How can we better support the work of queer and trans artists of color? How can self-publishing create cultural conversations by and for marginalized people? How can emerging artists best navigate the tension between wanting to get their work out there while also demanding fair pay for their labor?
In episode 47 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach interviews Nia King about how she came to host the podcast We Want the Airwaves, the racial politics of the publishing industry, how she has put her ethnic studies training to work beyond the academy, and why getting queer and trans artists of color paid fairly for their work is a key part of how she imagines otherwise.
Guest: Nia King
Nia King is a multimedia journalist whose work focuses on political art by women, queer people, and people of color.
She has been hosting and producing the podcast We Want the Airwaves since 2013.
Nia has since published several of the interviews with the podcast guests in two books called Queer and Trans Artists of Color: Stories of Some of Our Lives. Volume 1 was co-edited with Jessica Glennon-Zukoff and Terra Mikalson, and volume 2 was co-edited with Elena Rose. Nia’s writing and comics have also appeared in Colorlines and East Bay Express.
We chatted about
- Nia’s work hosting the We Want the Airwaves podcast (1:23)
- Nia’s process of writing and publishing two volumes of Queer and Trans Artists of Color (6:22)
- How self-publishing is more accessible than traditional publishing to marginalized authors (10:18)
- Nia’s work getting queer and trans artists of color paid fairly for their labor (14:22)
- How emerging artists can build their audience while also being compensated fairly for their creative labor (16:17)
- How Nia’s ethnic studies training has shaped her art and creative work (19:49)
- Imagining otherwise (21:44)
[My favorite thing about interviewing artists is] learning something I didn’t know. I get to continually learn, all the time. That’s a thing about journalism more generally too. I’m not in school, I haven’t been in school for a while…And so the question is how do you continue to learn and grow when you’re not in a classroom? For me, talking to people that I think are interesting and having the opportunity to engage with their work and ask them questions is very satisfying.
Why Nia turned her podcast into a book
After spending a bunch of time of putting a lot of energy and money into the podcast and not being able to break even or recoup any of those expenses, I felt like I was collecting a lot of great stories but they weren’t getting to the people that I wanted them to get to. I thought, maybe if I move them into print media, folks that listen to podcasts will have access to them in a way that they don’t now.
Because I had been self-publishing for so long with zines, this seemed like a logical next step or taking it to the next level. I was very familiar with self-publishing on a much smaller scale, so I knew how to build an audience and how to find distribution for my work. I had a social media presence that would allow me to promote it. I did pitch the book to a couple publishers, but I found pitching the book harder than writing the book itself….There’s also the question of who do you want your audience to be? Are you going to spend the time and energy to try to prove to a non-queer audience that your life matters? Do you want to just speak directly to your people? Self-publishing allowed me to speak directly to my people.
The struggles of queer and trans artists of color
I don’t make a lot of money but I am more financially secure than a lot of people that I am in community with in terms of queer and trans people of color. Queer and trans people of color are not only likely to live less long, but also they tend to have a lesser quality of life. I just turned 30 but I see a lot of people in my life dealing with chronic illness and chronic pain due to the stress of living under chronic poverty and not having access to steady jobs, housing, and necessary healthcare. I see a lot of queer and trans people of color getting sick earlier and not being able to do the things that people who are our age that are able bodied are supposed to do. Poverty is a queer issue.
Being paid fairly as a marginalized person
Sometimes you’ll be on a panel as the only woman, the only queer person, the only person of color. And in that situation, you’re adding value by being there because you’re diversifying the panel. The organizers might not want to acknowledge that flat out, maybe in part because they don’t want to make you feel like a token, but eventually if you do enough panels and you see the same faces over and over again you realize that you’re providing legitimacy by being there—otherwise it would just be a bunch of straight white guys. In that situation, it really is important to understand your value because you’re providing something that they wouldn’t otherwise have and you should be compensated for your time. You’re also doing a lot of intellectual and emotional labor that other people on the panel aren’t having to do.
I’m working towards a world where narratives of people of color are not actively suppressed because people don’t want to hear about racism. I’m working towards a world where marginalized people can have their truths accepted instead of denied. Maybe that doesn’t sound like a huge goal, but I think the fact that my podcast is queer and trans people of color talking to each other rather than speaking in an explanatory way or being shouted over by white pundits like what you see on TV is really important. It means that conversations about racism and other forms of oppression can go deeper faster. I’d like to think that’s kind of what my podcast is adding to existing media about race and queerness.
