“I Wouldn’t Compromise My Vision for What I Perceived This Anthology to Be”: Jennifer Baker on the Making of “Everyday People”

In fourteen dazzling, exquisite, carefully selected stories, including by some of our most famous authors, ranging from Alexander Chee, to Yiyun Li, to Jason Reynolds, the brilliant anthology Everyday People fills a need for diversity while also raising haunting questions. How different would mainstream anthologies, like Best American Short Stories, O’Henry Stories, and others look, if the gatekeepers were consistently people of color, trans, non-binary and other editors from the margins? How different would MFA programs, and in turn, publishing, look? What will the world be like, when all the homogeneity leaves us? In her eloquent and thoughtful discussions about how the stories were selected and what they mean, Jennifer Baker points the way forward for #WeNeedDiverseBooks, in the form of a rigorous intellectual and critical engagement of what makes for a masterfully-told story.

In your lovely intro, you talk about the inception of this project with Brook Stephenson, a well known and beloved figure in publishing. I’m wondering if you can speak to what you feel you gained from the idea of an “inherited” project — looking also at, for example, how New Yorker senior fiction editor Willing Davidson rose to prominence several years ago from an “inherited” Henry Roth novel manuscript; how Jonathan Safran Foer “inherited” a similarly visible and notable project (on Joseph Cornell) when he had just finished undergrad. What is the meaning, if there is a unique one, of literary legacy and inheritance for rising editors of color?

There’s a kind of double bind when inheriting something. One, in that you want to do justice to the person whose original vision it was and, two, that you also want to put your stamp on it. I will say that a lesson learned was that I wouldn’t compromise my vision for what I perceived this anthology to be. For me Everyday People was always about quality and message, I will never divert from that but that doesn’t mean my subjectivity or editorial mindset is the same as someone else’s. My confidence in what I felt as an editor and reader and writer is what allowed me to stay on firm ground in my edits and opinions. Plus, curating an anthology is much different than say finishing someone’s manuscript though, regardless, you’re bringing a very specific sensibility to a project. When it comes to PoC-specific material I think it’s important to also recognize that there are limitations in perspective writing the other for those who are marginalized as well as for those who are not. So these are the types of things I tend to keep in mind when approaching editing anyone’s work but in how I tried to maintain due diligence with curating and editing the writers within this anthology.

The anthology also reminded me of an incredible speech given by Chris Jackson upon receiving an editors award from the Asian American Writers Workshop, on his experience, in part, of editing not only famous Black authors whom he is strongly identified with (Victor LaValle, Mat Johnson, Ta-Nehisi Coates) but also editing Chinese-American author Eddie Huang. He spoke movingly of how “whitewashing” in publishing impacted Huang’s experiences. Can you speak about this word also in terms of, say, Marlon James’ writing on the pressure to “pander” to straight white women in publishing? What does “whitewashing” mean? How do projects like this represent progress against it? And does it affect black authors differently than other authors of color (which Marlon James seemed to suggest that it may?)

Having heard Chris Jackson give speeches about his journey in publishing I think he and many others who have risen through the ranks—like Mira Jacob spoke of in her Buzzfeed essay on being ignored. He and many other Women of Color have spoken to in public and in private about these types of issues in the industry of pandering to race, perceived binary in gender, religious representations, and more.

So it’s interesting all those referred to in this question are male when women have an added burden of not only pandering to white people but cisgender men in general. Add in cishet bias and abled bias and Christian bias and we’re tiptoeing around a lot of identities we’re expected to “cater” to. It’s very much in line with the fact that the colonialist mindset has burdened us with the knowledge of how one should write through a very limited curriculum instead of the vast ways in which we could write our stories and others.

My writing style and preference for reading tends to veer more contemporary and straightforward in stories. That doesn’t mean experimental or gonzo or “genre” fiction is something I won’t like. It means I’ve been trained to like a certain aesthetic based on my education within the creative writing world. I know I am not the only person of color who thinks this way. In being a writer and editor I need to be aware of my privilege and preferences when editing folks writing about disability who are not disabled. Or when editing cis and nonbinary queer writers as a cishet woman. It’s up to the editors to also be aware of this but the industry often places this onus on the writers because we’re the talent and the faces. But how often are editors upfront discussing editing or who are that high profile? Chris Jackson is one of the few book editors let alone book editors of color I’ve seen profiled in the New York Times.

Were there pieces you specifically solicited from writers whose work you’d admired, whose work was ‘hard to get’? Can you talk about your approach to being an acquiring editor for this book?

