Lori Wilson, Khalisa Rae, and Daisuke Shen have joined together to create Athenian Press & Workshops. The vision is not just a press, but a bookstore, lounge, and performance space that caters to women and femme voices. They are raising money for this project and looking for people who want to be involved.
I spoke to Khalisa and Lori; listen above and read our extended conversation below.
Gina: How did you get an idea to start a press?
Khalisa: This one right here.
Lori: So when I was a student I was learning about publishing and writing and women in publishing, I learned about the VIDA Counts, which is an organization that literally counts how women and femmes are represented in publishing. I learned that just from a class that I took and the fact that it could be backed up with actual statistics that women and femmes are being represented the way that they should. I was like, I have to do something about this. So I had an idea for a bookstore- to open a feminist bookstore and have like a femme press. And eventually that kind of just expanded to all these other things that we want to do. And once the election came in November and a lot of a lot of things were changing I was like, OK I'm going to do this now. I can't wait any more. So it was originally like kind of I planted the seed but now that Khalisa and then our other founder, Daisuke, have come on it's just really grown into something we're really proud of and really beautiful.
Gina: What is it what is the VIDA Count?
Lori: So in the early- I think it was like 2011, 2012, they establish this organization and they have people all across the country counting the number of bylines, the number of women authors being reviewed, and big big you know like the New York Review of Books and stuff like that. So big titles...52 of the 270 books reviewed by The New York Review of Books were authored by women. So only 52 of 270 books were those by women.
Gina: How much of it might be that women aren't writing enough?
Lori: I personally don't think so much that it's who's writing. I mean, I think that women and men and, you know, everything in between have been writing all this time for centuries. It's just women haven't been number one recognize. So they haven't been encouraged to publish. When they did publish early on it was under a pseudonym or some type of fake name. And if they didn't publish then it was targeted, it was marketed as like a romance thing. One person that has helped inspire us is Gwenyfar who owns Old Books and she'll tell you about Inglis Fletcher. Just an example of a North Carolina writer who really didn't get enough attention. I mean, she's a historical novelist, does really great research. But all of her books were marketed as just, like, romance novels. And not that we don't want to support that kind of genre, either but just like they weren't given the attention, kind of more sophisticated attention that they deserve.
Khalisa: And just add something to that as a woman of color. So that is, that's the first thing that we hear people say is, Oh well, of course you're under-represented cause you're not out there. You're not out there. You're not working. You're not working hard enough. And to that I would say, as a woman of color, that is a tactic that is used by the majority and that's actually a lie. And that's used a lot with people of color. Primarily women of color and that's really why we want to target women of color and the LGBT community. Because people automatically say, Well people of color just aren't as good enough. Or, Women writers of color just aren't out there. And that's a lie. And I wrote my whole thesis about how that's not true.
Gina: So yeah I mean, I ask that question not because I feel that it's true but because I feel that it's it's going to be the first thing that people are thinking. It's like well, well what's the reason? Is it because of the editorialists? Or is it because of the number of books? Women and femmes. For our listeners, can you tell me what that means?
Lori: Yes. So something that's really important to us is that we aren't excluding people who are identified as non-binary or femme identifying. So that means trans folks, other folks who are maybe trying to figure out how they're trying to identify and stuff like that.
Khalisa: Anybody on the queer spectrum. Any individual with feminine energy on the queer spectrum. That's how I describe it, if you will.
Lori: So you know we've we've made sure that our language is inclusive in that way. It's been really important to us. We brought, and Daisuke is the other founder of the organization. And they have really encouraged us to use that inclusive language. They're very knowledgeable of that kind of stuff. So they brought in that kind of that, just that knowledge about how we should be inclusive.
Lori: Yes. Daisuke. And Daisuke identifies as a non-binary.
Khalisa: Well, what's interesting about it is their name is originally- where is Daisuke from?
Lori: Japan I think.
Khalisa: It's a Japanese name. They wanted to dead their European name and adopt their name that is inherently connected to their heritage, which is why I go by Khalisa now, too. Just as an aside. That's my birth name. So and we both were like, We need to start using our ancestral name.
Lori: And so, Daisuke also means something.
