Behind the Scenes
Interview with Christine Lee Zilka and Jennifer Derilo of the Kartika Review
I’ve always been curious about the darkroom where literary magazines come together. This is a series of interviews engaging, talking, and sometimes annoying editors about their magazines. How did they come about, what do they hate about editing, and what do they love most about it?
This is the third in the series and I talked with Fiction Editor, Christine Lee Zilka, and Creative Nonfiction editor, Jennifer Derilo. Their about page has the following description: “Kartika Review is a national literary arts magazine that publishes Asian Pacific Islander American fiction, poetry, creative non-fiction, and art. Kartika Review serves the Asian Pacific Islander American (APIA) community and those involved with Diasporic Asian and Pacific Islander-inspired literature. We scout for compelling APIA creative writing and artwork to present to the public at large. Our editors actively solicit contributions from established virtuosos in our community in hopes their works here will inspire the next generation of virtuosos. Kartika also promotes emerging writers and artists we foresee to be the future powerhouses of their craft. Ultimately, Kartika strives to create a literary forum that caters to and celebrates the wordsmiths of the Asian Diaspora.”
What’s always drawn me to the review is their focus on great stories. The APIA experience is incredibly diverse and the Kartika Review pushes the boundaries of what constitutes APIA literature. The settings may differ and so may some of the sentiments of the narrators, but at the core, the emotional resonance transcends any differences. The tales, poetry, essays, and imagery form a unique flotilla of art that is as portable as it is relatable. I hopped on board with the two editors and what followed was an organic and fun trek through the editorial rivers of the review.
As a brief bio and introduction to Christine (CLZ) and Jennifer (JD):
Christine Lee Zilka is the Fiction Editor at KARTIKA REVIEW. Her work has appeared in journals and anthologies such as ZYZZYVA, GUERNICA, VERBSAP, HYPHEN, and MEN UNDRESSED. She has a novel in progress.
Jennifer Derilo is the Creative Nonfiction editor at Kartika Review. She has a memoir in progress. She often has nightmares about zombies. And abandoned predicate parts.
PTL: When and how did you first get involved with Kartika Review?
CLZ: I subbed a short story for consideration to Kartika in early 2008–and I got an email from Sunny Woan, our Founding Editor, saying she loved the piece and wanted to know if I would be interested in becoming Kartika’s Fiction Editor (the previous Fiction Editors departed after Kartika’s second issue). I told her yes! It was my call whether or not to have the piece published; I’m not a big proponent of editors publishing their own work at the litmag for which they work, so I withdrew the piece. The rest is history. I found a passion project in Kartika Review and a fantastic friend in Sunny. And recently, that story just got accepted for publication in another litmag. I owe a lot to that story.
JD: Christine and I were in the MFA program at Mills, but she was in the cohort ahead of me. I first met her when she was the TA for a teaching pedagogy class during my first semester in 2006. While she was an excellent TA, she also coaxed me out of my shell. I started to see her as a big sister type who had the best advice about classes, professors, the program itself, and eventually writing. We kept in touch after we both graduated (I kept going to her for advice!), and then sometime in 2008, Christine asked me to submit something to KR, but in true Jenn Derilo fashion, I never did. And then in 2009, she asked me to join because the CNF editor before me was moving onto other things. I’m sorry for all that backstory about my friendship with Christine, but if I didn’t initially glom onto her (ok…that’s not supposed to sound as creepy, stalker-ish, aggressive as it might), I don’t know that I would ever have been exposed to KR. I was such a writing/literary n00b when I started Mills, and I certainly knew nothing about APIA literature. But she talked about Kartika with such passion, and I was so impressed with the work they were doing, I couldn’t not join. I was supremely honored.
CZ: Jenn is modest. She’s an awesome writer. And has done amazing things as an editor at Kartika.
JD: Aw, shucks. Thank you. I’m lucky to be on an editorial board with multi-talented women of color. And I can’t stress that enough: women of color.
PTL: Christine, I really liked it when you said in regards to your editorial selections: “I often pick pieces by Asian Americans that aren’t API-centric. There are no rules, and Naomi Williams breaks them with brilliance.” What are some works that you both think exemplify Asian Pacific Islander American (APIA) literature, and how did those works affect and influence you?
CLZ: Twenty years ago, this question would have had a more clear cut answer. I would probably have said Maxine Hong Kingston’s WOMAN WARRIOR or Chang-rae Lee’s NATIVE SPEAKER. To that end, I’m motivated both as a writer and as an editor to broaden APIA literature. I’m happy to say there’s no single work that stands out to me, anymore. And I’m also happy that I’m a gatekeeper who gets to have a hand in diversifying the pool. I’m in front of a verrrry small gate, but it’s a gate, nonetheless.
