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HER KIND Interview
Designed this spring by Cate Marvin, and edited by Rosebud Ben-Oni and Arisa White, HER KIND was created when VIDA, an organization devoted to tracking and increasing women’s participation in today’s literary landscape, recognized the need for writers to talk about their experiences writing within a culture that gives more weight to male voices. As Marvin, one of VIDA’s founders puts it, “We believe that any writer concerned about the vitality of literature as it’s being produced today inherently understands how exciting it is to come into contact with under-recognized voices.” What are the joys and struggles of creating this space now? This June, Tess Taylor, writing for Harriet, took some time to talk to Marvin, Ben-Oni and White about their venture so far.
HARRIET: In your mission statement, you affirm HER KIND’s commitment to being “funny, thorny, contemplative, and savvy” and to exploring the diversity of women’s voices today. As you think about this mission are there particular points of discussion you’re aware of? Camps or perspectives you feel particularly called to attend to? Or is your curatorial sense more organized on a case-by-case basis?
Rosebud Ben-Oni: I’m interested in perspectives I come across too rarely. For me, it’s about invention. I’m not looking for voices that serve our mission, but rather for us to serve as a platform for a multitude of discoveries. I’m interested in writers who provoke new conversations.
When I hear “diversity,” I reroute the word in my head and think “necessity.” As a female writer speaking from mixed roots (Hispanic and Middle Eastern), it’s never been easy to define myself by a sole category. Culture is messy, fluid, and constantly in flux; I’m intrigued by writers who not only write from within their culture, but spark whole new worlds writing into other cultures, provoking both insurrections and moments of clarity into existence. There are many voices absent at the so-called beginning of “American” literature. Once, in teaching a particular course at a college, I was told that my syllabus, though diverse, had too many “recent” and “specific” offerings to assist students in understanding the “American experience.”
But “history” is too rarely a plural word, and the U.S. is a very young country. I’m interested in where it is going. I believe the texts I taught—which included Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid and The Hmong American Writers’ Circle How Do I Begin?—represent the country’s futures. I hope I never stop discovering the many missing voices of women who have built and continue to build the world reflected in literature.
Cate Marvin: While I’ve overseen the design of the HER KIND site, its editorial content is entirely the brain-child of Arisa and Rosebud. They have both introduced me to many writers with whom I’d not been previously familiar. This sort of revelation is typical of VIDA projects. It’s my personal hope that the forum created by HER KIND will help us all educate ourselves about women’s writing—specifically and broadly, across barriers imposed by genre, regional, ethnic and aesthetic affiliations, and generational barriers. Women writers of all types face similar difficulties when it comes to the reception of their work. One of VIDA’s goals is to create larger readership amongst ourselves that will serve, inform, and inspire us all.
Arisa White: I took on HER KIND to meet other smart and wonderful writers who were interested in making creative change, to imagine new ways to forge thriving literary communities for women. I’m open to seeing what comes our way. I look for voices and writing that pull back the layers. In many ways, Rosebud and I are saying the same thing. One of the joys in working with her is that despite having not met Rosebud in person (our work together has been conducted via email and phone conversations), we’re often on the same page. This sense of simpatico is nice—we share a similar brain.
HARRIET: Your working name “HER KIND” quotes the remarkable Anne Sexton poem. Which women writers of past generations most inspire you?
AW: Muriel Rukeyser, Louise Labé, and Ai. I came across Ai in high school; I would spend hours in Borders reading in a corner because I couldn’t afford the book. I was moved by her ability to inhabit the voices of different people. Ai felt brave—she was a poet who didn’t allow identity to get in the way of her writing. Labé embodied that same braveness—using the Petrarchan sonnet to speak her female-woman perspective. Rukeyser took risks as well—she used poetry to bring awareness to social injustices everywhere. These poets were in direct conversation with the social and cultural realities of their time, and each changed how we use a poem and our expectations of what a poem can do.
RB: Jamaica Kincaid does wonderful things with language and history. She’s candid about experience rather than political with an agenda. Nawal El-Saadawi’s Memoirs from the Women’s Prison should be required reading for higher education; both the struggles within the prison for better conditions and the struggle to get out of the prison shaped my own understanding of just how much life calls for women to innovate and never despair. Of course, there are countless other favorites— Gloria Andaluza’s La Frontera, Bapsi Sidhwa’s Cracking India and the work of the Hebrew poet Rahel—all of these women speak to me.
CM: I would have to say all of them. Not just those canonized. But those who have squeaked their uneasy spaces into the said canon are most worthy, to my mind, of recognition, and they have my profound gratitude for the spaces they cleared for women’s voices. The writers who come to mind for me personally are Denise Levertov, Muriel Rukeyser, May Swenson, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich. I also feel grateful for many fiction writers: Carson McCullers, Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larsen, Toni Morrison, Flannery O’Connor, Jean Stafford, Joy Williams, Ana Castillo, Stephanie Vaughn, Susan Minot. My list goes on.
HARRIET: Among your first picks are Robin Lewis, Angel Kyodo Williams, Melissa Chadburn and Roxane Gay. Can you say a little about how each of these subjects arrived on your editorial radar?
AW: Robin Lewis is vocal on the Cave Canem listserve—she’s on point, open and candid, smart and witty. I enjoy people who can be all those things and also be welcoming and unafraid of their humanity. Rev. angel Kyodo williams is also one of those people. She is an inspiring presence, she brings spirit to her activism and writing, in a way that makes sense, is good and right with you. She’s a voice you want to hear again. This quality exemplifies my approach to choosing writers I solicit for HER KIND.
