How might difference be reframed as avenue toward sharing collective power instead of a source of conflict? How can the literary world better encourage and sustain writers from marginalized identities? What does it mean to make art that doesn’t shy away from the politics of context?

In episode 88 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach talks with author, editor, and podcast co-host Dennis Norris II about how the writing process differs for novels versus short fiction, why sending authors acceptance letters is the highlight of their day as a fiction editor, how the literary world can make publishing more accessible to writers from marginalized groups, and why positioning difference as a source of strength rather than conflict is how Dennis imagines otherwise.

Guest: Dennis Norris II

Dennis Norris II wearing a black tank top. Photo by Melissa Czarnik. Text reads: Dennis Norris II on episode 88 of the Imagine Otherwise podcastDennis Norris II is the author of the chapbook Awst Collection—Dennis Norris II, which was named one of the best books of 2018 by Powell’s Books. Dennis is a 2017 MacDowell Colony Fellow, a 2016 Tin House Scholar, and 2015 Kimbilio Fiction Fellow, and they will be a Peter Taylor Fellow for the 2019 Kenyon Review Fiction Workshop.

Dennis’s writing appears in Shondaland, INTO, The Rumpus, Apogee Journal, SmokeLong Quarterly, and elsewhere, and their short story “Last Rites” appears in Everyday People: The Color of Life, an anthology recently published by Atria Books.

Dennis’s fiction has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and their story “Where Every Boy is Known and Loved” is a finalist for the 2018 Best Small Fictions Prize. Their story “Daddy’s Boy” is forthcoming in Forward: 21st Century Flash Fiction, an anthology celebrating flash fiction by writers of color.

Dennis is the former fiction editor for Apogee Journal, they currently serve as the assistant fiction editor for The Rumpus, and they also co-host the critically-acclaimed podcast Food 4 Thot. They live in Brooklyn, where they are hard at work on their debut novel.

We chatted about

  • Dennis’s novel-in-progress (02:04)
  • How writing a novel differs from writing shorter pieces (05:46)
  • Being an editor and the publishing industry (09:10)
  • The future of literary journals (14:23)
  • Dennis’s experience as a Food4Thot podcast co-host (19:24)
  • The intersections of social justice and creative work (24:28)
  • Imagining otherwise (26:41)

Red and orange gradient background. Text reads: "I don't see art or being an artist as separate from activism or politics. I've never even thought about it as infusing it into my work. It's just sort of there. In some ways, it's the purpose of it. So for me, I'm Black, I'm queer, I'm nonbinary, I'm all of these things." Quote from Dennis Norris II on the Imagine Otherwise pdocast

Takeaways

Writing a first novel

I tend to focus on queer Black bodies, right now male bodies and in some cases performatively nonbinary ones, without necessarily naming it as such. But I focus on those bodies and their love lives, their sex lives, their relationships, and their relationships with their parents throughout most of my fiction at this moment in my life. Sometimes I’ll look at some of my short stories and they do inform the way that I approach the novel. But the process of writing a novel is so much more intense for me because it’s such a long haul.

Being a fiction editor for literary journals

The most exciting thing about it, outside of everything else, is when you get to send authors an acceptance letter. The vast majority of the time, they’re so excited. They’re so thrilled. Getting to send someone good news when so much of the work that they’re doing offers so much bad news is really exciting moment. It’s an honor. It’s not something that I take lightly or that the teams that I’m on take lightly at all….The other thing is that I really get to focus on in my capacity is doing my best to highlight writers from marginalized identities, writers who are telling stories that we often don’t get to see distributed in any wide kind of way. So I focus on writers of color, queer writers, women writers, nonbinary writers, combinations of all of the above or certain identities from the above.

Pushing the literary world to be better

I want to see the literary world continue…to really push their own thinking and their own biases around what constitutes good work because it’s already so subjective. There are so many stories of writers where they submit a short story to one journal and the journal hates it and sends back a letter talking about why the story is so bad and what the writer can do to make it better. And then other people will publish the story and love it without editing it, feeling like it needs no changes. And then it may go on to win awards or get prominent things. It’s so subjective. I want to see people in that world really interrogate what they feel like is good and versus what they feel like is not good in order to open more doors for more people.

