A Conversation with Jennifer Baker on Curation and Cultivating Hope
by Amy Lee Lillard
The anthology Everyday People: The Color of Life brings together complex and confident stories from an impressive list of authors. There’s Alexander Chee’s story of small-town isolation and identity, Courttia Newland’s mash up of mutants and black revolutionaries in London, Allison Mills’ women who catch ghosts in their hair, and Nelly Rosario’s twisty narrative of an older couple finding their way back to life (featured in the current issue).
I talked with editor Jennifer Baker, a Pushcart-Prize-nominated writer, contributing editor to Electric Literature, and founder of the Minorities in Publishing podcast, about putting together this collection, picking favorites, and the hope that art can bring when the world is on fire.
Amy Lee Lillard: In your introduction, you note that the original editor for this collection was Brook Stevenson, the Brooklyn writer and founder of the Rhode Island Writer’s Colony who died suddenly in 2015. What was it like for you taking on this project?
Jennifer Baker: I knew Brook about a year, and he was just a completely supportive person. He was at your readings, he was sharing your stuff. He was very generous of himself. It was a loss when he passed so suddenly. Later, his friend and editor had heard about me and reached out, asking if I would take this project on. I thought about it for about two months, asking lots of questions. Brook had envisioned the book as an all-Black anthology. I wanted to make it a People of Color collection. I know that these exist, but supported by a big-five publisher? Not as much. That's what I wanted to do, to really earn that already-established title of "Everyday People: The Color of Life.”
AL: What was your reading and selection process?
JB: I’m very voice-specific. So that’s why I reached out to the authors I did, asking if they would submit. When you edit an anthology, you have no idea what you’re getting. But I didn’t give them rigid guidelines, just trusted them in terms of what they would write. Then the editing ended up way longer than we anticipated.
AL: In one your essays for Electric Literature you had this line that killed me: “The burden of editing is heavy when you’re the only one doing it.”
JB: Right. I didn’t have a co-editor, and the publishers trusted me, so then that's when the burden becomes heavy, right? I really wanted to do right by the writers. So I put that pressure on myself, and that took longer than I anticipated.
AL: You said you had a lot of discussions with the writers about what they were intending versus what the effect was on you. Maybe also anticipating what the effect might be on readers. That had to be difficult to navigate.
JB: It's also a part of our job as editors. So when we see things like that recent Nation poem, I always wonder, "What was that conversation? Was there a conversation?" Because if you never even questioned the author, if nothing ever rang bells for you and said, "That sounds a little weird," then that's a problem. Because then you don't know enough people from that background, right? There's a difference between trusting the author and having a conversation with them to help ensure the piece is right.
AL: I wonder too, and now I'm getting more into the logistics of how you went about doing this; how did you decide on structure and order? What went where? How did you do that?
JB: I knew I wanted Courttia's first, because, keep in mind, I was asking people to be part of this anthology around the U.S. election: “Our livelihood is in danger; do you want to submit to this anthology, though?” And that was the same year as Brexit. So, when I got Courttia's, it was the first submission, and it was seamless. There were so many elements that Courttia was speaking to, in such a unique way. Then, with the other stories, I didn’t want to place people of the same backgrounds back to back, so you'll see it's not back-to-back Latina, Asian, Black. It's spread out. And also, male-female, female-male, non-binary. If there were two stories about mothers, I didn't want those two together necessarily. Lots of decisions like that.
AL: Yes, I was wondering if there was that sort of calculation, because there was so much intersectionality with every single story too. Plus, there’s so many genres, styles, topics. Do you see any unifying threads besides background and origination?
JB: One thing I was very pleased with was the writers’ choices of topics. It was important to me that the stories don’t center on trauma. Those are important stories, but I wanted stories that were different.
AL: And that’s absolutely what we get – there’s something different and unexpected in each story. Do I dare ask or do you dare tell: Do you have a favorite story or favorites in the collection?
JB: I love them all equally.
AL: Very diplomatic.
JB: I want to work with them again! Plus – every writer and story is so strong in different ways. Glendaliz [Comacho] is great for subtlety. I think Nana [Ekua Brew-Hammond] is great for painting imagery. I think the same about Brandon [Taylor]. Carleigh [Baker] is great at humor. Nelly [Rosario], what she did with structure was ridiculous. So, all of them have their strengths, and all of them are wonderful.
AL: You said that you were reading these in 2017, after the election, in a pretty bleak time. But reading the stories gave you hope. What was it about working on these stories that gave you hope?
JB: People were still making art. You know what I mean? You can go online and be inundated with people who are upset and hurt and afraid and angry. But people are also writing. They’re producing work, beautiful, beautiful work. We can do this thing of creation and it can be wonderful and it cannot hinge so much on the fact that we're being killed or terrorized. Because it's possible for artists to create stuff that gives us agency, and that's what gave me hope.
AL: And you make a very deliberate effort to highlight other artists that are creating some beautiful work, adding 30 pages worth of recommended reading at the end of the anthology. Was that a deliberate attempt to be like, "Look, there's so much of this out here. Go for it. Read it, now”?
JB: Yes. A friend of mine, Maya David, mentioned it. She thought of offering a list of women of color in the back, and I loved it. I wanted to push it even more, make it all POC. And it's a starting point, right? It's not comprehensive. This is not every book that has ever been written by these demographics. They're just a piece, and if you could start from this piece, then you're going to make a difference.
AL: Switching gears slightly. You wrote another Electric Lit essay that I read awhile back, not knowing you at the time. It was about admitting that writing may not give us joy. You talked about how that term “joy” can be almost problematic when we're talking about writing. Other people call the feeling they have when writing as “engaged” or “obsessed” or even “obligated.” So - how are you feeling about writing these days? What words would you describe writing with?
JB: I've been feeling more motivated. Honestly I always equate writing to exercising, which is something I have to psych myself up for. I never regret doing it after I've done it though. I've never, ever exercised and felt bad about exercising. That's how I feel about writing. I mean, I do enjoy it, I can't picture not doing it, but I don't know that it is the greatest joy in my life.
AL: Yeah, that makes sense. I wouldn’t describe writing as the greatest joy of my life either.
JB: Right. Do I need it in my life? Yes. Is it the greatest joy? No. Octavia Butler said she felt that she needed to write. That sounds true.
AL: What drives you? You have a story collection and essay collection in progress, plus you have your column and podcast. You’re busy!
JB: It's material that I like, especially my column and my podcast. I like helping people and giving people a place on a platform.
Some of the proceeds from the sale of Everyday People will benefit the Rhode Island Writers Colony, a nonprofit organization founded by the late Brook Stephenson that provides space for speculation, production, and experimentation by writers of color.