Essay Title: Q & A with WordCity’s editors regarding the Pandemic,
Or: This could have been an ACCUTE Conference Paper on New Intimacies: Literary Communities in the Aftermath
by Olga Stein
The list of literary magazines still in existence worldwide found in Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia is just under 400. Thirty-eight of the listed mags declare that they’re being published online. Seven of these have ‘print’ added in parentheses. I take it that many of these have digital editions in addition to being printed. There are 22 Canadian magazines on the list, and I know for a fact that some, like WordCity (which isn’t listed), were started by an all-woman crew of editors and writers, and were committed to women’s issues. For instance, Room (formerly Room of One’s Own), which published its first issue in 1975, is described as a West Coast Feminist Literary magazine. Another magazine, Fireweed: A Feminist Quarterly of Writing, Politics, Art & Culture, which was originally called Fireweed: A Women’s Literary and Cultural Journal, was founded in 1978 by a collective of 24 women. Both magazines aimed to represent women and diversity even among and within communities of women writers/creators. Race, class, and sexuality were concerns for both publications. Both aimed to encourage women who were new to writing and publishing. Furthermore, Fireweed, like WordCity, included fiction, poetry, reviews, essays, photographs, and drawings from women around the world. Like WordCity, it also made sure to examine women’s experience of violence and fear.
I don’t mean to suggest that WordCity should be compared with Room or Fireweed (or at least not yet). These and some of the other Canadian journals started before the arrival of the new century were and continue to be monumental literary and social projects that deserve serious scholarly attention, not to mention deep respect and gratitude from readers and contributors. WordCity published its first issue in the fall of 2020; it’s an infant publication, and nothing yet guarantees that it’ll survive to adulthood. However, I have good reasons for mentioning literary magazines in general, and Canadian journals with a feminist perspective in particular. First, I wish to acknowledge the fact that women’s literary magazines existed in Canada since the mid-1970s, and their all-woman editorial boards were committed to making space for women’s collective and individual voices. In effect, publications like Room (with us still) and Fireweed helped in forging a tradition in Canada of writing and magazine publishing by women about women. In some important ways, then, WordCity, a female-headed publication that draws on women’s cultural labour, is not something novel. However, it’s also by no means insignificant that WordCity has co-opted aspects of this trajectory, especially since it began publication mere months after the onset of a worldwide pandemic — a pandemic that has in a myriad ways exposed and exacerbated the challenges faced by those, mostly women, who are charged with the greater share of domestic chores, or those who may be subject to domestic violence.
This brings me to the second reason for scouring lists of extant literary magazines. I hope to highlight the relatively new space occupied by online literary magazines, those that do not piggyback on hardcopy editions. Another Wikipedia page devoted to online publications lists 65 magazines created within the last two decades, but none of them are literary. For example, the Atlantic, founded in 1857 in Boston, debuted as The Atlantic Monthly. It is now strictly an online mag. Its content is intellectual to be sure, but arts and culture is only part of its overall purview. More or less the same can be said of Mother Jones, New York Magazine, and TIME. No doubt, there are countless large and small online publications currently being produced the world over, but I confess that I don’t know how to get hold of information that would shed sufficient light on the number of such journals, or on their editorial mandates. My hunch is that WordCity, with women editors from Canada, the USA, Europe, and countries in sub-Saharan Africa, constitutes a unique literary space. Moreover, WordCity is literally and figuratively a node for one or several wide-ranging and transnational networks of writers of fiction and literary non-fiction, as well as poets, translators, creative and intellectual types, activists and defenders of human rights (for instance, the mag has linked up with 100 Thousand Poets for Change). I look more closely at the ‘network’ dimension of WordCity below.