More from Nia King
Projects and people discussed
- Queer and Trans Artists of Color: Stories of Some of Our Lives
- Queer & Trans Artists of Color, Volume 2
- Kamal Al-Solaylee
- Brown by Kamal Al-Solaylee
- Sabina England
- Feminist ethics of care
- Olympia Zine Fest
About Imagine Otherwise
Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at ideasonfire.net/imagine-otherwise-podcast. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.
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Cathy Hannabach [00:03]: [upbeat music in background] Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach. [music fadeout]
[00:22] This is episode 47, and my guest today is Nia King. Nia is a multimedia journalist whose work focuses on political art by women, queer people, and people of color.
She has been hosting and producing the podcast We Want the Airwaves since 2013. Nia has since published several of the interviews with her podcast guests in two books called Queer and Trans Artists of Color: Stories of Some of Our Lives. Volume one she co-edited with Jessica Glennon-Zukoff and Terra Mikalson and volume two, she co-edited with Elena Rose.
Nia’s writings and comics have also appeared in Colorlines and the East Bay Express.
In our interview, Nia discusses how she came to podcasting as a medium, the racial politics of the publishing industry, how she has put her ethnic studies training to work beyond the academy, and why getting queer and trans artists of color fairly paid for their work is a key part of how she imagines otherwise.
[To Nia] Thank you so much for being with us.
Nia King [01:18]: Thanks for inviting me to be with you.
Cathy [01:22]: So let’s just jump in because I’d love to talk with you about your podcast We Want the Airwaves. Could you tell our listeners a little bit about what that podcast covers and maybe how you came to that form?
Nia [01:34]: The podcast is about trying to make a living as a creative person in an economy that doesn’t value creative labor and particularly that already doesn’t value the labor of people of color, of women, of queer and trans people. We are often the last hired, first fired. So the question then is how do you make a living off your art if a) art is not something people think they should pay for, and b) people don’t want to pay you for your labor anyway.
It’s a series of interviews with queer and trans artists of color about their lives and their work. In the beginning, the focus was largely on economic questions but it has expanded to cover whatever the guests want to talk about.
[02:20] We’ve talked about the economics of self-publishing versus publishing with a real press. Some of the life stories of the people I’ve interviewed have been super interesting.
One of the things I’ve really learned by doing the podcast is just how much my community is struggling in terms of being able to find and keep jobs, being able to find to keep housing, and being able to access the medical care that they need. So I just went really deep, really fast.
I think the other question was how I came to podcasting as a medium. I love podcasts. That’s first and foremost, but I also have been an independent media maker for some time. I started out writing zines when I was 17 and I’m now 30, so I’ve been doing that for 13 years. That was a great way to learn about publishing and building an audience and having an opportunity to share my story without going through the filter of what a proper media channel would consider acceptable. I’m able to tell them in a very raw and uncensored and sometimes not very well-edited way.
[03:28] From there, I moved into blogging and filmmaking and comics before coming to podcasting. I feel like a lot of kids who grew up in the 1990s did this thing where you would record songs from the radio onto a cassette tape and like pretend to be DJ, you know?
Nia: Yeah. Like, you’d plug in a microphone and add your own sort of color commentary between songs. I see podcasting as sort of an extension of that. I mean, it’s also about journalism and making the world a better place, but it’s also fun, right?
Cathy: Yeah, yeah.
Nia: There is part of me that I think always wanted to be on the radio. So podcasting is really satisfying in that way I suppose.
Cathy: What’s your favorite part of interviewing artists?
Nia [04:26]: I think it’s learning something I didn’t know. I think one of the cool things about this project of the podcast is that I get to continually learn all the time and that’s a thing about journalism more generally.
I’m not in school. I haven’t been in school for awhile. I sometimes think about going back but I haven’t done that. And so the question is, how do you continue to learn and grow when you’re not in a classroom? Obviously there are lots of ways to learn and grow without being in a classroom, but for me, talking to people I think are interesting and having the opportunity to get really engaged with their work and then ask them questions about it is very, very satisfying.
Earlier this year I interviewed this writer named Kamal Al-Solaylee. He wrote a book called Brown, which is about immigration and migrant labor and the economy, but it’s also about what it means to be Brown in the world, not just in the US.
[05:20] He’s from Yemen. He’s based in Canada, [and describes] this idea of what it means to be not white and not black in countries that sort of use white and black as the primary racial paradigm. I got to interview like almost immediately after finishing his book, which was so cool for me because I had so many questions. Sometimes I’ll read a book and then I’ll set up an interview and then a bunch of time will pass before actually get to talk to the author about their work. But you asked like what are my favorite things? And for that interview in particular, it was getting to talk to the author about a book of his that I was really excited about while everything was still really fresh in my mind. It’s kind of like reading a book and then having a class discussion except that discussion is one-on-one with the author and you can ask them anything you want.
