Our guest today on Knowledge and its Producers is Vanessa Taylor. She is the founding editor of the Drinking Gourd magazine, and she edits a newsletter called Nazar, which tackles issues of surveillance and the Muslim community in the United States. She is a writer and journalist, tackling topics such as Black Muslim womanhood, Muslim American politics, Afrofuturism, surveillance, and more. Our interview is going to range from the more abstract to the more concrete, the more personal: what is writing like for Vanessa? How much do institutions matter? What can we do to challenge them?
Follow Vanessa Taylor on Twitter, via the Drinking Gourd or Nazar.
Knowledge and its Producers is a limited podcast series from the Maydan hosted by N.A. Mansour. In each episode, we’ll be talking to people who are at the forefront of knowledge production, typically away from the traditional educational power structures. It’s been an exercise in thinking through how knowledge is constructed & barriers to entry. Most importantly, we highlight people demolishing those barriers. These interviews cover everything from labor to creativity to breakfast. We’re going beyond traditional educational systems to really break down how different elements of knowledge production fit together and create community. This show is generously funded by the Henry Luce Foundation.
Music: Blue Dot Sessions
Logo: Marwa Yasser Gadallah
TRANSCRIPT- Knowledge and its Producers: Episode 2 – Vanessa Taylor
N.A. Mansour 00:09
A friend once observed to me that human beings need incubators. For good creative work, people often need to feel safe, a place to grow and cultivate their creativity. People also need places where they feel safe as consumers, places where questions that are asked of them in the wider world aren’t asked of them, a place with equity built into the system, but this inspires questions of community. How do we build spaces that are community centric and feed communities instead of leaching off of them? I think what it comes down to is people who both know their communities and themselves extremely well. That’s the point of this podcast. We’re trying to think about questions of labor, community, institutions, and knowledge. They’re going to come up repeatedly, they already have. Today’s guest in particular embodies this discourse. She actively thinks about it. She lives according to her principles.
Welcome to Knowledge and its Producers, a limited series from the Maydan produced by me, N.A. Mansour. In each episode, we’ll be talking to people who are at the forefront of knowledge production, typically away from the traditional educational power structures. There’ll be talking to people who curate, who edit, who run research centers, who write, and more. My field is Islamic studies and modern Arabic intellectual and visual histories and we’ll be talking to many people who fit into the study of Islam and the Muslim majority world, but just because I have specific interests doesn’t mean our guests will always fit into these categories, it just means that we don’t have perfect terms for describing this big intersecting world. Yet. The goal is to get a wide variety of people talking about different ways of accessing history, ideas, and more, to uplift the people we’re interviewing, and to inspire you. Our guest today is Vanessa Taylor. She is the founding editor of the Drinking Gourd magazine and she edits a newsletter called Nazar, which tackles issues of surveillance in the Muslim community in the United States. She’s a writer and journalist tackling topics such as Black Muslim womanhood, Muslim-American politics, Afrofuturism, surveillance, and more. Our interview is going to range from the more abstract, the more concrete, the more personal. What is writing like for Vanessa? How much do institutions matter? What can we do to challenge them? Let’s meet Vanessa.
We’re going to start off with sort of an icebreaker-ie question. What’s your favorite snack right now?
Vanessa Taylor 02:34
I think it’s honestly less of a snack and more of a whole meal, but since outside is a little more open, there’s the Halaal cart guys in Philly, who I love. If I’m passing through Center City, I tend to go to them and just grab like a $4 Gyro, which I’ve missed throughout all of quarantine, the months that we couldn’t have anything.
N.A. Mansour 02:56
Do you ever ask for extra sauces on it?
Vanessa Taylor 03:00
No. Honestly, they already put a lot of sauce on it already, but I don’t eat onions. This is the one thing I have to get it without.
N.A. Mansour 03:07
Well, I’m glad you can get it now.
Vanessa Taylor 03:10
Thank you. Yeah.
N.A. Mansour 03:12
Okay. So, you are tremendously multifaceted, you’re a writer and you write about a variety of different topics in a variety of different forms but I am curious because we’re all aware of the nature of publishing, which you can feel free to elaborate on. If you had complete freedom, what would you write about?
Vanessa Taylor 03:34
If I had complete freedom, I think I would be doing a lot less journalism, which isn’t to say that I dislike journalism itself, but I don’t like it as my job. I don’t really like any type of job though, so that’s not really a commentary on journalism itself and just work as a whole, but if I had complete freedom, I would be doing more fiction. I like sci-fi and so I would really like to focus on that, but fiction doesn’t pay. In the rare cases that it does pay, it takes a long time to get paid. For example, if you write a short story, you’re putting, easily, at least two months of work in something that’s probably going to pay a hundred dollars a month after it gets published and then, if you’re writing a novel, you already have to have the whole thing done before you can even get started as a novelist. So, fiction rarely pays and when it does pay, it’s a whole long process and it’s not really something you can rely on to just live your life. If I have complete freedom, I would turn more to fiction and sci-fi.