Khalisa: It does mean something.
Lori: I mean, they're very much an activist. Translation has to do with being a proponent for change.
Gina: And I noticed that you called this person "they."
Gina: How did you meet Daisuke?
Lori: People just told us to connect with them.
Khalisa: A friend of mine… so Daisuke is actually a TA at UNCW and they are in the MFA program. My really dear friend who works for Lookout Books and Ecotone kept telling me that I need it to me this other activist. And they had heard about me and several people in the department had told us, like, we really need to connect. And so one day I reached out to them and they said, Do you know this girl name Lori Wilson? I said, Yeah I do. And they're like, Oh she's starting this thing. Tell me about this thing. Should I be a part of this thing? And I was like, Well I don't know a lot about it. I've been to a couple of meetings and I don't know. We should go meet with her. So we just all got together and we met and they both- was Daisuke working at Pomegranate Books at that time?
Lori: I actually met for the first time at Pomegranate. I worked at- I still kind of work at Pomegranate and I did all throughout college. So.
Khalisa: So that's kind of like the home base. Pomegranate Books, a little bit too. But we we all had a meeting and then the rest is history. We decided to go into business together.
Gina: And so, over the conversations you've had since that first meeting at Pomegranate, where have you- how have things unfolded in terms of what is what your mission is going to be and like, what's the most important thing right now? Or what are the first steps are? Kind of what your priorities are. What what all has come about?
Lori: I mean, since that meeting we've grown a lot and we're still growing. Khalisa and I have like a meeting to talk about. Yeah. It's growth and stuff like that. So I think that we all want to bring in all these things. Like a lot of us are passionate for different reasons and I like that. I like that. You know, both Kelly anf Khalisa and Daisuke have come in and brought in this sort of activist component but they're both passionate about certain things and so we just want to make sure that we're offering something that applies to all the things. You know like, I've come in and I really want to change the publishing industry and stuff like that so that's kind of like my component anyway. But we've all come together and somehow been able to fit all of it into one mission.
Gina: what is your component? Like what you want to change the publishing?
Lori: Yeah I think, you know, we all are for all of it. You know? But my my passion did come from the publishing component and books. I worked in a bookstore. I saw how even just, like, our local femme identifying authors were not pushing their own work like men were. You know men come in and- I mean I'm I'm generalizing, yes- but I just saw that happen. A book reading with a male author, it was could be very different than the alternative. So I just saw this happening so that was kind of my thing and I wanted to make sure that women and femme writers were being proponents for themselves. You know, I wanted to create that platform. Help them use their voice.
That was kind of always the biggest thing for me is Athenian is helping women and femmes use their voice. Encouraging them to use their voice. And having like, I also intern at Lookout Books and stuff like that. And I know about publishing. I read for Christopher Rhodes as a local literary agent for a while. I've seen submissions come in and how different they are when a femme writer submits their novel than when a male does.
Gina: Do you see a difference in the way that it's received or the way that it's offered? Like the way that the way that it's presented by the author or the way that it gets recieved?
Lori: I mean, I mean, it's being received by me. I mean it's just kind of like a pitch by a man might be just the language and the pitch is often more confident than a woman's pitch. I saw that and you know, you see people kind of use like, I have this credential and you use that to your advantage and I felt like some women just weren't really pushing those things the way they should. You know, I just felt a little held back sometimes. That's not always the case. But I just want women to know that they rock and I use it, flaunt it. So going back to kind of like why this got started. If you look at numbers, it's not that like more men versus women and femme people are getting published. That's not necessarily the problem anymore. But again, only so many of them are being reviewed. So if they're about the same number of women being published, why are so few of them being reviewed? And part of that, I will say, I think is something like ingrained in, you know, society and women because they haven't been encouraged to write and encouraged to be professional writers. They don't go out and push it, you know? And so we just want- I want- to create a platform for women to know that, like, you're awesome and we want to provide those resources about self-love and self-assurance and stuff like that. So that's one component. These are the conversations we want to be having in our space. This is why we're raising money so that we can have a space so that women like you, femme identifying people can talk about like, OK, why is my thing not getting recognized? I don't want to act like this to get it recognized. So how do I use my resources to make sure that it does? So it's it's we're creating a space to have these conversations and stop ignoring them and acknowledge them.
