Sometimes the hardest thing about the literary world is confronting its whiteness. At Kweli, we are constantly creating a literary space of inclusion for writers of color. Inclusion, we believe, is normalizing diversity so that one day, as an old mentor of mine once said, “you don’t have to turn left in a bookstore to read us-our work would be placed at the entrance, front and center.” AAWW does this work too, the work of empowering diverse voices because the work of people of color ought not to be otherized or branded as a trendy genre. Empowerment requires the providing of information and validation—which is exactly what this year’s PubCon 2016 set out to do and accomplished. Novelists, literary agents, editors, journalists, poets, marketing heads: all aspects of publishing were humanized and readily accessible to the audience. There were even banh-mi sandwiches.
AAWW has come a long way since executive editor Ken Chen took the helm. The success stories veteran industry officials provided during AAWW’s PubCon this year demonstrates exactly that. Set in the gorgeous ISSUE Room in Brooklyn, the conference spanned from 11 am till 6 pm, with an incredible range of intimacy and perspective. The conference, however, did not focus simply on the acquisition of agents or the publishing process. From finding your “beat” in non-fiction and journalism to what different MFA graduates wish they had known pre-program, AAWW PubCon demonstrated how connections are crucial to a career in writing and how to build those connections. The major takeaway of the conference is this: finding your literary community is integral to your success as a writer of color.
In total, there were seven panels. The prevailing advice from each panel was a two pronged one: build your support network, your community and two: hold each other accountable to keep submitting.
The first panel of the conference, titled “What You Know,” outlined the fundamentals of non-fiction writing ,reporting, and the multitude of ways writers find their footing in journalism. As a poet and hopeful academic, I found this panel most informative as I am pretty unfamiliar with this sphere of the literary world. The panelists wrestled with the classic question: is Journalism school necessary for a successful career in non-fiction writing? The answer: not exactly, but internships are. Adrian Chen, a staff writer at the New Yorker, advised that it is easier to break into an internship opportunity with an online publicationthan with one of the traditional print institutions. Furthermore, while all the panelists emphasized the necessity of an aggressive, earnest pitch, Jia Tolentino of Buzzfeed stressed to audience membersto “Treasure your voice.” She urged—“don’t sell your identity hardship piece short. You are more than your identity. You are more than that piece.” Remembering this advice will be vital to developing your own “beat,” or your particular specialty. This is fundamental to a fruitful career in non-fiction writing.
The second panel of the conference, “Hard Out Here”, covered the unique stories of POC panelists who ascended the obstacles of socio-economic class, race, culture, migration, and gender. Jiayang Fan, an immigrant herself, described how she went from working as a fact-checker for the New York Times to being a staff writer. Much like Jia Tolentino at Jezebel stressed, Fan went beyond writing her connection and knowledge of China. She made her opinion matter through constant pitching, hard work, and resilience in spite of rejection. Kashna Cauley, the columnist on social class and culture for Catapult, spoke passionately about the wealth of conversation to be had about the intersection between race and class. The star of this panel, however, was the moderatorIsaac Fitzgerald, editor of Buzzfeed Books. Tattooed and beaming, his booming voice told the story of how he went from a rough area of Boston, where finishing high school is a feat, to becoming Editor of Buzzfeed Books. His vibrance and humor enlivened the hall, waking up everyone in their chairs.
The third panel titled “What I Wish I Knew Before My MFA” taught me one major fact: “MFA is war.” War with your writerly demons, battling the “I’m not good enough” voice every writer knows too well. War with your peers, your enemies; war with financial justification. But what became abundantly clear over the course of this highly entertaining panel is that every MFA program is distinct and different so you should know what you want for an MFA experience from the get go. From Hunter College MFA graduate and Kweli contributor Kaitlyn Greenidge to the endearingly self-deprecating Karim Dimechkie, graduate of the Thatcher Center, it was clear that the MFA experience can offer dramatically different experiences for MFAers of color, depending on the program. To make a generalization about the MFA would be wrong. Some programs are more academic, while others are self-driven like the Thatcher center. Some are more professional like the Hunter College MFA Program where graduate students assist working authors like Toni Morrison. Naomi Jackson, graduate of the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop, described her MFA experience as a “semi-retired life,” particularly after spending her pre-MFA years working at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.
