Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Judging SEA literary submissions

I'm frequently called upon to judge entries for journals, grants and short story and poetry competitions. I'm flattered and I enjoy the opportunity to look through many of the submissions.

Occasionally, I get a few raised eyebrows about my editorial approach and what flies with me. I've been open about these but to review some of my personal subjective standards from over the years:

Good and innovative use of language: I'm not an absolute grammar Nazi but you still can't write like Stephanie Meyer, whose best-selling works were STILL riddled with misspellings, bad tenses and sentence structure by the time they hit print. Incorrect use of words will almost always get your submission discarded. Think of it like Confucius' classic maxim, "Wisdom begins when you call things by their proper names."

Dialect: Writing in dialect is fine, but write it consistently, unless there's a very deliberate reason for breaking from that consistency. Writing in street Laoglish or Khmerglish is fine, but characters talking like Papillon Soo Soo's 'Me Love You Long Time' caricature in Full Metal Jacket is going to raise red flags with me unless you're doing it VERY well with a clear purpose.

Anachronism: For pieces set in the past, I better not see something like a 13th century character in Luang Prabang debating Marxism, for example. Or, as seen in several narratives from the flight from Laos, Asian characters who say something close to 'Uff Da!' running through the jungles.

Italics: I never allow terms and phrases to be italicized. If we don't italicize sushi, ninja or rendezvous, caucus or gesundheit, I'm not going to accept italicization for sabaidee, wat, mae, pho or dok champa.

Footnotes  In an age of Google, it has to be a very rare turn of phrase or historical incident to employ them. Unless you're going the David Foster Wallace route, where the footnotes are interesting to read, leave them out. A big exception to this is the artful use of footnotes. To me, Nanh Trinh's use of a footnote in Pursue was masterful and memorable. Nanh Trinh used only one: VK: Viet Kieu, an ethnic Vietnamese who is a permanent resident or citizen or another country.

Glossaries: A slippery issue. What's a common term to some is not to others, what's obscure to others is not to many of those who live it and I think writers should give their readers intelligence some credit. When possible, use innovatively instead, not merely as a sterile 'objective' document of definition.

Jingoism and Sycophants: There's an classic episode of the Simpsons that features an essay competition where Lisa Simpson goes up against Trong Van Din and his essay "U-S-A, A-OK."  In narrative pieces and poems, fawning, undue simplistic nationalism never cuts it with me. I prefer nuanced, reflective work and loathe cardboard rehashes of the refugee narrative. So, please, pretty please no "In the Garden of 10,000 Autumn Leaves of Journey to My New Begin All Over Again."  Let me be clear that I enjoy the stories of refugees but they need to be honest and reflective of the complexity of their journeys at a personal level.

To be clear, no single one of these is an absolute deal-breaker with me, and good writing is good writing. As we often say, rule number one in writing is there are no rules and in the right place and in the right way, many of our expectations can be broken and violated for the sake of art.

But I hope this helps give you a sense of what I'm usually NOT looking for. I'd love to hear what some of your preferences and considerations are when you're reading work by Southeast Asian American writers.


Poetry of the Day said...

its hard to judge anything

~ <3 Famous Poetry about life <3~

Bryan Thao Worra said...

And I admit, I find a good rule of thumb for me is: Can this work speak to future generations, either ahead of its of time, for its time or at least passing forward the traditions and dreams the writers predecessors sought to preserve and present. Of course, this becomes highly subjective and I go in knowing its possible I'll make a bad call. But in trying to be consistent and fair about my process, I tend to sleep better for it.