Co-hosting Food 4 Thot

Food 4 Thot is a podcast gab fest where a multiracial mix of queer writers gather round a table to talk about sex, identity, culture, what we like to read, and who we like to read. We talk a lot about politics. We talk a lot about our own ourselves, our relationships, our friendships, the things that frustrate us and the things that make us happy. The four of us are writers so we do look at many things through somewhat of a literary lens or at the very least through a critical lens. The best part about it is that it’s really fun. A lot of people have described it to me as feeling like you’re at a slutty brunch with your friends. But it’s really, really high level intelligence and really high level critique, cultural critique, and thinking and conversation that’s going on.

Imagining otherwise

I want a world where there is more empathy for people who are different from us, where there’s more empathy for people who are struggling where we are not struggling. I want a world where difference is not considered a source of conflict. You know, people always talk about this idea, and a lot of writers talk about this too, this idea that we’re more alike than we are different. And I think sociologically and scientifically, in a lot of ways that’s probably true. But I get frustrated at the idea of pushing that concept as though it is difference that inherently creates conflict between human beings because it is not. Difference is really beautiful. It’s really incredible. It is the misimpression that there is a limited amount of power, that power is a limited resource as though it were electricity, that I think creates conflict at the lines of difference.

More from Dennis

Projects and people discussed

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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Episode transcript

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 88 and my guest today is Dennis Norris II.

Dennis is the author of the chapbook Awst Collection—Dennis Norris II, which was named one of the best books of 2018 by Powell’s Books. Dennis is a 2017 MacDowell Colony Fellow, a 2016 Tin House Scholar, and 2015 Kimbilio Fiction Fellow, and they will be a Peter Taylor Fellow for the 2019 Kenyon Review Fiction Workshop.

Dennis’s writing appears in Shondaland, INTO, The Rumpus, Apogee Journal, SmokeLong Quarterly, and elsewhere, and their short story “Last Rites” appears in Everyday People: The Color of Life, an anthology recently published by Atria Books.

Dennis’s fiction has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and their story “Where Every Boy is Known and Loved” is a finalist for the 2018 Best Small Fictions Prize. Their story “Daddy’s Boy” is forthcoming in Forward: 21st Century Flash Fiction, an anthology celebrating flash fiction by writers of color.

[01:23] Dennis is the former fiction editor for Apogee Journal, they currently serve as the assistant fiction editor for The Rumpus, and they also co-host the critically-acclaimed podcast Food 4 Thot. They live in Brooklyn, where they are hard at work on their debut novel.

In our interview, Dennis and I chat about how the writing process differs for novels versus short fiction, why sending authors acceptance letters is the highlight of their day as a fiction editor, how the literary world can make publishing more accessible to writers from marginalized groups, and why positioning difference as a source of strength rather than conflict is how Dennis imagines otherwise.

[02:01] [To Dennis] Thanks so much for being with us today, Dennis.

Dennis Norris II: Thank you so much for having me.

Cathy: I would love to start by talking about your new project, which is your first novel. Can you give our listeners a little bit of a preview of what that book covers and your approach to writing it?

Dennis: Sure. So it started from a germ of an idea. I remembered that when I was a young kid, when I was like eight, nine, ten and someone in my life would die—like a grandparent or an older person in the church that I grew up in—I would wonder what they knew about me that they didn’t know before because they weren’t alive. This was all because I was a gay kid. As I got older, I started wondering like, do they know that I have a crush on the boy who sits next to me in my sixth grade English class, for example? Do they know that at night I dream about marrying this other boy that’s in my math class? What do they know about me that they didn’t know when they were alive?