N.A. Mansour 04:41
Who are your favorite sci fi writers?
Vanessa Taylor 04:43
I think Octavia Butler is everybody’s staple. Then I really enjoy Afrofuturism and it’s not necessarily super specific individual people, although I will say I’m a big fan of Obsidian Podcast and the people behind that because I really like looking at just where Afrofuturism is happening, not necessarily on a smaller scale, but outside of those big names that everybody knows about.
N.A. Mansour 05:09
Yeah. There’ve been some great publications that have come out and they’re so niche that I can imagine that it’s even more difficult pitching to them and making sure that you get paid a certain amount.
Vanessa Taylor 05:21
Yeah. It definitely gets difficult and, also, because when you get to like these publications or some of the ones that might align with your politics more personally, they may not necessarily have the funding to give you much because, in an ideal world, we would all get at least $1 per word for a story. For a short story, you’re easily looking at paying like $3,000 per story minimum, on the shorter end of a story. Obviously that’s not something small, independent outlets can do. I know. I’ve run a literary magazine. I know we could never be able to do that. At least, not anytime in the near future.
N.A. Mansour 06:04
How do you balance writing for the people that you really respect and whose institution building you admire and getting paid?
Vanessa Taylor 06:15
That’s where journalism comes in because you can definitely still have the topics you’re passionate about and the people that you care about and still figure out how to frame that for a wider audience and, in particular, a white editor (or at least the people who are doing the decision-making tend to be white). That impacts things. For example, I write a lot about black Muslim communities. That’s really important to me. I try to stay away from the whole, “Wow! These people really exist” type of thing. Instead, I like to get deeper into the issues and start really touching on the topics that I’m passionate about within that, which often looks like talking about surveillance. Recently I did an article on CVE and connecting the overall surveillance infrastructure to George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis and just talking about how his death was also an aspect of surveillance, just on a different level. Again, the interconnectedness of being Black and being in Minneapolis and being surveilled on all these different types of levels and what that means for Black life. That’s something that got commissioned, so it was a different story, but I’m very outspoken about what I like to work on. I’m very clear about what my politics are. I have a Twitter and I use it for work, but it’s also not entirely like a branded TM personality, where I just wipe away all aspects of myself. Editors still can get to know me and can still reach out to me based off of that.
N.A. Mansour 07:49
Let’s go back to fiction for a second, if you don’t mind? Would you write about the same themes if you had more of an opportunity to dedicate time and energy to fiction? Or do you let themes organically float to the surface of your writing?
Vanessa Taylor 08:08
They definitely come organically because I wasn’t always as into surveillance as I am now, but if I wrote fiction or if I wrote more fiction, I would largely be dealing with the same things. Even in the novel that I’m working on, it doesn’t necessarily deal with surveillance, but it deals with technology and holograms and this ongoing theme of what it means to be Black, what it means to have your body being used in different ways, in ways that you don’t necessarily consent to and et cetera. I think one of the things I like about science fiction is that it lets me take the problems that I’m seeing in real time and magnify them to a thousand or just dream where we’re going to be in the next decade or so. I prefer near future science fiction, but looking at where we’re going to be in the next decade or so, absolutely nothing changes.
N.A. Mansour 09:03
How do you write characters?
Vanessa Taylor 09:07
For me, they just kind of come. I know recently I was reading something about Toni Morrison and how she talked about how she doesn’t base characters off of people, at least not consciously. That’s one thing I avoid doing because it feels weird and also unnecessary. I don’t really need to write a character that’s based off of myself or my mother or somebody I’ve met in the store to be able to write a character. In my latest novel, she really liked the character in that and that really just kind of came to me and developed her voice on our own. I like to have that freedom when I write. I know in the United States in particular, there’s the whole, “You need to have your plot and your character arc,” and you need to have this formulaic way of approaching a story. I don’t like that. I like to be able to just say I have this overarching idea, like I want to look at holograms, and I have this one particular scene that I know is going to be in this book somehow, but other than that, I’m going to let the character guide me on whatever else is happening and whatever subplots are going on and all these other little intricate things. I don’t sit down with a complete outline. I don’t know everything that’s going to happen in this novel. When I was writing my novel, I added a really major plot detail in the third draft and I only did four or five drafts, so I ended up pretty late to the game and it worked, but it absolutely wasn’t something that I was planning on doing for the beginning.