Cathy [06:06]: Nice. So speaking of books, you’ve done something really interesting with your podcast by translating it into book form. So obviously you talk to authors on the podcast itself, or people who publish their work in book form in some capacity, but you also turned some of those interviews into two really amazing books. I’d love to hear about that process. What made you want to translate those audio interviews, that podcast form, into a written genre?
Nia [06:37]: Well, the first thing I want to say is that in turning the podcast into two books, I had a lot of help and really good help. With the first book, my co-editors were two people that I met when I was at Mills College: fellow students Terra Mikalson, who was in the Ethnic Studies Program with me when I was there, and Jessica Glennon-Zuckoff, who was a English major and also a women and gender studies major. They brought a wealth of background in terms of both editing and also content knowledge to the project.
And then with the second book, my co-editor was Elena Rose, who was someone I had interviewed for the podcast about grad school, or I guess seminary at the time. Or maybe theological grad school? I’m not exactly sure, but she became an ordained minister over the course of time.
[07:27] We worked on the book and she also was able to bring a really high level of attention to detail and expertise and familiarity with the Chicago Manual of Style to the project.
So the question was what made me want to turn the podcast into a book? The short answer is that I felt like people weren’t listening to the podcast. I had it behind a paywall for a little while. When I started out, it was free and I was trying to put out episodes every week—which was way too much. I was unemployed at the time so I had a lot more time to work on it. But still, an episode a week was just unsustainable. So after spending a bunch of time putting a lot of time and energy into the podcast and not being able to put a lot of money into it and not being able to break even or recoup any of those expenses, I was like, “I’m collecting really great stories here and I feel like they’re not getting to the people I want them to get to maybe if I moved them into print media, folks who don’t listen to podcasts would have access to them in a way that they don’t now.”
[08:26] There’s also another important step in between, which is that after I was interviewed by a Deaf artist who I really respect, Sabina England, I realized that once I had moved into the audio format, a lot of my work was not accessible to D/deaf audiences and so I started having every interview transcribed for D/deaf and hard-of-hearing access. I couldn’t do the transcription myself because it was too much work in addition to editing and setting up interviews and also job hunting. So I found queer people of color who were willing to do transcription work. Of course I had to pay them because that is the right thing to do. But also because I wanted to create jobs or at least gigs for people in my community, in part because so many of us are struggling financially.
[09:21] So in the beginning, I was raising money mostly through Indiegogo to pay transcribers. The transcription is by far the largest cost of doing the podcast. Hosting services don’t cost that much, but for transcription, in the beginning, I was paying about $50 an episode. I’m now trying to pay about $75 because I think that’s a little bit more fair.
Continually raising those costs and then dispersing those funds was something that had to be done on top of editing and sending up interviews and actually doing the interviews. So now I have a Patreon [account] and the podcast has become financially self-sustaining. This is very, very exciting for me because for a long time it was like a time- and energy- and money-suck, especially when I didn’t have much of an audience. Fortunately, I’ve been able to move the podcast back into iTunes so it is no longer behind a paywall.
Cathy [10:15]: When you made the decision to publish some of these interviews in book form, you also were facing some publishing decisions because there’s a lot of different ways that you could do that, right? You ultimately decided on self-publishing for both volumes and I’m curious what led you to that decision? How did you find the experience of self-publishing?
Nia [10:35]: Well, first of all, I think that because I had been self-publishing so long with zines, this seemed like a logical next step or taking it to the next level. I was very familiar with self-publishing on a much smaller scale, so I knew how to build an audience and how to find distribution for my work. I had a social media presence that would allow me to promote it.
I did pitch the book to a couple of publishers, but I found pitching the book harder than writing the book itself. I was surprised by that. I was like, “This is my work. I’m so proud of it. I should know how to sell it. How hard can it be?” But I would get so frustrated and anxious with the application process or the pitching process where I would get really in my head and be like, “This isn’t going to be what they’re looking for.”
[11:30] I think my ego got in the way to some extent as well because when you’re selling your work, you have to prove that you have an audience, that your work is relevant, that people will care about it, that they should care about it. And I couldn’t articulate why I thought people should care about these books beyond just like they’re really fucking good and people should read that!
There’s also that question of who do you want your audience to be? Like, are you going to spend the time and energy to try to prove to an non-queer audience that your life matters or do you want to just speak directly to your people? I feel like self-publishing allowed me to speak directly to my people.
