Fem: Tell us about Winter Tangerine. What do you do as a Creative Director?
Vanessa Willoughby: Winter Tangerine is an online literary and arts journal founded by Yasmin Belkhyr. We started out doing just print issues, but now we’ve moved everything online and expanded upon features and columns. We’re really committed to finding and promoting marginalized writers who are often overlooked, ignored and dismissed by mainstream publishing. I’ve been with the journal since the beginning and am so proud to be a member of a collaborative team that shares my passion for challenging the white status quo of publishing and the literary world. As someone who is both an editor and a writer, it’s been, to say the least, an uphill battle to be even considered as a serious candidate in publishing. Publishing, whether they agree or not, is largely dominated by whiteness and connections (or nepotism). You can be an extremely hard-worker, a brilliant editor/writer, done some internships, even be overqualified, but your blackness will always be the first thing these people in power see. People will work themselves into mental gymnastics in order to justify the lack of POC in publishing. I’m glad to be a part of WT and thus be able to find relief from the publishing industry’s demands to appease the white gaze.
As Creative Director, I read Prose submissions, brainstorm/solicit/edit new features, and concentrate on Sphinx, which is another “imprint,” of WT. I also conduct interviews for the site and cover cultural events.
F: What contributed to your interest in nonfiction writing?
VW: My interest in non-fiction writing really didn’t take off until I went to college. I’d always written short stories and poems and mostly stuck to writing fiction. In college, I started reading more memoirs and realized the power of the voice and a person’s ability to claim history through personal experience.
F: What other genres do you write? Which genre do you connect the most with?
VW: Currently, my writing either falls into personal essays/narratives or pop culture commentary. I’ve always been a reader who looks to books in hopes of not feeling so alone and isolated. I still read a lot of fiction but in terms of personal connection, I suppose my interest in personal narratives has increased.
F: Describe your writing process.
VW: I don’t really have a strict writing process. I still have to work on that. My process also really depends on what type of work I’m creating. If I’m writing something personal, I have to get in the zone and be focused. Sometimes a glass of wine helps break that wall of self-consciousness I have and just write without immediately second guessing myself. If I’m writing more of a social commentary/pop culture piece, I like to do some research beforehand about the topic and pick out the pieces of information that will go into the piece. I have to write with music, but whatever I’m listening to has to match the mood or the atmosphere of what I’m writing.
F: The topics on your freelance pieces range from your experiences as a black woman to feminism in mainstream media. Some might consider your essays controversial. How do you handle receiving negative criticism?
VW: Any time you write something and put it out for public consumption, you have to realize that in a way, it’s not yours anymore. You’re vulnerable. The only way you’ll be able to survive without getting burned out is to develop a thick skin. I’m not going to lie and say that nothing gets to me anymore and I never read comments, but sometimes I do. If you’re a black woman writer, people are always going to have something to say. It just comes with the territory.
One time I wrote about my personal experience with online dating and the racism I experienced. Naturally, due to the anonymity factor of the internet, I found that white men used casual racism like some kind of sleazy pick-up artist trick. I wasn’t a person, I was an object and a fetish. It’s exhausting. Anyway, somehow the article caught the attention of some online talk show and they picked it apart on air. It was all white people sitting around, discussing whether or not I was “right” about online dating. Of course, people said I was overreacting, I was whining, I was racist, etc. I was uncomfortable with the scrutiny but eventually, the article lost steam and it was forgotten. And despite the negative comments, I did have some people give positive feedback. It’s always great to hear back from readers who really connect with your work and emphasize with you, because they’ve been there, too. If I can help make people feel less alone or help understand the world more, then I’ve done my job. I think the key thing to remember is that in the end, you have to write for yourself. You have to want it. Because if you’re doing it for you, no one can take that away.
F: What is the key to improving diversity within the publishing industry?
VW: This is a thorny question. I don’t think it’s a matter of just hiring more POC and then saying, ok, that’s it, we’ve done everything we can do. It’s no secret that the publishing industry is very white, which thus breeds a sort of acceptance of whiteness as the “standard.” So then you have white gatekeepers who believe that the so-called “markets” for POC narratives aren’t viable or even exist. This type of backwards thinking infects everything, from hiring to the acquisitions process, to the marketing and publicity. When trying to find an agent, I had white agents tell me that because my novel was about two black girls, it wasn’t sellable. One woman even told me that they weren’t believable and she couldn’t connect with them because, in her opinion, all they did was talk/think about being black. The funny thing is, none of those people straight out told me I was a bad writer. In fact, they all liked my actual style and writing. But the fact that the novel doesn’t concern itself with the white gaze made those people uncomfortable. And because it didn’t make them comfortable and because it wasn’t a quick and easy sell, they dismissed me. I’ve been on both sides of the publishing industry, both as a writer and as an acquisitions editor. Most publishing houses, at least the big ones, would rather secure something they know is a hit and is going to make them buckets of money, quality of the work be damned. They’d rather be content to run a genre into the ground, knowing it’ll provide a steady revenue and in their eyes, diverse books are not a part of that formula. Again, that goes back to unequal representation across the board.
The industry can vow to be more inclusive, but so far, the efforts have been minimal. If people in power aren’t actively looking for black writers/editors, then it won’t happen. And if a black creative wants to get into the publishing industry, not only do they have to be “twice as good,” but they have to have the initial opportunity to even get through the door.
On the bright side, I’ve found that social media has really helped me stay in touch with the writing community. I’ve been able to connect with writers who share this experience of trying to navigate the publishing industry and get on the radar of editors who may not have been aware of my work. The internet allows the democratization of writing. People think that the only way you can be a writer is to live in New York, but they don’t realize that working online connections can be just as beneficial, if not more immediate.