We’re proud to present today a conversation between Jiwon Choi, poet and reader for Palette, and Kenning JP Garcia, editor at Rigorous, an online journal for works of literature, visual and audio arts created by people of color.
Kenning’s commitment to making sure there is such a space for artists is based on his experiences as a writer of color who believes that the act of creating is “a push back against the system that has historically ignored” artists of color. The themes and messages revealed in their conversation are vital to our community.
JC: You wrote in the intro for the inaugural issue of Rigorous that many people of color “have been taught to ‘work twice as hard’ and many of us took it to heart.” Can you expand upon that?
Kenning: Maybe I shouldn’t speak for too many folks but certainly for lots of black folks living in poverty in the US we’ve been told that we need to constantly struggle, strive and hustle but we also know that our chances of success are either limited or our success may not be as successful as our white counterparts. For me personally, I’ve attempted to make a space for myself as a writer by writing in various genres and by doing readings wherever I can along with publishing for small presses and lit mags as well as self-publishing and using social media as best I can. In some ways, I had to go non-stop to make any inroads into the literary world. And, I have degrees in English and linguistics. This is a fairly common story for many writers of color, endless work and limited audience/engagement. Or, when the emergence comes, it comes after many years of trying. Certainly, this may be common for any creative person but POC (People of Color) come to the shore with so much historical and linguistic cargo that we’re already at a disadvantage in the eyes of some publications who only have their ports open to certain sorts of boats. Part of our additional work is not only finding our voices but deciding how to intensify and/or temper them as the situations sometimes demand. Our switching is work. Our keeping it real is work. Our every creative decision including our own intuitions and instincts are additional chores more so than habits. What could be natural is often turned into conscious choices. This is work. Twice the amount of work. Our restrictions and our fight against restrictions are work. And, what do we get? Where do we get? Look at anthologies and journals and lineup after lineup and where are our names? But, perhaps things are changing. Perhaps.
JC: The idea that people/writers of color have to work “twice as hard” is embedded in our culture. But how can we move away from it? How can we put a brake on the double, triple scrutiny that writers of color endure?
Kenning: We can’t. The world needs to stop it. The white literary world needs to look at our work as equal to theirs. If we’re judged fairly then we don’t have to work as hard. But, I’m a big fan of constant work. I want POC to always be two steps ahead. I understand how trends and appropriation work so I want us to always to be innovating. And, of course, if we’re on the cutting edge, you can’t ignore us. We’ll refuse to not be taken seriously.
JC: You say writers/artists are already disadvantaged when it comes to publications that “only have their ports open to certain sorts of boats”––was Rigorous an act of opening more ports to more boats?
Kenning: Absolutely, we wanted to open more ports. We wanted to give folks more options. I’ve said that I don’t think anybody should have to struggle as much as I did if I can help it. I’m not big time but whatever little success I’ve had I want to use to help other folks. I want to create space for folks to feel free to express their thoughts as they wish to express them. I know that certain dialects and themes are frowned upon at some places, but for my co-editors and myself we’re wide open to lots of different ideas, grammars and stylistic choices.
JC: Speaking of stylistic choices, you posit that “experimental” and “speculative” writing appears to be mostly written and published by white writers, and white men in particular.
Kenning: Most anything seen as “avant-garde” tends to be written by white folks or so the anthologies and even many syllabi would have us believe. Rarely do we hear about this sort of work from POC or we hear the same few names over and over again. Part of the reason for this is not that POC aren’t working in various styles but that our styles aren’t often being understood for what they are. Our innovations aren’t always placed alongside other innovations in literature. But, I believe if any of us makes it through, and we can help showcase the variety of work coming from writers of colors, we can and should do just that.
JC: As an editor considering work, you are in the position of scrutinizing writers work. Does being a writer of color scrutinizing works by writers of color enter into your selection process? What is your process for identifying works that will be a good fit for your journal?
Kenning: I don’t want to get into too many details. I don’t have a strict criteria but I want a sense of excitement. I don’t want to be bored. I have issues with avant-garde and academic writing being dull. There’s no reason for it. I want our humor to shine through. I want our emotions. I want us to be reactive and proactive. I want surprises. Yet, for younger writers sometimes I’ll publish on potential. I like to encourage young writers so my scale shifts for them. I didn’t get much encouragement in college nor at open mics. I’m not trying to continue that trend.
JC: So the act of creating is what you call “being political?”
Kenning: This is to say, the sheer act of writing and then sharing that work is making a statement. To resist and refuse silence is a political stance whether or not the piece speaks directly to any certain circumstances.
We as writers and readers have been raised up reading white folks and a few tokenized POC until maybe more recently where more publishers and teachers are looking for more “diversity.” Yet, this doesn’t change years of being overlooked and even suppressed. So, when we go about the work of crafting new poems, novels, essays, etc, we are saying we are here. When we publish those pieces in whatever ways we choose to make those pieces public, we are pushing back against being overlooked. We are working to be seen. We refuse to go unnoticed.
JC: You say you feel there’s more attempts by publishers and teachers to seek “diversity”, but I wonder. Your comment about writers and readers being “raised up reading white folks and a few tokenized POC” resonated with me.
I think tokenism and diversity are bound up together in an often ugly and always complicated knot. The idea of “diversity” is just that, abstract and not lived in real time. What is your take on it? Do you feel that you are the writer of color of the moment in journals and other publishing outlets vs. your work honestly critiqued, and considered based on craft and merit?
Kenning: I do think that there is still a lot of tokenization of folks and I’m willing to believe that I got a few credits due to the idea of diversity. I don’t always believe that my work is being honestly critiqued but then again I have lots of approaches so a joke can be taken seriously or an erasure can be appreciated whereas my epics go unread. It’s tough. I try not to think about it too much and just let my publications and readings come as they will.
Kenning (FKA Kenyatta) JP García is the author of This Sentimental Education, So This Is Story (Shirt Pocket Press), and Never Read (West Vine Press) as well as several speculative ebooks. Xe was raised up on Flatbush Ave in Brooklyn, NY but currently resides in Albany, NY where xe spent many years working in restaurants doing everything from dishwashing to managing. These days xe works the overnights pushing a broom around one of the biggest box stores in America meanwhile by daylight xe is a diarist, antipoet, humorist, and essayist. Xe is also an editor at Rigorous, Five 2 One and the Operating System.
Jiwon Choi is a poet, teacher and urban gardener. She teaches preschool at the Educational Alliance, a multi-generational non-profit located on the Lower East Side of NYC. She is also a long-time urban gardener and coordinator for the Pacific Street Brooklyn Bear’s Community Garden located near Downtown Brooklyn. She is also a member of the Brooklyn Alliance of Neighborhood Gardens Land Trust, working to preserve and safeguard neighborhood community gardens in perpetuity. She is the author of One Daughter is Worth Ten Sons, published by Hanging Loose Press in 2017. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.