Meet the Editors: Q&A with Dominique Cahn

In this post we ask LPR’s nonfiction editor, Dominique Cahn, some questions on being a nonfiction editor and on what makes a great piece of memoir or essay.

Dominique Cahn was born in Haiti and moved to New York City when she was six years old. She majored in Politics and Latin American Studies at Princeton University and earned her Masters in Public Health Degree from Yale University. After graduate school, Dominique moved to Washington, D.C., where she embarked on her career in health care policy and government relations. She conducted health related studies in Haiti and Belize and represented the medical device and biotechnology industries on U.S. regulatory and and legislative issues. She lived in Kazakhstan and traveled to Russia and other countries in the former Soviet Republics.

Q: When it’s time to start reading the nonfiction submissions for a literary journal, what’s your process?

If I think a piece is worth while, I’ll read it a couple of times, put it aside. Sometimes I’ll discuss it with other readers if I need to clarify my thinking about it. But, after the third reading, I’ll get stern with myself and make a decision. Editor Steven Leyva and I then confer about the final choices. We are fortunate to have two volunteer readers on our team, Emily Rich and Heidi Brotman, who critique submissions in this category, as well. This last round, Anthony Moll joined us as Guest Editor.

Q: I imagine there’s not necessarily something you’re “looking for,” a priori. But in your experience, what are the sorts of things in a memoir or essay that interest you and catch your attention?

I don’t remember who said this, but there’s a quote that goes something like “the pleasure of reading a personal essay lies in the enjoyment we get from the well-ordered thoughts of another’s mind.” I find that to be true, and I am often drawn to voices that, at the very least, seem to have full knowledge of themselves in the stories they tell. Of course, the usual things are important too — a hook in the introduction, plot, characterization, climax, resolution of conflict and ending — all those are essential to works of creative nonfiction, memoir, and biography.

Q: How quickly in reading a piece do you generally know if it’s something you want to publish, or not?

Immediately. It’s incredible how quickly as a reader you develop an instinct about a submission. Sometimes you can work through the bits that strike you as emotionally false, but other times, the issue is not the narrative but the writer. People feel more license in fiction, but in anything autobiographical, people tend to deploy fiction for only one reason, and it’s usually not to enrich or complicate the characters on the page. In other words, it’s like literary airbrushing. The result is that there are emotional gaps. Sometimes it’s fun to do the work of filling in those gaps. Other times it feels lazy and deceitful. Of course, there are some works in which the story and writing are so strong that we know immediately that the submission will be among our finalists. We rarely make a decision until the submission period ends and we have had a chance to review all the works.

Q: Do you work with writers to improve a submission that you would like to publish, or do you generally accept as is or reject entirely?

Some submissions you have to reject entirely. It’s not always worth wading into typos, or trying to sort out messy narratives. Some submissions suffer from a lack of introspection, or a self-consciousness. Some, from too little of the latter. But perfecting the the kind of writing we publish is about clarifying the writer’s vision of their own story, and helping them to find narrative meaning beyond the biographical details. That’s work you can’t do without the writer, and so when I believe in a piece of writing I’m often excited to work with its author. Its wonderful and very satisfying when a good story can be sharpened into something impactful.

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Celebrating Contributor Successes: Q&A with Jay Wamsted

One thing we love at Little Patuxent Review is to celebrate the success of past contributors. Our latest opportunity comes from Jay Wamsted, whose nonfiction, “Walls,” we published in our Summer 2017 issue.

The Best American Essays 2018 edition, published this month, named “Walls” as a “Notable” in its collection. Jay is a math teacher in southwest Atlanta, and the majority of his writing centers around race, racism, and the urban school. His essays and articles have been published in various journals and magazines, including Mathematics Teacher and Qualitative Inquiry. He can be found online at The Southeast Review, Under the Sun, and the TEDx YouTube channel, where you can watch his 2017 talk “Eating the Elephant: Ending Racism & the Magic of Trust.”

We’re very grateful he’s willing to answer a few questions for us.

Q: Did you have any expectation of receiving this honor? What’s it been like for you as a writer to return to a piece after it’s been published for almost a year and a half?

A: I was stunned when I received the email. I knew, of course, that there was a lottery-ticket kind of probability I could get that news, but I had to read the email from Steven Leyva three times before I finally got it into my head what was happening. Coming back to the piece has been delightful. Alexis was an important part of two school years for me: the one where I taught her and then the subsequent one where I wrote about her. Getting to revisit her story somehow has been both sobering and encouraging.

Q: It’s my understanding that this piece went through some editing before publication. What was that process like?

A: The biggest thing is that in its original form the essay was in second person. Dominique Cahn, LPR’s nonfiction editor, rightly suspected that though effective at evoking emotion, this constant “you…you…you” was sidelining Alexis’s story in favor of the reader and writer. Dominique suggested we move it to first person, and we had this big a-ha moment: finally the piece felt like it was primarily about Alexis because the pronouns weren’t getting in her way.

The other thing I’ll note is that I have received at times some pushback about being a white writer whose only stories come from teaching black children. I completely understand this fear of a modern-day sort of colonialism, and I try to guard against it in my work as best I can. At the time of “Walls,” however, I was going through a phase where I was muting the subject of race altogether and trying to elide it with the problem of poverty. Dominique saw past that, and surprised me by asking for more about the Mays community in general and about Alexis in specific. For example, she encouraged me up to describe Alexis physically—to let my reader know she was black. I had been reluctant to do this prior, but it was such a gift to write about this young black woman with some sort of candor, to describe her the way I like to imagine a friend of hers might have described her.

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Turning Over a New Leaf

After more than a year as a fantastic online editor for Little Patuxent Review, Deborah Kevin is moving on to new adventures. All of us as at LPR want to thank her for all her hard work improving LPR’s website, sharing interesting and informative blogposts, expanding LPR’s outreach on social media, and much more than what can be listed here. We wish her the best of luck in her future endeavors and she will remain a part of the LPR family helping behind the scenes as a fiction reader.

At the same time, Little Patuxent Review has added some new names to the masthead. Taking on the position of online editor is Jessica Flores. Lisa Lynn Biggar is our new fiction editor and Dominique Cahn enters the role of nonfiction editor. Emily Rich has transitioned from nonfiction editor to deputy editor.

If I could take a few moments to talk about myself, taking on the post of online editor is both daunting and exhilarating. While I am excited to take on the mantle of online editor, I wonder if I can live up to the example Deborah has left behind. Deborah has been supportive in helping me transition into her former role, and I hope that I can live up to the precedence she leaves. It has only been a few weeks, but already everyone at LPR has been so kind and supportive.

I graduated from American University last year with a bachelor’s in literature. I recently completed an internship at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland, and my hope is to make this blog an active forum for the artistic and literary community. I enjoy any type of fiction, be it genre fiction, short stories, novels, or flash fiction.

One of my fondest memories of my undergraduate studies was the sense of community built around my university’s student literary magazine. During review sessions, everyone took time out of their own schedules, usually weekends or after class, to get together and go over submissions for the upcoming print issue. Sometimes these sessions were late at night in the middle of the week or during prime weekend hours when the campus classrooms felt deserted without the usual student body walking about. There was a sense that each piece deserved equal attention during review, but also that everyone present deeply cared about the quality of the magazine and what it represented about the work generated on our campus. Even though I am out of school, I sense a similar but even larger sense of community with LPR.

If I can foster even a sense of that type of community through this blog, then I think I’ve done my job.

Feel free to reach out to the LPR staff through comments and suggestions for future blog posts or the content you would like to see on our blog. Submissions are open for LPR’s themed Winter 2017 issue. Submit your work today.