We spoke with Laura Pegram, the founding editor of Kweli, in this installment of the Member Spotlight series.
What is the history behind Kweli? When was it founded and what was the original mission?
Kweli means truth in Swahili. Under the direction of founding editor Laura Pegram, since 2009, our mission has been to seek out and legitimize the works of African, Native/Indigenous, Latinx, Asian, and Arab writers that “sing the truth.” With a triannual online journal, NYC-based and webinar workshops, year-long fellowships, public readings, individualized editing, and an annual writers’ conference and international festival, Kweli invests in the artistic and professional growth of emerging authors, nationally and internationally, and seeks to address the under-representation of writers identifying as women.
In January 2009 we held Kweli’s first board meeting in a Harlem brownstone, with donated food and space, wholly owning our vision for a multicultural literary community. Kweli launched as an online biannual journal in December 2009. Our small circle of editors works daily to empower underrepresented writers so they can reflect the truths of our communities’ many histories, and imagine the possible future.
Kweli Journal has showcased acclaimed authors such as Angie Cruz, Nana-Ama Danquah, Camille Dungy, Santee Frazier, Cristina Garcia, Charles Johnson, Victor LaValle, Neela Vaswani, Xu Xi, and Tiphanie Yanique, whom we publish alongside emerging poets and writers of fiction and literary nonfiction. In our pages, emerging writers find validation and visibility, often for the first time; Kweli frequently is the platform that inaugurates successful careers. For example, Jamaican novelist Nicole Dennis-Benn recently won a second Lambda Literary Award for her sophomore novel, Patsy. Kweli published Nicole’s first short story, “What’s For Sale,” in May 2014. Dominican writer John Paul Infante received the 2019 PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers for “Without A Big One,” which appeared in our pages in May 2018, and the essay by African American writer Jodi M. Savage, “Searching for Salvation,” was listed as a Notable Essay in the Best American Essays 2019. Both Infante and Savage have garnered interest from literary agents.
Kweli recently celebrated its tenth anniversary. How has your mission and organization changed since 2009? What are your dreams for the next ten years?
Since our founding, Kweli has nurtured more than 100 developing writers of color. We complement and underpin publication in our journal with our Fellowship Program, which provides participants with tuition-free writing classes and mentorship for a full year. Two of our earliest fellows, Ifeoma Sesiana Amobi and Estella Gonzalez, exemplify the professional and artistic trajectory of many of our contributors and program participants. We published Ifeoma Sesiana Amobi’s extensively workshopped short story, “Waiting,” in our magazine, and she was later accepted to Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Amobi is now a student at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Gonzalez’s extensively workshopped short story, “Angry Blood,” received a Pushcart Prize Special Mention. Her debut collection of short stories, 80s East Los, will be published by Arte Publico Press in Spring 2021.
Our mission remains essentially unchanged over the past ten years. We offer opportunities for writers to network with publishing insiders and a community of writers at our Color of Children’s Literature Conference and our International Literary Festival. Genre wanderers such as Edwidge Danticat and Jacqueline Woodson, who write for children and adults, frequently attend both events. Angeline Boulley, member of the Chippewa tribe, recently met Henry Holt editor Tiffany Liao at our 2019 Color of Children’s Literature Conference. In October, her debut novel, Firekeeper’s Daughter, sold to Henry Holt for a sum rumored to be seven figures, after a 12-bidder auction. Leslie C. Youngblood, another multi-genre author, participated in our 2016 Color of Children’s Literature Conference and signed with a literary agent three months later. Her debut middle-grade novel, Love Like Sky, was released with critical acclaim in November 2018, and her sophomore novel will be released in 2021. Similarly, Eunice Kim and Samuel Kolawole attended our International Literary Festival and signed with literary agents in the month following. Inspirational stories like these abound and continually renew our commitment to Kweli’s mission.