[02:56] So when I started writing this novel, it was right after my father had passed away. I was out by then, I had been out for a long time. The germ of the idea was asking the question, what if a gay man who was otherwise out and proud and living a very gay life and had a happy and healthy sex life and love life when his father died (and they had estranged relationship), what if he all of a sudden started to feel all of this shame? The germ of the idea is that my main character stops having sex with his husband after his father dies and has to work a level of bottom shame and homophobia and disgust with his own life and practice that he sort of didn’t know was there

[03:51] So the book deals a lot with race and interracial relationships because he’s Black, but he’s married to a white man. It deals with questions of masculinity and femininity and how those things sometimes play out in sexual roles and in queer relationships. And of course it deals a lot with religion and faith because all of this comes from the fact that he comes from a religious family (much like I do) and all these questions and ideas sort of come to a head in his mind at this specific moment in his life. Of course, the challenge is to work through that and find his way back to himself and back to the life that he’s chosen.

[04:35] I consider it literary fiction. So we always have this joke that literary fiction is fiction where nothing really happens, but it’s all written really beautifully. And other fiction is the fiction where lots of things happen and sometimes it’s written beautifully but sometimes it’s not. In my case, I’m hoping to have to have both.

It’s definitely fiction, although it certainly takes certain aspects from my life and I have set myself up for that in certain ways. The father in the book is a Baptist minister; my father was a Baptist minister. I’ve sent him [the father character] to the same schools that my father went to. It takes place half in Ohio where this character has grown up and half in New York where he now lives. That’s very similar to me.

[05:24] I did most of these things mostly so that I wouldn’t have to spend energy focusing on creating these types of details; I could just take them and use them and not have to put energy into them. I could spend more energy on the artistic aspect of what I’m trying to do. [I could] spend more energy on the emotional half, spend more energy on telling an effective and beautiful story, spend more energy on making sure my characters really come to life and feel like real people that the readers interact with.

Cathy: You’ve obviously published quite a lot of short stories and shorter-form work before this and I’m curious if that process is different for you writing a longer-form piece like a novel. Is it totally different for you? Do they inform one another? Do you use the shorter pieces to build it up to the longer-form one? What’s that process like for you?

Dennis: That’s a really great question and to be honest, it’s a question that I’m still working through the answer on in part because this is my first novel or this was my first attempt at a novel that I will actually finish. Years and years and years ago, I tried to write one and got maybe 50 pages, 100 pages in.

[06:23] But it’s sort of a mix of things. Certainly, I think if a reader were to look at my short fiction, they would get a sense of what my subject matter is all about. I tend to focus on queer Black bodies, right now male bodies and in some cases performatively nonbinary ones, without necessarily naming it as such. But I focus on those bodies and their love lives, their sex lives, their relationships, and their relationships with their parents throughout most of my fiction at this moment in my life.

Sometimes I’ll look at some of my short stories and they do inform the way that I approach the novel. But the process of writing a novel is so much more intense for me because it’s such a long haul. I’ve been at this book for seven and a half years at this point. I mean we’re almost done, which is really good. I’m hoping to finish it up actually in the next month or two.

[07:12] It’s so much more of an endurance thing. Like with the short story, some of my short stories that are published were written extremely quickly in a sort of flash of inspiration. Some of them, even the ones that took more time. There’s a short story in my chapbook; it’s the long story in the chapbook, it’s the last one, and I wrote it over the course of maybe three or four weeks in 2010. Over the next like seven years, I would revisit it once in a while. Like, there might’ve been two or three years where I didn’t even look at it. And then I would revisit it and work on it for a week or for a few weeks and edit it and things like that. It went through many submissions and it was rejected many times. It was finally published in early 2018. But that was still a lot of these flashes of inspiration

[07:48] I find that with a novel, it’s really important to find the discipline of sitting down and engaging in the practice of writing it and thinking about it every, as much as I can. It’s very hard to do that as a young working person in New York City. But when I am able to do that for stretches at a time, that’s when I make huge amounts of progress.

So the process is very different, but I think about the craft in a lot of really similar ways. It’s just sort of trying to stretch it out for much longer. I think about the same kind of emotional character arc that I want a character to go through, the way in which I want the reader to be emotionally invested in the story, and the way in which I do different things at different moments in order to accomplish that.

[08:39] It’s just about stretching it out, which sometimes feels really daunting and impossible when you’re thinking about trying to effect a reader across maybe 250 pages in the way that you might want to affect them across 15 pages. And I’m still thinking about whether or not that’s exactly the way I want to do it. I sort of think with novels, because they are so much longer, to some extent they turn out how they’re going to turn out. But I do draw from the short story writing on a craft level and on thinking about structure and thinking about character arc and things like that.