N.A. Mansour 10:34
That’s something I think about a lot. It’s how a lot of these institutions aren’t really built for people who don’t look white, heterosexual, above a certain class. I think part of that is this piece, like assumptions of how we write and that’s a little scary to me. I’ve been thinking about it a lot in terms of recipes. Recipes aren’t really for people, at least like me, I don’t want to generalize, but that’s the type of writing that I just don’t fit into. Anyway, I admire what you’re saying I guess is what I’m trying to say.
Since we’re talking about surveillance, let’s plug your big, not your big project maybe, but like it’s the thing that definitely I’ve been paying attention to because it comes straight to my Gmail inbox, so I don’t have to think about it. We’re talking about form. Newsletters have had a big year or two with something like sub stack getting really big as a format and it’s an interesting form because you can directly support someone by subscribing to a newsletter and you have freedom over it. Your newsletter, you want to tell us a bit about that and sort of how you came to newsletters as a form of writing.
Vanessa Taylor 12:04
I launched Nazar, which is an independent journalism project covering surveillance in May on Memorial day. I’d been toying with the idea of having a newsletter for a little bit, mostly because there is a lot of benefit in making sure that you have an audience gathered off social media. I have a verified account, which I’m not just saying that to say it, but I’m a verified account, so I know it makes it a little harder to like kick me off Twitter, for example, but Black women get run off Twitter all the time. It really is just a fact of being on that particular platform and on social media in general. The harassment of Black women, targeted harassment and the backlash we receive and the way that these platforms don’t really care to protect you because that’s not really their purpose. That plays out in a lot of Back women getting deplatformed. Even though I knew that with a verified account it would be harder for that to happen to me, I also knew that it likely could and I know my personality. As Twitter starts to crack down on swearing and things like that, I’m not going to stop doing that. I figured I should have something of my own and what made the most sense was a newsletter. I actually didn’t plan to do something focused on surveillance, at least in this way. I was just toying with the idea of what most people tend to do, which is they launch a newsletter and they do whatever comes to mind, so essays about different topics, maybe just a blog post. I’m not going to say rambling is a bad thing, but sometimes it’s just rambling.
The more I was thinking about it, the more I was like, I really don’t want people in my life like that because that’s a big part of those types of newsletters sometimes, you’re talking about personal things and what’s happening in your daily life. I don’t want to do that because I like to keep a bit of separation between my personal life and my work. The more I was thinking about it, the more I wanted to talk about Afrofuturism and surveillance and I don’t really get an opportunity to cover these things in depth, so I decided that having a newsletter where I could do that and where, most importantly, it wouldn’t again be dictated by an editor, white editors in particular, and I wouldn’t have to navigate that field. I could choose what stories I wanted to cover and there’s pretty much nobody to tell me no about it. I made that switch from the general essay format to a dedicated, independent journalism project the week before I planned to launch this thing. Then, of course, when I launched it that Memorial day, and I launched it in the morning, a little later George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis. That impacted my newsletter immediately. I had plans to kind of do an introduction newsletter, just a way for people to understand why I was doing this project and what I envisioned with it, but that just felt like it was ignoring everything that was happening outside and going on around me, particularly as somebody who is from Minneapolis, even though I live in Philadelphia now. So, the first post that I actually did was because there was a collection of duas against the surveillance state, which ultimately I think was a much better way to open up that project.
N.A. Mansour 15:32
I really love that aspect of it just as an aside. How has the reception been? You’ve had a couple of months, you’ve done some really interesting things with it and brought some really lovely people in to collaborate with you. How’s the reception been from different facets of your audiences because I’m assuming you have like a primary audience that you intend to write to and then you have all these other people chiming in?
Vanessa Taylor 15:58
It’s been interesting for sure. The most popular pieces are the ones that are about Islam and Muslims, which doesn’t surprise me. I figured that would be the base audience that I had, Muslims who are also either doing anti-surveillance work and just generally interested in it because that tends to be my base on Twitter, but right now, I really like toying with bringing guest writers and figuring out what works there. I was very personal about leaving that open because I decided if this is going to be an independent journalism project, I know a lot about surveillance. There are a lot of things that I could talk about and that I can cover, but I’m also well aware that you have your niches within that. I know the most about surveillance with Muslims, and Black Muslims in particular, and Black people in the United States and these abstract theories, but I might not be as qualified to talk about some other specific things. For example, we just had a guest piece go up on the census and how procurement itself is surveillance. That might be something I know, but it’s not necessarily something that I’m qualified to say. I could write about it, but I just wouldn’t want to. Opening up that door to somebody else, where that is their area of expertise and that’s something that they’re passionate about, passionate enough to pitch you about, I think has been really interesting and something that I really enjoy being able to do.