[12:17] It is really hard for people of color to get books published in the United States if they’re not writing for a white audience. It’s really hard for people of color to get published in general. Obviously there are a lot of great books out by people of color in the US, but there’s a lot of great books by people of color that aren’t published in the US and won’t get published in the US because major publishers don’t think that they will sell to a wide-enough audience.
This is in part because publishing is struggling. Publishers are much less willing to take risks than maybe they might’ve been in the past because it feels like all the money in publishing is drying up and so no one wants to take any chances.
And then there’s also just the fact that publishing is super white. Publishers still say things like “People of color don’t buy books.” And so if they don’t think it will sell it to a white audience or to an audience that maybe isn’t familiar with terms like queer and trans, they’re not going to take a risk on it.
[13:07] I was told pretty explicitly by a literary agent that none of the big boys are going to want to play with me because my project was too niche or too specific. There are a lot of different a lot of different ways that I’ve been told that same thing.
Self-publishing was a way to retain creative control and integrity and also control over the timeline. Once you get really attached to a project, it’s hard to let go of those things. On top of that, having talked to people who have self-published and who have published with actual presses, the things that I thought I would get out of a book deal (or hope to get out of a book deal) were mostly help with promotion and distribution. But [according to] a lot of the authors that I talked to, their publishers actually didn’t help that much with those things.
[13:57] They paid a lot less out of pocket because they weren’t paying for the production of the books. But they also made a lot less on the back end. Making a $1 a book is not uncommon for successful authors who have publishers, whereas I sell my books for $20. If you buy it from me directly, I get to keep $15. If you buy it on Amazon, I get to keep $10. Either way, it’s more than $1 a book.
Cathy: Definitely. So this brings us to an issue that has been really important to you throughout your career and all of your projects, which is this need for queer and trans artists of color to be paid fairly for their labor. Can you tell our listeners a little bit about why this issue is so important to you?
Nia [14:38]: Yeah, I mean the simplest and most selfish answer is that I’m a queer person of color and I want to be paid fairly. I don’t make a lot of money but I am more financially secure than a lot of the people that I’m in community with in terms of queer and trans people of color. Queer and trans people of color are not just likely to live less long but also to have a less good quality of life.
I just turned 30 and I’m seeing a lot of people in my community struggling with chronic illness and chronic pain because of the stress of living in poverty and not having access to steady jobs, or city housing, or necessary healthcare. I see a lot of queer and trans people of color getting sick earlier and not being able to do the things that like people our age who are able-bodied are theoretically supposed to be able to do.
[15:34] Poverty is a queer issue, a queer and trans issue for sure, the same way that racial justice is a queer and trans issue and rent control as a queer issue. Minimum wage increases are queer issues. Having access to jobs that have healthcare benefits is a queer and trans issue. Because I see so many people in my community struggling without those things, it feels incredibly important to create jobs for people in my community and, and pay them as well as I can. It’s never gonna be enough. I can’t solve queer trans poverty by myself. But I’m just trying to take care of my community the best way that I can and know how.
Cathy [16:12]: Do you have any advice for artists or other creatives who want to ensure that their labor is valued and stand up for their right to be paid fairly for their creative work, but also want to get their work out there? I know it’s often a tension that artists are struggling with. So I’m curious if you have any advice for them.
Nia [16:32]: I generally discourage people from working for free. That is generally my advice, but it’s also complicated because when you’re a new or emerging artist and people don’t really know you yet, most of the opportunities you’re going to get are probably going to be unpaid. It’s hard to demand wages for your labor when no one knows who you are, especially in the art field because so your value is based on how large your perceived audiences are.
So instead of saying flat out don’t work for free, which is how I feel, I’m also in a place where I understand that I can afford to not work for free now. Not everyone is there and I wasn’t always there. So I encourage people to be really selective about when they work for free. I’ve actually written about this fairly extensively, blogged about it, about when it makes sense to work for free and when it doesn’t.
[17:26] As a writer, for example, something that I consider when I get asked to write things for people is does this pay? Who is this publication for? Is this an audience I care about? Is this an audience that cares about me?
Especially when you’re at the intersection of being a woman, queer, and being a person of color, for example, you might find yourself on a lot of panels where you’re the only woman or the only queer person or the only person of color. In that situation, you’re adding value by being there because you’re diversifying the panel. The organizers might not want to acknowledge that flat out or only in part because they don’t want to make you feel like a token.