Cathy [09:09]: So in addition to being an author yourself, you also work with other fiction authors as an editor at publications like The Rumpus and Apogee, and in that work, you steward new fiction through the publishing process. I’d love to hear a little bit about what some of your favorite parts are about working with authors and new fiction in that capacity.

Dennis [09:31]: Oh my gosh, it’s absolutely phenomenal. I love being a fiction editor at literary journals! It’s one of the best things that’s happened to me in my entire writing trajectory.

The most exciting thing about it, like outside of everything else, is when you get to send authors an acceptance letter. The vast majority of the time, they’re so excited. They’re so thrilled. Getting to send someone good news when so much of the work that they’re doing offers so much bad news is really exciting moment. It’s an honor. It’s not something that I take lightly or that the teams that I’m on take lightly at all.

Also, when you’re writing creatively, you learn about the whole tiered rejection system. It’s this idea that there are a form rejections that people get when they send out submissions and then there are sometimes a nice form rejection that you get and then sometimes you get a personal rejection from an editor where they’re like, “I can’t accept this piece for this reason, but I really loved it, I’m up for your writing, I want to see more from you.” That sort of thing.

[10:27] Sending those is also actually really exciting because oftentimes writers are more excited about getting those than when you say yes to them about their story. I think often that’s because writers who get those are writers who maybe have not published very much or have never published. So when they get those personal rejections, they’re still really nice. Those moments are really exciting.

The other thing is that I really got to focus on in my capacity is doing my best to highlight writers from marginalized identities, writers who are telling stories that we often don’t get to see distributed in any wide kind of way. So I really focus on writers of color, queer writers, women writers, nonbinary writers, combinations of all of the above or certain identities from the above.

[11:14] The Rumpus and Apogee Journal have really done a lot of sustained work to try and evolve the face of literature. And that has been really exciting to take part in. I just really enjoy those moments when you discover, especially, a story from a writer who isn’t published and a story that is in some way actively engaging with the world that we’re living in and the challenges of the world that we’re living.

So here’s an example. We published a story last year on The Rumpus. It’s a story that I found in the slush pile, which was really exciting. That writer is Jade R. Jones and the story is called “Today, You’re a Black Woman Revolutionary.” In it, the protagonist is a Black woman who’s dealing with the demise of her romantic life and has just moved away from a long-term partner. She is, I think, a teacher..

[12:05] Every day, she walks to work past a Confederate statue and a flagpole with the Confederate flag because she’s in the South. One day, after some bullshit that happens on TV, she just decides out of nowhere to climb up the pole and take it down. Of course, this attracts national media attention and then she’s on all these TV shows. This character goes through this process of evolving into this militant Black revolutionary.

It’s an incredible story. It was such a joy to accept it. It was the writer’s first publication and then the story went on to win an award with PEN this year because they have an award for writers who’ve published their first story. The accolade aside, getting to be a part of that moment and tell that story [was amazing].

[12:49] It was a story that I had never read before fictionalized. We’ve heard stories of people who’ve done these things [in real life], but I’d never read a fictionalized version of something like that. It was really well written. And so the whole thing was really exciting.

I remember when I first read the story, I screamed and screeched in excitement and I immediately forwarded it to my editor. I was like, “What do you think of this? I love this story!” She loved it too. And then we got to publish it. So the process is amazing.

Certainly also getting to read that much fiction from other people really informs your sense of craft and your own sense of what I like to think of as authority on the page. So it helps you evolve your sense of how you want to make your work and how you want to be engaged with it. So that’s really amazing as well.

[13:29  ] I always tell people if they really want to become a significantly better writer in a quick way (without, like, going to an MFA program), to find their way onto the staff of a literary journal. If not always in an editorial capacity, at least as part of the reading team. Maybe if they don’t have experience as part of the reading team, they’re still getting to read stories, evaluate stories, discuss stories with a team. It’s sort of like a very quick workshop process and you develop a lot of skills and competence that way.

