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Queering CanLit: A conversation with Andrea Routley

Plenitude is a Canadian, online, queer literary magazine. Since its launch in 2012, it’s become a critical platform for LGBTTQI writers, readers, artists and others across North America. I recently had a conversation with Plenitude editor Andrea Routley about the magazine, the status of queer literature in Canada, and what we can expect from Plenitude in the years ahead.

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Plenitude is a great new literary magazine in Canada with a mandate to support LGBTTQI writers. Tell me more about its mission and what you’re looking for as an editor.

We define queer literature as that which is created by LGBTTQI people, rather than that which features “queer content” alone. If we were to judge what “queer content” is, ideas of queerness would be limited by our own personal understandings and experiences. That would really get in the way of our mandate, which is to complicate expressions of queerness through the publication of diverse, sophisticated literary writing, art and film, from the very subtle to the brash and unrelenting.

As an editor, I look for writing that is energetic in its use of language. Writing that is tight, that propels me forward, or slows me down because I want to hang onto it for a moment. I like a little weirdness. I have to be aware of my own biases—styles or characters I prefer, scenarios I’m drawn to. As I’m reading submissions and making selections, I have all the other submissions in mind. I try to make each issue diverse in its representation of experiences and styles, including setting, generation, etc.

What was your inspiration for launching Plenitude? How did you go about making it a reality, and how did you find support?

I have encountered an attitude in reviews, writing classes, and from some writing instructors which privileges heteronormativity as a “Universal” experience. So a story about a same-sex couple, for example, is not seen as one which explores sexual identity, or love, or relationships, but queer identity, queer love, queer relationships. Duh, right? But I’m not really sad about that, because perhaps the problem isn’t that queerness is not completely absorbed into mainstream notions of “universal,” but that heterosexuality and heteronormative gender are (among other predictable things). That we even give a crap about “universal” in the first place.

Because Plenitude is a magazine which publishes only queer writers, readers do not bring the same assumptions to its pages, and writers do not have to explain the sexual history or pronoun preferences of their characters. For example, if a female character has an attraction to another woman, but also has sex with a straight man in the story, this does not have to be what the story is about–the writing doesn’t have to be about sex or love at all. Oh god, I just thought of something from a writing class—have you ever been asked to justify some “difference” in a character? Say your character is in a wheelchair—someone asks, “Why?” And you say, “Why not?” But this is not the answer they are looking for. But WHY NOT? Sometimes people are in wheelchairs—why can’t this reality be incidental? Why should it have to impact the plot? Why is your character white? Why is your character a man with a penis? Why are your character’s parents native English speakers? Fazeela Jiwa wrote a great article related to this subject for Plenitude“Expect Expectations: Reading ‘Ethnic’ Literature Through a Multicultural Lens.”

How did I get it going?

I was finishing my BA in Writing at UVic when I started work on Plenitude. I had edited an anthology before (Walk Myself Home: An Anthology to End Violence Against Women, Caitlin Press, 2010), and I knew how much work a project like this would be, so I proposed it as a Directed Study (one student with one instructor).This way I’d get course credit for it at the same time. You know, multi-task. Lynne Van Luven, the Dean of Fine Arts at UVic and an accomplished anthologist, supervised the project.

To find support, I basically just asked for it, and it was there. Everyone was very enthusiastic about the project–a queer literary magazine in Canada was long overdue. So people submit, others contribute to the blog, our advisory editorial board weighs in on the process, other magazines advertise our issues or calls for submissions. But the support we’re still looking for is money. A magazine takes a lot of hours to run, even one that only publishes twice a year.

Why is Plenitude important to the Canadian literary community at large, and the LGBTTQI community in particular?

Some writers have told me that while they have no trouble placing pieces about friends or family in literary magazines, they have had trouble with the pieces that contain queer content. Some feel “traditional” literary magazines are not comfortable publishing work that explores queer relationships or identities. So we provide a much needed venue for queer writers. This is not to say other literary magazines don’t publish “queer content,” of course. Our Advisory Editorial Board member and Member at Large, John Barton, is the Editor of The Malahat Review, which published your Journey Prize nominated story, for example.

