“What if I made this the organizing principle of an entire body of writing? ‘Every time you get stuck, come back to this: Write about a scar. Reverse its meaning.'”
In this essay writer/novelist/publisher Ariel Gore reflects on magical realism as an act of transforming realities and reclaiming power, and how the tradition shows up in her new book, We Were Witches (Feminist Press, September 2017). Read our Q&A with Ariel here, and find her tips for incorporating magical realism into your own writing in our biweekly email newsletter.
“Trauma needs a witness,” my mother used to tell me. “Children can survive any kind of abuse if they have one witness.”
I always thought that was a strange thing for my mother to tell me, since she was the main source of my abuse — and I rarely had a witness. But I took her advice.
When I saw the words “magical realism” on my dry-erase board this morning, it occurred to me that I’ve been using it to rewrite trauma and bring in witnesses for a long time now.
Magical realism emerges from fringe cultures and subcultures. It pushed itself up from the post-colonial earth in Latin America, Africa, and India. It bloomed among writers who had been excluded from the colonized, heterosexist, masculine centers of power. Magical realist fiction taught me that, when trapped, sometimes we have to paint our own windows of escape.
It’s not about changing the past.
It’s about getting the power back.
I was in maybe second or third grade when I stepped into my mother’s room, knowing she was already mad at me. What was I thinking? She’d just gotten out of the shower. She wore a white towel around her head and a white robe around her small body. I remember knowing she was mad at me, but I don’t remember now why. She had her back to me when I asked — in hopes of getting out of her hair for a few hours — “Can I go to the movies with Beth?”
I remember a painting of a naked lady on the far wall.
I inhaled fast as my mother spun around, and I don’t know if she slapped me or not — in one version of the memory, she slaps me, in the other version, she does not slap me. But in both versions, after the sound of the slap, my mother says, “I don’t care if you disappear.”
In her “liminal autobiography,” Nobody, Threasa Meads experiments with using strikethrough text to rewrite her experience of being abused by her creepy stepfather. Sometimes she writes the story as it happened, crosses out the part she wishes hadn’t happened, and then writes a new ending. The book is organized like a Choose Your Own Adventure, and, as with those books, it slowly becomes clear that choice is an illusion.
If my mother slaps me, turn to page 3.
In the back of Beth’s station wagon, my legs dangled over the edge of the sweaty upholstery. I stared down at my Mary Janes and sniffled, “My mom says she doesn’t care if I disappear.”
To me, then, the word “disappear” meant that all that would be left of me was a picture on a milk carton. Maybe someday they’d find my raped and murdered body. Maybe they never would.
Beth’s mother didn’t turn around. She kept her eyes on the road and said, “I’m sure your mother didn’t mean that, honey.”
I was pretty sure she did. Mean that.
I still wanted to please my mother, then. Maybe I could learn to disappear. In the dark of the movie theater, I closed my eyes.
Picture yourself suspended safely in a starry sky. Zero gravity, but you can breathe just fine. Start with your toes and make just the very tips of them disappear. We’re out past the rules of matter and nonmatter. Dissolve your body into the night. Inch in, inch up. Can you make all of your toes disappear? That’s good. Keep pulling the energy up. Can you make your feet disappear, too? Good. Now let the disappearance creep up your legs. Now into your hips. Up, up, up.
I don’t remember the drive back from the movie theater in the back of Beth’s station wagon. I can only assume that I’d already disappeared.
Write about a scar, my creative writing teacher said. Real or imagined.
It had been so long since I’d had a teacher — since I wasn’t the teacher myself. Write about a scar.
Reverse the meaning of your most traumatic imprint, my Real Astrology horoscope instructed. And somehow my horoscope got bound up in my mind with the assignment. Write about a scar. Reverse the meaning.
I hadn’t decided I am going to write a nonfiction essay or I am going to write a fictional short story. I had only my teacher’s prompt, my horoscope, this experiment: What if I made this the organizing principle of an entire body of writing? Every time you get stuck, come back to this: Write about a scar. Reverse its meaning.
If I disappear, turn to page 42.
See, magical realism isn’t some kitschy literary device — its history is firmly rooted in the literature of resistance, in the literature of re-visioning.
We’re transmuting violence back into voice.
Maybe it won’t be the same voice we had before. Maybe we’ll prefer the new voice, wrecked and brilliant.
Years after that day in second or third grade, my mother will tell me it never happened. She’ll shake her head the way she did and sip her wine and insist, “I was abused myself, Ariel. I would have known better than to pass along that kind of trauma.”