Even as the editor, getting to do that is really, really incredible. I am exposed to so many kinds of writing that I have to take seriously because I’m the editor that I otherwise maybe wouldn’t and I learn a lot from that. So it’s an amazing learning experience. I think you develop a lot of ideas around craft and intention when you’re writing and of course getting to give people good news is really incredible.

Cathy [14:15]: Where do you see literary fiction or literary journals going in the future? Or maybe where would you like to see them going?

Dennis: Oh man, it’s really interesting. So many literary journals are fledgling at the moment. We’ve seen a bit of a rise in digital media. That’s been interesting because places that in the past probably wouldn’t have necessarily cared to publish literary work are now doing that. So you’re seeing the rise of places like Catapult and you’re seeing places like The Rumpus, which are sort of thriving as much as they can. Electric Lit—all those kinds of places.

[15:00] Print journals are really fledgling and struggling. Some of them are closing. The print journal of Tin House, which was one of the most prestigious journals there is, just sent out their last print issue and they’re going to be digital. There’s a part of me, the traditionalist side of me, that would like to see the strength of literary journals and print continue because there’s something really magical about that experience.

That said, I think what’s great about the digital aspect is that there’s so much more access because people are able to access typically digital media for free. So when you have a literary industry that’s really trying to bring in people from all walks of life and where in the past, often the literary life was something that came from having a lot of privilege in certain ways, like having the time to sit down and be quiet and write and read and think. A lot of people don’t have the privilege to do that and that can trickle down into fighting to find ways to do that because people do.

[15:47] But then having access to get the training that you might want to get or having access to know about the whole system and universe of literary journals, having the time to do that is a privilege. So I think that anytime that you take these things and digitize them, there’s more access. And so that is really important.

There’s this idea sometimes in literary journals, it’s still very prominent although I think some people have kind of chipped away at it, that even if they want to be intentional about increasing representation and highlighting and focusing on writers from marginalized identities, there’s this inherent idea that first and foremost they have to consider the quality of the work. I struggle with that because I feel like the implication there, the thing that is not being said, is that there’s an underlying assumption that the quality of the work may not be there, rather than just diving into it and recognizing that the quality of work will be there.

[16:52] Writers from more marginalized identities are not lesser writers than white, straight, cisgender able-bodied writers. That’s not the case. So that whole ethos holds back that movement still. That whole idea that like first we have to look for the quality. Of course have look at a quality. You don’t have to say that. The quality is going to be there. If you search far and wide enough, the quality is going to be there. It’s sort of like that conversation that SNL [Saturday Night Live] was having when they were really getting called out on not having any Black female comedians. They were like, “None of them are good enough.” That was just a flat-out lie. That was not true. They just weren’t looking far and wide enough and they weren’t interrogating their own biases against what’s funny and what doesn’t.

[17:31] I want to see the literary world continue, like they’re doing a good job, things are getting better, but I want to see them continue to really push their own thinking and their own biases around what constitutes good work because it’s already so subjective. There are so many stories of writers where they submit a short story to one journal and the journal hates it and sends back a letter talking about why the story is so bad and what the writer can do to make it better. And then other people will publish the story and love it without editing it, feeling like it needs no changes. And then it may go on to win awards or get prominent things. It’s so subjective. I want to see people in that world really interrogate what they feel like is good and versus what they feel like is not good in order to open more doors for more people.

[18:17] Oh, also, I mean I know it’s really difficult and there’s no money in the literary world, but more places need to pay people. We need to pay them more and they need to find ways to do that. Sometimes that means evolving the business model and sometimes that means publishing fewer things so that you can pay people if you’re a publication that publishes a lot. I think that finding ways to compensate writers. That whole thing of asking writers to work for free or just to give you their work for free, it has always been a legitimate thing. We always looked at it as legitimate. I’m not going to say that it’s not legitimate, but if you’re going to do that, you really have to think about how you’re going to compensate that writer if you’re not paying them.

[18:55] If they are a writer that you’re asking for work from, that would indicate that they have achieved some level of notoriety. So just saying you’re paying in exposure is really insulting because they’re well exposed enough that you have asked them to be in your publication. This happens all the time and it happens to people who are far more accomplished than I am. And it blows my mind that anyone would have the gall to say that to someone. Really, you need to try and find a way to pay people for their work.