Kweli’s work in the literary landscape has also been critical to the steady increase in the number of women writers of color now securing literary agents and publication contracts, including with the major publishing houses. National Book Award Finalist Kali Fajardo-Anstine signed a two-book deal with One World. She stated that “the guidance, and support of other indigenous writers and writers of color fostered through Kweli gave me encouragement, a newfound understanding of craft, and comradery with writers who had faced and overcame barriers to publication. Early in my writing life, editors at Kweli recognized the strength of my stories at a time when very few journals would even offer me a form rejection.” Kali was the keynote speaker at Kweli’s International Literary Festival in July 2019.
At Kweli, we bring emerging and established writers together and create a thriving community of ideas and literary purpose. Our admission-free Reading and Conversation series, presented in partnership with [email protected] (formerly the New York Times African Heritage Network), has allowed such developing writers as Princess Perry, Nicole Dennis-Benn, and Kaitlyn Greenidge to share the stage with MacArthur Fellow Edward P. Jones; American Book Award winner Emily Raboteau; Tiphanie Yanique, winner of the American Academy of Arts and Letters Rosenthal Award for Considerable Literary Talent; and other notables. Princess and eight other Kweli contributors received a publishing contract from the University of Wisconsin Press for the anthology All About Skin: Short Fiction by Women of Color. We introduced Princess to her literary agent; industry insiders are already comparing her work to The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.
Kweli’s dreamscape over the next ten years includes a vision for sustainability, a gradual return to a monthly publication schedule, new workshop offerings in each genre, and a year-long fellowship program for at least eight to ten underrepresented writers.
Do you see Kweli’s role in the writing and arts communities changing as a result of all that has happened this year—the COVID-19 pandemic, police violence against Black people, and the Black Lives Matter movement?
The past is always present and Kweli has been actively seeking “voices of the unheard” since 2009, voices that serve as witnesses to the pressing issues of our time—from the generations-long racism pandemic to the current COVID-19 pandemic—as well as narratives that reclaim lost histories that have been largely whitewashed. A new work of creative nonfiction entitled “The COVID-19 Grapevine” by Xinle Hou is slated for publication in our July 2020 issue. “Favorite of Heaven: A Novel Excerpt” by Princess Perry is an old favorite set in the antebellum south and has resistance at its core.
This past spring, Kweli invited our community to revisit The Eyes Have It. Five years before, on April 23, 2015, Kweli, in partnership with the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, presented The Eyes Have It: Poetry and Photography with Nikky Finney, Rachel Eliza Griffiths, Parneshia Jones, and Saretta Morgan.
Love was palpable in the Schomburg Center that April evening as we gathered in the atrium under the Black Life Matters banner. But Freddie Gray’s recent death was also on the minds and hearts of many. While on the plane to South Carolina, a phrase ran through Nikky Finney’s head: If only we had body cameras, this would stop. She told Kweli and Griffiths, “I’ve been working on a poem about the Hubble Telescope because I’m fascinated with it and how it changed how we look at the planets and the solar system. It just changed everything. And I said, ‘Oh my gosh. We need a Hubble Telescope. We don’t need body cameras. Black people need to make a Hubble Telescope and set it in the head, the arms, the eyes of every person who calls himself or herself a policeman. Because this violence, this murder, this killing is perpetuated on and on because people don’t tell the truth. And a young man’s 25-year-old body, his spine does not get broken 80% out of the camera’s eye. And we’re going to debate this for years in the way that we debate all the others…. This will continue so we need something else. That’s all I know right now. Hubble. Glass. Grandma’s truth-telling jar.”
Would you tell us about the International Literary Festival, how it’s usually structured, and how you’ve reimagined it as a virtual event?
Kweli’s International Literary Festival began as a half-day, multi-genre event in East Harlem, on the garden patio of the now defunct La Casa Azul Bookstore in July 2012 with about eight publishing industry insiders, including Dawn Davis, Johanna Castillo, Cheryl Klein, Victoria Sanders, Phoebe Yeh, and others.
At our inaugural festival in 2012, Nicole Dennis-Benn met one-on-one with Dawn Davis. She later shared the following testimonial.
