FWF Q&A: Hella Ibrahim

Hella Ibrahim is the founding editor of Djed Press, an online publication that provides a paid platform for creators of colour.

What does feminism mean to you?

I have a poster on my wall at home that reads: What are you doing to make things better? I look at it every time I leave the house. When I think about feminism, I think mostly about how it manifests itself: how do your actions empower others and challenge the systems we live under? It’s how you advocate for yourself and others, how you actively fight the power. It’s not enough to write ‘intersectional feminist’ in your Twitter or Tinder bios and leave it at that (I’ve come across far too many ‘feminists’ who somehow think feminism includes things like telling Muslim women to remove their hijabs, or people of colour to stop being divisive, or trans women to stop existing). I often think about the women who came before us to pave the way for us to exist the way we do now – women like Fatima Al-Fihri, an Arab Muslim woman who founded the first university, and Marsha P. Johnson, a black trans woman who paved the way for queer rights, and Doria Shafik, an Egyptian woman who was responsible for getting women in Egypt the right to vote… I could go on, it’s a long list. So for me feminism means advocating for our autonomy and the right to govern our bodies and all that, but also actively pushing for equity for all women – always asking yourself, what have you done for trans rights lately? For disability rights? What have you done for people of colour? For Indigenous sovereignty? Climate change, refugees and asylum seekers, cuts to welfare, homelessness rates… to advocate for change in these areas are acts of feminism in my opinion.

Was there a particular moment you can pinpoint that was crucial to the development of your perspective on feminism, and what it means to be a woman writer?

I think I’m forever developing, growing and shifting and learning, with every new piece I read. There are so many moments I could point to, but one of my earliest was when I was 16 and came across Maya Angelou’s Still I Rise for the first time. The lines Does my sexiness upset you? / Does it come as a surprise / That I dance like I’ve got diamonds / At the meeting of my thighs? were a revelation. Until that moment, feminism to me had meant disowning our sexual selves, like we had to be somehow above it. It sounds really silly I know, but my baby self hadn’t known until then that you could own your sensuality and still be taken seriously.

Tell us about your publication, Djed Press – how did it come about, and what are your aims with it?

Djed Press was, and I suppose still is, how I answered the question I posed to myself with that poster hanging on my wall – what was I doing to make things better? At the time I started thinking about creating Djed, I was fed up and angry with the publishing industry. I was having shouty rants to friends and on social media about racism in the industry, underpaid jobs and unpaid internships. I was beyond frustrated with how our histories get glossed over and whitewashed and homogenised, how other people thought they were somehow better suited to tell our stories for us, and how Indigenous and other people of colour were (still are, mostly) only invited to speak on ‘minority’ issues or ‘diversity’ panels. And I was frustrated with often being one of extremely few, if not the only, editor of colour in the workplace (my current workplace is mercifully much better than previous ones).

After a while I found just shouting about it wasn’t making me feel better, nor was it helping anyone – I was just screaming into a void. I wanted to do something about it. And since editing and publishing is really the only skill I have – I’m not well-versed in campaigning, I’m so far from being academic, I don’t have a lot of spare time to volunteer with organisations – I figured Djed was the best way for me to advocate for change. My main aim for Djed has always been to effect change in some way, both on an individual level and a structural one. Get people paid, give people a platform, and change the way the industry values ‘other’ writing and ‘diverse’ employees.

What goes into the day-to-day of managing and editing a small publication?

SO MUCH. It’s almost a full-time job, on top of my actual full-time job. There’s assessing new submissions and/or commissioning, then editing, copy-editing, formatting, picking images and publishing the pieces to the site. There’s drawing up contracts and scheduling payments, managing the budgets and publication schedule. There’s marketing/promotion in the form of managing and creating content across the three social media accounts. There’s also promotion of the publication via festival appearances and other public speaking/panels opportunities (which to date have included Melbourne Writers Festival, Emerging Writers’ Festival, National Young Writers’ Festival, the Independent Publishing Conference, The Wheeler Centre/City of Literature, among others). There’s also writing grant applications, mentoring writers, making sure I stay on top of what’s going on in the literary world… it’s a lot.

For a while I was doing all of it myself, including funding it, and that was hell. I’ve managed to drop the ball pretty hard with some writers – my emails get out of control too quickly for me to handle sometimes, plus if I have something going on in my personal life (like when my father passed away earlier this year, or moving house etc), it throws me and therefore Djed for a loop. Thankfully I got some funding in my second year that meant I could pay external editors to take on some of the workload and to set up an informal editorial mentorship, so I’m now mentoring three (incredible, amazing, fill-me-with-pride-every-time-I-see-their-work) emerging editors – Jennifer Nguyen, Tracy-Kate Watts and Suzanne Garcia – and that’s helped!

How can the Australian literary and feminist communities be more supportive and inclusive of writers and editors of colour? 

I recently decided I can’t stand the term ‘inclusive’/ ‘inclusion’ in this context. I talked about it at the City of Literature Parliament at The Wheeler Centre last November, so I won’t rehash it here, but in a nutshell I think literary and/or feminist communities would benefit greatly from working on going beyond inclusion – that idea just serves to position us as outside the mainstream, and reinforces that certain people get to retain all the power while ‘inviting’ us in to their party.

Which women or non-binary writers do you think everyone should read?

Ah so many to choose from! All of the classics – Audre Lorde, Angela Davies, Octavia Butler, bell hooks – wow, we really do not deserve black women, they are a gift. Also Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues was an unexpected delight and education. But mostly, right now I want everyone to pick up a copy of Sweatshop Women: Volume One – the first Sweatshop anthology to be produced entirely by women of colour. Just knowing it exists out in the world gives me the warm jollies. And to shamelessly spruik one of my own, Subbed In is releasing a poetry chapbook When I Die Slingshot My Ashes onto the Surface of the Moon by one by my editorial mentees, Jennifer Nguyen. Definitely go buy that too.

What piece of writing advice would you give to your younger self? 

Not every character you write has to have an ‘interesting’ name. Stop trying so hard. Also, good writing comes from practice; very few people are naturally gifted with perfect prose and even great writers don’t get it on the first go. That’s what editors are for.

Hella Ibrahim will be running FWF workshops on pitching for beginners in Melbourne and Geelong in May and June. More info here.

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