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Elevating needed voices: Dr. Dorothy Ka-Ying Chan

| Denise Olson

Photo caption: Dr. Dorothy Ka-Ying Chan, assistant professor of English at UW-Eau Claire, has launched on online literary journal, Honey Literary, a collection of wide-ranging genres from BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, person of color) writers across the U.S.

Inspiration comes in all forms, and sometimes it can even come from negative experience or emotion. For poet, editor and assistant professor of English Dr. Dorothy Ka-Ying Chan, frustration and disappointment about the current literary landscape turned to inspiration and a desire to change it. Chan set out to build a creative space that she says didn't really exist.

With the summer launch of a new online literary magazine called "Honey Literary," Chan is succeeding in making that change. The magazine takes representation of women of color and other marginalized groups to a new level as a publication run entirely by women of color publishing works with a BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) focus.

"I was very frustrated by recent experiences with other literary magazines," Chan says. "While many publications claim to represent marginalized voices, I find that in most cases they really don't, or it's just not done strongly enough. And by marginalized voices I mean any artists and writers of color, any person within the LGBTQIA+ community, anyone with a disability and of course, women. It is my passion to uplift those voices, especially those voices that have various intersections within these groups." 

Having worked as an editor for several publications, Chan knew that founding a new publication would require a great deal of work and a staff of editors who share her desire to open up the field of published creative writing to a wider pool of BIPOC writers. As a queer woman of color herself, with a wide network of talented friends and associates who are women of color, Chan was able to assemble an editorial staff that is diverse in all ways, including in age range and geographic location across the U.S. 

"I'm very proud to say that we're diverse with a vast age range, from undergraduate students to those working as full professor," Chan says, explaining that this was one of her goals. "Producing a truly intersectional journal requires bringing in perspectives from all angles, not only gender and race. An important differentiator in perspective is age and/or generation, and we have that." 

A perfectly paired partner

Rita Mookerjee

Dr. Rita Mookerjee, assistant professor of women's and gender studies at Iowa State Univerisity; co-founder of Honey Literary, poetry editor and editor of the sex, kink and erotic section of the magazine.

When it came to finding a perfect partner in planning this endeavor, Chan didn't have to look far, calling on her good friend and graduate-school-cohort-member Dr. Rita Mookerjee. 

"We met five years ago in our Ph.D. program at Florida State," Chan says. "Rita is a writer, poet, scholar and editor whose work really inspires me. Having her on board from the onset and throughout the journey of this launch has been so valuable to me."

Mookerjee joined the faculty at Iowa State University in 2019 as an assistant professor in women's and gender studies, specializing in contemporary literature of the Caribbean with a focus on gender and food studies. Her editorial style and passions align perfectly with Chan's vision for Honey Literary, along with a shared frustration about the failure of so many journals to equally represent marginalized groups. 

"Time’s up — I’ve had enough of the posturing from top-tier journals and prestigious publishing houses," Mookerjee said. "Writers from marginalized groups are not being uplifted, consulted, or even published nearly as much as they need to be; committees for book prizes and writing awards are laughably homogenous.

"As Honey Literary, we exist as a rupture. We don’t feign interest in Otherness; we embody it," she attests. "Every one of the masthead editors represents a group that I believe is the future of literature. You cannot expect real change from the groups that have manufactured the status quo. They are the oppressor, and let it be known that we see them and will work tirelessly to correct the malpractice and erasure that is committed regularly in the field."

In addition to opening up the field, another goal that Chan and Mookerjee had in creating the journal was to establish entry categories that would allow writers to branch out into some unique and nontraditional types of creative writing, including submission categories like poetry and essay, as well as hybrid writing, comics, sex kink and erotic, animals, interviews, reviews and Valentines.  

"We're starting to build our first issue, which will be published online in February 2021," Chan says. "I act as a second set of eyes to each of my section editors, looking over the pieces they've selected, and I'm very happy to see that each section already has a unique identity — it's very inspiring."