Cathy [19:21]: In addition to being an author and a fiction editor, you also co-host a podcast called Food 4 Thot, which, if any listeners are not already familiar with it, I recommend you, well first of all, finish listening to this episode and then go and find this other podcast. So Food 4 Thot is this really awesome, fun, smart, queer show. First of all, for folks who might not be familiar with it, can you just give it a little bit of an overview of what you all cover on the show?

Dennis [19:48]: Sure. So it’s “food,” the number four and “thot,” spelled T-H-O-T. Food 4 Thot is a podcast gab fest where a multiracial mix of queer writers gather round a table to talk about sex, identity, culture, what we like to read, and who we like to read. We talk a lot about politics. We talk a lot about our own ourselves, our relationships, our friendships, the things that frustrate us and the things that make us happy.

The four of us are writers, as I said in that intro. So we do look at many things through somewhat of a literary lens or at the very least through a critical lens. The best part about it is that it’s really fun. A lot of people have described it to me as feeling like you’re at a slutty brunch with your friends. But it’s really, really high level intelligence and really high level critique, cultural critique, and thinking and conversation that’s going on

[20:32] I love Food 4 Thot dearly. The three thots that I co-host with are dear friends of mine. We all met at a writing workshop in 2016 and our conversations just clicked, we just had so much fun together that we were like, “We should be a podcast, we should create a podcast.”

We were actually at the Tin House Summer Writers’ Workshop. Three of us are of color and we weren’t the only queer people there—there were a few other queer people—but we were all of the same generation. So like millennials. We were of color and we were queer and so we just immediately fused together into one and really found solace in a very sort of white, privileged, cisgender heterosexual space. And that was sort of how we came to be together.

[21:29] Everything about the show is really fun. But it is stressful. It’s four different personalities and we put a lot of time and energy and effort into the show. Writing the show is really fun. Doing the show is really fun. We always have a great time in the studio. We always have a lot of fun on our live shows and we have a lot of fun with the team that we’ve amassed. They’re all really great and I don’t know, it’s just a really great time. It’s super fun to sort of engage in pop culture from that lens and to have a team of people to do it with so it’s not like you feel like you’re going out on a limb if you’re critiquing the way in which beyond Beyoncé sometimes embodies capitalism, which can be really problematic. Multiple people on our podcast think about that and talk about that and have to reckon with that because we love her.

[22:15] These kinds of conversations are really important to have, especially in the Trump era when we have a government that is so clearly trying to stratify everyone and give over everything to corporate interests, which would ultimately be the demise of democracy anyway. It’s really important for us to have those conversations, but also to bring levity to that and to have fun with them, to make them feel accessible to people.

Cathy: Are there particular episodes that stand out for you that are your favorite or that you might want to point people to? Like start here, this one’s really awesome.

Dennis [23:00]: Oh my gosh. We’ve had a really incredible roster of guests. I’m really bad at remembering the number of episodes, but we did an episode earlier this season with Darnell Moore, author Darnell Moore, as a guest co-host. That was a really incredible episode.

We talked a lot about the Black church and about religion and its intersection with sexuality and in our own lives. That was a really great episode. I got a lot of DMs [direct messages] talking about how great that episode was after that one came out.

There was also an episode that we did in the second season, so about a year ago, that came out in which we talked a lot about gender presentation in fashion. We had Jacob Tobia, who recently published their memoir Sissy, on as well. We recorded that episode in LA [Los Angeles]. That was a lot of fun and that conversation was a really important one. So those are two that stand out.

I would honestly say though that it’s worth it to just binge watch all of them. I still like almost every day get a DM from someone who is a new listener or who’s just learned about us and has been binge listened to all three seasons (we’re wrapping up the third season) and they’ve been listening to everything over the course of the last month or two and have loved so much of that.

[23:52] So I think starting at the beginning you’ll be fine; you’ll be fine if you do start at the beginning. You will definitely be able to hear the growth in our comfort behind the mic and the honing of our chemistry as co-hosts because it’s a lot to manage that number of voices at one time on a podcast. That’s one thing that we worked really hard on at the beginning, but it has jelled and I think that’s really exciting. But yeah, those are two episodes that I love.

