Susan Bernofsky described recently the “disheartening” numbers, when it comes to the percentage of female authors in translation. Across twenty-five presses evaluated by Women in Translation, only twenty-five percent of books in English translation were by women, and some of Bernofsky’s favorite presses (some of mine, too), like New Directions and Archipelago, were among the worst perpetrators, publishing sixteen percent and thirteen percent female authors, respectively.
Reading Bernofsky’s break down of the numbers a few weeks back, I was not surprised. Then again, I was surprised, knowing as I do many translators and editors of translation who are mostly women. Being a woman myself, then, I did a quick mental scan over what little translation I have done, and saw what I had somehow failed to consider before:
I’ve only ever translated the work of men.
But a cog in the all-male-manufacturing machine, I’d entirely failed to notice. Dubravka Ugrešić, the great diagnostician of our times (and one of those rare female writers who comes to us in translation), might have said, “Well, duh.” In her essay “What is an Author Made Of?” she asks pointedly, “Hasn’t gender discrimination become invisible precisely because it is so obvious and so incredibly pervasive?” It’s a (not very) funny thing how that works, how you might not notice a nefarious homogeneity, even one that excludes the group to which you yourself identify, until you absolutely can’t not notice.
I suppose the poet Michael Derrick Hudson had something to say about how you move in and out of invisibility, when he appropriated a Chinese pen name, but I’m not sure what, and I don’t care to add my own conjecture when others have already done a better job than I could do. Antonio Aiello culled some excellent responses for PEN America, from prominent voices in poetry. He asked those he saw to be “gatekeepers” to discuss the role of the editor in addressing what is also so obvious and incredibly pervasive, and far too often left hidden in plain sight: the overwhelming whiteness of who gets to be published, in an industry whose professionals are nearly all white.
In one response, Hafizah Geter wrote, “As gatekeepers it is easy for us to focus on what other people should or shouldn’t be doing. It is easy to say ‘the industry’ or ‘editors,’ but much harder to say ‘I.’ To say, here is what I am not doing and here is what I should be doing better. So let me start the charge: I do not read enough Hispanic or Middle Eastern writers. And because I am not reading and actively engaging with their work, I am not soliciting them enough, nor am I inviting them into the spaces I curate enough. When I insert the ‘I’ into the problem statement, I can insert the ‘I’ into the solutions. This is the work that I must do, the work we all must do.”
Geter’s suggestion here is an empowering one: it suggests that the change we want to see in the world really does start with the self. So I will follow her lead and continue what I started above: I will make this personal.
I run a small arts and literary journal. In our founding manifesto, cutting from and riffing off the avant-garde manifestos of the interwar period, we state: “it is clear that we are at the intersection of a better and a worse world. and that the resolution of these two worlds is in Revolution. what does our Revolution look like? it is one that embraces the outsider and underserved. […] from the outer rim of the circle, we stand on the rock of the word ‘we’ amidst the sea of boos and outrage and call to you to join us.” Then one day, embarrassingly recent, it occurred to me that this manifesto, composed and signed by three of our editors, represented an almost entirely white “we.” We three are all white, and again with that too late mental scan, I had to admit to myself, so are almost all of our contributors.
“Discovering” this, I was repulsed. I do read broadly and am ever expanding the range of authors I read because, simply, that is a thoroughly enjoyable thing to do. And yet with slight exception, there is no evidence of this on our own pages. For awhile, I did not want to touch that thing I birthed, this little literary journal I made (far too literally, it turns out) in my own image and whose editors and contributors I adore. My first impulse was to bin the whole project, but that would have been incredibly lazy, and only the worst of mothers throw their babies in the dumpster. Continuing to do things the way we have in the past, however, is also not an option, and the process by which I have begun to investigate the origins of my own blindness, acknowledge and correct my own role in a culture that privileges white voices and experience is a process laden with grief and fear.
“I do think that fear gets in the way,” writes Camille Rankine, also in response to Aiello’s inquiries. “What are we afraid of? I’m not sure. Of getting it wrong. Of change. Of this massive mess we’re in. Of our own complicity.”
Of my own complicity. It is fearful, and incredibly painful, to acknowledge that.
“But who said this was going to be easy?” Rankine continues. “It’s not easy for me. I don’t think it’s easy for anyone here. I guess what I’m saying is, there’s work to be done—so let’s stop trying and do it. No excuses.”
If the fear of getting it wrong gets in the way of doing it at all, what then are some ways I see of doing it right?
With regards to soliciting more female writers, Roxane Gay suggests in Bad Feminist that it is the role of the editor to proactively pull their numbers up: “If women aren’t submitting to your publication or press, ask yourself why, deal with the answers even if those answers make you uncomfortable, and then reach out to women writers. If women don’t respond to your solicitations, go find other women. Keep doing that, issue after issue after issue. Read more widely. […] Deal with your resentment. Deal with your biases. Vigorously resist the urge to dismiss the gender problem.”
A few years ago, myself and my female co-editor had to deal with our own such biases: we had just read through a pile of submissions for one issue, and despite our own gender, had selected only a single female contributor, which we noticed only after the fact. Since that time, we have made a point of reaching out to women writers and artists. It has been relatively easy, being women ourselves, to suggest to other women that we genuinely want to provide a platform for female voices.
I recognize that it will not be as easy, as two white women, to suggest the same as we reach out explicitly to communities of color that we hope will share their work with us. In Ta-Nehisi Coate’s conversation with Nikole Hannah-Jones at the Schomburg Center recently, he spoke of a lack of diversity at the editorial level that makes it difficult for the sort of work he is intent on doing to make it to publication. His point was simple: “One of our problems is that we don’t have enough African-American editors at the book level.”
As we now cull submissions for an upcoming double issue, we have invited a range of guest editors to help us solicit work and make selections. The hope was that by encompassing a broader base of editors, we could reach a broader base of contributors. At this early juncture, we have not been entirely successful in our efforts. To acknowledge this is not to make excuses, but rather to acknowledge that the problem will only become more entrenched without sincere and concerted action maintained over time. It is also not to say that the work falls only to editors of color, or to women, or to those with direct access to communities the rest of us do not have. This is not about tokenism; it is about acknowledging the work that I, and that we, must do to create a more diverse and equitable forum, in which it would be a lot more satisfying and exciting to work.
If one considers that eighty-nine percent of those in the publishing industry are white, and seventy-four percent are female (cheaper labor), I am clearly not alone in perpetrating inequity. But that just makes the whole thing more clearly systemic and sad. Jeff Shotts wrote to Aiello that “one of the privileges of whiteness is that white persons more often than not do not have to engage with questions of race, diversity, and equity, or at the very least, white persons get to pick and choose when they engage with these questions.” I don’t feel I have a choice but to engage. I am desperate to engage.
I crave to get out of the corridors we’ve built around ourselves. It’s taken time to build those walls, and will take some more to knock them down. The world was not really created in six days, and the Berlin Wall did not actually fall in one night. “Make the effort and make the effort and make the effort,” Gay demands, “until you no longer need to, until we don’t need to keep having this conversation.”
Photo: Benson, Richard. “Souls of Puerto Rico.” 1983. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.