Feminism Gets Real: An Interview with Kelly Jensen
Call it the power of social media: every day, advocates of diversity, feminism, and intersectionality find their people on networks like Twitter. Librarian and editor Kelly Jensen is just one of the people who have not only found a community on social media, but also created a way to keep those conversations going. She is currently editing Feminism for the Real World (title subject to change in the editing stage), a non-fiction anthology with pieces from a wide variety of writers and illustrators on the subject of feminism.
She spoke with WWAC about how the anthology got started, what she hopes readers will find in the various stories, and what she’s learned from the process.
What was the catalyst for this anthology?
This is a fun story! My anthology started with a tweet.
I still want to create a YA anthology for teen feminists on feminism, girlhood, and being unapologetic about both.
— Kelly Jensen (@catagator) September 26, 2014
This was actually the second time I’d tweeted this idea, but it was this particular tweet that caught my now-editor Elise Howard’s eye. Elise reached out to Kelly Barnhill and Anne Ursu, who told me I needed to get in touch with her, because she was really interested in this idea. We had a phone call, along with my other editor Krestyna Lypen, and began talking about what something like this could look like.
I submitted a formal proposal right after New Year’s this year, followed up with a second proposal that included a fully written introduction and potential contributor list, and then I sold the anthology to Elise and Krestyna in the wake of a large social media discussion about sexism in YA. I’d taken a short social media break, sort of worried about my safety and privacy, written and edited a blog post to express everything I had been thinking about feminism and sexism in publishing and in YA specifically, and then they called me to “talk about that post” (cue my slight anxiety here!). Elise opened by saying it was the best piece she’d read during this entire online discussion, and then she and Krestyna offered to publish my anthology.
I should mention that in the intermediary, I had a chance to meet Elise at ALA Midwinter. We talked and bounced ideas, found out we meshed really well (down to having strong opinions about YA books), and so when the offer came through, I knew it was the right place. I met Krestyna at BEA shortly after.
What was the contributor selection process like?
I had a lengthy draft, which was made into pools of people I thought I could get, as well as “dream reach” names. I think I had something like seventy names, which included a number of celebrities.
Making the lists was a lot of fun but also quite challenging, and that was before I even reached out to anyone. I wanted to ensure I had a wide variety of voices and perspectives, and I wanted to make sure I balanced authors who had name recognition with those who are still working to become published. One of the early conversations I had with my editors was about making sure that the voices in the anthology wouldn’t be from everyone who agreed with everyone else already—in other words, I had to reach beyond the core group of passionate feminists in the YA world.
It was fun to reach out to writers and thinkers I’ve been reading forever and more; it was fun to get excited responses from them. Getting a yes from Anne Theriault made me shout out loud, because I’ve been reading her blog, The Belle Jar, for years.
But I would be lying if I didn’t say EVERY yes made me excited. There are still a handful of announcements for more contributors, and it’s hard for me to keep my mouth shut about them.
That said, I’ve gotten a lot of nos, too. But the beauty of those nos is that they allow me to reach deeper, and when I got a yes, I knew the anthology was coming together the way it was meant to.
I also had the honor of including art, since the anthology will be scrapbook style, and spending time looking through art, thinking about artists whose work I love, and thinking about the backgrounds and experiences artists I knew about made reaching out to them so much fun. It’s COOL that I got to ask comic artists to draw comics for me! It’s COOL I got to reach out to artists whose work I have on my walls and ask them to contribute.
Were there specific conversations that you hoped to cover and did that affect any choices you made with regards to contributors/the scope of the anthology?
My initial proposal included an outline for topics I wanted covered. In some cases, I reached out to contributors with a specific idea in mind, and in other instances, I let them pursue what they were passionate about.
One thing I’ve learned from putting together blog series is that writers turn in stronger work when they’re digging into something that excites them. So as much as was possible, I wanted to let them have a lot of freedom.
The anthology will take a very wide scope, covering everything from individual journeys into finding feminism to the choice not to have children to how we understand trauma to body image, sexuality, and more. Nothing was off limits.
Feminism for the Real World is a great title and reminds readers that feminism isn’t just an abstract concept. How did you arrive at that title, and were there other possibilities that you nearly chose? Why or why not?
It’s still early in the process, so that might not end up being the final title. In fact, that wasn’t the title I proposed—the one I proposed included “Feminism for the Real World” as a subtitle, but the initial title was more, hmmm…bold is maybe the word I want.
Coming up with a title was not fun because title-writing is not my forte. I think I spent more time brainstorming titles than writing the outline and proposal and a great many people got to listen to me ask “This or This? This or This?”
But, I do really like Feminism for the Real World, because that’s what it is. This isn’t theoretical stuff. This is about on the ground, lived experiences, personally-driven feminism. I wanted to make feminism approachable, relatable, and very much a party that people want to join. So even though there are topic that are tough in the anthology, the takeaway is that feminism is positive and it’s about your everyday life in the real world.
What do you hope readers will do with the stories and experiences in the anthology?
I haven’t seen all of the essays yet, but what I can say of those I’ve seen is that I have no doubt readers are going to see themselves in one, if not many, of these pieces. I want the takeaway to be the thing I mentioned above: feminism is positive, feminism is empowering, and you want to be a part of it.
What excites me most, though, is that amid all of the varied experiences, voices, and perspectives offered in this anthology, readers will see common threads, passions, and ideas that unite them all. It’s been so neat to see this happen organically, and it’s given me so much to think about in terms of how I’m going to structure the final product to make a real bang.
How has your own life changed—if at all—after doing this anthology? Are there new perspectives that you’ve gained or new issues that you’ve learned about with regards to feminism and social awareness?
A really interesting thing that has happened: I’ve learned that I have to ask hard, sometimes uncomfortable, questions to people in their very personal essays. But this has been powerful, and I think it’s a two-way street—I like to think that by pushing and teasing out things I’m seeing in someone’s writing, I’m able to think about issues more deeply, and my contributors are able to see their story in a new, different perspective, too.
Sometimes when you’re writing your own story, you don’t see the bigger pieces of it, and being able to see that is neat. I had been emailing with one of the contributors about her piece, and in that email, I rambled on about my own understanding of my personal feminism and that’s when I realized that I needed to write about that. It was bouncing the ideas out that made them clearer, and then with the help of a friend who provided critical feedback, I was able to have an “ah ha!” moment or two myself.
Oh, and I’ve learned that there are definitely things I’m better at in terms of being an editor than others. Or maybe I should say, there are things I like way better than others. I’m not too sad to be done with tackling contracts and rights, though I have learned more than I ever thought possible about them.