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Place for Writers: Eboni Dunbar and Miah Jeffra

On November 11, 2020, the Place for Writers hosted a panel discussion with two dual authors and editors, Eboni Dunbar and Miah Jeffra. Dunbar, who received her MFA in Creative Writing from Mills, is a managing editor for FIYAH Literary Magazine and a writer of queer and Black speculative fiction, including her recently released novella “Stone and Steel,” published by Neon Hemlock Press. Jeffra is the founding editor and production designer for queer literary collaborative Foglifter Press and the author of multiple books, including “The Fabulous Ekphrastic Fantastic” and “The First Church of What’s Happening”; they have also published several shorter works, and have received awards including the New Millenium Flash Fiction Prize and the Atticus Review Creative Nonfiction Prize.

Jeffra opened the panel by recounting parts of their artistic background; they got involved in dance and music as a child in Baltimore and pursued those arts during their time as an undergraduate at Oglethorpe University. Although they enrolled in an MFA Writing Program at CalArts, their time there was still spent on interdisciplinary art rather than writing as its own pursuit. It wasn’t until about ten years ago, after moving to San Francisco, that they realized their desire to focus on writing.

They pursued a master’s degree in English at San Francisco State, and credit their work with faculty and the school’s literary magazine with helping them begin their involvement in the Bay Area’s robust literary community. They also give credit to the Lambda Literary Fellowship for LGBTQ writers, which they say helped them “[embark] on a serious focus, not just in writing but — and this is what’s most important for me — forging a sense of community within the literary world.”

Jeffra credits the fellowship with inspiring them to start Foglifter Press, a project which they described as “a Bay Area queer and trans press that focuses on decentering kind of the white hetero cis supremacy that we see in publishing, and also in craft — I want to emphasize that, that craft is indeed also completely systemic and marginalizes lots of voices.”

Dunbar, who grew up in Menlo Park, California, moved to Minnesota to attend Macalester College, planning to study Japanese so that she could work in Japan as a translator. Due to unforeseen issues, she had to switch gears midway through undergrad and decided to spend her last two years of college studying writing and literature.

She then decided to pursue an MFA at Mills; her degree program was in poetry, which she no longer writes, though she describes the work as “great experience.”

Post-graduation, she got a series of day jobs, saying “I was really, really just trying to pay the bills and keep momentum and pay off that lovely student loan that allowed me to go Mills and allowed me to go to Macalester and the writing sort of dropped off and into the background. And about six years ago, I decided, no, you know what, I’m going to get back into this, this is a joy for me, this is something I really love […] I came back to fiction and I started writing short stories and I was introduced via Twitter to this brand new literary magazine.”

That magazine was FIYAH, which publishes speculative fiction by Black authors from across the diaspora. Dunbar submitted pieces to FIYAH six times before having one accepted for publication; in the process, she developed relationships with members of the literary community both inside and outside the magazine. 

Of this community-building process, Dunbar said, “I think social media is really key to supporting […] and continuing this writing journey. The classroom is an amazing place to get to study and be in fellowship and meet folks. I hope you will continue to talk to for many years to come, and maybe the people who you are sending your work to read and review and come back to, but sometimes that’s not the way you build your community. Sometimes the people you meet are the people you’re DMing on Twitter and who are recognizing that you’re actually trying to do something awesome and they want to support you to do that.”

Dunbar stayed involved with FIYAH up to and after her publication there, first getting work with the magazine as a reader of ‘slush’ submissions, then stepping into an executive position as managing editor. 

The idea for her novella “Stone and Steel” also stemmed from an event held by the magazine. FIYAH conducts an annual challenge called “Voices on FIYAH,” inspired by the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) project, in which writers attempt to produce a 50,000word manuscript by the end of November; in “Voices on FIYAH,” the magazine tries to inspire writers of color to get 50,000 words worth of short stories on the page by the end of the month. One prompt from when the event was held a few years ago, “Combine Game of Thrones and the Broken Earth trilogy” (the latter is a much-acclaimed fantasy series with an almost entirely Black cast), became the seed for Dunbar’s novella “Stone and Steel.” 

