Talking with Rahawa Haile about her Short Story of the Day Project

Since our launch week, we've been wrapping up Rahawa Haile's Short Story of the Day project every Saturday. Now that the project is ended, she was nice enough to sit down with us and talk about it. Look for a new thing for us, coming this Saturday.

You’ve been working on this a year now.

-ish, yeah.

When did you start, exactly?

I started January 1st.

So you did start January 1st, so it’s almost a full year.

Yeah, it’s just that I’ve been slacking in December for various life reasons, and I haven’t been able to update daily, which I feel a lot of guilt about. But, life happens, and nobody’s paying me, so…?

In that time, how has your life changed?

So the reason I started posting stories was that I needed something to ground me, because I thought the upcoming year would be…I shouldn’t say full of turmoil, but maybe more catastrophic than I’ve experienced. It’s been kind of wonderful to actually have that, to actually have a thing that’s going to bring me joy, the kind of hunt that I know is going to yield results no matter what, and to not know where they’re going to come from has been an absolute delight.

It seems that you would have been, before this, would have been like “hey, oh my gosh, I just read this great story by this person,” and most of the writers you were covering were not very well known. A lot of smaller writers, a lot of writers of color, which was important to you. Can you talk a bit about that, and, like, this idea of being a voice of advocacy for things that you love?

It’s very difficult to get short story collections published. And it’s a special kind of person who subscribes to several literary magazines just for the fun of it, who isn’t also a writer, and is able to purchase as many books as they’d like.

So, I just started to see these smaller writers, especially women, and especially people of color, but other minorities as well, just kind of slip through the cracks. Because it’s so hard to publish a short story collection not tied to a novel, you know? And the people who do, and who often get praised, tend to be white men. I kind of touched on this in a previous interview, but it’s not just what gets seen, it’s who has access to MFA programs, you know, who can afford to incur that kind of debt, who can afford that kind of financial instability when they’re done with their program. If it seems as though there’s this entire literary system really meant to propel and celebrate white men, I assure you there is.

But those aren’t the only people writing. And in fact, they’re not always the most interesting people writing, despite whatever advantages they may have. I think, at a certain point, especially if you are a writer of color, you get tired of being told that the kind of narratives you encounter when you look for stories, are the only ones that exist. So, I wanted to have a way for people — for you know, allies, white allies, but also for minorities — to see themselves reflected every single day. That mattered a lot to me. And some people were more popular than others.

Of late, maybe the past four months, the stories have been constricted to the last five years, just because I haven’t had time to really delve into all the anthologies I would have liked to check out from the library, and hunt down books I had previously read that I wanted to screenshot but don’t own right now. That’s one of the things I was really trying to avoid, but I couldn’t. I just didn’t have the time.

I wanted people to see themselves reflected, but I also wanted the editors and agents who followed me on Twitter to have a daily reminder that there are so many people, who aren’t white men, writing brilliant words, and that perhaps they are worth pursuing. In fact, that’s how my agent found me.

Talk a little about that. So an agent found you through your story a day project…? That’s fantastic, congratulations! Can you talk about some of your own work and plans for the future?

Thank you! For the past few years I’ve had a really depressing day job that I’m quitting in February. Then, I’m hiking the Appalachian trail — or attempting to. I should rephrase that, I’m attempting to hike the Appalachian trail. It’s a self-preservation thing. There’s enough fear of failure as it is.

But then I plan to write full-time after that. I will be writing a lot more fiction in addition to journalism. The thing that has fallen away most while doing this project, and working a day job, and preparing for this hike is my own fiction. And I really miss it. I miss it the way one misses a loved one. I’m definitely looking forward to writing short stories again. That’s where my heart lies.

When you go on any kind of journey, and you come back home, home always looks a little bit different. How do you think, after reading so many short stories — maybe more than you were reading previously because of the deadline? — have you noticed any changes in approaching your own writing?

Yes. Great question, thank you. I’ve been asked by other people if I had a preexisting list of 365 short stories I wanted to share with the world. Like I just came home, and clicked tweet, and called it a day. But no, that one story that I shared came from going through, at minimum, twenty stories. Every single day. Granted, I wouldn’t necessarily get to the end of every potential story, but I would read enough to see if it was something I wanted to explore further. And that has been kind of a revelation to me.