Gina: Khlaisa, so tell me about what you are interested in. What's your main focus about?
Khalisa: My main focus would be the creating a space and platform for primarily women of color and queer people of color to create and to express. I think I, of course, am very, very passionate about the press and professional development and talking to women about being more confident and going after their dreams and publishing and being a full time writer. For me though, I see the benefit in- so one of the things about women of color, sometimes we don't necessarily need confidence. Like a lot of times we have pseudo confidence, this fake confidence about ourselves. And again, I'm generalizing as well. But for someone who has taught young women of color for a while- worked in community outreach and then a former teacher- I see these little girls who are putting up a front like they're confident and what they really need is for someone to say, Here, put your story down on paper. I care about your story. I care about where you come from. I care about how you're feeling. And then express that to me. And it's the same thing when women of color in any marginalized group maturates. No one asks them how they're doing. They don't care about what they've been through. They don't care about their trauma. They don't want to hear it. And so the biggest thing for me is to create a place where women can heal. Just being a woman of color is traumatic all day long. Literally just had an incident that happened to me like at the coffee shop and I was just like, why can I exist in this town as a woman of color without people cutting me in line or like stepping on my feet and claiming they didn't see me? And so I feel like that's how my little babies that could be these phenomenal artists one day, that's how they feel all the time. They feel invisible. And so, I'm so passionate about making them feel visible, making them feel heard. And of course, as a performer and as a slam poet, creating a space for them not just to create, but for them to speak it out loud is so huge for me. For the community- this twisted backwards community- to hear black and brown people and queer people of color and queer people period speaking their truth and telling their story outloud and being witness to that is- it can change everything. I've seen it happen like in slam where somebody who is from the Landfall community goes down to Brooklyn Arts to see poetry and they're blown away and it changes their perception about what those people down on Fourth Street are like. And so I don't know. I'm so passionate about that. That's the part that I'm like, Let's do it. Let's go let's do it.
Gina: And I know you're a poet and a performer and Lori, are you a writer?
Lori: I am a writer. I mean that's sort of what I went to school for. As I was learning, I've you know, written for WILMA and stuff like that. I studied nonfiction writing which is a lot about sort of putting yourself on the page. And part of the reason like as a woman putting myself on the page maybe in that way was it was hard for me and I saw a lot of my like nonfiction female peers experiencing the same thing. But yeah so I mean I do write but that's not kind of what I'm about. I mean my full time job before I was doing this was copyediting. My heart is really and editing and helping someone find, you know, their work meet its best potential. So, which may be part of the reason I want to establish this process, right? Like we want to make writers build their platform and make their work meet its best potential. So I mean, like, my trade, I guess, would be editor.
Gina: So yeah and so you your focus is going to be the whole publishing thing, publishing and teaching people how to represent themselves in a way that will get them more of what they need, which is attention for their work. And your [Khalisa} focus is on women of color and femmes of color and them expressing themselves in performance art, slam poetry…
Khalisa: Workshops. I mean, anything that gives them, not just slam and open mics, but workshops and training and author talk. Because we don't really get a lot of that, either. We don't see a lot of authors of color here, so that's huge. But anything really. My thing is creating a space and platform and opportunity for marginalized voices.
Gina: And then Daisuke? Daisuke's focus is on what?
Lori: Daisuke, their official title is Program Coordinator. Daisuke is coming from Carolina Youth Action Project, previously called Girls Rock in South Carolina. There's many chapters across the nation. So Daisuke is really knowledgeable in programming, working with youth. I mean, Khalisa is also super knowledgeable working with youth but that's something that right now Daisuke is incredibly passionate about. So we've reached out to Hanover High School and in the 2018 school year we'd like to establish some kind of programming or just like class visits to come in and teach about writing, self-love, self assurance, you know, being comfortable with who you identify with, that kind of thing. So Daisuke is able to kind of combine this activism component with writing and with growth and youth and stuff like that.
Khalisa: And they're really passionate about the community outreach element as it relates to women in prisons, primarily like women of color in prison, social justice as it relates to the rape crisis center and domestic violence shelter. Really going in and talking to those folks about how to heal with that specific trauma.