The absolute highlight of the conference was, without any doubts, Editor Chris Jackson’s acceptance speech for the AAWW Editorial Achievement Award. Introduced by Guggenheim Fellow and novelist Victor LaValle, Chris Jackson is rather fearless in the way he cultivates diverse excellence in the publishing industry. Jackson is responsible for not only editing LaValle’s work, but also for editing Ta-Nehisi Coates National Book Award winning Between the World and Me. Now that he has taken the helms at One World, a diversity-focused imprint at Random House, Jackson is pushing a non-white literary movement that has been centuries overdue. His speech resonates long after the conference in light of the absurd, mainstream invalidation of the Black Lives Matter movement. In his signature dry wit, Chris Jackson talked about whiteness with all its historic oppression and denial of racism as a “strange culture to aspire to”—a thought every person of color has intuited but maybe had yet to articulate.
The fourth panel could have easily been a standard panel for a publishing conference. But “The Author-Agent-Editor Team,” was anything but in true AAWW alternative fashion. Bushra Rehman, author of Corona, Bushra shared her unusual tale of how Susan Chang (Tor), an editor from a Big Five company, found her through a blog online. Susan Chang then approached Bushra, asking to be her editor—instead of the other way around. From that courtship, Bushra explained how she courted literary Ayesha Pande (Pande Literary). Armed with Susan Chang’s specific editorial vision, Bushra constructed an entirely new work inspired by Corona, but for children. The literary agent in this team took less of an editorial role, working instead on representation and contracts—a role for which Ayesha Pande expressed specific appreciation. This unusual team emphasizes the necessity of self-constructed exposure for emerging novelists looking to be published. Indeed, Bushra was discovered because she never stopped marketing Corona or taking interviews about her work, even much after its publication. She advises that marketing begins far before the release on the author’s end—such as releasing chapters in journals pre-publication.
“How to Break into Speculative Fiction” was the fifth panel. It that should have been titled: “How to Conference and Connect.” This panel featured debut novelists Jennifer Marie Bessett (Elysium) and Malka Older (Infomocracy), moderated by Science Fiction editor Tim O’Connell (Vintage). Jennifer Marie Bessett was a burst of fresh comedic sweetness and embodied the importance of diversity focused fellowships for people of color authors to attend conferences. By attending a writer’s conference, Bessett was able to pitch her book to an agent and gain a contract with a publisher. Self-advocacy continued to be a strong theme for all the panels.
The second to last panel, “Finding Your Community” was a panel only AAWW could provide—an intimate portrayal of how a group of Asian American Stanford graduates and real-life best friends found each other at a school that was “as white as Greek yogurt.” This panel was personally special to me as an Asian American writer at a university, currently craving a template of how to build an affinity collective. The panelists outlined how after graduation, this community provided future opportunities and resources that proved priceless in furthering their careers.
The final panel, “Working the Publishing World” was definitely the selling point of AAWW’s PubCon with big industry officials—with the likes of James Yeh, editor of culture at Vice and Ryan Chapman, head of marketing at BOMB Magazine, were coincidentally cis-gender men. Looking back, this panel ironically was least informative despite being the conference’s selling point. But what struck me was Katie Raissian (Grove Atlantic) the moderator for the panel. By reading statistics of representation—how many cisgender people work in publishing, how many men in contrast to women—she actively held these successful cis-men accountable for their privilege. She challenged the often passive role of moderator and I appreciated her presence.
Attending this conference catalyzed my outlook on my life as a young Korean-American woman and poet. Visibility is a concept thrown around frequently in the liberal sphere, but I cannot tell you how important it was to see people who looked like me, succeeding. In the words of Adrian Chen and Chris Jackson, having a space of “alternative thought” where community, validation, support, and accountability can be afforded to another is invaluable. Without the work of organizations like Kweli and AAWW, how can we begin toclose in on a reality flush with people of color?
Criss Moon is a Kweli Summer 2016 Intern. She is a rising junior studying Classics and English Literature at Columbia University. The daughter of Korean immigrants, she is dedicated to learning the craft of poetry and conversation. She was recently published by the Sad Girls Asian Club in their first book of Asian American female artists, VOLUME I. Her poem “yun-uh” was awarded the Saeed Jones Quarto Award, an award given by the literary journal of the Columbia University Creative Writing Department. She is a proud ally, advocate, activist, and lover of the written words. She resides in NYC.