning. I think that’s because I don’t really get to know the characters until I’ve written enough about them. Remember, I said I interview my characters. That sounds silly maybe, but it works for me to “hear” them speak. When I get stuck, I often ask a character what happens next. At one point as I was writing “Catfish,” I had put the story in the child Mani’s voice. There were terrible things happening in that story, and I thought a child wouldn’t be able to reason this way upon seeing such things, so I asked Bibi to tell me about it and the story became hers instead, but her love and shelter for the child brought him into it.
Once I get far enough into a story to have a pretty good idea about where it’s going, I will often make spider graphs of the relationships building between characters or between places in the story’s geography or events in the story to be able to check the chronology. For complex stories, I may keep a character list with ages, a chronology list, and so forth. Another thing I’ve done is to put names of characters on note cards and lay them out on the floor. I shift them around, placing them so that characters with strong interactions are close to each other on the floor. It’s a kind of visual tool to help order people and events and reveal relevance. I may find I have developed a strong relationship between two characters, but that relationship isn’t important to the story. I do a similar thing with scenes. Shuffle the scene titles around to see if any are extraneous or would be better at a different place in the story.
Traditional print publishing is one of the last holdouts of an old world. Other forms of entertainment have already faced their day of reckoning and adapted, as we’ve seen with movie and TV streaming platforms such as Netflix and Hulu and music subscription services like Spotify and Pandora. In contrast, similar attempts to digitize literature have failed to take off.
Maybe that’s because we got it right the first time? Books have been seen as entertainment for hundreds of years compared with the relatively recent advent of filmmaking. Reading in and of itself is not something that needs to be changed. A 2019 study confirmed that reading from screens negatively affects reading comprehension.
When e-books first began gaining traction, the prevailing fear was that digital publishing would completely eradicate print publishing. Many of us held firm in the belief that books still hold value as objects, and it seems that we have been proven right. According to a study from the Pew Research Center last year, “it remains the case that relatively few Americans only consume digital books (which include audiobooks and e-books) to the exclusion of print. Some 37% of Americans say they read only print books, while 28% read in these digital formats and also read print books. Just 7% of Americans say they only read books in digital formats and have not read any print books in the past 12 months.” Ultimately, digital formats are an important step forward in the publishing landscape, not a harbinger of literary doom.
When asked whether they would prefer to be published in print or online, the majority of my MFA classmates said that they want to see their words in print. They cited reasons ranging from the desire to see their work on a physical shelf to unconscious biases about print publications being more legitimate. There’s a sense of permanence with the printed word. Even though text published online is more easily shared and can potentially find a wider audience more quickly, there is an ephemeral nature to it.
But why are we so hesitant to embrace the changes and opportunities afforded to us by the Internet Age? There are so many things that we can do online that we can’t do on a printed page, like hyperlinks, gifs, video, audio, etc. New multimedia pieces that take advantage of digital mediums can challenge our notions of traditional “form” in exciting ways, like this hybrid poem by Alyssa Moore that uses screenshots of various pages open on a computer desktop to tell a story, or this novel by Dennis Cooper told entirely through gifs.
And yes, writing on the internet can find an audience immediately, be shared easily, and spread widely. Just ask the more than 4 million writers and 65 million active users on Wattpad. The answer is not “out with the old, in with the new,” but rather how the old can (and should) coexist with the new. There are so many ways we can interact with the written word; why should that be a frightening prospect?
Carrie South is a writer, editor, teacher, Animal Crossing enthusiast, and MFA student at the University of Central Arkansas. She lives in Little Rock with her husband and four parrots.
Melissa Lewis-Ackerman talks about her piece “Monk in Manhattan” from Issue 8 of Arkana.
INTERVIEWED BY JENNIFER MCCUNE (CREATIVE NON-FICTION EDITOR).
Jennifer McCune: The idea of randomness appears in “Monk in Manhattan.” Could you elaborate on its meaning within its context of this work for our readers?
Melissa Lewis-Ackerman: By randomness I think you’re asking about my run in with the monk. It did feel completely random at first that such a person would show up in the church yard on one of the most gripping days of my life. I was reduced to childlike feelings over what I felt was injustice in my being confronted by the monk. What’s strange though is that after all was said and done, in time, my meeting with the monk didn’t feel so random. I feel I was looking for places to put my grief, to work through my grief, to accept my grief, and energetically drew to myself exactly what I needed in the monk. I slipped into a place where I couldn’t shield myself or dissociate, as we as humans generally do, from extreme hyper sensitivity to the energy moving through everything around us, in that profound state of grief.
JM: Why a confrontation with a monk?
MLA: From a literary standpoint, the monk is a strong instrument that projects the mother’s feelings of responsibility for her son’s death back onto her.
