We really need diverse books

Alyea Photo e1505064988597

Typically, when I tell someone I work at the Feminist Press one of two things usually happens. People either share all of their (usually negative) thoughts about feminism or they ask what that means. The simple answer is that we are a small nonprofit publisher dedicated to uplifting marginalized voices from around the world. Founded in 1970 to recover lost literature by women, the Feminist Press is the longest continually running feminist press in the United States. A large part of why we have lasted so long is that we have adapted with the movements, become more intersectional, and embraced feminisms.

No one likes a check-box approach to diversity. It’s not satisfying to anyone. As an editor, I have books I’m looking out for (ahem, feminist science fiction and trans voices), but I wouldn’t acquire something purely because of the author’s identity. At the same time, uplifting marginalized voices can be trickier than it sounds. When you’re a person of color or queer or a woman you are often told that there can only be one—the token. You know, the black friend. Tokenism permeates our curricula and syllabi, our workplaces and friend groups. As long as there’s one it’s not racist/sexist/homophobic. But the token can’t be just anyone: it’s a stereotype, and if you don’t fit you have to contort yourself. One of the many problems with this is that budding marginalized authors have to find their voice through the inspiration or influence of their oppressor. They are told again and again that their stories aren’t relatable, or that publishing doesn’t need another black woman essayist because there’s already Roxane Gay (a story Gay told on the Sooo Many White Guys podcast). It becomes a feedback loop. Marginalized voices are softened so that they have a better chance of being “the one.”

We want stories that aren’t told, aren’t told often or well, or are from communities underrepresented in publishing. We’re more willing to take risks on voices or titles that seem risky or when we feel like the text is important. This is more important than the politics of a submission. Obviously, FP has lines we’re not going to cross and it’s not enough to only have a woman in a manuscript, but we can always craft a narrative as to how a book fits into our mission. For example, we published Beijing Comrades by Bei Tong, the first gay novel to come out of China, and in January we have a book from Guadalupe, The Restless, which tells a story around a riot-turned-massacre that occurred in the 1970s. Our translations are often where we take the most risk in terms of publishing a book because of the larger cultural narrative. This book may not sell five thousand copies but gets a new voice into the English-reading world.

Similarly, we have a queer imprint curated by Michelle Tea, Amethyst Editions, which focuses on stories that move past the coming out narrative. What are the real stories of queer lives? We Were Witches by Ariel Gore explores what it’s like to be a poor, queer single mother trying to go to school and survive in the world. We’ve also started the Louise Meriwether First Book Prize to find new works by women or nonbinary authors of color and the debut winner YZ Chin’s Though I Get Home will be published in April. And that has been an amazing channel for new and interesting POC voices.

Even in our nonfiction we often publish people who aren’t “real” writers. They are people who have been on the ground in the movement but don’t always have the name recognition and are overlooked by bigger publishers. In November, Radical Reproductive Justice comes out and is edited by Loretta J. Ross, Lynn Roberts, Erika Derkas, Whitney Peoples, and Pamela Bridgewater Toure who are all heavy-hitters in the reproductive justice movement but not as well known to the larger public. With the Crunk Feminist Collection we published writing by women of color academics who wanted the space to take a feminist lens to hip hop culture. When I was a young black academic working on pop culture, I used to read that blog all the time, and it reminded me that my work was legitimate and important.

I don’t give this list from our catalog as a massive advertisement for the Feminist Press, but to say that these voices can be found. It’s difficult, it takes effort, and at times can be heartbreaking but when a publisher tells you they only have one because that’s all that’s out there they are lying. I love working for a mission-based publisher that is doing the work to find these voices and lift them up so they can reach the audiences who need them, but if a small nonprofit publisher can find these voices, then so can large publishers and other indies. Editors are trying, we’re not alone in this fight, but there is a lot of work still to be done and it can only be done with a shift to the industry as a whole. In July, Jamia Wilson became our first executive director of color, and it looks like FP’s direction isn’t going to change anytime soon. We will continue to adapt and embrace new voices in the feminist movement. We will continue to be unapologetically intersectional. We’re breaking the feedback loop.

Alyea Canada is assistant editor at the Feminist Press. She received a bachelor’s degree in film and comparative literature from the University of Rochester, and master’s degree in liberal studies from the New School. She currently lives in Brooklyn with a pretty awesome polydactyl cat.

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