“As a writer, it never occurred to me to package my work into solid selling points, making sure to appeal to people on the business side of writing. I realized very quickly that there was no way a shy, somewhat introverted person like myself could conjure up a pitch to win over an agent. Because of this fear, I wasn’t sure about attending Kweli’s first writer’s conference in July 2012. However, with some encouragement from my wife, who is my biggest cheerleader and fan, I did.
“I learned a lot about the writing industry and the expectations agents and editors have. Though it was intimidating, I took the information and incorporated it into my game plan. I especially learned a lot from one of the attending editors, Dawn Davis, who took the time to encourage me to submit to various agencies. I went home and wrote query letters, remembering to not shy away from a good synopsis with an arc, and to relay how much I know about books already published that are somewhat similar to mine. But most importantly, I had to overcome the hardest challenge, which was to convince agents why my book is unique and why it’s necessary. Such selling points are hard to come up with, because not many writers are comfortable talking about themselves. But what I learned from Kweli’s writing conference that afternoon in July 2012 was that this was absolutely necessary if I want my work to be out there. Now I have an agent, and together we’re working to make my dream as a writer a reality.”
Over time, our festival expanded to a five-day festival, with the culminating event hosted and presented by Times Reads / The New York Times at the New York Times Conference Center. Within the past two years, writers such as Eunice Kim, Samuel Kolawole, and Cecca Ochoa have attended the festival and have signed with literary agents or caught the eye of senior editors who have been invested in their success. Within three months of attending #Kweli18, Kolawole signed with his literary agent at Massie & McQuilkin and now has a two-book deal with Tracy Sherrod at Amistad / HarperCollins. Kim signed with Johanna Castillo at Writers House.
The COVID-19 pandemic demanded a number of changes in programming this year. Thankfully, we were able to quickly pivot this spring and move our Kweli Color of Children’s Literature Conference from Barnard College to a Zoom platform within two short weeks. It was a successful event, filled with the spirit and community of a Kweli in-person event. This summer, Kweli International Literary Festival has been reimagined as a ten-week virtual festival to mark our ten-year anniversary. Edwidge Danticat and Nikky Finney will be our keynote speakers. Readings, conversations, master classes, and workshops with Brit Bennett, K-Ming Chang, Danielle Evans, Kelli Jo Ford, Megha Majumdar, Ibi Zoboi, and others will span from July 16 through September 17. The opening keynote conversation between Nikky Finney and Crystal Wilkinson on Saturday, July 18, will focus on their decades-long friendship as writers and how they are dealing with this new world we find ourselves living in. Edwidge Danticat will close our festival with a keynote on Thursday, September 17. This year, we have removed the general registration fee to be sensitive to the needs of our community. We hope that this will make our festival more accessible. However, nominal fees will be charged for the small master classes and workshops we are offering during the festival. Limited scholarships will be available.
Besides publishing Kweli Journal and hosting the International Literary Festival, Kweli also organizes and runs several other programs. What is The Color of Children’s Literature Conference and the Kweli Fellowship Program?
The Color of Children’s Literature Conference is the nation’s largest conference for BIPOC creators of children’s and young adult books. In January 2015, we offered our first mini Color of Children’s Literature Conference at Poet’s Den Gallery and Theatre in East Harlem. We offered at least twenty scholarships that year, seven of which were set aside specifically for Native / Indigenous writers and illustrators. These Native creatives joined us virtually via Skype from locations around the country and pitched their manuscripts to editors Cheryl Willis Hudson (Just Us Books), Cheryl Klein (Scholastic), Phoebe Yeh (HarperCollins), and other industry professionals. The following year, we hosted our first full day conference in April 2016 to a standing-room-only crowd, with Edwidge Danticat as our keynote speaker. Of the seven Native writers in attendance that year, five are now successfully published debut authors: Traci Sorell (Cherokee Nation), Kevin Maillard (member of the Mekusukey band of the Seminole Nation), Marcie Rendon (enrolled member of the White Earth Nation), Andrea Rogers (citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma) and Charlene Willing McManis (Umpqua tribal heritage and enrolled in The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde). Traci Sorell, Kevin Maillard and Charlene Willing McManis each won ALA Youth Media awards this year!