JD: While I know this question is directed at Christine, I can’t help jumping in and agreeing with her, especially given that my knowledge of APIA literature was limited before joining KR. I even knew little about the APIA cannon. But what we do at KR is different. I do feel like we’re “diversifying the pool”, such as including the work of emerging writers alongside interviews with household names. We aren’t only publishing APIA writers who engage with APIA themes. I think Christine nails it when she says, “I’m happy to say that there’s no single work that stands out to me, anymore.” I mean, wow. What a brave discovery to voice! This is not to say that no submissions stand out because, clearly, we publish those pieces shake us. What’s important about that statement is that no one work encapsulates, defines, pigeonholes APIA literature. Rather each work broadens this scope.
PTL: I love the definition of “Kartika” as mentioned on the site: “In Vajrayana (or Tibetan) Buddhist tradition, the kartika, a crescent-shaped knife, symbolizes the cutting away of ignorance and superficiality, with the hopes that it will lead to enlightenment.” What are some themes and elements you both look for in the selections you make for short stories and non-fiction essays?
JD: I don’t know if this is cliche, but I’m attracted to creative nonfiction that surprises me. Even if submissions are about common themes, if the approach to language, structure, or voice is undeniably fresh or risky, I quickly gravitate toward them. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what floors me. The best way to understand my madness is to read our back issues starting with #6, which is, of course, when I joined.
CLZ: When I’m looking through the slushpile, pieces tend to blur into each other—so I too, am looking for something different. I’m looking for stories that hit something out of the ballpark, be it concept, structure, language, or ultimately, story. What haven’t I seen before?
PTL: Jennifer, in your introduction to Issue 14, you mentioned that the Kartika Review has filled the void of APIA publications “with fourteen issues and three anthologies, and we do not intend of stop testing the limits and enlarging the scope of APIA literature and art.” Can you both talk about some of the changes you’ve seen with APIA literature and art over the past five years? What are some changes you’re excited about? Are there aspects of APIA literature and art that you wish could see more improvement and “enlarging?”
JD: Looks like I was getting ahead of myself by piggybacking on question #2! Ha ha ha. Sorry about that. I was just so inspired by Christine’s response.
What I wanted to touch on earlier, which is something that I get giddy about, is how my helping broaden the scope of APIA literature vis-a-vis Kartika also means enlarging the scope of creative nonfiction (CNF) and upending readers’ assumptions of what CNF can look and sound like. My excitement, then, is two-fold, much like my dual role as editor and writer: not only have I seen such a diverse representation of stories and voices in APIA literature, I have seen an increase in the approaches CNF writers take to share these stories and voices. While I do still see pieces that most readers would recognize as memoir or traditional essays that tackle common themes about identity, breaking away from cultural/familial expectations, orientalism, etc., I have seen more submissions that engage with these themes in startlingly new ways. For example, I’ve been getting more essays that blur the lines between prose and poetry, essays that are admittedly uncomfortable with the story being told, and essays that completely reimagine/rebuild the traditional framework.
CLZ: One of the most visible changes, other than the increase in the number of voices, is moving beyond “immigrant literature” or “identity literature.” We’re writing characters outside our race, and we’re writing about the complexities of our life, in finer detail. However, it’s still considered fairly avant garde for an APIA writer to write white characters or stories that are very race-neutral, and that’s largely due to the fact that there is still a paucity of APIA voices out there. So the solution is: more voices, please.
JD: I think that neither APIA literature nor art—visual, performative, sonic–needs improvement. Rather, I echo Christine about the need for more voices, adding only that writers and artists take more risks, unearth more secrets, test their own limits, and above all, never stop listening to and telling stories. And actually, I would love to see more collaboration among art communities, between artists, across genres. That has definitely been a change that I’ve seen over the years.
CLZ: But on the topic of cover art: unfortunately, cover art’s still the stuff of fans and rice paddies. You see them everywhere on books by APIA writers. And writers don’t get much of a say in determining their book covers. Some writers have veto power—Don Lee’s gone on record saying he vetoed as much as he could Orientalist book covers for his work.
PTL: Christine, you wrote in one of the earlier editorials for the Kartika Review: “Amidst the submissions, there are always a few pieces that pierce my psyche; there are perfect stories, perfect words, and talented writers, but I seek the dizzying moment where I fall in love, where I can sense the writer behind the words opening their heart out and laying themselves bare for the world to witness.” Jennifer, in the introduction to issue 10, you wrote that it “fucking dazzles cover to cover. Everything here is incredible.” Can you both highlight some of the stories and essays from the issues you edited that dazzled and made you “fall in love?”
