Ethics in Publishing: the Urgency for Immigrant Literature

In these moments of upending crises, when the torments of war arrive in cities across the globe and render thousands homeless, many are forced to leave behind loved ones and cities in ruins. Because of this torrid climate, readers of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry are calling for immigrant voices, yet many literary journals rarely include them. Immigrant and refugee writers, after making it out of cities teetering on the edge of the abyss and miraculously entering nations with high walls and fences lined with barbed wire, are met with grim challenges. Many strain themselves to secure jobs, secure housing, raise children, and evade the cultural differences working to smother them. Viet Thanh Nguyen, the Vietnamese-American novelist, unravels these experiences in his introduction for the refugee essay collection titled The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives (Abrams Press, 2018).

An urgency for these writers caught in the midst of this global tumult has now materialized, and literature—the submission process specifically—shouldn’t become one more strenuous barrier to cross.

Yet the submission process has become just that. More and more, literary magazines across the nation have started charging reading fees, also known as submission or service fees, for writers who’d like their work to be considered for publication. This poses a problem for a wide majority of writers, but especially for those writers who arrive in this nation with empty pockets and only the clothes on their backs. “Being poor is already the norm for writers,” says Joy Lanzendorfer in the article, “Should Literary Journals Charge Writers Just to Read their Work?” published by The Atlantic. And it’s true—literature doesn’t offer riches for a vast majority of writers. Emerging writers and established writers alike often succumb to other sources of work to eek out a living. You can see this when you read the jacket of your author’s favorite book, or of the anthology in which their story is found. Their bios often read things like, “This writer teaches biology at Cleveland High School,” or “This poet works as a software engineer and teaches ESL on the weekends,” but for a writer who has newly found themselves in a foreign country, where they strain to obtain any income at all, submitting to journals who charge reading fees might discourage or intimidate one from writing at all.

These reading fees, according to Joy Lanzendorfer, average from three to five dollars. One might say the fees aren’t too costly, or that they’re even affordable. Lanzendorfer counters by saying, “the average short story might receive around twenty rejections before it gets published.” It’s possible, she argues, that a writer might spend up to sixty dollars before any chance of publication. And a vast majority of these journals don’t pay their writers, further wounding the writer’s wallet. Essentially, these immigrant and refugee writers who, in the little spare time they have, writing stories and poems after work with their children sitting in their laps, might see parts of their income disappear into the hands of the literary magazines with no hope for any financial return.

These numerous journals and magazines now charging submission fees—the growing wave currently washing over our literary niche—are drowning out the inclusion of new, diverse voices. Charging writers for submissions, according to Lanzendorfer, “changes the journal from a publication with relevant content to something closer to a vanity press that exists as a place for MFA students to submit work.” This process, she argues, pushes away any hope of new voices, and the money writers pay for submissions ends up funding a journal’s set of friends or already established writers. So, those of us who seek out creative writing from distinct perspectives in this moment of global turbulence should be concerned, for the literary walls that stand in front of immigrant authors are apparently getting higher.

And if submission fees don’t erect a difficult enough wall for these writers to overcome, there’s the dilemma of finding the right magazine for their voices. If it’s true that journals lean towards the publication of friends and established writers, the immigrant writer navigating through literature’s murky, white waters search in vain to find voices like their own. Marcos Gonsalez, a Latinx professor and author of the article, “When ‘Good Writing’ Means ‘White Writing,’” published by Electric Literature, confronts these problems. He says, “our ideas of what is ‘literary’ or ‘intellectual’ derives from somewhere, a history.” This history, he argues, cycles around the writing of “those in charge of the discipline,” the discipline seeped in westernized language, leaving little room for other voices yearning to be heard.

Finding an outlet for those immigrant and refugee voices, those voices with a language that includes their slang and vernacular, language revolving around bodies like their own, with forms and aesthetic visions all their own, might feel unmanageable. But it isn’t impossible; in fact, there’s hope. Three literary journals from California—with their own distinct approaches—have devoted a specific space for immigrant and refugee authors.

Toyon Literary Magazine, a multilingual journal based out of Humboldt State University, is one of them. They’re a student-run journal with aims to provide literature and art that spans across cultures and the regional boundaries imposed upon us. Their website provides a description for their viewers in both Spanish and English in order to reach more readers. The site also posts links to critical essays and writings about the non-inclusivity of the literary publishing industry. The journal’s sixty-fifth issue, currently underway, is a special feature focused on the “Migration and Movement of Peoples.” They’re calling for writing and art centered around topics like exile, displacement, citizenship, belonging and/or not belonging. But the theme isn’t limited to just these topics. They also seek ideas revolving around movements of the body, leaving situations, stepping out, what it means to move through, move with, move into, and how it feels to occupy uninhabitable zones, unsafe zones, and border zones.

Similarly, the online poetry journal Califragile promotes writing that steps up, without fear and with eyes wide open, to the calamity of our current conditions. Their poems walk along the faultlines to investigate the fragilities not just within ourselves but also those around the globe. As a result of what they advocate, they’ve also inhabited the theme of migration for their recent submissions. Their mission, the site says, “is to make poetry one of the ways we process issues together.” They approach migration with an angle of poetic contexts to deepen our understanding of the issues at hand.

Both of these journals, Toyon Literary Magazine and Califragile, have opened their submissions along the theme of migration, but only for one issue. When those submission windows close, immigrant writers will have to look elsewhere for their hopes of publication. Thankfully there are magazines like the Bare Life Review. The journal, recently founded in 2017, is a literary biannual committed entirely to work by immigrants and refugees. While it’s evident that the journal founded itself as a rebuttal to the current political climates, they say their focus remains “wholly artistic.” This, they say, “is a radical premise: the refugee not as an outsider granted asylum, but as a central figure in a new literary paradigm.” The Bare Life Review has a keen understanding of the way literary art is a necessary space for reacting to global trauma.

Historically speaking, writers have always been some of the most influential reactionaries to global trauma. In the late eighteenth century, English writers of the Romantic era—Mary Shelley, William Blake, John Keats, to name a few—reverted to writing about nature’s opulence as a reaction to the Enlightenment’s push for industrialization and the damages imposed on the natural world. The Harlem Renaissance embodied art and literature as a reaction to the African American Great Migration—the movement of six million African Americans from the rural South to parts of the Northeast, Midwest, and Western United States. The Beat Generation’s Literature explored the American culture and politics after the turbulence of World War II. The Black Arts movement, perhaps one of the most influential movements in American literature, sparked in congruence with the rise of the Black Panther Party, was also a reaction to the death of Malcolm X. It inspired black writers to build their own publishing houses, form literary journals and art magazines, and erect their own art institutions.

These are just a few examples from a myriad of reactionary literary movements. Writers have always plunged deep into the abysmal aftermaths to work through the monumental crises imposed upon them. Creativity always finds a way to surface itself, no matter how many circumstances attempt to smother it. Our language, our narrative perspectives, are in migration towards a new landscape of literary pleasure, a landscape that includes the words and experiences of those who’ve been pushed into the world’s margins.

The language dominating the American literary community won’t suffice much longer. The immigrant and refugees of today write in a language that stems from distinct strife and experiences, experiences different from America’s status quo, that transcend a universal sentiment. They’re the words that deserve to be read and promoted. The immigrant voice is becoming a central figure in today’s literature, and journals across the nation will have to be realistic about the kinds of politics they promote if they want to sustain their readership. Journals, as necessary for literature as gloves are for cold hands, will have to maintain literary art is a critical art, one that can never be taken away and that includes as many voices as possible.

Scott Tschirhart is a reader for Portland Review and a full-time line cook.