Most importantly, while I didn’t narrow down guest writers to just people of color (at least I don’t think I did, that’s who has been pitching me for the most part), it’s great to have the surveillance platform, a surveillance and technology platform, where it’s mainly people of color who are writing because journalism as a whole is really white, but technology is one of the whitest beats that I could imagine. I would say this as somebody who is a tech writer and who has tried to get into that field. It’s really hard because of how white it is. Having the space where it is people who most likely otherwise wouldn’t be able to get into some of the tech publications or wouldn’t be able to join these conversations outside of maybe academia is really important.
N.A. Mansour 18:18
We’ll get to digital community in a second because I do a want to commend you on the newsletter. I’m looking at it right now. I just pulled it up and it’s a stunning logo. That’s just so brilliant. The theme aligns really well. Nazar has this connotation of being seen and it’s often affiliated with an <inaudible> figure and you’ve just done such a good job with the logo. Then, of course, one of the last issues from two weeks ago, which was one of my favorites was titled “Pursuing a People’s Exegesis: An Islam Against Surveillance.” I just love the idea of you taking something that’s been done so continuously in the Islamic tradition and in other traditions of the Muslim majority world, sort of exegesis or commentary, and the fact that you took this and you did what people have been doing since the beginning of the faith pretty much, which is adapting it and evolving it, and it’s here on a newsletter. I thought this was great, like creative expression, I loved it.
Vanessa Taylor 19:32
Thank you. Yeah, that was also a last minute idea, which I’m glad it ended up working out. I was worried that I wasn’t going to be able to get all the responses together in time.
N.A. Mansour 19:44
You really pulled it off and I loved it. I think people want to see the forms with which they identify, the genres they identify with represented in new and different ways. I think a lot of your work represents that. Okay, so how do you see it evolving?
Vanessa Taylor 20:09
I think it’s a hard question mostly because of who I am as a person, which I’ve mentioned with Nazar itself, we were just talking about an article with a last minute idea. I tend to be very go-with-the-flow, like if I have an idea and I think it’s good, it doesn’t matter if I need to have it done in the next few days, I’m going to try to have it done within the next two days. I think I’m just very free-flowing. I want to see where it goes within this first year of existence. What pieces are people responding to the most? How do people like the guest writer portions? How do I work that into the publishing schedule so there’s more interaction with it? And things along those lines. I’m looking at its growth on other social media platforms since I do have a Twitter account for it and then going from there. I think I don’t have any intentions of moving it off of being a newsletter or off substack anytime soon. I know there’s a possibility I could take this and I could make my own website for it, but that’s just not something I’m particularly interested in. That feels like way too much work right now and I do like the fact that it just comes straight to your inbox and it’s very easy for me to do. I think it’s just seeing where it goes and moving from there and just moving with the project itself rather than having any dedicated idea of what it’s going to be.
N.A. Mansour 21:38
You know yourself, that’s really clear, and you know how you function and how you work and most people don’t, I think. What I do like, just to echo what you said, is the fact that it comes straight to your inbox because I don’t read all the tabs I open, but if I want to go to another email, the screen has to entirely change. I tend to read it because it’s directly in my inbox, I don’t know, there’s something about that, my brain that just works that way. I’m gonna ask you a bigger question, which is more institutional. How do you see this as the direction that publishing is moving in?
Vanessa Taylor 22:28
There are definitely a lot of substacks going up from a lot of journalists who have bigger platforms than me and who are moving away from career positions, which I think is telling. Digital media has kind of been free falling for years now. I think at least once a quarter, there is news of some major company either doing mass layoffs or a big notable outlet gets bought out and then they do mass layoffs and they bring everybody back as part-time workers. Well, not everybody, they bring new people back as part-time workers and essentially get rid of the staff jobs with salaries and benefits and are moving to relying on freelancing and freelancers don’t really get paid. So, it’s a whole thing.
