Rachel Charlene Lewis is the co-founder of The Fem Literary Magazine, a feminist magazine and safe space for marginalized writers.
Crab Fat: Your flash piece “People that Eat Salmon” was recently published with Crab Fat—can you tell us what this intriguing observation of a lesbian relationship means to you?
Rachel Charlene Lewis: “People that Eat Salmon” was a story I just kept coming back to. I’m always interested in queer relationships, the dynamics they embody, and the simplicity and kind of default complexity that comes with them, and I just don’t think that queer relationships are explored enough in the literary world. The story started as much, much longer, and then I broke it down and it ended up being flash. I was happy with the snapshot into this totally heartbreaking moment for the couple. I love people at their rawest, and those are the people I find to be worth writing about. I think that breakups can sort of strip people down to their most horrible, and I wanted to examine that just a bit.
CF: According to your résumé, you’re graduating from Elon University this May (2015)—big congrats! What are your plans after college? Are you currently working on any major projects?
RCL: Yes! I am attending graduate school at University of California Riverside as a Nonfiction MFA candidate. In terms of major projects, I’m sort of just brainstorming for my thesis that I’ll work on at UCR. I’m planning to write a memoir that uses my queer romantic relationships as a starting point for working through issues of identity like gender, race, and sexuality. I want to layer feminism with my sex and love life, basically.
I’m also working on developing more lyric and poetic pieces; I’d love to write a collection of essays exploring anxiety disorders and how they intersect with the fear that comes with being a queer woman of color in the U.S. at a time when it feels like threats are all bubbling to the surface. If I ever didn’t want to be aware of issues facing black people in this country, it’d be pretty difficult these days, you know? I want to talk about how constantly being on alert is damaging and horrible, but I want to do it in a very pretty way.
CF: You’ve been very involved with feminist writing, and although gender equality is very important, there are women that do not support feminism and see it as another four-letter word—what piece of advice, if any, do you have for women that feel this way?
RCL: Ah. To these women, I say, you are very, very lucky to have lived a life that has not made you feel, like, this gaping hole that only feminism can feel. And if you do feel that hole, recognize that feminism will fill it—it will give you hope that things do not need to be like this. It will give you the language you need to describe every tiny and massive moment where you felt you were being treated poorly but didn’t have the words to back it up, it will give you community, and it will give you the means to fight back.
CF: How did you become involved with feminist activism, or rather, was there any one moment you can reflect on that you see as the catalyst for propelling your life in its current direction?
RCL: I have been very lucky to have friends who love to talk politics and to have deep dialogues at sleepovers. Really, I think that my feminism stems from that—from those conversations about religion and what a republican is and how we feel about gay people. The activism piece has really just come from my desire to do something. I’m one of those people who is always doing fifty things at once, and if I sit still I get sad and anxious. Learning about feminism, I think, can be either miserable or empowering, and I want to be empowered and I want to be able to yell and fight back against everything telling me to be small and quiet. I think that the women I’ve surrounded myself with have taught me, totally on accident, to never just shrink and be small and quiet. We aren’t like that, not totally, not completely. We fight in whatever ways we can.
CF: What drove you to co-found The Fem?
RCL: The Fem was something that co-founder Autumn Spriggs and I had been chatting about in a joking sort of way for about a year or so, and then one day we were bored and it was summer, so I started messing with web designs and sending them to her and then we had a plan and a calendar, and it was like, “Okay, let’s see if we can do this.” And in many ways, we did. On a professional level, The Fem is a space where I can be my whole self and still be working. I can do social media and design and communications and still be biracial and bisexual and a woman and know that I’m not being knocked down a single peg because of those things. Personally, that’s everything to me. I struggle with the suffocation of professionalism and The Fem makes me feel like a real live grown up doing something important without having to tuck away who I am.
CF: Your brief bio on The Fem’s staff page is great! We love that you ID as queer and share a passion for breaking through the heteronormative structures that are so prevalent in our culture. With that said, can you tell us a little about your experience as a southern QWOC? The queer south has always been of great interest, and is a founding pillar of Crab Fat.
RCL: It was interesting. I was only in the south for four years for undergrad (and then I moved to California, where the south isn’t very south-y), and I’m still kind of working out the experience of being a QWOC in the south. My experience is very different, because I was on campus probably 95% of the time, and my campus was an overwhelmingly white, wealthy, straight space, hardcore heteronormative, and majority Northerners from like Jersey and Connecticut. The thing that makes it so weird though is that a lot of those people came to the university for the Southern ideals and country-club vibe so you still saw lots of confederate flags and conservative values on a campus not made up of Southerners by any means.
I think that the values part is what really hit me hard, though. I was terrified of facing homophobia, so I pretty much did the straight-girl thing all of my first year even though I was starting to feel more certain about my queerness, and then once I did ID as queer more openly it still wasn’t in all spaces. I wouldn’t hold my girlfriend’s hand in public (on- or off-campus), and I was careful to use gender-neutral language when referring to her unless I was absolutely, totally, they-have-a-rainbow-flag-sticker-on-their-laptop certain that they’d be cool with my queerness.
It’s weird, because online I’m completely open about it. And in certain spaces, I’m completely open about it. But in the south and on campus it was like, as soon as I’d feel okay about it and maybe think about telling another friend, they’d throw out a queer slur like it was nothing and I would realize, “Okay, maybe not now, now here, not with them.”
Even the people I was around who did know weren’t necessarily good at being friends with a queer person, or even close to what I would consider an ally. I was ID’d as a lesbian even though I only ever ID myself as queer or bisexual or gay, depending on the space, and there would be weird jokes and people wouldn’t always seem super comfortable with my queer relationships. I’d invite a friend to a workshop to help them improve their ally skills and they wouldn’t show. It was odd. Not especially bad by any means, but not the greatest.
I do want to point out though that a lot of the people who ended up being my closest friends and my current partner as well ended up being from the south. It was like, the northerners who wanted to embody country club, big-hat-wearing southern values were scarier than the people who were born and raised in the south.
CF: Who are a few of your favorite writers and why?
RCL: I think that Morgan Parker is magic. Parker did this piece, All They Want is My Money My Pussy My Blood, and a friend put it on my Facebook and I was like, “Holy crap, who is this person, I need to spend about 150 hours in a workshop with this person.” Parker doesn’t hold back, tears you to shreds, and doesn’t apologize and I need more of that in my life.
Sarah Certa, also, is someone whose books I’m waiting on. Everything I’ve read from Certa online is just, stunning, and clean and raw and every word is bursting and so lovely. Certa’s language is biting and I love it.
As far as Tumblr folks, Lily Cigale and Warsan Shire are currently my top two, but I am so about the sparkling work that rolls through Tumblr day after day.
I want to be a combo of Paisley Rekdal, Roxanne Gay, Steven Church, Tracy K. Smith, and Ryan Van Meter. To me, they embody attention to language, knowing when to drag something out, knowing when you can play with your reader, get more abstract, and not lose them, experimenting, and teaching something.
Crab Fat thanks Rachel for taking the time to chat with us!