CLZ: I gotta pick my favorite children? Oh man! But frankly, an amazing opening paragraph sucks me in.
JD: Geez, Peter, you’re really putting us on the spot here. Ha! Is it superficial to say that I’m a sucker for gorgeous lines? I also easily crush out on refreshing but precise metaphors, a voice that settles on my chest and stays with me, or a story I’ve heard before but not…quite…like…that.
At least one aspect of each story I’ve selected has made me weak in the knees, bawl in a fetal position, envious, or even possessive. Yes, love does weird things to us. (I hope this answer was flattering yet vague enough to all My Chosen Ones.)
PTL: Are there any submission trends you notice? Any types of submissions that you really don’t like? Any type you don’t see enough of?
CLZ: Wish I could see submission trends I like—but at Kartika, I see the same old same old images out there—foreigners traveling through Asia and mentions of lotus and silk and kohl and such.
JD: But, Christine, for those of us who don’t get out and/or travel abroad enough, those stories can be super informational. NOT. (I just dated myself, didn’t I?)
This might be terrible and/or obvious to admit, but I just don’t have the time to read a magnum opus or to glean a compact narrative from a magnum opus? We are a literary journal–not a small press, not a publisher, not assistants to an agent. I would also like to stop seeing submissions from writers who aren’t familiar with Kartika’s oeuvre or who have never read Kartika. Then again, I hear being unfamiliar with a magazine/journal and/or not thoroughly reading submission guidelines is par for the course. (Sidenote: Is my response too mean/honest/unhelpful?)
PTL: Hey JD, not at all, it’s honest and something people should know =)
CLZ: Hrmm—Now that I think of it, I do see some submission trends that are noticeable and particular to Kartika. In the most recent slushpile, I’ve witnessed a dramatic uptick of Filipino American writers. And I’m seeing more Southeast Asian writers.
JD: I’ve noticed that in my slushpile, too, Christine, as well as South Asian writers. I hope these trends pick up! I would also love to see more non-APIA writers submit whose work capture our mission instead of orientalizing or exoticizing APIA themes. I have published essays by non-APIA writers in the past, which I think is another vital way to enlarge the scope of APIA lit.
PTL: What are some of your favorite aspects of being an editor? And on the inverse, the least favorite?
CLZ: Favorite aspects: finding awesome stories. Feeling inspired by the fact that so many people are out there, writing. Meeting new writers and making lifelong friends (yes, I’ve made some awesome friends from the slushpile). Working on special projects—like the “Home” issue of Kartika in Issue 7. Least favorite part of the job is easy: sending out rejection letters. I stepped away from the slushpile and took a role as Editor-at-Large at Kartika, because I felt like there was bad juju from having to send out rejections. I spent that year finishing a draft of my novel-in-progress.
JD: For one, putting Kartika and our writers on the map. Granted, it’s a small map that matches that very small gate Christine mentioned earlier, but it exists and breathes and has so much potential for growth. Whenever I talk casually about or officially promote KR, I love that friends and strangers alike become immediate fans of KR, when they say, “Oh hey…I didn’t know about APIA literature,” or “What? There’s a magazine for our community?” I especially love when people track us down. For instance, Heyday Books reprinted two essays we published—Tamiko Nimura’s “How It Feels to Inherit Camp” (issue #9) and Donna Miscolta’s “Home Is Where the Wart Is” (issue #11)—in their new anthology series, New California Writing 2012 and 2013, respectively. The board didn’t even know about it until the writers contacted me to share the good news. It was such an awesome surprise. Of course, I also enjoy discovering new writers, meeting KR contributors in person, and being on a kickass editorial board.
I have to parrot Christine that my least favorite part is sending out rejections. To avoid that feeling of bad juju, however, I take my time with rejections. Instead of immediately turning a submission down, I will keep reading a submission until something really catches my attention. This most likely means that I spend much more reading than I should, but it’s hard for me to just write off a piece if it doesn’t grab me in the first paragraph or first page. I try to give submissions a chance, reimagining how a piece could work: maybe it should start on page three, maybe it should end earlier, maybe the writer should tone down the language, etc. And when I write the rejection, I focus on the merits instead of the weaknesses. Rejection is not easy for the giver or receiver, so I try to be as empathetic as possible.
PTL: I’d love to hear more about any projects aside from Kartika Review you are working on. Also, how do you feel your role as a writer influences you as an editor and vice versa?
