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'Your Art Is Valid'
By The Editors
Last fall, Lashelle Johnson, Quail Bell's non-fiction editor, launched Watermelanin Magazine. Run by people of color, this independent digital magazine publishes work exclusively by artists and writers of color. Recent stories include titles like "Growing Up American When You're Yellow" and "A Hijab in the Classroom Won't Change You." The magazine also runs fiction and poetry. We wanted to learn more about Lashelle's new venture, so we did what we always do when we're curious: We asked her a few questions:
What inspired the founding of Watermelanin?
One of the most influential moments of my development as a writer was in undergrad when I had access to a group of diverse voices at Amendment Literary Journal at Virginia Commonwealth University. I had the opportunity to helm the publication for a year and started to understand how important it was to have a space to learn, experiment, and grow as an artist. There weren’t spaces like that in the proverbial real world. Once I started submitting work to journals outside of undergrad, I realized I was supposed to have everything figured out already. There was no room for coaching, no guidance—my writing was supposed to be in its final form.
People of color, largely, do not have access to the same resources that allow others to spend time honing their craft. There wasn’t really a space that provided guidance alongside the opportunity to be published once I left undergrad. I wanted to fill that hole and provide those opportunities to people who may not otherwise have eyes on their work.
What happened right after you launched Watermelanin?
I put out the call for submissions on Twitter and it exploded. The name is jarring for people unfamiliar with Paul Beatty, so you can see how a platform like Twitter would take that and run. Honestly, it was a mess for about a week, but we also got a ton of eyes on the magazine and the inbox had hundreds of submissions in the first 48 hours.
There was a massive learning curve in that we hadn’t fleshed out our workflow by the time submissions came rolling as most launches of literary magazines are lackluster and certainly don’t have all of Black Twitter talking (for better or worse).
What's been your experience running a literary magazine under the Trump administration?
There’s a mix of exhaustion and excitement in running a literary magazine under this administration. Watermelanin is made by all people of color and our existences are constantly politicized, so telling our stories with a renewed urgency is beautiful, but I have noticed there is a greater level of exhaustion that comes with being an editor tasked with curating these stories. It can be difficult to constructively engage with subjects that cause you actual harm during your daily life. Finding a healthy balance between publishing work and giving the editors the space to take their time, especially with our nonfiction section, has been paramount to avoiding emotional exhaustion.
What have you learned in founding Watermelanin?
Everything is more difficult than you think and takes more time than you expect. Also, you have to be your own advocate. I think we’re used to being our own worst critics, but once you’re face-to-face with what feels like the entire Internet and thousands of opinions, you learn how to be in your own corner.
I quickly learned that I can absolutely not respond to everything all the time; it’s just impossible. Our first tweet has over a million impressions and nearly thirty thousand engagements. At some point, you have to recognize that you can’t do everything. I suppose that leads to the most important lesson I learned: Ask for help. I have a team of amazing people around me who have agreed to spend their free time making this magazine what it is. Great people are invaluable.
What do you hope Watermelanin will become?
I hope the magazine will become a refuge for artists of color—a place where people come to find fresh voices and writers can use as a resource. We strive to give writers thorough coaching when editing their work because growth, not perfection, is the goal. I have been lucky to work with some amazing people who have never been published and hope I can provide the foot-in-the-door they need. The publishing world is not always nice and being an artist can be isolating sometimes. We want to make community a mainstay of the magazine.
More community building is also in the cards for the future. Hosting workshops and actually immersing ourselves into community work across the country. There are some great literacy initiatives out there and it would be amazing to get involved with that on-the-ground work.
What are the next steps for Watermelanin?
We are currently accepting submissions for our annual digital magazine and amping up interest is probably the most important thing for us right now. The theme this year is Unfunny: An Ode to Humorist Satire as a nod to our name, so soliciting more submissions is first on the docket.
Beyond that, consistency. Keeping a regular stream of content up on the website and being more aggressive about promoting our writers.
What do you want to want women of color who are doubting themselves and their talents as artists and writers to know?
You are enough. We spend an exorbitant amount of time comparing ourselves to people the Western world has deemed important and convincing ourselves we could never do what they did. That we’ll never be Poe or Faulkner. Even now, I occasionally find myself thinking I’ll never be Baldwin or Coates, so why try? It’s madness. The only person in the world who can create your art is you. You are the only you and your art is valid. Go create.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.