Q&A: Dr. Stephanie Allen and Lauren Cherelle on Black Lesbian Feminism and Fiction

Two years ago Dr. Stephanie Allen created Black Lesbian Feminist Press (BLFP) and joined the wonderful tradition of women owned independent presses. This year BLF Press has published its first anthology, Lez Talk: A Collection of Black Lesbian Short Fiction.

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In this anthology Dr. Allen and Lauren Cherelle, author and manager of Resolute Publishing, collaborated on this first BLF project in an effort to give voice to current Black lesbian voices exploring realistic fiction, science fiction, fantasy and erotica that reflects the diverse professions, education and socio economic experience of Black lesbians.

Dr. Allen is a native southerner and out Black lesbian writer, scholar and educator. In 2014, she founded BLF Press, and recently co-founded the Black Lesbian Literary Collective, a not for profit collective collaborative focused on creating a nurturing and sustainable environment for Black lesbian and queer women of color writers. She co-edited Solace: Writing, Refuge, and LGBTQ Women of Color and her debut collection of short fiction and essays, A Failure to Communicate, will be released on January 10. Her other writing credits include a book chapter on race and representation in the work of Tyler Perry and scholarly articles on the topics of race, identity and sexuality. She currently teaches English and literature online and runs her publishing company.

Lauren Cherelle, 32, uses her time and talents to traverse imaginary and professional worlds. She manages and writes for Resolute Publishing, an indie publisher that helps transform dreams into realities for female writers. Her most recent novel, The Dawn of Nia, is about the sting of abandonment, the difficulty of forgiveness and the grace of transformative love. Lauren has written short stories for Lez Talk: A Collection of Black Lesbian Short Fiction and G.R.I.T.S: Girls Raised in the South — An Anthology of Queer Womyn’s Voices & Their Allies.

I interviewed the two about their new collaboration and Black lesbian feminism.

In your introduction you paid homage to Barbara and Beverly Smith and their Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press. You also discussed the challenges as a reader of finding few Black lesbian characters let alone feminist. How did these experiences inspire this project?

Dr. Allen: For me it started when I was working on my dissertation in terms of just thinking about the works that I was coming across in my research and thinking of how far we have or have not come in thinking of what was available in the bookstores. I thought of all the small women of color presses and feminist presses and how they disappeared partly due to a backlash to feminism, racism and the idea that the work had been mainstream but I didn’t find that to be true. The podcast came first and then the anthology. It was important to collaborate with Lauren because it was important to me that publishers come together to create something that was missing.

Ms. Cherelle: I was interested in access. We live in a time where we can publish on demand and most of it has moved online which allows people the capability to publish easier but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the quality and the content is there. We also still have to acknowledge that while the platforms are there not everyone has the means, access, or skills to do so. That is why it is important that the work that we put out there matters. There is a strong legacy that we have to live up to, so many of us still don’t have the tools and the resources to publish. If two women can come together and do just that then I feel it is very purposeful.

Why is it important for women to do collaborative projects?

Dr. Allen: We both have our own presses and individual project that we are working on. Lauren is manager of Resolute press and has written two novels. I’m working on my own collection of short stories and we both publish other authors. This was a purposeful collaborative project. It was important for us to show that women can work together and be a model for collaboration. Often times people say that women can’t work together, they can’t get along and we just don’t believe that. For us it was about letting people know that we can collaborate and put something together, something that is really amazing and you can too! We firmly believe that we are stronger together and that we can pull our expertise together. And this collaboration led to something greater which was the creation of the non-profit Black Lesbian Literary Collective that allows us to continue to work together independent of our businesses. Our collaboration is more important than our individual work.

Ms. Cherelle: Even though this is 2016 visibility is still important. We have an issue of being visible in different media. It is still important for us to make a concerted effort to be visible. I think this book works on many levels. It has been many years since we have seen an anthology dedicated to Black lesbian writing. Sometimes as publishers with similar audiences, authors, some may ask why we would collaborate when we are competitors but it is the work that matters no who publishes it.

How would you define feminism?

Dr. Allen: I’m a Black lesbian feminist. I take my definition from Barbara Smith and Jewelle Gomez in the sense that I define lesbian as women who are in intimately in relationship with other women regardless of how you define woman. But Black for me in the term feminism is important in that my focusis in terms of equity and equality and justice for women. Equality reaches across all genders and orientations. I think about how to make the world a better place for everybody and I think feminism, truth of the matter, is defined that way.

The Black part comes in understanding fully that we have a particular location in terms of being Black folks that have been oppressed in a particular ways based on race. What I want to do is center Black folks. Instead of us being at the margins I want to center our experiences and work out from there. That is kind of how I have flipped feminism for me. It is hard to define and my own thinking has evolved over the years. But it really is about the struggle for equity for everyone and pay particular attention to race, class, sexual orientation, ability, disability and all the things that make us human and figuring out how to make the planet feel more equitable for all of us.

Ms. Cherelle: I’m always redefining the definition. I recognize that in this country I have many competing identifies however, personally my identities don’t compete. I recognize when it comes to me being Black lesbian and feminist that other people put different weights on those but for me they are one in the same. I can’t have one without the other. I identify my feminism as being who I see myself as I walk through a world that penalizes me for being Black, lesbian or feminist. A world that penalizes me for having certain ideals on how we treat each other and the way we can conduct ourselves on this earth. So, for me feminism is about recognizing my socio-political standing in this country and the world at large. Feminism is a personal value.

Why did you choose to name your press Black Lesbian Feminist Press?

Dr. Allen: I have battled names for a long time. I went back for a PhD when I was 40. I said to myself ‘If you are going to go back and do this work and leave your home and your good government job to go back and go to grad school then you are going to do exactly what you want to do.’ As that evolved and I chose to focus exclusively on Black lesbian cultural productions when it came time to start the press and it came time to do the name Black lesbian feminism has been something I had been spouting to everyone that would listen to me for years.

I tried to figure out if I should say BLF press or spell it out because I knew it would turn folks off. I had to argue with folks about why I wanted to write about lesbians in the first place which you would think in this point in time that wouldn’t be a real issue given the fact that queer theory has taken over our conversation about sexuality in academic circles but finally I said screw it. I decided to go for it because it defines who I am. I am Black, am lesbian and am a feminist and this is MY press.

Honestly, as far as identities I think it is important. I think that for Black folks it is really hard for us sometimes to claim who we are and for people to accept that even using Black as opposed to African American. I have been Black all my life. My birth certificate says negro. I was born in sixty nine. At this point I have defined myself as this and I’m going for it.

catalina-2388Catalina Sofia Dansberger Duque is a interviewer, writer and speaker. She focuses on people who have chosen to breathe life into challenging situations and live a life filled with love, joy and passion despite overwhelming stereotypes. Catalina contributes to Huffington Post, UpWorthy and Gay Family Trips, among others.

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