[18:22] Eventually, if you do enough panels, you see the same faces over and over again. And you’re like, “Oh, I’m providing legitimacy by being here because otherwise this is just a bunch of straight white guys.” In that situation, it really is important to understand your value because you’re providing something that they wouldn’t otherwise have. You deserve to be compensated for your time, especially because in those situations you’re often doing a lot of intellectual and emotional labor that other people on the panel aren’t having to do.
I know I started with talking about writing articles and somehow moved into being on panels. But it’s the same idea. Like if I am asked to write something for a publication that is explicitly feminist or explicitly antiracist or hires a lot of queer and trans writers of color, I’ll be much more excited about that and willing to do that work for a lower rate than for an organization that is well resourced and doesn’t really have strong relationships with the communities that I’m trying to reach.
[19:18] That’s not just an economic thing. It’s also like, “Okay, if I’m writing for this publication that’s super mainstream and have to write a super 101-level piece because people aren’t familiar with the terms or the concepts or the fact that, for example, queer and trans people of color live less long and [inaudible], what is the comment section going to be like?” If you’re going to write for a hostile audience or an audience that you have a reason to think might be less than welcoming of your work, you have a right to charge more.
Cathy [19:49]: How has your scholarly training, which you mentioned a little bit earlier with regard to your training in ethnic studies, shaped your approach to art and to podcasting? You mentioned meeting colleagues and building really strong communities while in academia that you’ve expanded and transformed beyond academia. So I’m curious how that ethnic studies background has shaped your work in the creative realms.
Nia [20:16]: When I was at Mills [College], I took this really great class called Research Methods for Ethnic Studies. The stuff I learned in that class is stuff I use all the time on the podcast and in my journalistic work.
There are these concepts in feminist research methodology. One of them is the ethics of care, which means you don’t just take from the person you’re interviewing. If you’re asking about traumatic stuff, you have a responsibility to take care of them emotionally and not just rip open wounds and then leave them gaping when you’ve got what you need.
Another feminist research value is reciprocity. Similarly, instead of the person you’re interviewing giving and you are taking, it is okay to sometimes share about yourself and be vulnerable in order to build trust and rapport and have the power dynamics be a little bit more even. So those are two things I learned at Mills that I use all the time.
Cathy [21:16]: What kind of projects are you currently working on? What’s coming up for you?
Nia: I’ll be at Olympia Zine Fest selling books and zines October 14th and 15th in Olympia, Washington. I’m also hoping to have more time in my life for freelance writing and doing zines again. I really miss it. I miss writing zines.
Cathy: So this brings me to my last question, which is my favorite question that I get to ask guests, which really gets at the heart of the kind of work that you do and, and the work that this podcast is designed to showcase. I like asking people about the kind of world that they’re working towards is when they create their art, when they step in front of a classroom, when they create whatever it is that they create in the universe. So I’ll ask you, what kind of world are you working towards? What kind of world do you want?
Nia: Oh, man. I think the hard part about this question, which is a really good question, is that I’m pulled in two different directions when attempting to answer. One is to have a big picture, pie-in-the-sky dream of what we should be working towards because dreaming is really important and being able to envision the better world that you imagine or that you want to come is super important.
But then there’s also the super practical, kind of disillusioned and exhausted answer to the question. I want my people to be free on the macro level and on the micro level. Like I would like a job with benefits. I would like my friends to have jobs with benefits.
[23:08] So I guess I’m going to try and take the middle road and say I’m working to towards a world where the narratives of people of color are not actively suppressed because people don’t want to hear about racism. I’m working towards a world where marginalized people can tell their truth and have those truths accepted instead of denied.
Maybe that doesn’t sound like a huge goal, but I think the fact that my podcast is queer and trans people of color talking to each other rather than speaking in an explanatory way to a white audience or being shouted over by white pundits, like what you see on TV, is really important. It means the conversations about racism and other forms of oppression can go deeper faster. I’d like to think that that’s what my podcast is adding to existing media and conversations about race and queerness and oppression: we’re not just constantly explaining that racism is real because we have an audience that doesn’t believe that. We’re able to move past that and have more nuanced and deeper conversations.
Cathy [24:07]: Well, thank you so much for being with us and sharing about your awesome podcast. We’ll be sure to put links in the show notes so people can check that out. Thanks for sharing your vision of imagining otherwise.
Nia [24:19]: Thanks. I really enjoyed talking to you.
Cathy [24:26]: [upbeat music in background] Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire and this episode was created by Christopher Persaud, Michelle Velasquez-Potts, Alexandra Sastre, and myself, Cathy Hannabach.
You can check out the show notes for this episode on our website at ideasonfire.net where you can also read about our fabulous guest as well as find links to the people and projects we discuss on the show. [music fadeout]