From the Belly to the Throat by Melissa R. Sipin

The week before I left for the Kweli Journal Conference in New York, I stood beneath Christmas lights in the middle of Uptown Body & Fender in Oakland with Steve Barnes at the VONA/Voices 15th Birthday Party. I was exhausted, tired, jittery, anxious, happy, and awkward. Junot Díaz, my workshop instructor for that week, introduced me to Steve, saying, “Let me introduce you to Melissa, the planner of this whole party. Melissa, this is Steven Barnes, one of my favorite writers.” My face immediately became flushed. I thanked him for coming. I waved my hand over my face, “Now that I know who you are, I’m going to be awkward!”

He was kind: “I love being awkward. It’s a sign of transition, of growth. If you’re in that state, be thankful. It means you are growing.”

This is how I felt at the Kweli Journal Conference. It was a hectic, crazy, awkward, and wonderful day for all us, and especially for Laura Pegram, our champion Editor-in-Chief for Kweli Journal. There was a fire in Dumbo, Brooklyn that afternoon which caused a power outage at Dumbo Sky (the conference venue two years running). In only two hours, Laura called a few of her contacts and successfully changed the venue to Poet’s Den Theatre and Gallery in East Harlem. Despite the change of venue, many flocked to Kweli’s Third Annual Writers’ Conference. I recognized many beautiful and familiar faces there from VONA/Voices, a writers-of-color conference held at UC Berkeley, and co-founded by Junot Díaz, Victor Díaz, Elmaz Abinader, and Diem Jones. There was also a host of other diverse writers, and you could feel the synergy in the dimly lit theater. We were excited, and yes, we were all feeling rather awkward.

Many of us carried our folders and manuscripts close to our chests, not sure how to pitch our books. But as we stood underneath the foggy theatre lights, groups formed among the crowd of writers, and many of us practiced our pitches to each other, giving advice and pointers and support. We were all awkward, but you could tell the room was filled with love and community. When Laura walked in, you could feel the room become brighter. 

Mind you, before I came to the Kweli Journal Writers' Conference, I was still mulling over my workshop with Junot Díaz. The one caveat he left us with before we headed into the world was this: “The whole culture is telling you to hurry, while the art tells you to take your time. Always listen to the art.” Coming to the Kweli Conference, I had this implanted in my mind—that despite what the behemoth of the industry would say, at the end of the day, I must, as an artist, separate “the work” from “the machine.” As I sat in the pews waiting for the conference to begin, I could feel the anxiety rise from the belly to the throat. But my VONA tribe was there: all of us sat together, ready to get our pitches out.

Soon the panelists gathered on the stage and the conference started. The first panel, “The Publishing Process,” featured a roundtable of prestigious editors and big agents: Malaika Adero (Vice President and Senior Editor of Atria Books, an division of Simon & Schuster), Dawn Davis (Vice President and Publisher of 37 Ink, an imprint within the Atria Publishing Group), Julia A. Masnik (Literary Agent at Watkins/Loomis Agency, Inc.), Michael Mejias (Literary Scout at Writers House), Latoya Smith (Associate Editor at Hachette Book Group), and Steve Woodward (Associate Editor at Graywolf Press). The moderator, Linda Duggins (Director of Publicity at Grand Central Publishing, an Imprint of Hachette Book Group), took the stage and asked the pressing questions—What’s the terrain of the publishing world? How does one query a press/agent/big publishing house? What do agents/editors look for in a pitch? When it finally came to the Q&A session, I asked the dreaded interlinked short fiction question: What’s the terrain (or difficulty) for interlinked collections? The answers across the panel varied. Most of it was the machine’s refrain: short story collections do not sell. Editor Steve Woodward, however, assured the crowd that Graywolf Press loves short story collections, but yes, they still work primarily through agents. The behemoth of the industry had spoken. The Q&A session switched to the question of platform and the importance of social media—do we, as writers, need a platform? The panelists discussed how the answer varies: if you write memoir, then yes, a platform is imperative. If you write fiction, it varies. If you write poetry, it’s not as relevant. But what I learned most from this discussion was that platform and social media are simply tools to build a literary community. Woodward expanded the concept: “You can’t think one Twitter follower equals selling one book; social media isn’t an exchange of monetary values. Think of Facebook, Twitter, and blogging as building your literary community, as your process of being a literary citizen. If you share great news of your friend’s recent book deal, hopefully they’ll share the news of your book deal too. It’s about catalyzing the conversations around literature: it’s about the art.”

This brought me back to what Junot had said: “Always listen to the art.” When the second panel began and authors came on stage, I was excited to hear what established writers had to say. The panel, “The Realities of the Writing Life,” consisted of Jeffery Renard Allen (author of Song of the Shank), Mitchell S. Jackson (author of The Residue Years), Sergio Troncoso (author of Our Lost Border), Neela Vaswani (author of You Have Given Me a Country), and Morowa Yejidé (author of Time of the Locust). Moderator Bridgett M. Davis began the panel with the most hard-hitting question—How do you sustain your writing life? Allen, Jackson, Troncoso, and Yejidé all agreed: you must always put the art first. You must learn how to say no. You must learn how to manage your finances. You must do the work, you must believe in it, you must separate it from the machine, and you must query, write, write, revise, write, and revise once more. I felt a surge of hope mixed with that in-between stage of awkwardness. I felt growth. I entered the Pitch Slam with the drive and belief in what I had written over the past five years, what I toiled and worked over and over until I felt numb.

I came out of the Pitch Slam unscathed. I pitched to two editors and two agents, feeling a sincere connection with three of them. I was awkward during the first pitch. I was the second one up to pitch her manuscript, and I clumsily forgot to ask for her business card. I’m not quite sure if she was interested in my collection, but I learned from the first pitch and was strengthened for the next round. From the lovely Dawn Davis, I learned an agent’s name who would be interested in my Overseas Filipino Worker (OFW) stories, and when our session was finished, she called me back on stage and said, “I read your first paragraph, Melissa, and I loved it. Make sure you tell XXX that I sent you, and I’d be interested in publishing your manuscript.” From the affable and kind Steve Woodward, I shared our love of stories that focus on the Filipino diaspora, fawning over some of our favorite authors like Lysley Tenorio, M. Evelina Galang, and Miguel Syjuco. When I pitched my manuscript to him, I made a note to mark the differences between my book and books by Tenorio, Galang, and Syjuco. From the energetic and giving Michael Mejias, we conversed about the shared problems in Latino and Filipino readerships, our goals in helping our communities love the Page, and what excites us most about literature and the universalities of our shared experiences.

As I left Kweli Journal’s Conference, I knew I had shifted and changed through my awkward phase. Nothing may come from my pitches, and each pitch may have been practice, but I knew I grew as a writer. I kept what Steve Barnes said to me close to my heart. As I headed out the door to dinner with my fellow VONA writers, I felt empowered—as if the publishing world could, and would want to read my work. And what I learned most at Kweli’s conference, what I gained most from each conversation was this: that a person sat across from me, ready to hear my story, and despite the selling points and the industry’s machine that hovered above us, we all shared that love of art. We all listened to, and deeply loved, the art that came from the belly to the throat.