Oxford American recently shared the table of contents for its summer issue — on newsstands June 14 — including an essay from national Book Award nominee Lauren Groff, the column “Who Owns Southern Food?” by Southern Foodways Alliance Director John T. Edge and chef Tunde Wey, new work by poet Kwame Dawes and, according to editor Eliza Borné, “A piece by J.M. Martin that illuminates the secret history of the song “Let’s Get It On.”
Borné and others (such as Western North Carolina writer and OA contributor Jeremy B. Jones) will appear at an Asheville-based launched for that summer issue. The event takes place at Downtown Books & News on Saturday, June 4, at 5 p.m. Banjo player Joe Sundell, who’s part of the four-city issue launch tour, will perform.
In advance of the Asheville stop, Borné talks about the upcoming issue, the magazine’s unique point of view, and what it means to be the OA’s first female editor.
Xpress: How did the idea to hold the summer issue launch party in Asheville come about?
Eliza Borné: Our summer issue features a special section called “Southern Journeys: Travels through Space and Time.” The section, which includes dispatches from eight writers, celebrates and explores journeys by train, car, ferry, foot, memory, and imagination. After months of putting together the section, our staff couldn’t help but get in on the fun and plan our own Southern journey, from Little Rock to Nashville to Asheville to Charlotte.
What are some of the key elements that you look for in an OA story?
It’s impossible to distill the essence of an Oxford American story in a couple of sentences, so I’ll just say that we’re looking for the best, most interesting stories from the South — stories that move our editors in some fundamental way. … Many of our stories concern fascinating individuals as subjects — perhaps they’re brave, or they’re exceptionally talented, or they had an unusual experience. The vast majority take place in the South, from tiny unincorporated communities to major cities, from mountaintops to islands.
I solicit and edit all kinds of stories — criticism, fiction, reportage, memoirs — and I especially like working with emerging writers, helping them hone their craft and launch their careers.
Can you recall a particular piece that you edited that really moved you or stuck with you?
One favorite (among many) from the summer issue is “The Ballad of Harlan County,” by Elyssa East. In the piece, Elyssa wrestles with the painful legacy of her mining family from Harlan County, Ky. It’s a complicated and beautiful essay, filled with astonishing imagery from coal country and a remarkable chorus of voices. (The accompanying artwork is by Harlan-based painter and former coal miner Bob Howard.) It’s also a feat of reporting, as Elyssa spent a week on the ground in Harlan, talking to countless people on both sides of the 1972 labor strike that still plagues the community today.
Is there anything in particular that you look for in fiction?
We publish more nonfiction than fiction, though the OA has a rich tradition of publishing stories. Working on last year’s summer fiction issue (guest edited by Jamie Quatro) was a joy — that issue included 10 short stories from both beloved and debut authors. And our Summer 2016 issue includes five short stories: by Manuel Gonzales, Rebecca Wells, Kalisha Buckhanon, Daniel Black, and the hilarious newcomer Eric Boehling Lewis.
There’s so much variety in our fiction — the stories in our current issue range from lyrical historical fiction to manic contemporary fiction — so it’s tough to make sweeping statements about what we’re looking for. All of our stories stun me in some way — with their language, with their emotional core, with immersive scenes or a lovely moment that begs to be re-read. A practical tip: I am always looking for more short-short fiction to publish in our front section, Points South. We get a ton of feature-length story submissions, and not nearly enough shorties.
Why do you think it took the magazine 25 years to hire its first female editor — and does that distinction feel important to you?
Well, I’m only the third editor of the magazine, so there haven’t been many opportunities to hire women in this position. … But yes: I do feel it’s important, because there are still too few women at the top of magazine mastheads. I passionately believe that just about every industry needs more women at the top, and it frustrates me that in 2016, it’s still notable when a woman is promoted to a leadership role.
I work with a lot of young people — about 10 college-aged interns per year. I hope my role will inspire the female interns who dream of being magazine editors or leaders in whatever field they choose, and I like that my male interns will start their careers with a female boss.
Arts organizations will only benefit if their staff and their artistic contributors are more representative of the United States — that means hiring and publishing more women, more people of color, more LGBT folks. As I wrote in my recent editor’s letter: “The OA welcomes diverse and surprising ideas, voices, writing styles, works of art, and musical traditions.”
The question of what defines Southern writing is incredibly nebulous, but since the OA is “a magazine of the South,” what are your thoughts on the subject?
I don’t like to generalize, but from my point of view, many representations of Southern people in national media still often look like stereotypes, and I appreciate that in the OA we illuminate a deeper understanding of the region. And broadly, as our nation is consumed with debates over immigration, and workers’ rights, and women’s health issues, and questions of the separation of church and state, and police abuse (and so much else) — I can’t help but feel like the South is an especially rich base for providing a home to great and meaningful and necessary stories.