It appears that there are currently three strictly online publications in Canada with a feminist focus: Understorey, Guts, Canthius.[i] Again, this means that what WordCity is doing isn’t entirely new or different (which is not to say that novelty is the only measure by which to gauge the cultural value of any publication). Nevertheless, given what I could find about the above-mentioned online journals, it’s entirely reasonable to posit that WordCity is unlike any other current online publication in Canada. This is largely due to its multinational editorial board, and its transcultural mission to accept any English-language contribution of good literary quality. While the other three magazines are unmistakably Canadian in focus (though all three undoubtedly support diversity), WordCity is transnational in scope. One might look to the journal Transnational Literature (described in this essay’s Endnotes) for an approximation of its mission and editorial practices, though the latter publication’s obvious ties to academe and its peer-review structure do complicate any comparison.[ii]
The preceding is admittedly a lengthy preamble, but I hope the argument that I’m making is otherwise cogent. WordCity may be new on the Canadian online publishing scene, and it still has the flavour of an experiment about it. Yet the timing of its founding, the constitution of its editorial board, the theming of its issues (the current one, number 14, is on COVID), and its commitment to publishing contributors from any place in the world, furnishes WordCity with the status of witness to some of the current-day tumult, injustice, and suffering experienced globally. Needless to say, all of these circumstances have rendered WordCity a sui generis literary venue, and a kind of refuge from the troubles and worries that have increasingly assailed us all.
Incidentally, I had hoped to discuss WordCity at the 2022 Conference organized by ACCUTE (Association of Canadian College and University Teachers of English) — specifically as part of a panel titled, “New Intimacies: Literary Communities in the Aftermath.” Among other things, the panel in-the-making had asked those who wished to participate to think about the following: “What is the shape of the new intimacies that we inhabit in the aftermaths of the individual and collective griefs that have unfolded in the last several months? How can feminist friendships be the ground upon which these new intimacies form? What texts and ways of thinking will help us mourn together, and mend, the losses that we have endured?”[iii] The panel was conceived and is led by two extraordinary scholars, and I have enormous admiration for both. For this reason, and because of the unique space I believe WordCity represents, I wanted to be a member of this particular panel. I was truly disappointed when the proposal I submitted was rejected. Yet the theoretical and research directions I had read into the panel’s questions remained valid and compelling. They framed in ways I hadn’t yet considered the work WordCity’s editors — a number of whom are scholars in their own right — were doing, and the ways WordCity has been serving the literary community (readers who are curious about the proposed paper can check out the abstract portion).[iv]
Crucially, the two years of serving as the non-fiction editor of WordCity after completing an interdisciplinary PhD on literary prizes and cultural institutions (not to mention the eight years of writing and editing I had invested from 2000 – 2008 as chief editor of the national literary review, Books in Canada), made me realized that I was quite capable of determining for myself whether or not an online literary publication like WordCity merited serious, even scholarly, consideration. Furthermore, my editorship and relationships with fellow editors helped me to an awareness that I’d have privileged access to potentially valuable data that could be collected via Q&As (note that one editor is from Kenya, another from Cameroon, and both came to WordCity well equipped with their own networks of literary contacts, associations, and literary credentials). Therefore, the rejection I received from the review committee of the aforementioned panel did little to discourage me from forging ahead with research that is opportune, ethnographic, and material; in its own way, it did the opposite, as I go on to explain.
I’ll present some of the findings gleaned from the completed Q&A in the second half of this essay. For now, suffice it to say that in addition to the information I collected, the review committee’s rejection prompted me to rethink the relevance of two important theoretical frameworks: the first organizes concepts of networks, especially the literary and scholarly kinds, and the ways these function or fail to produce new literatures, knowledge, and new digital cultural practices; the second emerged from a related field of “trust networks,” also referred to as non-market decision-making, pioneered by Janet Landa.[v] I rely on Landa’s foundational research and theories of the economics of trust and economics of identity. As mentioned in my editorial, I assert that non-economics of trust or “non-market decision-making” are exemplified by WordCity and its female-led, volunteer group of editors. Are large-scale events such as the COVID pandemic or other calamities absolutely essential to the creation or bolstering of social networks? That isn’t my argument. However, I do assert that large-scale crises tend to instrumentalize existing networks, and they do tend to foster new ones that address needs to which emergencies or disaster-type situations give rise. I also assert that WordCity is an instance of what Armando Gnisci, in his “Littérature Globale et Littérature Des Mondes” (“Globalized Literature and World Literature,” 2002) formulates as “a planetary network of knowledge and acknowledgements,…multiple reciprocities … [and part of a literature] that is diverse…[and] has barely commenced” (Gnisci 114).[vi]
To be continued
[i]Thanks go to the Women and Books Org, a collective of “librarians, educators, editors, publishers, enthusiastic readers,” for this valuable data. For more information on Women and Books Org., see https://www.womenandbooks.org/about-wb.html. See too the relevant page on journals with a feminist agenda: https://www.womenandbooks.org/journals–magazines.html.