I can see why this is the direction that a lot of people in digital media are moving in right now, because, at least with substack and newsletters, you get to be in charge again. There is no editor you have to answer to, there is no overarching editorial calendar, you don’t have to deal with legal, which can be annoying, or the vision of a particular magazine or anything like that. It really is just you, your ideas, and your content. That being said, it certainly shouldn’t be how things are going. There’s no reason that the people at the head of these companies couldn’t figure out how to sustain websites and how to sustain staff jobs and things like that. The issue is that a lot of them aren’t competent and shouldn’t be in charge of journalism sites. That is part of the issue. It’s a lot of private equity firms that are getting into journalism, who shouldn’t be in this space, but also just the concept of a paid subscription model, which is what substack is, when you have paying subscribers, you can work for bigger magazines, you can figure out how to do that on a larger scale. The issue is that they’re relying on ad revenue, like Facebook and social media, but primarily Facebook, to get articles out there and to get eyes on the website. That’s ultimately not really going to work., we see that now. So, for all the people who have been kicked out of journalism and have been brought into these spaces, I’m happy that we have newsletters and substack and different ways to create content and engage with their audience, but at the same time, would I prefer to have a salary job and what I prefer to just have healthcare and clear benefits? Yes, absolutely. That’d be a lot less taxing for me personally, emotionally, just in every way.
N.A. Mansour 25:12
I’m very sympathetic to that and it’s absolutely scary to see them move in this direction and, like you said, the material benefits that directly relate to your wellbeing are important, like healthcare and dental. Being left out of it and dental being super expensive and people not realizing that you need eyes and a mouth in order to function well, there are all these different layers. I guess I wonder what a lot of these moves have to do with expertise and how expertise is getting– how would we define expertise and how is it changing? I suppose, I don’t think there’s any right or wrong about this. I’m just curious how you think about these, because I don’t want to define you as an expert and then for you to say, “Well, I don’t see myself as an expert,” but I certainly think of you as an expert.
Vanessa Taylor 26:13
I can understand seeing me as one. For me personally, I think it’s complicated. I was tweeting the other day about it. I think for me, sometimes expertise comes to with just a lot of expectations and pressure at the same time, which I think I’m not particularly interested in. I do know a lot about surveillance. I know a lot about Black Muslims. I know a lot about a lot of random things just because of how I like to read, but when I think expertise, I think there’s just always this idea that you have “qualifications” from some institution somewhere, which I don’t have. I don’t have a bachelor’s degree, let alone a master’s or a doctorate, and I’m not interested in having any of those. The way that I gather my information, I read academic texts and I read other journalism, like journalists’ work, things like that, but I also have a community organizing background. The way that I first started learning about surveillance was because of the Somali Youth in Minneapolis organizing against CBE, so this didn’t come to me from an academic text, this didn’t even come to me from the New York times or even the publications that I like or smaller indie outlets. It came directly from people who were on the streets, who were in their communities.
I think that’s one of the things that’s hard about expertise, on some level, yes, I can understand if people call me that and I can see why people might fight for that label too, particularly, if you’re a black woman and your expertise is constantly put into question, even if you meet all these qualifications in a white supremacist society where you got your doctorate, you did all that work, and people still think you’re not good enough. I totally understand arguing for that label. At the same time, I think it’s worth looking at the label itself and the different ways that it can be wielded and, even with your inclusion, who’s going to be left out of it and then asking yourself, is it really worth sticking around and like keeping that.
N.A. Mansour 28:20
I think the word expertise has been like, it’s been birthed in this different cauldron again, it doesn’t really acknowledge the people who gain things through experience, like you said, and I’m with you on that on there being this assumption that you have to have these “qualifications” when experience should really count for just as much. Are there any institutions that you want to be a member of that recognize expertise or it seems like that doesn’t interest you at all?
Vanessa Taylor 28:58
I can’t think of an institution I want to be a part of. I’m really just content to be just generally here doing my thing. If whatever institution recognizes it, that’s cool, but it’s not necessarily like a motivating factor, a primary concern of mine.
N.A. Mansour 29:20
Are you interested in building new institutions or do you think that that sort of model is completely flawed?
Vanessa Taylor 29:26
I think I’m more interested in– I know you said you wanted to touch on this, but I’m definitely more interested in just building community, whether that’s digitally or real life. For me, more digital just because I have a very low social battery, but yeah. I think, again, it’s just getting away from what we’re already confined within and trying to figure out how we create an exist outside of those spaces.
N.A. Mansour 29:57
You’ve also written about digital community. I just want to alert people to this excellent article you wrote on Bitch Media that we’ll link to in the show notes, which was about Black Muslim communities. One thing I really admired about that article was it said very plainly, it didn’t beat around the bush of the problems relating to Black Muslim communities online were. Not within those communities themselves, mostly in appropriation, and I love that you said it so plainly, it was something I could so easily hand to someone and be like, “Here, read this.” This is why you shouldn’t be using these memes.
Vanessa Taylor 30:37
That article was a result of a fellowship that I had with Bitch Media. I don’t think, if I wasn’t a fellow, that would have been picked up because even when I was talking about it, I wasn’t quite sure how to pitch it to the person who runs the fellowship. I was like, “Listen, I know what I’m talking about. You have to trust me. It’s a thing. There’s enough here for an article, but it’s not really been talked about before and it’s really hard for you to boil it down into like the 200 words I need for a pitch.”