During #Kweli20 conference this past spring, the Native community virtually honored Laura Pegram, Executive Director of Kweli, by giving her a Pendleton blanket. On behalf of Dr. Debbie Reese (Nambé Pueblo), who had planned to present the blanket to Pegram in person, keynote speaker Brian Young (Navajo) presented Reese’s speech: “Within many Native communities, we honor those who have done something that is for the good of the community. Through Kweli, Laura has helped Native writers at every stage of the writing process, and her support means that Native and non-Native kids can find books by Native writers. She’s touched more lives than any of us can count.”
The Kweli Fellowship Program is built on Kweli’s successful history of mentoring emerging authors. We provide three to four early-stage writers with a year-long writing fellowship. Eligible candidates are early career vocational writers living in New York City, who are not enrolled in degree-granting programs and self-identify as Black, Native / Indigenous, Latinx, Asian or Arab. Fellowships include: ten months of editorial support from Kweli Journal editors to prepare a piece for publication in the magazine; a $1,000 stipend; admission-free enrollment in four professionally led writing workshops on the short story, poetry, literary nonfiction, and young adult/children’s literature, participation in four public readings by workshop participants; admission-free participation in our International Literature Festival, inclusive of pitch sessions with literary agents and editors; and optionally, admission-free participation in our Color of Children Literature Conference; and publication in Kweli Journal.
You’re a jazz vocalist and a painter. How has this multidisciplinary relationship to the arts shaped your editorial vision? How did your professional background before Kweli—working at Scholastic Productions, the Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center, and the John Oliver Killens Young Writers Program—impact the work you do now?
My editorial vision is shaped by my work as a muralist and a jazz vocalist. As a jazz vocalist performing on small stages in New York City and Paris, I am essentially telling a story through song, playing up the tensions of the story here and there with my delivery of a note, playing in my low register for a time, before ending on a high note. As a visual artist, I am doing the same thing, only I am using acrylic paint and stretched canvas to communicate a story, to introduce a character or place that has long since been relegated to the margins or made invisible over generations. Revision and improvisation or experimentation are the rule for writers, musicians, and visual artists. I bring my ear as a musician to the page as I read closely and line-edit a prose piece that has been submitted to Kweli. I listen for that lyric in a line, and look for the vivid or muted colors and textures in a scene. If a lyric or visual moment lingers for days after a reading, If there is an immediate change in a pulse point or a dramatic shift in the air of the room I am sitting in as I read, that’s usually the first sign for me that I want to publish the piece in Kweli.
My professional background informs the work I do at Kweli as an arts administrator and as an instructor. I generally take a multidisciplinary approach to event planning and teaching. During Kweli programming throughout the year, we often include text, music and image. For example, Felicia Collins, the blues singer and guitarist from the Late Show with David Letterman, was invited to open up a prose reading with Crystal Wilkinson at Poets House with original blues music. And bassist/vocalist Melanie Hsu opened up The Eyes Have It: Poetry and Photography at the Schomburg Center with original instrumental and vocal music. This started when I was a recent college graduate working with students of all ages at the Frederick Douglass Center in Manhattan and the John Oliver Killens Young Writers Program in Brooklyn. As the Acting Director and Instructor at the John Oliver Killens Young Writers Program, I created a curriculum for middle grade teens called Songwriting in the Blues Tradition. It included hip hop poetry and blues music. During our Saturday enrichment programs, students listened to music, studied the lyrics and read local newspapers for inspiration before composing their own music. During the closing recital, they recited their poems and then sat in the audience and listened as jazz pianist and singer Donald Smith took their lyrics and set them to music. At Scholastic Productions, I worked as a development associate. The highlight of that time was the developmental meetings with Phoebe Yeh, where I was able to review the revised scripts for the Magic School Bus series on PBS and study the music on the page and the changes to the lyrics of each line, from one episode to the next. My professional background taught me much about creating curriculums that are fun and challenging and that speak directly to students and their daily concerns, whether they are twelve or 72 years of age.