Cathy [24:30]: So much of your work on the podcast, in your editorial work, and as an author brings together your interest in writing or creating creativity with an interest in art and social justice activism. So I’d like to turn to what that kind of combo does for you. What gets you excited about infusing your writing with social justice themes or approaching social justice activism through literature and writing?

Dennis: I don’t see art or being an artist as separate from activism or politics. So I’ve never even thought about it as infusing it into my work. It’s just sort of there. In some ways, it’s the purpose of it.

So for me, I’m Black, I’m queer, I’m nonbinary, I’m all of these things. So there’s certainly at a base level, there’s this idea that if you’re an artist and you’re reflecting those things in your art and you are that person a person from one of those identities, that your work is automatically sort of political just by existing, without necessarily without even intention. And I sort of accept that and think that that’s a great sort of baseline

[25:23] I was doing a lot of research yesterday on a French trans woman who was prominent as a film actress and singer in the 1950s and 1960s, and was the first French person to have a sex change operation. She did it in Morocco. She married three men in the Catholic church, she just had to be reconfirmed as Jacqueline. Her name is Coccinelle, by the way, if you want to Google her. Really fascinating person. They were sort of saying that the great thing about Coccinelle was that she was an activist in a lot of ways. But you know, first and foremost, she was an individual. She’s lived a life. And I think there’s an importance to that because we cannot be subsumed by activism at the expense of just, like, our lives.

[26:05] But when it comes to art, I just sort of think that that’s the purpose of it. So I don’t know that I see it as anything other than me being an artist. I think that artists have always, through the ages, commented on and given their opinions, not just not just sort of like reported as though they’re journalists, but have commented on and talked about the issues of the day, the questions of the day, the societal ills and successes of the day. I’m just trying to carry on that tradition and so many of the artists around me are just trying to carry on that tradition. It’s just a part of it.

Cathy [26:45]: This brings me to my absolute favorite question that I get to ask folks and it’s why I like to close out the show with it. It gets at the big purpose behind all of your projects and that’s that world that you’re working towards when you work with authors at journals, when you host your podcast, when you work with collaborators to put together these kinds of projects. What kind of world are you working towards? What kind of world do you want?

Dennis: Oh my God. Well I’ll start by saying I want a better world. But what does that mean?

I want a world where I get to do those things and I get to highlight those people. But I want a world in which it’s not necessary. I want a world where it’s not revolutionary to do that. It just is. I want a world where everyone has an equal footing.

I want a world where people are aware of everyone around themselves. Ultimately I think what that means is that I want a world where there is more empathy, where there’s more empathy for people who are different from us, where there’s more empathy for people who are struggling where we are not struggling.

[27:38] I want a world where difference is not considered a source of conflict. You know, people always talk about this idea, and a lot of writers talk about this too, this idea that we’re more alike than we are different. And I think sociologically and scientifically, in a lot of ways that’s probably true. But I get frustrated at the idea of pushing that concept as though it is difference that inherently creates conflict between human beings because it is not.

Difference is really beautiful. It’s really incredible. It is the misimpression that there is a limited amount of power, that power is a limited resource as though it were electricity, that I think creates conflict at the lines of difference.

[28:32] So what I’m looking for is a world where first and foremost we share power because it is not a situation where if I give you power, I have less power. It’s a world where we look at our differences and we celebrate them and we love each other for them and we think here is the breadth of humanity and isn’t it wonderful that humanity has all these different incredible things and that everyone has a story. Everyone has a legitimate existence, as opposed to you must be this or that to be legitimate in our eyes. I want a world where we’re just very far away from that.

Cathy: Thank you so much for being with us today and sharing all of the creative ways that you imagine otherwise.

Dennis: Oh my God, I love that. That’s so clever. That’s such a fabulous ending. Thank you so much for having me. It was really fun and these were phenomenal questions. This was a great conversation. So just thank you so much for reaching out and having me.

Cathy [29:23] [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, Rebecca Reynolds, Michelle Velasquez-Potts, 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]