N.A. Mansour 31:09
And how do they receive that?
Vanessa Taylor 31:11
They received it pretty well. I like Bitch and I like the fellowship. It was a lot of talking and working through the idea of going back and forth like that because, again, otherwise when you traditionally pitch, you just send your editor, like here’s my story idea in 200 words or less. You don’t always have that opportunity for that back and forth, which is fair, editors get a lot of pitches. Sometimes you just have to say no, they don’t have time to ask you follow up questions and then, also, if they don’t know you, they are less likely to take a chance on you, particularly if you’re a Black Muslim woman. There’s a lot of ideas that just kind of like tossed to the side.
N.A. Mansour 31:48
I think that’s something I love about that article in that it highlights precarity and that’s something I want to talk about before we talk about how to build digital communities, which I think is something we’re both interested in talking about. Let’s talk about the precarious nature of having these communities digitally, but also sort of the weird and wonderful side of it.
Vanessa Taylor 32:12
I think for one, we can look at Twitter as the key example because, in the article, that’s what I was talking about for the most part. Twitter is like a site for Nazis pretty much, even though there’s a lot of dope organizing that goes on on Twitter, a lot of really great Black Muslims, a lot of really good surveillance organizations and voices on that platform, but it doesnt erase the fact that as Twitter carries itself, it really loves white supremacists and Nazis. It is more interested in protecting them than it will ever be in doing anything for the rest of us. You can just look at reports that came out with Motherboard. I remember one that was talking about how Twitter essentially wouldn’t use algorithms like it did to tackle ISIS, which is also a whole other thing, but it wouldn’t use those algorithms because it realized that, if it did use the same algorithms to try to address white supremacy on the platform, it would end up banning Republican politicians and you can’t have that. It’s all about the status quo and who deserves to be protected, who even qualifies for protection, but at the same time, Twitter is like a Nazi platform. You could still have the dope organizing going on and so it’s the inherent paradox of that platform and, in general, that’s kind of life. It’s not like I’m meant to exist in this way in the United States as somebody who’s like Black and Black American and my family’s from the South and being descendants of enslaved people and things like that, obviously I wasn’t meant to be here talking on a podcast or writing about these things or reading your writing at all. That paradox is always a daily part of life and you have to learn how to navigate that and navigate systems that aren’t necessarily for you, systems and products that aren’t for you, but you’re still gonna make it work for whatever purpose that you need.
N.A. Mansour 34:14
I’m totally empathetic to all of that and I like the little nod you gave to the fact that maybe even literacy isn’t an inherent good, which I think a lot about. Thinking about those things that we lost is always hard, but okay. Can we talk about how this platform has been adapted, Twitter in particular, since we’re on that subject? How has it been adopted and, two, we can talk about your purposes. How do you enjoy what brings you back to the app and, I’m talking about tech, we might as well say, how do you hack it?
Vanessa Taylor 34:57
Twitter has its various subsections, right? There’s kind of the running jokes about Muslim Twitter, how nobody wants to be there or associated with it. What do we do with this? But even then, and I argue that in the piece, there’s a Black Muslim Twitter specifically. In the same end, there’s Black Twitter generally and Black Muslim Twitter specifically within both of these things. It was just a creation of community. I don’t think there’s a better way to put it because it’s not as if Black Muslim Twitter has like a membership card, like application for entry, or any of that. It really is just a way of being online, of being very loudly Black and Muslim online. I think some of the most notable, I don’t want to say byproduct, but I guess some of the most notable byproducts of like Black Muslim Twitter are poplar hashtags like #BeingBlackAndMuslim or #BlackoutEid, both of which got plenty of media coverage, but #BlackoutEid continues to get media coverage each year, #BeingBlackAndMuslim was more opportunity for conversation and discussion about what the hashtag says, what it says on the pin.
I’m also thinking about just the ways that you can have the Drinking Gourd, which is a literary magazine that I run or Sapelo Square or other projects that aren’t necessarily based on Twitter. Each of these things take place outside of Twitter, but they’re all able to come on this platform and be a part of Black Muslim Twitter, and continue to develop themselves and their communities off of whether the platform is Medium or a dedicated website or in-person meetings or WhatsApp.
N.A. Mansour 36:46
Occasionally it’s said that one of the advantages of something like Twitter versus Facebook or even Instagram is that it puts you into direct contact with your audience if you’re a “content producer.” How has that affected, we’ve talked about Nazar, but some of your other projects like the Drinking Gourd?
