August 22, 2016 | , ,

Evolution of a Warrior for Literary Diversity: An Interview with Alexandra Watson


Alexandra Watson is the executive editor of Apogee, a journal of literature and art that engages with identity politics and social justice. Published in July 2016, Issue 07 of Apogee holds poetry, nonfiction, fiction, art, and interviews majorly confronting the idea of mourning. Bound by a stunning cover of a watercolor-skinned silhouette with clear eyes, this issue features work from JP Howard, Fatimah Asghar, Juliana Huxtable, and many more.  

Watson, 27, She teaches writing at Columbia University’s Undergraduate Writing Program and at the Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America, a nonprofit promoting college access for low-income high school students. She said, “[LEDA’s] mission is to diversify leadership in this country by providing college access resources to talented high school students…The Scholars bring an outstanding level of insight to the classroom, and reflect meaningfully not just on their own experience but on how their experience as low-income students from different communities around the country relate to broader social issues.” As a woman writer of color who has committed herself to nurturing and exposing underrepresented voices, Watson offers distinguished insight into how these voices are born into writing, and how they can thrive. 

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What was your favorite book as a child and as a teenager?

As a child, I remember loving Walk Two Moons and Number The Stars—not particularly cheerful books. Walk Two Moons spoke to me as an unconventional family story, where the parents in this story weren’t some model family. Number The Stars told a devastating story about a Jewish family’s experiences during the Holocaust. I remember it being a moment where I realized that not all children in the world were safe from trauma.

As a teenager, I fell in love with Isabel Allende’s The House of Spirits, and then read all of her books. I had read Gabriel García Márquez, and I love that Allende created a family saga centered around the women’s lives.

What was the first piece of literature that stood out as something different – a different voice, style, or idea that you were not used to?

Probably Toni Morrison’s Sula. The language seemed straightforward, but it was loaded with symbolism—like The Bottom, the neighborhood where most of the black community lives in the story. Plus it told a story of female friendship that was enduring but also sort of calamitous–that was unlike most simplistic stories about girls’ friendship that I’d read before.

When did you begin writing?

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t keep a journal. In sixth grade, our elementary school brought in a professional poetry group called “Sisterfriends” to do a poetry workshop with us. I remember they gave us a prompt, “My Life is Like…” and I wrote a poem that was really deep to me at the time—the last lines were, “My life is like nothing you see in the movies/and you don’t see me crying/My life is like an uphill battle/And honey, I’m tryin.” Or something cheesy like that. That was the first time I read poetry—in front of my entire sixth grade class. I remember feeling actually really empowered by that; like I’d found a voice. I think art and literature have a really important place in primary education.

Is your writing motivated by different things now, and if so, what does that evolution look like?

As is the case with many young writers, I think I wrote mostly for myself as a child and adolescent—to get out the things that were burning inside me. That might still be the first motivation for a draft, but I think more about my readers now. Not, like—will every reader like or get this, but will my reader at least see some spark of recognition; can I make my thoughts transparent to someone else. And then can I make what I care about matter deeply to someone else.

When your writing addresses social or cultural issues, do you intentionally aim for that theme or does it subconsciously find its way into your writing?

I think all my writing addresses sociocultural themes—all of my favorite writing does. I’ve realized that things like having a strong female protagonist whose characterization does not rely on her relationship to the males around her is in itself seen as a social lens, even though I wouldn’t see it that way—that’s just sort of how I see myself and the women around me. At times, though, I have found myself trying too hard to put an explicit argument into a piece of fiction, and have been critiqued for writing polemically. I don’t really think it’s necessarily bad to be polemical. But I do think that having some critical distance from your characters’ perspectives, especially in fiction, allows you more creativity. If you put all your beliefs and values into a character, that character can come out seeming one-dimensional because you often can’t represent yourself in as complex a way as you see others—as ironic as that may seem.

issue 07 cover image
Apogee Issue 07, cover art by Firelei Báez and design by Stine Westergaard

How did Apogee Journal form?

We were originally affiliated with an activist student group at Columbia University’s School of the Arts; a group for writers of color that has since evolved to be a space for writers who feel themselves marginalized for a variety of identity-related reasons. We saw that the need to highlight writers of color and other underrepresented writers was huge and sought to address it beyond the scope of the university, so we became independent in 2012.

How and why did you become involved with Apogee?

I originally joined the student group because I related to a lot of its frustrations—for example,  I had a class in graduate school—a sort of primer on short story writing—and out of maybe twelve authors, there were zero writers of color, and two women writers. I felt a real distance from the curriculum. Apogee seemed like a way to find the type of work I wanted to read, and like the kind of platform I was looking for for my own work.

How is the identity of Apogee shaped by the identities of its contributors?

This is a great question – each issue kind of takes on an identity of its own based on the collection of contributors within it. The cool thing is that even though each issue represents a wide variety of backgrounds, forms, and stories—the pieces within them often speak to each other, suggesting a sense of urgency. Issue 07, for example, has a lot of pieces that address grief and mourning in really interesting ways. The powerful thing about the specificity of each writer’s experience and identity is that it allows us all to be touched by it. Toni Morrison could write about a tiny black community in Ohio and both make a powerful, specific point about the trappings of white America’s ideas of beauty; while also tapping in to universal truths about innocence and childhood; the traumas that inform our development.

Display of Apogee issues

As a woman writer of color and the editor of a politically-driven journal, you have the unique opportunity to both create and publish stories by voices that have been historically ignored in literature. What is that like? How do those roles work together?

In terms of my own work, I’ve found that I no longer submit to publications that haven’t shown a commitment to inclusivity. Recently, I’ve submitted work to Winter Tangerine, The James Franco Review, Nat. Brut.—publications whose editors I know are conscious not only about creating space but about how their own identities inform their reading of the work—and who have created diverse editorial teams. On the other side, as an editor, I’m more aware of how the culture of a literary space is created: through constant self-reflection; bringing on people who are passionate about the mission; and advocating, always, in the artists’ and writers’ best interests.

What can writers do to make sure that their voices are not being denied for social or cultural reasons?

Do research about the publications you want to submit to—not just the work they’ve published before, but who is on their editorial board. If you get a form rejection, you might ask politely what about the work could be improved in revision. You may not get a response, but it’s worth the try. I don’t think it’s possible to overcome the biases that a lot of writers may have; some may feel daunted by work with explicitly political overtones, and it may be less because they don’t think it has value than that they don’t know how to work with you on it. Try submitting to series and blogs as well as print publications—they may not pay, but you can get more exposure for your work if it’s online. The beauty of the Internet is that no one’s work is truly silenced—you can start your own blog, or even use Facebook notes or Tumblr. Find great advocates for your work, whether they be peers or friends, or organizations like the Asian American Writer’s Workshop, Kundiman, Calalloo, or Cave Canem. Community is really important for writers.

What can editors and publishers do to give more platform space to those writers?

I think you’re referring to writers who belong to marginalized identity groups. This is a tricky question, because I find it uncomfortable to think about, for example, white editors who need to actively try to find writers of color to publish. To publish work that pushes the boundaries of our social and cultural status quo (white surpremacy, heteronormativity, misogyny) means that you have to love it, and I don’t think you start loving that kind of work deliberately. For Apogee’s editors, this work is what we naturally gravitate towards, because we feel that it challenges ideas that have made us uncomfortable in the literature we were taught to love in schools, and by reading lists. So, I guess my best suggestion would be to bring on editors who represent a wide range of experience and reading interests.

Watson lives in Harlem, NY and is currently working on a novel about insomnia.