Over It: One Editor's Brush With Ignorance

by Catherine Chambers

“That's what is always fascinating about racism - how it is allowed, if not encouraged, to flourish freely in public spaces, the way racism and bigotry are so often unquestioned.” – Roxane Gay

Like any self-respecting literary type, I do a great deal of my work in coffee shops. It gets me out of the house, shakes up my scenery, and I can stay steadily caffeinated until whatever I’m working on is finished. On a recent trip home to Texas, I was working in one such establishment when an elderly man asked me what I was working on, typing away like that.

I love this part of conversations. I love telling people about Duende’s mission, about the act of handing a literary microphone to those who may not normally get one, about the hard work of the volunteer editing staff to diversify the literary landscape. If you saw me or any other Duende staff member at AWP, you can attest to how excited we are about the work we are doing. It never occurred to me that someone might not be excited about the prospect of diversity.

When I explained Duende’s mission to this man, an older white man whom we will call Bob, he frowned at me. “So you wouldn’t publish my writing,” he said curtly.

“Not necessarily,” I said, still feeling good-natured. In the past, Duende has published some amazing work from cisgendered straight white males.  “We publish quality work, always, but we are working towards diversifying indie lit. There are lots of other places you could have your work published. For some people, like incarcerated writers or undergraduates, it might be much harder."

It was as if Bob didn't hear me. “So if I was a dyke,” he barreled on, now having exited my good graces, “And I sent in a shit poem, you’d publish it.”

I took a deep breath. “That’s not what I said.”

“You’re discriminating me,” he said, louder now, pointing a finger at me from the armchair where he sat.

“Excuse me?” I asked, my heart rate picking up. I have self-diagnosed white knight syndrome combined with a temper, but I was trying to maintain my calm. Maybe he just didn’t understand. Hadn’t he seen the VIDA count?! Did he really think that he, as a white male, was being harmed by my publication choosing to address the work of underrepresented writers?

“Sweetheart, you’re very pretty, but you’re a bigot and a racist,” Bob informed me.

I realized this man couldn’t be reasoned with, so I simply shut my laptop and packed up my bag without another word to him. I stormed out to choruses of, Oh sweetheart, don’t be like that, and I was only kidding. I made it to my car before I burst into tears. 

I am a bi-racial female with skin privilege, so people sometimes raise an eyebrow when I tell them how important diversifying the literary world is to me. I am also a woman of small stature with big eyes and long hair. Men, especially older men, will write off my opinions, especially if they are strong. I am constantly called sweetheart, beautiful, darlin’, by men I don’t know.

You know what? I am over it. Like the people we are trying to give a voice with Duende, I am often unheard even though I am smart and I work hard. The world has cut me breaks, and it has not cut me breaks. So, Bob, you will not be getting one from me. What I will be doing is spreading our message no matter what you think, and continuing to work hard alongside a talented staff of editors to make Issue 3 a megaphone for writers from all over the world, writers of color, LGBTQ writers, student writers, incarcerated writers, and anyone else who gets as angry as I do that the world cuts men like Bob a break. 

The Words Behind the Bars

By Jørn Otte

Last October, I had the unique and wonderful opportunity to hear Mumia Abu-Jamal deliver a prerecorded commencement speech to the fall 2014 graduates of my school, Goddard College. Abu-Jamal is a former journalist and activist, as well as a distinguished writer and Goddard College alum. He is also a member of America’s enormous incarcerated community, serving a life sentence in a prison in Pennsylvania. Feel free to learn more about him by reading his incredible book, Live From Death Row.

The United States of America has a population that accounts for 5% of the total number of people on planet Earth, however, the "Land of the Free" houses 25% of the world’s prison population. This means, that one out of every four incarcerated people, in the world, is housed in a United States jail cell.

While I will not mythologize the role of convict, nor defend any atrocities committed by anyone, it is a certainty that innocent people are incarcerated at an alarming rate in America. Though it can be argued that the vast majority of people who end up in prison do so because they were guilty of committing a crime, that does not mean that the law they broke was a just law, nor does it mean the sentence they received was a fair punishment to fit the crime. The reality is, persons of color are incarcerated at a disproportionate rate in this country. Statistically speaking, if you are a young black male, you have a greater chance of being put in jail than a white person, even if you both commit the same crime.

Real and documented social inequalities are one reason why those in prison deserve a platform to be heard. These people are fathers, mothers, children, friends and loved ones. No matter what put them in the cell they now occupy, they are still human beings. They have lives worth learning about and stories worth hearing.

There are many organizations that exist to help give voice to the millions of people behind bars in America. Perhaps the best known is the PEN Prison Writing Program. “Founded in 1971, the PEN Prison Writing Program believes in the restorative, rehabilitative power of writing and provides hundreds of inmates across the country with skilled writing teachers and audiences for their work. It provides a place for inmates to express themselves freely and encourages the use of the written word as a legitimate form of power.”

Another wonderful organization that uses the power of words to work with at-risk youth is called Pongo. “The Pongo Publishing Teen Writing Project is a volunteer, nonprofit effort with Seattle teens who are in jail, on the streets, or in other ways leading difficult lives. We help these young people express themselves through poetry and other forms of writing.”

There are many other programs across the country and around the world that are striving to allow the written word to be a vehicle through which people behind bars can express themselves, share their stories and heal. We at Duende wish to add our voice to helping the voiceless. We want to share the words behind the bars.

Our online literary journal is committed to giving voice to those stories by presenting a platform where previously or currently incarcerated writers, poets and artists can share their work with the general public. Duende is dedicated to showcasing quality writing from communities underrepresented in the U.S. literary landscape. The journal seeks to be a vehicle through which writers who are or have been incarcerated can share their writing and visual art with a wider audience. Duende seeks poetry, prose, hybrid work, and visual art coming from the minds and hearts of prisoners—current or former, in the U.S. or in other countries.

You are not forgotten and you deserve to be heard. We gladly accept your submissions via postal mail until March 25, 2015. Please send to:

BFA in Writing Program
Goddard College
123 Pitkin Road
Plainfield, VT  05667

This is our first effort at this endeavor, however it most certainly won’t be our last. Mumia Abu-Jamal was once quoted as saying, “Very few people in prison have voices that go beyond the wall. It's my job to do the work for them because they have no one.” That is Duende’s mission as well. Please feel free to share this call with your local prison writing organization. Thank you.