Representation Matters. Write Until It Doesn’t. by Fajr Muhammad (Our Word, School of the Arts)

Jia Tolentino and Puja Patel are friends. When you meet them it is easy to see why. Aside from the natural connections—both women of color, writers and former Gawker editors—theirs is a friendship based around the kinship of commonality. While each woman has had a very distinct career trajectory—Jia now contributing writer at The New Yorker and Puja Editor-in-Chief at SPIN magazine—they met each other on the road to digital media and their distinctly “other” place in it. Oh, and they bond over a serious love for memes as cultural currency, but more on that later.

The women spoke to students at Columbia University’s School of the Arts, last Thursday, for a panel titled Publishing in Online Spaces, presented by Our Word—Columbia’s student-run organization that promotes diverse voices in writing—and moderated by Jackie Ko, a literary agent at the Wylie Agency. The topics of diversity and representation in digital publishing were naturally posited. Where do the politics play into the ever-shifting landscape of identity? This is where the perceived commonalities take a fork in the road. Each woman has a distinct philosophy when it comes to the conversation.

Jia, sprightly and candid, talked about nuance of identity and how, at times, it can be a detriment to the actual work. She urged young women writers and writers of color to be aware of the optics and said that at times her identity has been mined in ways that don’t always make her feel comfortable. “I believe my identity puts my sympathies in the right place,” she said in reference to leveraging her place as a woman of color in the larger, global discourse. She qualified this by saying how most of the infractions against writers of color come in the assignment phase, where the assumptions of who “gets to” write about what do a major disservice to the work and keep representation a visual tactic and not a substantive one. In other words, women writers and writers of color are sometimes valued at publications—expertise notwithstanding, for the lack they fulfill.

Puja, a bit more reserved, appreciates the advantage that her identity has afforded her but doesn’t take for granted the fact that it has often meant marginalization when it comes to covering larger stories—say the Beyoncés and Rihannas, where a black woman writer may be the optically better choice. As an editor, she works to correct this in her own assigning. “Often it comes down to who has the most to say on a topic.” 

But this is online media we’re talking about and representation means more than identity; it also means reach. When Ms. Ko asked each writer about the current firestorm around the Nation’s takedown of the diverse staff at the new MTV News, both were hesitant to assign blame and spoke more to the nature of the beast.

“Publications are mercenary with incendiary arguments. It’s your duty as an editor to defend your decision to run a piece and attacks have to be about the writing,” said Jia in regards to the Nation’s responsibility to defend the writer and the piece they ran.

“The problem lies with the system, not the writers,” echoed Puja, in defense of the MTV News writing staff.

However, in online media it seems that publishing is increasingly less and less about the writing and more and more about the followings and cult of personality. Another shade to the identity debate. Puja, a reluctant tweeter, recognizes the media’s penchant for mining a writer’s outreach and cautions writers to be conscious of the very public nature of it all. “As an editor, I look at writers’ Twitters,” and she tells her staff to read, read and read their posts again before posting.

Jia has a more buoyant approach. “As a writer with a personality, people mistake that to mean you want to have a brand. Use it [Twitter] for fun, not to care about how you are seen but know where the line is.” 

The line is constantly moving though, and while they agree that representation and diversity is on most publications’ agendas, both women urged writers to worry about what they can control. Puja, self-proclaiming poor at self-care, said, “I live my job. Being a woman of color in a white, male-dominated industry. I can never lose relevancy. I feel enlivened by how insane my life is. Wake up, look at the internet, start assigning, do it all over again.”

Jia is more protective of her space and said that when she is writing she blocks the noise out. “The best thing to do as a writer is to use your downtime well.” While we all have a moral obligation to know what is going on, she recommends making a regular habit of tearing yourself away.

As the conversation wound down, Ms. Ko posed a final, resounding question to the writers. “Do you have agency, being a minority?” They both agreed they do, but that they must continue to write because it is still a conversation. “The biggest problem is having people bringing up your identity when it’s not relevant,” says Tolentino. It seems she counteracts this by writing on a host of topics and broaching arguments that may fly in the face of her perceived identity.

Puja takes a similarly pragmatic approach. “It’s just my job to be an editor and help my staff. In my opinion, I’m just a good editor.”

While the visible connections may lead us to think that Ms. Patel and Ms. Tolentino are friends due to some self-aggrandizing struggle as women of color in a binary industry, it’s more simplistic than that. They love writing and the happenstance of this love has lead them to write about the things they genuinely care about. Oh, and they slack each other memes, lots of memes.

“They defy critical analysis. I mean, it’s just a meme,” says Jia.

“I had a Dat Boi chart up at our desk at Gawker. Please look up the Dat Boi meme,” Puja excitedly urges. “Memes are great. They’re the lowest common denominator, everyone uses memes. They span the discourse.”

Which is exactly what both women are trying to do.

Fajr Muhammad is a first year MFA fiction student; living, working and writing in New York City.

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