Gina: How do you get started? You need money.
Lori: So we have this Kickstarter campaign for 30 grand. That's what's going to make it so that we can open a space. So that we can establish this programming and sell books and have a workshop space and stuff like that. So we need the space. So basically we're asking the community at large to donate to the Kickstarter. Another thing is we are 501c3 certified. So once we establish we'll be able to apply for grants.
Khalisa: I would say the other way that we're getting the money or asking people to support us would be through individual- I would say two ways: Individual sponsorship. So folks that really see the value that are very invested in this mission and not just like clicking a button on Kickstarter, but whether that's through being a board member and giving money, whether that's through saying, Hey you're talking about workshops and author talks and programs- that's me. I want to give you know my time and financial resources. Or organizational partnership and sponsorship. There's so many organizations that I just named that Daisuke is really passionate about, that I'm passionate about, that Lori's passionate about, that we want to see become our partners that can either provide, again, resources or financial assistance. So we're really looking to diversify all the ways that we get funds.
Gina: How did you decide on the name Athenian Press?
Lori: So, I... that was the name that I had in my heart set on. It's kind of a long story, but basically, at the same time that I was learning about VIDA Count that I spoke about earlier that counts the number of women being published and being represented and publishing and stuff like that. I was writing this article about the women in the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, just coincidentally. Anyway, so like, I attended liturgy and I was just like sitting there and they have the Patron Saints, you know, on the sides of the walls in the Orthodox Church. And just by my lonesome like writing this article kind of reflecting and it's like the Patron Saint Athena is like looking down at me. And anyway, so when I was writing and looked more into Greek mythology. So basically I like the patron saint Athena took me down this weird mythological path and learned a lot about, you know, the goddesses story. Some things that touch me are, number one, Athena is the goddess of wisdom, war and craft. So I think all those three things are what we're about.
And then also the story of her and Poseidon and about how the city of Athens was named. So, long story short, they both gifted something to the city and the people voted on, you know, who who had to govern the city. And Athena gifted them an olive tree.
And Athena won, but then all the men fussed and the vote got overturned. Poseidon was in charge.
Gina: What did Poseidon give them?
Lori: A fountain, I believe. And then the women could no longer vote in the elections because they won that one. And I mean, it took many years for them to regain suffrage. But Athena went on proudly and represented her people and they continued to thrive from the olive tree that she gave them. So it's it's a lot about wisdom, craft, war, but also being a resource and sort of like, conquering that sort of suppression and being a resource.
Gina: So how do people find out about the Athenian Press? Khalisa: Our website.
Khalisa: They can go to AthenianPW.org or Facebook. Any social media accounts. We're everywhere. We're on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
Lori: And if you go directly to AthenianPW.org to donate, that will redirect you to the Kickstarter page which has our video which is awesome.
Gina: And if you sell books, what kind of books would you sell?
Lori: Books only by women or femme identifying authors and or books produced by women owned or femme identifying presses.
Gina: What if a woman writes a book that is, that is espousing ideas that are against your core beliefs?
Khalisa: It won't be there. Lori: They won't be there.
Khalisa: A guy asked me that on my MFA alumni page the other day. This guy was like, So what if the woman has a book that you guys don't agree with, one. Or two, what if it's a man on the opposite side. Will you not house those books about feminism written by men? And so I said, thank you so much sir. It's such a good point. No sir. No ma'am. We want them all to be women and femme authors or the press or the publishing company needs to be owned by one.
Lori: Like we haven't really talked about this, but I'm kind of open to the idea of selling a book is written by a man, identified as a man, as long as it was produced or edited by a woman.
Khalisa: A woman. Yeah. And I think as we grow the resource center, I am comfortable with that because that's not to say that a man could not write a resource book about feminism or about social justice. Actually, there's phenomenal social justice books written by men. You know, I would be advocating of course for them to be marginalized in some way. I would I want it to be a man of color maybe? But I think as we build, yes. But one of our foundations is that we are a feminist bookstore. So whatever that means to you.
Transcript assistance from PopUpArchive & production assistant Lindsay Wright