Vanessa Taylor 37:04
That’s certainly a benefit. I think you have to very carefully balance and ensure that you are speaking with your audience because, just because you’re reading my tweets, it doesn’t necessarily mean I’m thinking about you when I’m working on anything. For the Drinking Gourd though, I think one of the clearest ways that it impacted that project was that I’m pretty sure I met almost everybody who’s working on that project with me online. We met and this, again, very specific subsection of Twitter that is Black Muslim Twitter and I started following them, they started following me and we develop that online relationship. Then I was looking around and just noticed that there are different literary projects, but there isn’t a dedicated, or at least I wasn’t aware of and I’m still not really aware of, Black Muslim literary magazines. There’s Sapelo Square, but it’s not really a literary magazine, I just say that to people so that they know that I’m not forgetting them. They do great work. Sometimes they feature creative poetry, I think they’ve done fiction, but I don’t think they brand themselves as a literary magazine. I want it to be really clear with that branding, just explicitly give Black Muslims the space to do essays, poetry, and fiction. I didn’t want deal with articles, daily news, or anything related to journalism. I looked around and I noticed that there are really narrow spaces and I just pulled together people that I already knew online.
When we launched the Drinking Gourd, I wanted to have something where we paid writers immediately because, a lot of times, smaller outlets will be like, “Oh, we’ll pay eventually,” but I don’t think eventually is good enough. I think (a) if you don’t have a clear timeline, if you don’t say, “Well, we’re going to start paying writers by this specific date,” it is really easy to just not ever do it and not ever get around to it. We’ve seen this with other big Muslim websites who also inspired me to create the Drinking Gourd. I decided we weren’t going to do that. We were going to make it a priority to pay writers at the beginning. We’re not paid as the editorial volunteer staff, whatever you want to call us, but for me, that’s fine. You sign up to be a volunteer, sometimes you don’t get paid. It’s literally in the name.
When we launched, we actually decided to go with fundraising instead of applying to grants, namely because we had a quick timeline. I think I came up with the idea during Ramadan a year or two ago. It was probably around May-ish and we launched by October. We just didn’t have the time to really apply for grants and we also, again, didn’t want to be beholden to what the institutions wanted and what the institution thinks a Black Muslim literary magazine should be. We wanted the space to create the Drinking Gourd and let it happen and let it take shape, then maybe from there apply for grants, but at least we know who we are and we already then have at least a year’s worth of work testifying to it. We launched the fundraiser. It was because we were in connection with our audience already that we were able to raise any money at all, but enough money to, not only cover our original plans for paying writers, which was $50 per piece, but, in the light of the coronavirus pandemic, increased how much we pay writers to $75 per piece. We still have money. I don’t imagine we’re going to completely run out of money anytime soon. Hopefully we’ll be able to get more funding and start paying writers more. Again, it’s only because we’re in direct contact with our community and we know them and they know us outside of this project, people know us and can trust us and then can trust that we’re not going to take your $50 and $100 and run off and do something the complete opposite of what we said.
N.A. Mansour 41:15
I guess since we’re talking sort of about digital communities and institutions and how you are building institutions ethically, how do we hold other institutions to higher standards?
Vanessa Taylor 41:34
It’s so hard because I’ve definitely protested and I’ve gone at people directly on Twitter and social media. It really depends on the institution and what in particular that they’re doing. I think sometimes honestly, just stepping away from them and doing your own thing, it’s like a big kick in the face because, again, the Drinking Gourd, but I’ll just say part of why I launched the Drinking Gourd is because there’s a whole thing going on with Muslim Girl not paying writers. Muslim Girl would call out time and time again for a whole bunch of issues on anti-Blackness in particular and, so, do I want to waste my time arguing with Amani on Twitter? Not particularly. Do I really feel like writing a letter? No. So I’m just going to do my own thing and we’re just going to divest from that completely and you’ll either fix up or you can just go work with white people and be their token. That’s not my personal problem and it’s not really my concern to make sure you do better than that. If that’s where you’re happy, that’s where you’re happy. You do you, but I’m going to be over here in the corner and we’re going to actually be doing what’s needed and our own thing. Sometimes I think I’m more concerned with that at this point and then trying to make institutions better. I think just part of how, I’m not that old, but part of getting older is just accepting that sometimes things aren’t necessarily going to be fixed in that way and sometimes the solution really does look like stepping away and doing your own thing.
N.A. Mansour 43:08
You mentioned at the beginning of the interview that, if you could be writing anything, you would be writing fiction and we talked a little bit about the novel project. Would you like to– that’s obviously your big project right now and is that what’s taking up most of your time? How is fiction playing into your work life, creative life balance?