See, I don’t merge genres to make the bad things unhappen or to make myself seem heroic — usually it’s the bad things and my unheroic responses that make me want to tell the story at all. But sometimes I do need to go in and get my power back. I need to go back and give myself a witness. At the very least, I need to make art out of messy memories.
We can’t unwrite experience, but the lost energy is retrievable. We can create new projections into our histories and into our futures. Magical realist stories seduce — their hallways becoming rushing rivers, their naked ladies in paintings coming to life — but if you lick those pages you can taste the resistance infused in the texts. The rivers lead to freedom, if not safety. The lady in the painting sees all.
Maybe the reason I don’t know whether my mother slapped me or did not slap me is that in the instant before the sound, I was busy scanning the room for a witness.
As the open hand comes at you, think fast. Block or duck. Locate your witness. If there are no human witnesses, don’t worry. We can always con the rational:
A cat can be a witness.
Or the naked lady in the painting framed and nailed onto the stucco wall.
The owl in the oak tree outside will do.
In a pinch, the moon.
I learned to disappear, like it was some kind of superpower.
But I never got lost in that sky of invisibility.
If you can still see me, turn to page 99.
Ariel Gore is the editor and publisher of the Alternative Press Award winning magazine Hip Mama and the author of eight books, including the acclaimed memoir The End of Eve. She has edited half a dozen anthologies, including Breeder (Seal Press), The People’s Apocalypse (Lit Star Press), and the LAMBDA award winning Portland Queer (Lit Star Press). She lives in Oakland, California.
In We Were Witches, magick spells and inverted fairly tales combat queer scapegoating, domestic violence, and high-interest student loans. Wryly riffing on feminist literary tropes, We Were Witches documents the survival of a demonized single mother beset by custody disputes, homophobia, and America’s ever-present obsession with shaming odd women into passive citizenship. The writing draws from a a rich subcultural canon of resistance and failure populated by writers like Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Gloria Anzaldúa, Tillie Olsen, and Kathy Acker. The fiction-memoir hybrid was published in September 2017 by Feminist Press.
…remember that no one sounds or writes like you. Hold onto your own spark.
This Q & A was originally a feature of our Binders Book List bi-weekly email newsletter, in which editor Julia Phillips interviews members of the Binders community who are releasing new books. These treasured Q & A sessions are just too good to relegate to the archives, so we are now sharing them on our blog. For our first installment, we’re featuring poet and storyteller, and co-chair for the NYC BinderCon attendees committee, Cynthia Manick.
Your bio is filled with amazing credits, ranging from a Cave Canem fellowship to a Hedgebrook residency to a finalist spot for a New York Foundation of the Arts fellowship. Of all those experiences, is there one that most shaped you into the writer you are today?
I’ve been really lucky to write and study craft with great people. In terms of influence, workshop experience was the most important for the book [Blue Hallelujahs]. So workshops taught by Cave Canem and the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop helped the most because each meeting, whether it was with Tyehimba Jess, Nikky Finney, or Vievee Francis, taught me something I didn’t know. Those lessons ranged from letting the outside world into poems to recognizing my obsessions and writing within that framework. More importantly, the peers I met in those workshops are people I still send poems to in the middle of the night. Having a safe space and spaces that challenge you to write the hard poems are vital to the writing life.
When I describe Blue Hallelujahs I say the book asks the question: if you’re breathing, what makes you alive? Is it family, sex, blues, gender, race, or is it the way the body interacts with the world? It could be any and all of those things but we enter every dark place with our hands, eyes, and then the body follows. There’s a section of the book called “A Body Full of Verbs” where the black female body is at the core of the poems. I’m obsessed with the concept of beauty and erasure. Place is a circular concept in the book because the poems have multiple geographies. Some poems are based in the South where my family originates, while others exist in present imagination. For example, I have a poem called “Dear Black Dress” where the speaker knows that dress will get her in trouble, but it’s a trouble she likes.
You placed your collection with Black Lawrence Press after sending it into BLP’s open reading period. Any advice for other poets submitting to the slush?
I never had much luck with contests but I was a finalist twice for two other open reading periods before BPL said yes. First off, don’t be in a rush. You see all the announcements of people’s success and it’s easy to think, “Oh, I better get my stuff out there,” but don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Some people can write a book in a month while others take five years. Ask yourself if the book is ready. Do the poems talk to each other? Then I would have someone else read the entire thing, either through a manuscript class or some other venue. We get so close to our own poems that at some point self-editing isn’t useful. Lastly, remember that no one sounds or writes like you. Hold onto your own spark.