CLZ: My novel-in-progress is my ongoing obsession. I stepped away from Kartika for about a year a couple years ago, not only because I wanted to focus fulltime on my novel while living in NYC but because I felt sending out rejections as editor was bad karma for my novel. So it’s because of my camaraderie as a writer that I take extra care sending out rejection letters. Most of my rejection letters are pre-composed form letters, but I hope they’re composed in such a way that other writers sense empathy.
And one of the reasons I joined Kartika in the first place was to sit on the other side of the writing/editing-publishing dynamic. What was it like to be the gatekeeper? It’s been enlightening to me as a writer—to understand the process and gain context. And to gain empathy for editors.
JD: I have an “accidental memoir” that has been simmering on the back burner for about a year now because of work commitments. (I am a part-time community college English instructor, a Writing Center coordinator/tutor trainer, and the club advisor for Pagkakaisa.)
I call it an accidental memoir because I have always resisted that category and because I have always been self-conscious about my CNF projects. I was not accustomed to seeing non-traditional CNF published widely, which has directly influenced my tastes as an editor over the years. This is not to say that I automatically publish works that mirror my style. Rather, it is easier for me to a) suss out what a writer is trying to accomplish and/or b) provide feedback to help push or polish an essay. Whether an essay is experimental or not, I am still looking for a strong narrative, a cohesive story, or obvious throughline, and this is good practice for myself as a writer. If I can spot what does and does not work in someone else’s piece, then I could see the same in mine. Of course, I am also buoyed when I see that there are, in fact, many people who approach CNF similarly.
Additionally, I am currently working on Kartika-sponsored community, specifically for October, which is Filipino American History month. I have organized readings on the campus I teach at and at the 8th annual FilAm Cultural Arts Festival with M. Evelina Galang, Lysley Tenorio, Donna Miscolta, Jen Palmares Meadows, and Bridget Crenshaw Mabunga. Some of these writers will also participate on a panel about writing and publishing as well as offering free writing workshops.
PTL: Being a gatekeeper, I want to ask: what is the slushpile at KR like?
CLZ: A slushpile is unsolicited manuscripts sent your way. Most of what Kartika publishes is straight from the slushpile. Approaching the slushpile is like going through a big rack of unsorted clothing items and looking for the thing you want. This is not to say that all the stuff you set aside is awful—it’s just not for you. And this is also not to say that all the stuff you set aside is a bunch of near-misses, either—there’s a lot of work that is nowhere near finished or ready for publication that writers think are ready for judgment.
There are electronic slushpiles and there are hardcopy slushpiles. Because Kartika only accepts electronic submissions, I’m going to talk about electronic slushpiles.
Submission management software has made it so that things are sorted into “pants, shirts, and dresses” in no particular order (i.e., fiction, CNF, and poetry). So you’re still sifting, but in a more organized fashion. And software also helps organize the process into yes/maybe/no piles and helps writers keep in touch with the status of their submission. Way sane.
We operate on zero budget, and most of the spending comes out of our personal pocketbooks—this is all to say that we used to have an email inbox for all submissions. We couldn’t afford the clmp submissions manager, Submittable didn’t exist back then and we didn’t want to charge writers a submission fee. Boy, that slushpile was chaos; it was a massive inbox of submissions. Kind of wieldy. Luckily, those were the first couple of years when our slushpile wasn’t very large.
The great thing about having the massive inbox was that it made me type (or at least copy and paste) each rejection and acceptance letter to each writer. It made me very very conscious about the act of rejection and acceptance; it wasn’t just a button I pushed. I had to type the name of each writer, even if I was copying and pasting the message body. And in doing so, I often customized the rejection letters. To this day, I customize many of the letters.
We became submittable beta testers a few years ago for free (we’re forever grateful) and we’ve never looked back.
JD: I couldn’t have explained the slushpile better. Thank the heavens for Christine! I will say that like Christine, I customize most of the letters to my writers. I suppose being so conscious about that process, “the act of rejection and acceptance,” is what maintains my humanity as an editor.
PTL: And finally, while we’re on the topic of kartikas, if it were the end of the world, what would your weapon of choice be?
CLZ: Machete. It’s not only a weapon, it’s a tool.
JD: A thermonuclear bomb in case we really need an out. I mean, we would have to go big if we could no longer go home, right?
Peter Tieryas Liu is the author of Watering Heaven (Signal 8 Press, 2012) and Bald New World (Perfect Edge Books, forthcoming). He has work published in places like the Evergreen Review, Indiana Review, New Letters, and ZYZZYVA. He rambles about his bad literary habits at tieryas.wordpress.com