“Again, I credit my community for this,” Dunbar said of her book. “I credit the people who continued to say, ‘Try this! Now try this! Now try that!’ Look for those places and people who push you to do the next big thing.”

Then came the question-and-answer session. Mills professor Stephanie Young asked Jeffra, “I’m curious about what advice you’d give folks who are curious about starting a new press, a new journal, a new publishing project right now?”

Jeffra responded, “There are some elements of advice I would give. The first one is to get a nonprofit status right away. And that can be very difficult, so if you’ve never done it before, find an organization that is already a nonprofit that can serve as an umbrella for your work. It’s one of the things in California that can be done where you tap a nonprofit and go ‘Hey, can you sponsor us?’ That way you expedite the nonprofit status quick, and I think that’s really important because you can apply for grants. Because otherwise, the fiscal challenge of trying to publish, even if it’s just an online journal, is a lot […] So I would do that work. And hopefully, through that forging of community like Eboni was talking about with FIYAH you have a group of people you can tap right away who you know that you would work well with, because you’re going to put in a lot of long hours.”

Another audience member inquired if the two had any stories to share about working with agents or editors, adding on, “Any tips for finding agents or working with editors?”

Neither Dunbar nor Jeffra have agents at the moment. Though Jeffra previously searched for an agent for one of their books, the process went poorly, with an agent praising their writing but critiquing their inclusion of queer characters as bad for sellability. 

Dunbar spoke highly of her experience publishing “Stone and Steel” with the small press Neon Hemlock, noting the agency she was given in developing her cover design and the book-inspired candle that her publisher created and released. She said, “I truly felt like this was a collaboration of bringing my baby into the world, as opposed to ‘Exciting that you’re publishing me, but I now have no say over what happens.’”

Jeffra agreed, saying, “All four of my books are with different small presses that saw my vision […] Small presses are not going to give you much money, but you might have a product that you have had a lot more say on, and you’re bringing what you want into the world. I also would say that small press editors are glorious. It’s so intimate, you get to know them, you know their dog’s name — it feels like you’re kind of building a family.”

Moderator Summer Young wrapped up the question-and-answer session by asking the panelists for any final advice they wanted to offer.

Dunbar responded, “I mean, I guess the thing I will say, being a person who continues to work at her day job and continues to say I have to take your money and then do my own thing with it, is just to say get over this vision of an artist or a writer or anybody as being this one particular thing. Your way of finding success with your work is going to be your own particular path. That may mean that you are a person who is a full-time writer and takes little jobs or finds little things along the way to pay for the things you need to pay for, and it may mean you’re someone like me, who’s like, ‘I’m going to try and scramble an hour at the beginning of the day to get in my writing, and then I’m gonna work my eight hours, and then I’ll come back to it. Or maybe I won’t come back to it, because I’m too tired.’ But just remember that there’s no right way to do this. It doesn’t matter the way that you’re doing this as long as you’re doing it and as long as you’re finding some joy in it.”

Jeffra echoed Dunbar’s sentiment, adding, “I feel bad for people who don’t write. Because, well, who knows what they’re doing, it might look good from the outside, but they’re not cultivating their sense of resolve with the world, and goodness, I’m so appreciative of that. How have we been able to get through the last four years if it wasn’t for that among everything else, right? It’s just not four years, we know that too, but — just, write, and be in conversation with other writers so that you can be inspired by them, kind of like what Eboni was talking about, you know, forging that sense of community? And then, if anything, you all, be a reader for a magazine. No matter what. Just so you can kind of see what’s out there […] But, please, keep writing. Not that you have to write all the time, you know. There’s going to be moments where you’re not, because it’s like ‘Oh shit, I gotta put food on the table.’ But just love the writing.”

This panel was the final event hosted by Place for Writers during the 2020 fall semester. Attendees were encouraged to check out @millsmfalit on Instagram for future information about events from Place for Writers, as well as to learn about the work being done by students in Mills’ Creative Writing MFA program.