Cynthia Manick is the author of Blue Hallelujahs forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press. A Pushcart Prize nominated poet with a MFA in Creative Writing from the New School; she has received fellowships from Cave Canem, the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop, Fine Arts Work Center, the Hambidge Center for the Creative Arts & Sciences, Hedgebrook, Poets House, and the Vermont Studio Center. She was a 2014 finalist for the New York Foundation of Arts Fellowship in Poetry; serves as East Coast Editor of the independent press Jamii Publishing; and is Founder and Curator of the reading series Soul Sister Revue. Select poems have been performed by Emotive Fruition, a performance series in NYC where actors bring life page poetry for the stage; the 92nd Street Y Words We Live In project, and is currently being developed by Motionpoems, a organization dedicated to video poetry. Manick’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in the 2016 Argos Books Poetry Calendar, African American Review, BLACKBERRY: a magazine, Bone Bouquet, Box of Jars, Callaloo, Clockhouse, DMQ Review, Gemini Magazine, Human Equity Through Art (HEArt), Fjords Review, Kinfolks Quarterly, Kweli Journal, Muzzle Magazine, Obsidian: Literature in the African Diaspora, Passages North, Pedestal Magazine, Poetry City, USA, PLUCK! The Journal of Affrilachian Arts and Culture, St. Ann’s Review, Sou’wester, Spillway Magazine, The Cossack Review, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, The Wall Street Journal, The Weary Blues, The Wide Shore: A Journal of Global Women’s Poetry, Tidal Basin Review, and Up the Staircase Quarterly. She currently resides in Brooklyn, New York.
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Writer Interview: Julia Phillips, Post Editors: Andrea Guevara, Leigh Stein
As our birthday week celebrations draw to a close we’d like to leave you with a few more nuggets of goodness. Together, we are making a difference in the careers and lives of women and non-binary writers. Here are two wonderful examples of the successes we love to see and hear about, in their own words:
“Since my very first BinderCon, I went from a small handful of regional publications to bylines in The New York Times, the LA Review of Books, The Rumpus, and Hobart, where my 2015 essay on Twin Peaks was a notable mention in the year’s Best American Essays collection!
I’ve gained the courage to ask for what I want and what I deserve, which has been one of the most important lessons I’ve ever been taught. I see my own value as a writer and can simultaneously map the directions in which I’d like to grow, basing these goals on other powerful women-identifying writers around me.”
“I’ve published personal essays online and made connections with a million Binders–who share and support my work daily. I’ve found editing jobs, been featured on another writer’s website, and been used as an article source. The agent I pitched at BinderCon NYC 2015 told me to pitch her future manuscripts, too!
Like I said, most of my friends are now Binders. I have learned so much about social justice, ally-ship, my passing privilege, how to be a decent person–and that’s not necessarily directed to writing. I’ve learned the importance of pitching, and that there is a market for personal essays, and to keep going. I’ve learned that writing full-time might even be a real possibility.”
Naseem has been an invaluable asset to our social media team and continues to give back to the organization by volunteering.
Want to get involved? Here are a few ways:
- Attend BinderCon NYC 2016 at Cooper Union NYU, October 29 & 30, 2016. Tickets are now available.
- Buy a BinderCon Support a Scholar scholarship ticket for a deserving scholar.
- Donate to the cause!
New York Times bestselling author and BinderCon keynote, Suki Kim has been getting a lot of press as of late, primarily surrounding racism, sexism, and what she considers to be the misbranding of her investigative narrative journalism book, Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite, as memoir. In the past few weeks she has been featured on BuzzFeed News, NPR’s Morning Edition, and FlavorWire.
In her recent essay, “The Reluctant Memoirist,” Kim took on racism and sexism in the publishing world.
“I really do not feel comfortable with my book being called a memoir,” I told her. “I think calling it a memoir trivializes my reporting.”
As the only journalist to have lived undercover in North Korea, Kim explores not only the decision to brand her book as memoir, but the backlash she received from journalists:
“In their eyes, it seemed, I was a memoirist treading on journalistic turf, a Korean schoolteacher who sold out her students for a quick buck.”
Kim was also recently featured on KCRW’s Press Play with Madeline Brand. You can listen to that interview here: How Journalist Suki Kim Became a Reluctant Memoirist.
