Orca Blog for July: What We Can Say; What We Will Do

Orca’s editors (Zac, Renee, and me) have debated over several weeks what we might say about the events following the murder of George Floyd, and whether we even have anything relevant to say. We do not wish to pretend our opinions matter much to those more directly involved in the current social discourse. We also don’t wish to be perceived as merely jumping on the bandwagon of popular opinion, like all those larger entities that suddenly “stand with” us in these times of crisis. We could, and maybe should stay quiet.

When we started Orca in 2019, we envisioned the journal as a commitment to the literary style of writing. We believe that writing, especially fiction, is more than words, more than personal opinion. We believe the best writing is art, something that both transcends our daily existence and has the capacity to connect us to the existence of others. Ludwig Wittgenstein, an Austrian philosopher of the early-to-mid twentieth century, said, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” This sentiment points to the essence of literary style, and to its encouragement of the pursuit of knowledge and experience.

We also believe that any writer can compose in a literary aesthetic, and therefore that we should not have to lower our standards to accommodate popular or politically-motivated agendas. By saying this we could easily be cast as a journal of white privilege. We are an all-white staff and the majority of stories we publish are by white authors. Although we do not know the race or ethnicity of the writers who submit to us, we suspect we don’t receive many works by writers of color. What we publish is largely reflective of our literary and personal experiences and tastes, and that could easily be construed as a manifestation of white privilege. In fact, it probably is.

We are seven white people. The journal began with one person (me), but soon others wanted to become a part of it, and I was glad for the help. We did have a woman of color, but she returned to school. We do have (and had) staff members of differing sexual orientation, but we do not at present have anyone of color.

We are seven individual people, and as such we are subject to our life and cultural experiences. We can’t deny that those experiences have been and remain privileged. We can’t eliminate them, or pretend they didn’t happen, or even pretend they don’t affect us. We want to be fair. We have tried to present a journal that encompasses experience from every rational and accountable perspective, and in that regard we have been statistically successful. In our first three issues we have published writers from all regions of the U.S., and probably a dozen foreign countries. About 70 percent of what we publish is by women. But that doesn’t necessarily prove a truly diverse perspective.

A friend of Zac’s, who is an academic as well as a writer of color, said that the standards of “literary English,” while arguably problematic in their ethnocentricity, are unavoidable, and that changing those standards would be a mistake, and would likely be viewed as such by many academics in the field of racial equality.

We are happy to hear that, but not relieved.

The current social unrest exposes a disease that should have been acknowledged and treated centuries ago. Despite the childish jingoism espoused by our current president, despite all the “greats” and “exceptionalisms” and “manifest destinies,” and the calls to return to a fantasized past, America is still a nation of deep racial prejudice and, at best, only an unfulfilled promise. It is an enormous land of distance and isolation, those factors leading to ignorance, which leads to fear, which leads to tribalism, which leads to hatred and violence. The protests address the lies that keep that promise from fruition. They reveal a national frustration over our failure to solve a 400-year-old problem, and a pent-up anger at the political and economic systems that have cemented racism and discrimination into our national foundation. Our capitalist system has become corrupted beyond the Founders’ wildest nightmares, from theoretical opportunity for all, into a belief among many people that opportunity for others means less for them. It’s that myopic, zero-sum thinking that’s behind a lot of what’s happening, and which allows the one-percenters to keep hoarding, and keep laughing at the rest of us as we fight over the remaining scraps.

At Orca we want to move forward in a way that addresses both our staff’s concerns over our biases, and the fundamental inequities that plague our nation.

Zac’s academic friend has challenged us to consider what role the artists themselves play in the piece of art. When Zac mentioned that some of the staff tend to read stories blind to avoid bias, he countered that by not including the artist as a piece of their work, we are perhaps opening ourselves up to unconscious bias. This makes sense—by eliminating the writer from our judgment, a reader can only assess the work through that narrow slit of personal experience, which is too dependent on its cultural foundation.

He also said that what many people of color in any field are looking for is transparency. He said most people could and should agree that this is all a nuanced discussion, and by demonstrating that we are having these discussions internally, and by acknowledging that we too struggle with the role art plays in all of this, we are several steps ahead of most of the universities with whom he works, who are either not having the discussions at all, or instantly leap to the conclusion that they know the right path to follow.

Perhaps when dealing with unconscious bias, the best course is to address it consciously. With that in mind, here is what we will do:

  • We will expand our staff to include people of color and diverse experience.
  • We will use our educational and experiential foundations—our privilege—to awaken ourselves to the breadth of writing perspectives that exist, and to know that they have literary value; to not limit what we publish to stories we “like” or that simply reflect the values on which we were raised, or the values of the moment. We will not be afraid to challenge ourselves and our readers with work that represents the realities of other cultures, lifestyles, experiences, hopes, and imaginations—provided that work takes into account that there exists a valid spectrum of experience deserving of representation (in other words, no screeds or polemics).
  • We will achieve a necessary balance of perspectives, and still maintain our literary standards, because we also believe that writers of every background are capable of thoughtful and imaginative stories that employ language to its fullest potential. We will aim to prove it with every issue we publish.
  • We will not allow political agendas to affect our commitment. That is not about “our” truth. It is about responsible discourse.
  • We will recognize that writing is an attempt to make art, and that art is an attempt to understand not just oneself, but oneself as a part of a larger world. We will recognize that writing is, like America, an unfulfilled promise.
  • We will embrace and promote the idea that good writing involves risk.

That last idea comes from something I read a few years ago, and which has stayed with me since. It’s from a commencement speech given by the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño, in which he talked at length about writing well. Here is an excerpt:

What, then, is writing of quality? Well, what it has always been: knowing to stick one’s head into the dark, knowing to jump into the void, knowing that literature is basically a dangerous occupation. To run along the edge of the precipice: on one side the bottomless abyss and on the other the faces one loves, the smiling faces one loves, and books, and friends, and food. And to accept that fact, though sometimes it may weigh on us more than the flagstone that covers the remains of every dead writer. Literature, as an Andalusian folk song might say, is dangerous.

We will see you on the edge of the precipice.

– Joe Ponepinto

Image by Patrick Behn from Pixabay