Timing is everything

While the overall inspiration to create this type of literary journal sprang from a long history of voids in the landscape for writers of color, this project also seeks to provide a space of artistic outlet for writers during these very uncertain times of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Travel is an essential element of a budding writing career, for public readings and other opportunities to share our work, and clearly that isn't happening at this time," Chan says. "But this is also a time of significant social tension and racial unrest, coinciding with the protests in support of Black Lives Matter. I would emphasize that these racial tensions in the United States are nothing new, and hegemonic practices in any industry, including writing, are nothing new. I see Honey Literary as a response to that. I hope that this effort will provide a bit of light in the darkness right now — having a journal to uplift marginalized voices during this upheaval is such a good thing."

Another teaching moment

Chan and much of her staff are, in fact, teachers, and they are seeing this endeavor as another avenue to teach, if outside of their classrooms. In addition to serving as role models for their students, demonstrating how to balance multiple aspects of a creative's career path, these editors provide concrete ways to bolster the education of students or anyone wanting to dive deeper into reading the works of diverse writers.

"We encourage all visitors to our Honey Literary website to visit the masthead page, which gives an introduction to all members of our staff," she says. "Each of us have listed there some of our favorite writers, commonly those we teach in class, which helps us to further share out those voices we find relevant and significant reads, both to fellow teachers and consumers of literature alike." 

And, of course, Chan and her staff encourage students to submit their own writing to Honey Literary, edited by teachers who are very interested in student work, and also to more localized publications like the campus art journal NOTA.

"I tell my students that as an editor, it's always very rewarding to know that you have been the first journal to publish the work of a writer, especially student writers."

Looking to shift the business model 

Since she is making every attempt with Honey Literary to shift the standards and norms in the world of literary publications, another change Chan intends to enact is a move toward paid submissions, a practice that scarcely exists in the world of literary publications.

"At Honey Literary, as well as almost all other lit journals nationally and internationally, the work is done on a volunteer basis. In the literary world, we come together through our passions, resulting in countless hours of volunteer effort. In many ways, that in and of itself is a beautiful thing, because the goal is to publish these writers," Chan says "However, Rita and I and our whole editorial staff hope to be able to pay submitting writers for their published work. Through building a strong journal and becoming grant eligible, we hope to compensate writers as a means of showing our respect for their work, even if that begins with a small amount that grows over time — it's important to us to get to that point."

A long to-do list for BIPOC faculty

As campuses like UW-Eau Claire and many other predominantly white institutions work to become anti-racist institutions, it is often the faculty of color who end up carrying the extra burden of educating campus on issues of racism and marginalization as their lived experience can provide much-needed insight into these topics.

According to her English department colleague, balancing that role with the demands of teaching alone, plus developing their own artist craft can be challenging, and Chan has set a high bar.

"I think there's often a lot of pressure on faculty of color to transform institutions through their teaching and engagement, while remaining productive in their disciplines," says Dr. José Felipe Alvergue, associate professor of English. "Dr. Chan's work is invaluable to UWEC and to its students. She is working very hard to create spaces for knowledge, expression, spaces of and about access. It's easy for us to applaud everything she does, but it will be even more important for those of us around her to take up her example and get to work ourselves."  

About that pressure Alvergue describes, Chan does not deny that it exists, and has developed a way to be sure that all her work points toward inclusivity. She's a list-maker.

"I'm a queer woman of color on the UW-Eau Claire faculty. I'm also a full-time poet, editor and literary citizen. I bring my expertise in all those areas into my teaching. In framing certain expectations of pressures due to my identity, here's how I approach it," Chan says. "I start out every morning with a to-do list, and I get through as much as I can. I know that sounds extremely simple, but honestly, doing anti-racist, intersectional feminist work and advocacy is just so ingrained into everything that I do. I get through the list and I know the work is getting done."

To learn more about Honey Literary magazine or to submit your work, visit Honeyliterary.com.