Last November, Suki Kim was a keynote speaker at BinderCon NYC. Here are a few key video segments from her talk:
Did you know that in the two years BinderCon has been around we’ve facilitated 1,158 pitch meetings? That’s 1,158 meetings between writers and agents, editors, and publishers. Every BinderCon offers the opportunity for attendees to add on Speed Pitch sessions to their agenda. Below are just some of the many success stories from pitch meetings at BinderCon.
A few pitch success stories:
Michelle Marie Robles Wallace pitched Arielle Pardes of Vice and sold the piece, “The Artists Using the US-Mexico Border as a Blank Canvas“!
Lisa Rabasca Roepe sold her story “Are Gen X Women Being Squeezed Out Of The Workplace” To Fast Company as a result of her Speed Pitch session with a Fast Company editor. Here’s what she had to say:
“Fast Company is a publication I read all the time but I never would have the guts to pitch them without the opportunity to speed pitch their editor at BinderCon. I am so thrilled to have pitched this article and then had this published on their site…This would not have been possible without the support of BinderCon. In fact, just about every one of my freelancing gigs can be traced back to the support I get from other Binders so thank you!”
Osayi Endolyn met her agent Monica Odem, of Bradford Literary Agency, at BinderCon, not only at Speed Pitch, but by happenstance sat right next to her in one of the panels sessions before as well. To read the full story of how they met, what made Osayi’s pitch stand out and more, read the full email feature.
Motivated to get your career of the ground? Join us for the 5th BinderCon this October in New York. Tickets are selling faster than ever so get yours now!
We’re always thrilled to see how our programming, support and efforts have helped women and non-binary writers, but it’s not every day we hear about a sister team! We hope you enjoy reading about the RossMottley sisters’ experiences at BinderCon:
I’ve gone to three Bindercon conferences so far and each and every time I have transformative experiences. I’ve been given countless opportunities to connect with women but more importantly women who write. Each time I make a new friend or network with a potential future colleague the foundation for my career becomes stronger and more dynamic. I haven’t done well with the traditional school structure in the past and I find this conference fills that educational space for me. These conferences really have been such a value to me that it can’t be quantified.
Bindercon has impacted my life in immeasurable ways; most significantly with the women I’ve been connected to through this semi-annual conference. I have no idea how I would have met writers who I now consider my mentors, my friends, and the people who inspire me to work hard and believe in myself on a consistent basis. Providing a space for women and gender non-conforming writers to get together, learn from each other, and help each other with their careers is vital. Having dropped out of university, I’ve decidedly been taking an alternative route to my goals. Out of the Binders has helped me get right back on track; especially with the practice pitch meetings. I was able to meet producers whose work I love and was given amazing advice and support. The general atmosphere of the two day event is so encouraging and inspiring! And importantly, it is still very realistic. The balance of the creative panels and workshops with the business ones is one that I personally really enjoy. I’ve made several incredible work connections from this conference that continue to grow. It may sound dramatic, but with complete honesty Bindercon has changed my life. I will always be very grateful to everyone who puts so much time and effort into making the conferences not only happen, but constantly improve. Thank you so much!
July is our birthday month and we’ll be celebrating all this week! Can you believe we’re only two years old? Not, bad for a toddler, huh?
Join us online and keep up with the latest happenings by following the #BinderConTurns2 hashtag.
Don’t forget, this week is your last chance to buy Early Bird Tickets to BinderCon NYC (Oct. 29 & 30, 2016 at NYU)!
Way back when (in 2014), when BinderCon was just a twinkle in Leigh Stein and Lux Alptraum’s eyes, there was the first Kickstarter campaign. MailChimp was the first sponsor to jump on board, helping make the very first BinderCon a reality. Thankfully, they have stuck with us through the four conferences we’ve produced since. Once again we’d like to thank MailChimp for furthering the careers of women and gender non-conforming writers across the globe.
We applaud MailChimp’s commitment to diversity and their support of BinderCon.
This LA BinderCon was, dare we say, our best yet and as we continue to learn and grow we hope MailChimp will continue to stay on as one of our founding sponsors.
Follow them on Twitter and Facebook. And if you’re building an email list get started with their email marketing platform for free.
Since it’s inception, BinderCon has had the backing of The Harnisch Foundation. We were honored once again to have their sponsorship support for BinderCon LA 2016. Each conference continues to grow and their generous support helps us to keep improving and expanding this movement.
One of our goals is to help women and gender non-conforming writers wherever they may be on this planet and The Harnisch Foundation stepped up once again to sponsor our livestream. What a livestream it was! This time we had viewing events/parties across the globe, from San Francisco to Jerusalem, Toronto to Florida, and so many more locales. Even better, our livestream viewership quadrupled from our last conference in November!