I think anyone’s “approach” should more so be to know the essence of who they’re reaching out to and how that person can boost the work itself coupled alongside others. An anthology is about the final product not necessarily the pieces, but you need to pieces to create the whole. When I acquire/inquire about anything I need to know what I want in terms of the scope of the project. While that was open for Everyday People because this was strictly about short fiction by people of color, I emailed contributors with a bullet point list of everything I was asking upfront so they could make a decision. I did not waste their time. I told them how much they’d be paid, when I needed the work, the length, the project, the publisher, and why I was interested in them. Maybe it’s because I work in publishing or because I’m a born and raised New Yorker, but my modus operandi is I hate wasting folks’ time. I also don’t want to have my time wasted. And it’s amazing how due to a lack of direction this can result in a lot of unnecessary back & forth when someone needs information and the other simply needs to provide it. When someone said no I moved on because I also had an extended list of folks I wanted and, of course things happen. Folks contracted couldn’t do it due to time constraints and other contracted had to be removed due to offensive content. Because I had an extended list of voices I wanted to be part of this and because I’m embedded in the PoC writing scene it wasn’t hard to find these folks, it was mainly bad timing post-2016 election to ask anyone for anything. 

Re: specific stories. All of them were so memorable and sharp. One in particular affected me, by Dennis Norris II. “I will survive this” was a haunting line. Can you talk a bit about this story, how you came together to work w/ Dennis, whom I see you’ve read with in several venues?

Dennis is a friend who became a friend because I heard them read at Bridgett Davis’s Sundays @ reading series as part of a line up for those who had gone to VONA–an all PoC summer workshop I had also participated in. Dennis is someone who I’ve read with previously and based on the control of their language and of their overall story and having dined with them I felt that they could add a great deal to the anthology as well. Dennis had offered me 3 stories to take my pick from and ultimately I chose the one we retitled “Last Rites” due to its clarity and pointed designation in terms of the story arc, but also in terms of the fact that it looked at a father in a specific role and not many of the pieces I had related fathers in such a way. In many the fathers were off-screen or absent and it felt good to be able to add that kind of “missing element” to the anthology.

Another story I really enjoyed was by Hasanthika Sirisena, whose career I’ve followed with interest since her prize winning story collection. I was so interested in her use of “telling”–a lot of telling, a lot of history – juxtaposed with relatively understated, lean action. What attracted you to this story? How would you compare it with other South Asian diasporic fiction that you’ve read?

What I like about Hasanthika’s work is that she is very pointed in her story telling and knows her characters. There’s a great confidence in what she has to say and how she says it on the page. “Surrender” is a piece I also liked because it looked at the fallibility of man. The main character is someone who keeps failing and is missing something. Hasanthika said at a reading we did in DC together in September that this is what she was seeking to explore when a character says to the main one that there’s something missing in him or lost, how does one seek to try and rediscover this if they’re aiming to find it at all? In essence many characters in work are fallible because people themselves are fallible, but in her story the protagonist had numerous women in his life directing him to do better and he didn’t want to listen. Or, even when he did, failed to be “successful” and this intrigued me along with the toggling of two worlds for him. How can you be American in a foreign country that is technically but not your country and then proceed to try and have some kind of power there? How awkward is that to an aware person more so than an unawares person? Those are the kinds of things that interest me as a reader. 

Did you consider including one of your own stories? Why or why not? 🙂

Nope, never. I didn’t want to edit myself. I understand why editors of anthologies put their work in them. For me it just felt too odd and a bit self-serving, plus I didn’t want to have to worry about something else considering I was doing all the editing. I’d much prefer to be part of an anthology I had nothing to deal with on the larger end as editor.

#MeToo in publishing – a big topic. Can you speak to how your decision to replace the Junot Díaz story in the anthology with an extensive bibliography of work by women of color came about? Were there people, including mentors and good friends, whom it was important to you to run this through with, to talk about with? Or was it an internal decision that just seemed really obvious to you? I am interested especially since we often don’t hear a lot about what it takes, what are the stakes, what are the potential dialogues involved, in seeking for an end to disparity and an end to complicity in harassment and violence.

 My friend Maya Davis was the one who suggested a list of work by women of color, and I expanded it by including nonbinary and transgender voices of color as well. It seemed a necessary way to shine a light on other writers and not simply remove a piece but to give room to others. I mentioned this to my publisher and after some internal discussions it was agreed I could do what I wanted. But, I had two weeks in which to provide this to the publisher because the book was being prepped to be sent out to the printer within a few weeks.

Ending a disparity doesn’t happen overnight nor does it happen with one person speaking up and others saying “Oh that’s terrible.” The industry itself is not yet invested in making a change. Publishing is invested in not looking bad. For me, as I said to my publisher removing Diaz and adding this list wasn’t a PR move, it was a moral one. There are conversations that happened and I offered my explanations and that’s as much as I can say on how I moved forward and what I needed to do in my work to leave my conscious clear and work towards some form of representation for others without further entering a conversation I wasn’t at liberty to participate in. The stakes have always been the same, whether people take it seriously or not is a whole other question.


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