Anisa Onofre, co-editor of Aztlan Libre Press, has pointed me to this 1999 article on Norma Alarcón, upon the 20th anniversary of Third Woman Press.

I am especially struck by this paragraph:

Third Woman Press began originally as an antidote to loneliness, when Alarcón -- a specialist in feminist critical theory, cultural criticism, and studies of Chicana/Latinas and women of color -- was doing graduate work in Bloomington, Indiana. Born in Mexico near the Texas border and reared in San Antonio, then Chicago, she says she realized that "there weren't enough women of color or Latinas in Bloomington for me to have a conversation with."

I read the above passage in response to Kathleen Rooney’s question: “are mission-driven presses that focus on producing and distributing work by members of under-represented groups necessary and desirable? Why or why not?”

These days, we think writers of color, women of color, are published more abundantly than in the past. I believe this is true, and my own experience as a author who is a woman of color tells me also this is true.

My first book was published by Marie Romero’s Arkipelago Books, a South of Market, San Francisco based, Filipina American owned, Filipino American focused press and bookstore. My first book had very limited circulation, and a very limited audience. My second book was published by a Susan Schultz’s Tinfish Press, founded “in order to facilitate conversations between experimental writing (written mostly outside of Hawai`i) and the important writing being done in Hawai`i.” My second book widened my circle, placed me in conversation with a lot more folks than I ever thought would discuss my work. My third book is published by Boa Editions, Ltd.; like my second book, it's actually getting read and taught, and this is something that’s still taking a while to get used to for me.

Another thing I do know from experience is that for every one woman of color author who’s become widely published, read, taught, studied, there are so many other women of color writers that I do not see in print, or who appear to be having a very hard time finding book publication, or adequate distribution.

My short answer to Rooney is, yes, mission-driven presses are desirable and necessary, as I am interested in movements out of obscurity and out of the margins.

This is my longer answer, in response to this, Elisa Gabbert’s “Boys’ Club Manifesto” which Rooney cites: “I’ve had men, not just any men but my friends, tell me to my face that it’s easier for me to get published because I’m a woman and because I’m attractive. People will publish me in their magazines because they need token women, and people will ask me to read in their series so they can have a cute girl in the lineup.” And Kwame Dawes’s “if the poet were not black, they might never have gotten into the anthology, the course syllabi, the university position, the festival list, the reading series, etc.”

About people who actually think these things: F*** ‘em. I think this is the mean spirited behavior that proliferates in po-biz, when a jealous, entitled poet decides others are not deserving of publication or prizes, when this decision is based on what he does not have. I think that some mean spirited behavior is also straight up racist and sexist and it needs to be called out. People of color and women, and heaven forbid, women of color, are not barbarians at the gate. We do create challenging and admirable works of high literary merit, so get used to it.

In teaching moments, we can talk about historical disparity, under-represented communities typically viewed through manistream lenses and subsequently misrepresented, oftentimes to suit the viewer's own needs or agenda. Also, we can talk about why the literature of these marginalized communities is to be read in multiple contexts. Why code switching? Why “vernacular” or “dialect?” Why these "unfamiliar" cultural and historical references? Why these poetic forms and traditions other than what we read in the Western canon, or why these altered deployments of canonical form? Why this more defiant political stance? Consider these an extension of: what is the speaker’s position? What are the writer’s concerns, motivations, agenda? We already ask these things when we read any piece of literature.

Indeed, I think if more editors at established publishing houses are asking these questions, then we're experiencing progress. In the meantime, yes to more feminist presses, ethnic-specific presses, mission-driven presses, which are necessary to publish the work that will encourage more folks to ask these questions.

It’s not about identity politics quotas, or oppression olympics. It’s about opening closed minds, and widening our vision, expanding the conversation, bringing more folks into the conversation, and so creating “an antidote to loneliness.”

Originally Published: April 18th, 2011

Barbara Jane Reyes was born in Manila, the Philippines, and grew up in the San Francisco Bay area. She earned a BA in ethnic studies from the University of California at Berkeley and an MFA from San Francisco State University. She is the author of the poetry collections Gravities of...