For me, the mother, the lovely, mentally ill monk of course also embodied the lovely, mentally ill son I could never hurl anger or intense feelings of helplessness toward. I could yell at the monk. I could despise the monk’s illness. I could call out from my feelings of being betrayed by my son, for how he left me inexplicably, “I hate you! I hate you! And I’m never going to stop hating you!”
JM: Fault, blame, and guilt are featured in this piece. What do you want readers to learn or know regarding those aspects of this narrative?
MLA: Fault, blame, and guilt are interesting things to consider. At the time I was writing this essay, I felt it was my fault I couldn’t keep my son alive. I couldn’t forgive myself for losing the thread. I was also slowly coming to fear/believe that I’d ruined my own happiness forevermore—I’d lost the beautiful boy, companion, friend of my life, and I couldn’t under any circumstances draw a clear picture of what losing him meant for my future.
Steadier now, with some distance from that day in the churchyard, I’ve come to understand that I didn’t have the power to save my son, that all possible future happiness wasn’t lost in his death, that I’d simply have to choose to be brave enough to expand into the unknown with some kind of openness to what is to come. My composure has come from finally accepting that I loved a boy who on some level always knew he wouldn’t stay. Holden told me/showed me, all of his life, that he wasn’t that comfortable here. I just couldn’t hear or see it, because I didn’t want to hear or see it.
JM: What feeling did you want to convey with the end of the piece?
MLA: I wanted to convey that this important, profound thing happened in my life—and that this profound thing that happened changed me.
I wanted to convey my strong feelings about the importance of our having the guts to pick up our books and leave the church yard. My brilliant son became a brilliant man, and that brilliant man wouldn’t have respected my not getting on with it.
Sean Murphy talks about his piece “Red State Sewer Side” from Issue 8 of Arkana.
INTERVIEWED BY LIZ LARSON (FICTION EDITOR FOR ISSUE 8).
Liz Larson: Let’s get right at the title, “Red State Sewer Side.” We’ve had many readers who were curious about its origins. Can you tell us your thoughts behind choosing this title?
Sean Murphy: “Red State Sewer Side” was the title for a poem that never got written, and perhaps because it so obviously does not derive from personal experience, I’ve had several friends ask me where this piece of fiction came from. Often, the origin of a story can be as simple as a title that demands an effort to justify or explore it; other times it’s a single line of dialogue or description that arrives, unprompted, and you work your way forward from there. A lot of times it’s not secretive or sensible; inspiration strikes (or it doesn’t) but the best stuff happens when the writer isn’t entirely sure what is happening or, when it’s finished, how it came to be written.
In terms of why I used this title, I like the way it works as one of the expressions or words the boy misunderstands throughout the story (e.g., “pre-empty strike,” “Apple-Asian tour,” etc.), and forms its own micro-commentary on things lost in figurative translation because of age, education, or context.
LL: How did you come to pair the local characters with the distrusted outsider, who thinks he’s got it all figured out? What is the kernel of this story’s origin? Current events? Politics?
SM: This story sprang to life from a single image via a vivid and disturbing dream. I woke up and it was right there: a young boy, at least ten and no more than fourteen, in a fist fight. He is winning the fight, but he’s afraid. He’s afraid because he’s surrounded by other kids he doesn’t know, and the hostility on their faces suggests they’re all more than willing to jump in and assist their classmate. He understands that even (perhaps especially) if he’s victorious in this scrap, he’s still going to be the target for a type of violence he’s never experienced and can’t understand.
This is not anything I’ve ever experienced, but something I needed to make sense of: the vision of young boys not merely happy and entertained (boys will be boys, and who doesn’t recall the collective glee that greeted a locker room brawl?), but reinforcing, on some instinctive level, that this violence is necessary, a statement, and something they’re accustomed to enforcing—in their own way. Of course, the boy’s father and his attitudes/experiences, illustrates how things have changed—and in some cases, remained the same—for his son’s generation.
The story is also, certainly, informed by politics and our current sociopolitical moment.
“Red State Sewer Side” is one of a handful of recent stories that attempts to interrogate the why behind the how, the who behind the what. The working title of this collection, entitled That’s Why God Made Men, offers an unvarnished look at life in 21st Century America, and some of what that entails, with a particular focus on the causes and effects of toxic masculinity, including the pressures and tensions of so-called adult life, and the ways men grapple with them, often without success. Issues such as alcoholism, violence, competition, family/marital relationships, and the inexorable fear of (and/or confrontation with) death, abound, and many of these stories live in that slow implosion of coping, and often failing, as well as those who refuse to succumb. The stories, while not topical by decision (or calculation), nevertheless address issues oft-discussed, or not discussed enough, in mainstream print: gun violence, the recent history of coal county Appalachia, sports-related concussions, illegal immigration (and the jobs many of those ostensibly unwelcome folks are willing, if obliged to do), and the inability of many men to honestly connect or communicate.