RB: Chadburn first came on my radar after I read her essay “The Throwaways” in The Rumpus. I read Gay’s widely-followed blog in which she discusses her experiences as a writer and a witness to the world-at-large. I was thrilled to have them in conversation.
HARRIET: Historically the labels “woman’s writing” or “women writers” have offered difficult mantles that some writers have shied away from. Elizabeth Bishop, for instance, never wanted to be published in anthologies about women or feminism—finding that way of self-identifying to be limiting and uncomfortable for her. Is this discomfort still in effect? If so, what are your thoughts or plans about navigating it?
AW: It’s still in effect—showing itself in different ways—and that is because the reason for the discomfort still exists. Sexism exists, like most of the isms, because we haven’t yet figured out sustaining ways to authentically relate with one another. We live in a culture that thrives on fear, and this is why HER KIND is about creating a space for women writers to be comfortable with being a woman writer. I kind of envision Diana Ross’ “I’m Coming Out” to start playing and for all the studious, wild, writerly women to emerge from their nooks and begin sharing their stories with one another.
CM: I think the struggle to come to terms with categories is understandable. To consider oneself a “woman writer” is to be instantly relegated to a “sub-category.” Most serious writers hope to reach an audience comprised of various readers—if this were not the case, writers would be content to write private journal entries. Women make up more than half of the population, yet are daily reminded of their diminished status via the news (the many articles that enumerate and sensationalize violence toward us), the pressure to conform to a heterosexual norm, the responsibility for both parents and children, not to mention daily, casual treatment of women that communicates that we are taken less seriously than men. No woman exists who is not exposed to these prevailing cultural implications and their resounding repercussions. And women bear the additional burden of cultural and ethnic identity… and I would say that all women bear this additional brunt, even white women (who are expected to believe they have the same privileges as their white male counterparts, or so-called counterparts. Women are split every which way, and often made to feel divided when we actually share the same obstacles getting our due for work done well, and even for invention and even genius conducted against the odds of what’s been accepted from women of intellectual pursuit.
RB: I dig what Arisa and Cate are saying here. I don’t want HER KIND to be labeled in any particular way myself, not because I’m afraid of the mantle. I want this blog to be a positive force. Like I said before, I’m looking for futures. But avoiding labels is impossible; being mixed, I realize that many tend to categorize as if categorizing were preprogrammed by human nature. Yet labels are best when they’re slipping off: When something is indefinable, it tends both toward confusion—and something new, true, fluid and alive.
HARRIET: What are some of the other challenges in creating meaningful spaces for women writers?
AW: One challenge comes from first defining what is “meaningful” but then not getting stuck on any one definition. Keeping our eyes and ears open to what is being talked about and, also listening to what is NOT talked about, makes us most able to create an offering to women out there.
RB: For me, it’s all about preserving the individual’s voice and style. I am careful when editing not to change something the writer sees as necessarily representative of her voice. For instance, the poet francie j. harris writes in lowercase in her work, and that transfers over to how she writes her name. This might seem like a minor example, but there are reasons that she does this. To understand this, of course, you should read her work. I’m a fan of her book allegiance.
CM: Right now I’m not feeling there’s any sort of challenge at all in acquiring the material for HER KIND. A greater challenge is getting people to feel comfortable enough to enter into the conversation we’re working to create. We hope to model the kind of conversation we’re seeking, one that is receptive and offers true dialogue. Many of the editors of journals we counted this past year either responded defensively, or chose not to respond at all. The ideal response is that of reflection, as modeled by Tin House, who undertook their own count immediately upon seeing their own numbers. The fact is, the lack of representation of all women’s voices in all literary spaces is something we must address frankly. We can only move forward through constructive conversation, which necessitates a willingness to listen and consider perspectives that differ from our own.
HARRIET: Can you give us a sneak peak into your upcoming editorial calendar? What’s next?
AW: Poets Dara Wier and Gillian Conoley will participate in a conversation about the theme of “Bridges,” and Vanessa Huang and Cheryl Clarke will do a conversation on that theme later.
RB: Soon we’ll see Tracie Morris, Ren Powell, Ching-In Chen, Dee Williams, Mahogany Brown, Sridala Swami, KMA Sullivan, Latasha Diggs, and Metta Sáma. These women have been involved in numerous projects ranging from recording albums to directing the Nuyorican Poets Café Poetry Program to showcasing installations in the Whitney Biennial. Powerhouses who wear many different hats. I can’t wait to see who comes our way next.
ROSEBUD BEN ONI is a playwright at New Perspectives Theater, where she is at work on a new play. Her first book of poems Solecism is forthcoming from Virtual Artists’ Collective in 2013.
ARISA WHITE is a Cave Canem fellow and an MFA graduate from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Virtual Artists Collective published her debut collection, Hurrah’s Nest. www.ariswhite.com
CATE MARVIN’s third book of poems, A Trembling, is forthcoming from W.W. Norton & Co. in 2013. She is an associate professor in creative writing at the College of Staten Island, CUNY, and is co-founder with poet Erin Belieu of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts.
TESS TAYLOR’s chapbook, published by the PSA, is The Misremembered World. Her first book of poems, The Forage House, will be out in September 2013 from Red Hen Press.
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