Vanessa Taylor 43:31
It certainly is picking up most of my time. When I started this novel project, I think I started it like last year, I decided to religiously guilt myself. I sat down and it was Ramadan, so I said for every night that you don’t go to Taraweeh, you’re going to spend the amount of time you would be at prayer writing. As it is, while I live in Philadelphia and there are a lot of masjids near me, I don’t like most of them, they’re the type where they’re like, “Oh, we just got a woman’s side and we’ve been open for 10 years.” I’m like, so I’m not going. What that meant is that the one masjid that I do go to and am comfortable in is a forty-five minute train ride away, so, most nights, I did not go to taraweeh. I spent most nights writing. I did at least finish the first draft of my novel. It wasn’t pretty. I say that because if anybody’s thinking about taking on that project, it’s going to suck the first time, no matter what. You can be a fantastic writer, you can have every single thing outlined, your first draft sucks. That’s just how it is. I did a couple more drafts from there and, for me, I know a lot of people say don’t rush and I’m not trying to rush, but at the same time, people will be like, “Oh, well, I took a couple years to work on this,” and that’s also not how my mind works. I’ll just forget about it. I can’t just take a couple years to write something because it will get placed somewhere else. I’ll forget that the document exists and it will never get done. For me, I just needed to sit down and get through it and just make it happen. Right now, I’m in the early querying stages and, when I’m working on it, I’m fine saying, is revise and resubmit. Essentially, we’re at a stage and it’s like, I read this, I like it, here’s some things that I would like to see changed, and if you want to make those changes, then send me the updated draft. We can talk again from there. Given that this is my first novel that I ever completed and I’m also in the early querying stages, I think I only queried like three agents. I’m fine with that response, but that does mean that I have to dedicate like a month or two to going through the draft and working on that again. It is a novel, so it is like 200, almost 200 pages. That’s a considerable project to take on and go through all that and revise it and remove scenes or add different scenes throughout and reorder things. For me, what that looks like is dedicating my mornings and my afternoons and I step away from freelancing in particular. Right now, I’m wrapping up my last freelancing article. Then, after that, unless somebody commissions me, I don’t plan to take on any freelance projects. I plan to just focus on this novel for like the next month
N.A. Mansour 46:26
I’m really excited for you. Again, I just want to emphasize, it’s so obvious how well you know yourself and your process that you’re able to tell people, who are more or less processed Nazis, to take a hike because you do you. That’s something that I’ve been exploring with this podcast, but also through life. You go through different phases of things working for you and that’s okay, you don’t have to do what everyone else is doing. If you want to handwrite everything using a quill and that works for you (I was literally just trying to think of something ridiculous), but anyway, if people do that, that’s completely fine.
Vanessa Taylor 47:08
I definitely think it comes from the fact that, at school, I was a terrible student. I had a lot of organizational issues, a lot of problems with focusing. I probably had ADD, but it was never diagnosed. That being said, there were a lot of people trying to be like, “Well, Vanessa, this is what you have to do to be organized and stay focused,” and so being an adult, I very much have to be aware of how I work best. Otherwise it will not get done. Shoving away all the different ways that people say you need to have your work done because really, at the end of the day and this is part of the good thing about being a journalist, particularly freelance and working remote, as long as the draft gets in and it’s not terrible, who cares how I did it. I work in the park more often than I work from home, or at least I did when outside was open, and that may not be traditional. Maybe some people need complete silence, but for me, I like to be outside and I like when people watch while I work and take frequent breaks and have those five to 10 minutes to just look around and be outside of my projects.
N.A. Mansour 48:12
Are you going to head to the park today?
Vanessa Taylor 48:15
I hope so, yeah, I should probably get started. Actually, it’s on my to-do list for the week to get started on the first chapter of revisions, so most likely.
N.A. Mansour 48:25
That’s really exciting and I hope we get to see it soon and I get to buy it and hold it and take it to a park and read it on the grass. Good luck with everything. I am a big fan and thank you for letting me speak to you today.
Thank you for listening and, again, a big thank you to Vanessa Taylor. You can follow her @BaconTribe on Twitter. You can keep up with her newsletter at Nazar newsletter and remember to subscribe for updates. You can follow the Drinking Gourd on Twitter at @DrinkinGourdMag. You can follow me @NAMansour26 and you can follow the Maydan @themaydan on Twitter. The production team includes Micah Hughes, who you can follow on Twitter at @MicahAHughes and Ahmet Tekelioglu and, most importantly, the audio editor who does our post-production, Sophie Potts. Our music is by Blue Dot Sessions. Be sure to subscribe or follow the Maydan on social media for upcoming episodes and more on the Maydan selection of Podcasts.