LL:In response to the events of 2020, how has your writing changed? What’s been its progression? Is there a routine to your writing that you follow?
SM: I’ve noted that the batch of short stories I’ve written these last few years feature people and perspectives far outside my scope of lived experience, with characters (older widowed men, mothers, younger boys) I can’t claim to represent with authority. But they are informed by a repeated pattern and habit of reading, writing, and observing. And not just eyewitness appraisals of day-to-day life, but an active and ongoing dive into what’s happening—on the surface and beneath the façade; so that politics and history are inseparable from motivation. And there’s a common thread, which some of us were taught to find and deconstruct during grad school, that might better illustrate how people in different times or places have common (and in some instances, very different) desires or fears or obsessions.
LL: As a writer, how do you research a story? Before you begin? Or do you write first and then research as needed? Talk to us about this process.
SM: I know that certain types of fiction (historical, especially) and non-fiction (memoir or biography) necessitate research and seek to be as accurate as possible, not only for artistic, but legal reasons. Fiction writers are generally more liberated, particularly if one is more interested in feelings than answers. There’s a sort of willful ambiguity involved where, of course, you want to reflect reality (the writer’s reality; a character’s reality) but also take liberties in the service of the story. All of which is to say, I don’t think there are any false or irresponsible notes in “Red State Sewer Side,” but I also didn’t feel obliged to do a great deal of research; despite the themes and setting, there are more universal (yet ambiguous) threads, such as violence, youth, identity, and a breakdown of understanding.
I think a more succinct and perhaps less pretentious way of putting this is that some writers—and here I include myself—start with an idea or question, and then follow the creative process where it leads (including myriad false stops, most of which get abandoned), and often you end up somewhere you never intended or imagined. You have to trust the story is finding its way and the end result is true in a way that transcends verisimilitude. (Okay, that’s pretty pretentious, too, but in order to delight or surprise a reader, the writer too needs to be delighted or surprised and occasionally even troubled by what the creative process turned up.)
Lori D. Johnson talks about her piece “The Trees of Mississippi: A Strange and Bitter Crop” from Issue 8 of Arkana.
INTERVIEWED BY JENNIFER MCCUNE (CREATIVE NON-FICTION EDITOR).
Jennifer McCune: How did composing this piece leave you feeling once it was finished?
Lori D. Johnson: Somber, pensive, but somewhat unburdened. Writing for me, especially essays, is typically cathartic. From an emotional standpoint, I’ve long found it helpful to upload (or download, as the case may be) my feelings onto the page rather than allow them to fester within.
JM: Legacy appears as an important theme in this work. What legacy do you wish to leave the reader with this piece?
LDJ: A bit of insight, perhaps, into the complicated and outright conflicted feelings many of us with ties to the South have about those connections. I hope the reader understands that for some of us, the South is truly haunted by ghosts of all kinds—be they secrets, silences, mysteries, lies or those things we or our kinfolk have come to categorize as too horrible to admit, mention and/or remember. But every now and then, those ghosts make their presence known. Sometimes in ways that are subtle. Other times in ways that are painfully conspicuous. Many of us are constantly weighing what we love and cherish about the South against the wounds we’ve inherited from the abuses we and our people have borne.
JM: Which authors influence your writing the most and why?
LDJ: Probably Toni Cade Bambara, first and foremost. Her short story collection, Gorilla, My Love, is a work I adore. Throughout the collection, Bambara demonstrates both an unapologetic appreciation of the Black vernacular and a willingness to paint little Black girls as defiant and triumphant, rather than tragic and defeated. I not only see myself and the people I love in Bambara’s work, I see her love, respect, and concern for our culture and community. Hers is a full embrace.
Even though Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God is revered by many, she is someone I admire more for her work as an anthropologist (Mules and Men is my favorite work by her) as well as her audaciousness and versatility as an artist. I look to her as a role model and a reminder that (1) more often than not, it’s okay to break the rules and (2) I’m not obliged to limit myself to one genre. I hope my work, like hers, reflects an appreciation of folkways, folk speech, and folk symbolism.
Flannery O’Connor’s short story collection A Good Man Is Hard To Find was the first to introduce me to the concept of Southern Gothic. Over the years, I’ve found myself drawn again and again to her flawed Southern characters, her biting sense of humor, and her tendency to weave religious themes and critiques into her work. While I’m still enthralled by much of her work, the fact that she harbored racist attitudes, if not a deep disdain for African Americans (as confirmed by recent articles in the New Yorker and elsewhere), has diminished the high regard I once held for her.