[ii]Transnational Literature is an open access, peer-reviewed, international journal published online by the Research Centre for Transcultural Creativity and Education (TRACE) at Bath Spa University. The journals is published twice per year, with Summer and Winter issues. The journal’s official site offers the following description of its history and mandate: “The journal has a long and evolving history of supporting the study and writing of literature. It emerged from the journal Quodlibet: the Australian Journal of Trans-national Literature, and before that the print CRNLE Reviews Journal, published by the Centre for Research in New Literatures in English. CRNLE was founded in 1977 by Dr Syd Harrex and was based in the Department of English at Flinders University, South Australia. The Centre promoted research into the literatures of India, Africa, the Caribbean, Canada and Australia, and all parts of the world where literature in English has been written. The Centre had a world-wide list of associates and a long list of publications, and organised and supported a number of conferences involved in the scholarly investigation of the role of new literatures throughout the world. Dr Gillian Dooley, prolific scholar and Research Fellow in English, developed the journal over the next decade with a hard-working, volunteer Editorial Team and the support of senior scholars on an Advisory Board drawn from institutions around the world.” See https://transnationalliterature.org/about/history/.
[iii] This ACCUTE panel and its selected papers can be found here: https://accute.ca/2021/11/23/new-accute-cfp-new-intimacies-literary-communities-in-the-aftermath-deadline-22-december-2021/
[iv]From the CFP abstract I submitted: WordCity presents itself an “internationally acclaimed, multi-genre monthly, publishing flash fiction, poetry, short fiction, folktales, book reviews, interviews, literary arts news and global opportunities.” The project “is founded on the values of promoting writing, diversity, dialogue, literary arts exchange and global tolerance.” The magazine was launched during the pandemic and has been attentive to contributors’ lived experience as well as to the pandemic’s impact on their writing. Moreover, in line with this panel’s concerns, the magazine’s editors are women, who have forged an intellectual and creative association that transcends even the magazine itself — drawing into its orbit young and well established writers, academics, and human rights advocates from around the world (and irrespective of ethnic or religious distinctions). Magazines like WordCity are quickly becoming influential transnational literary spaces. This phenomena is worth examining in itself. Also worth examining is the fact that such spaces are shaped by women who volunteer their time, and are therefore subject to their creative choices, their preferences for inclusion, as well as their sympathies.
[v]C. K. Rowley wrote a fascinating article on the violation of what I term ‘scholarly trust’ by Avner Greif, with citation practices that obscure his intellectual debt to Janet Landa. See Rowley, C. K. “The Curious Citation Practices of Avner Greif: Janet Landa Comes to Grief.” Public Choice, vol. 140, no. 3/4, Springer, 2009, pp. 275–85, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40270923. As well, see Landa’s numerous publications in Rowley’s References, including: Landa, J. T. (1981). A theory of the ethnically homogeneous middleman group: an institutional alternative to contract law. The Journal of Legal Studies, 10, 349-362. Also: Landa, J. T. (1994). Trust, ethnicity, and identity: The new institutional economics of ethnic trading networks, contract law, and gift-exchange. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Olga Stein holds a PhD in English, and is a university and college instructor. She has taught writing, communications, modern and contemporary Canadian and American literature. Her research focuses on the sociology of literary prizes. A manuscript of her book, The Scotiabank Giller Prize: How Canadian is now with Wilfrid Laurier University Press. Stein is working on her next book, tentatively titled, Wordly Fiction: Literary Transnationalism in Canada. Before embarking on a PhD, Stein served as the chief editor of the literary review magazine, Books in Canada, and from 2001 to 2008 managed the amazon.com-Books in Canada First Novel Award (now administered by Walrus magazine). Stein herself contributed some 150 reviews, 60 editorials, and numerous author interviews to Books in Canada (the online version is available at http://www.booksincanada.com). A literary editor and academic, Stein has relationships with writers and scholars from diverse communities across Canada, as well as in the US. Stein is interested in World Literature, and authors who address the concerns that are now central to this literary category: the plight of migrants, exiles, and the displaced, and the ‘unbelonging’ of Indigenous peoples and immigrants. More specifically, Stein is interested in literary dissidents, and the voices of dissent, those who challenge the current political, social, and economic status quo. Stein is the editor of the memoir, Playing Under The Gun: An Athlete’s Tale of Survival in 1970s Chile by Hernán E. Humaña.
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