Yesterday, during the Being a Writer While Having a Life panel, moderator Julia Fierro jokingly asked whether anyone was really watching the livestream. Within seconds Twitter users responded from Berlin & Toronto that they were not only watching, but loved the panel.
The Harnisch Foundation is a stellar supporter of BinderCon, but they also support some pretty amazing initiatives as well, check just a few of them out:
and visit their website for so many more.
Once again, here is the inspiring video, played during our opening remarks on Saturday:
We’ve heard it before: writing can be a lonely affair. Maybe you enjoy your days spent in front of a glaring screen with a mug of tea and a potted orchid as your only companions. Or maybe it’s time to step out of the office and be a part of (or create) a thriving writing community.
We’ve asked panelists from the How to Build a Writing Community panel (coming to BinderCon LA), to share some of their favorite tips.
Let’s start with just being there. Lauren Eggert-Crowe says, “Show up. If you want to build community, participate. The more you show up to support other people at their readings and events, the more people will come to your own readings. Say yes to as many invitations as you can. Be a regular face in the crowd. The more you do, the more people you will meet, and the deeper friendships you will build with the people in the community. That’s how collaborations arise.”
If you’re feeling more ambitious, Siel Ju has some great advice: “Start a Literary Journal, Zine, or Other Publication. Yes, there are already thousands of lit zines out there — but if you’ve taken a good, long look around and still see a niche you’d like to fill, why not go for it? I wanted a flash fiction zine that sent tiny stories via email for easy reading by smartphone — so I started Flash Flash Click. Turns out, a lot of other people wanted a flash-via-smartphone zine too and started to subscribe!
Being the editor of a publication gives you a readymade reason for reaching out to writers you know, like, read, or admire from afar — as well as a reason to read more widely and discover new writers you’d like to be part of your community. So check out what’s out there, find a niche, and get that journal going.”
Find Local Literary Resources & Then Leave Your House
Michelle Franke says, “Writers! Take a moment to figure out what literary offerings are available in the city you live in, and in the cities you’re traveling to. Google bookstores (especially indies!) in your area and visit them. All of them. Support them with your cash and pick up their events calendars. Many bookstores are hosting writers reading their books all week, score! These events are often free, double score!! Find a city-wide literary events or cultural calendar online. This calendar might include lectures, performances, or a reading series. Once you know where the writers and readers will be, leave your house. Go see them. Get excited about what other people are writing and reading. Find out if writing workshops are available in your area. Take a class! Some are more expensive than others, so find one that’s right for you. That might mean an online option if you’re in the boondocks. That’s okay. Invest in yourself and your community quest. When you meet other writers and readers, ask what reading series, literary journals, websites, and events they like! And, as your community circle widens, leave a little time to celebrate the success of others. Share a publication, a reading, basically any good news. Because you know very well how hard pursuing what you love can be. This kind of support will make your community strong.”
Build Around Love
“Invite writers and community members you admire, and encourage them to invite writers they love and admire. So many of us have strong relationships with other writers, collaborators, and readers, and it’s good to celebrate those relationships. For my reading series, HITCHED, I ask a writer whose work I enjoy to feature and then I ask that person to invite someone they work with or collaborate with to feature with them. More often than not, the reading ends up being a love-fest, filled with exciting work and new faces. I guess my tip is to build around love.” -Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo
To get more great tips, including Q & A, plan to attend BinderCon LA, March 19-20, 2016. Tickets are now available.
More info on the How to Build a Writing Community session at BinderCon LA:
(Siel Ju, Lauren Eggert-Crowe, Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo, Sunyoung Lee, Michelle Franke)
Writing may require a room of one’s own, but many writers also seek to be part of a community — for inspiration, encouragement, and advice, as well as professional networking. This panel aims to empower writers to participate in — and even create — their own literary communities. Featuring community organizers of different backgrounds, in different fields, and with different motivations, this discussion will show participants how to go from feeling like the literary life is a solitary endeavor to becoming an integral part in a dynamic, real-life community.
Participants will leave the talk with an arsenal of tools for practical community building. Topics discussed will include: starting (and growing!) a reading series; evaluating the pros and cons of launching (yet another!) literary journal, changing the race and gender imbalances in publishing through local action; working with local universities; crafting a community around a small press; tag-teaming with an existing literary nonprofit; and assessing the needs of the community where you live.