More important, I think, is the context we provide. As readers, we bring assumptions to a reading; as writers, we bring assumptions about the readers, too. If we are writing in Canada, but setting a story in present-day Fuzhou, China, for instance, we will assume our readers don’t know about China. We will explain some things. By doing this, we are writing for the outsider. We tend to assume the “average reader” is straight, and unfamiliar with queer histories and cultures, so we explain. What happens when we stop doing that?

What kind of reception have you had? And what have you learned in the first year?

We’ve had an amazing reception! Interviews in CBC and CFUV, with Monday Magazine and Xtra!. Reviews in Autostraddle.com and CaseytheCanadianLesbrarian.wordpress.com. We were at Pride and the Word in Victoria last year, and we’ll be back this summer, too. Queer Between the Covers, a queer book fair in Montreal, will be selling subscriptions for us. We’ve received submissions from about 120 authors to each issue, and expecting more for Issue 3 submissions (deadline is July 5!).

Things I’ve learned? Getting a non-profit going is a lot of work. It’s not easy to juggle 3 jobs around it. Sometimes I cried. I wanted to quit. It felt like a terrible burden and I wanted to change my name and leave the country because of the financial strain of being unable to seriously find a paying job because I don’t have time. But I think the much-needed financial support is right around the corner and all will be well!

Plenitude - Issue 2

How would you describe the current state of queer lit in Canada?

I think queer writers in Canada are really digging deep. We know we need more than erotica and coming out stories—we need a broader literature, and we need MORE of it. It’s really interesting to see how books by queer writers are marketed—to see the language in press releases. Sometimes there’s that reassurance for non-queers, the “there are queer characters in it, but it is really just about love, okay?” Or the other direction, which hypes the queer content as something edgy. What should it do? I don’t know. Just sayin’.

Tell me more about your own writing and a bit about your current projects.

I write short fiction. My first collection, called “Jane and the Whales,” is coming out this fall from Caitlin Press, so I’ve been working hard at revisions. I thought I knew about revisions. I say to my old self, “You call that a revision? I’ll show you a revision!” One story really improved after reading your story, “You Were Loved” My story was in some way about sexual desire, yet any hint of sex was pretty much glossed over or couched in metaphor. Then I read your story. Explicit, right? And done so well! I realised I was avoiding sex. I was a frigid writer–a virgin writer. I’d never had literary sex with my computer. So I did it. Fingered my story and sucked on it and everything. It is a better story now. Thanks, Trevor!

Who are your own queer literary heroes?

I admire a lot of people–the list is always growing. To name a few: John Barton is a passionate, committed writer and I think he should be a household name when it comes to poetry. Daphne Marlatt because Ana Historic was one of those novels that gave me a whole new concept of what a novel could be—and that was originally published in 1977. I was really inspired to stop avoiding “queer” in my writing after reading the short story “What We Wanted,” by Michael V. Smith. Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg was a pleasure—of course it’s painful, but it was an exercise in gratitude to the queer people who endured so much and fought so hard for change. Also goes to show that you don’t have to be the greatest, most magnificent literary star to tell an important, moving story.

Finally, what can we expect for Plenitude this year and moving forward?

We will be hosting our first contest: Emerging Writer Mentorship Award—Poetry. Next time, the award will be for fiction. This contest is open only to writers who have yet to publish their work in book form. Instead of a little cash prize, the winner will be awarded a mentorship with poet Arleen Paré. More on this in July!

We also aim (with an increased budget!), to deliver much more web content—articles, interviews, reviews, events, news etc. We want PlenitudeMagazine.ca to be a hub for the discussion of queer arts and literature in this country.

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To subscribe to Plenitude, to submit your own work, or to learn more, visit the magazine online or check it out on Twitter. The Plenitude website features a wide range of interviews, resources, links, and other articles relevant to queer writers and artists.

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