I’ve heard fiction editors from literary magazines say what I’m about to say, but you learn a lot about how to write by reading other people’s writing. Especially people you respect, but also people who are doing good things that are just a hair shy of being great. It hits home when you see yourself and your writing tendencies and your shortcomings reflected that way. I feel as though I have a better grasp of how the things I’m not great at can be very effective in storytelling, and I will be actively working toward bettering those weaknesses in the near future. Probably after my hike — I have a hard time imagining bettering myself in any way that doesn’t involve running, or climbing stairs, or doing yoga, or squats, or anything that doesn’t strengthen my core before October. But yeah, I’ve gotten a much better grasp of what I don’t want to do, but also a better grasp of what I do that I can now see doesn’t work, repeatedly, in stories from all over the world, all different backgrounds, all different kinds of stories. Some things just aren’t enough.

One of those things for me is I’m not the biggest fan of dialog. I tend to write shorter pieces that don’t need a lot of it, but I can also recognize that those pieces could benefit from more than they currently have. And while reading many of these short stories this year — I gravitate towards flash fiction — but reading so many stories between 1,000 and 10,000 words, I’d see such a dependence on exposition that I'd think was detrimental. And I think it’s because it’s very hard to know how to get your characters to talk to one another when you haven’t really figured them out yet.

How much were you relying on internet journals, as opposed to print journals, and newer, smaller publications?

Here’s the thing about print journals not publishing many minority writers: It’s hard to turn to them when you’re looking for minority writers. But I would like to take a second to give a huge shout-out to Housing Works bookstore, which is a great organization, but they also have one of my favorite used anthology sections in New York, and also a backlog of literary magazines I was able to peruse in 2015. I discovered so many people who seemed like they were fairly big decades ago, who I guess popular culture has forgotten. So, that was great.

But at a certain point I had to come home and post a story, and all I had was the internet. When that happened, I started to look outside of America. I mean, historically there’s very much an “America is not the world” understanding within the short story tradition. One of the things I’ve mentioned to friends is that I don’t read enough works in translation. I don’t know what’s happening with the modern short story in most of South America. There was a Believer piece about these intense matches between writers that take place in Peruvian wrestling rings where they try to write the best short story they can in a few minutes…I don’t know if you saw that piece? It’s an intense piece.

But as far as what I actively pursue, and what people actively pursue, there’s only so much time. If I had to only depend on the internet…I often try to look outside of major metropolitan areas. Like, I don’t need another…you know, I’m happy to post New York short stories, but it starts to feel so insular. So yeah, I admit that one of the things I wish I had time to do better was to rely on a variety of sources. Originally it was a healthy mix of lit mags, and physical books and anthologies, and online magazines, and audio as well — a few podcasts here or there, and people reading their work…. You know, Conjunctions has a pretty decent archive of all of their issues, and there are many famous short story writers reading their pieces.

Another thing that just kind of blew my mind is the fact that many online journals don’t offer sample writing. No section that says ‘Hey! Here are some short stories we’ve published’. I don’t mean access to the entire journal, but seriously, no samples whatsoever. And I find that so confounding — I don’t understand how a tiny journal wants people to submit to it if they can’t read the kind of work the journal publishes.

I’ve always found that kind of difficult. When I was trying to write more for journals and get short stories published, which I’ve moved away from, but it was: you could invest in so many journals or go to libraries, but you could spend 40 or 50 hours looking through a single journal trying to understand what they want, which is time that is probably, for a young writer, better spent writing. It’s a really tricky proposition.

I think so. I think at a certain point you need to ask yourself who you’re writing for. Like, is the goal to get published so that you can say you were published somewhere, or is the goal to be read as widely as possible? I know that argument comes up a lot when people discuss whether writers should write for free, or should write for lower rates than they deserve. I can’t imagine working on a short story and not wanting it to be seen by as many people as possible, especially knowing that the monetary rewards are so minimal regardless of venue.

It seems like that the set piece is, whether or not you go to graduate school, to work through the journals, to get an agent’s attention, to try to get a novel deal. This is the path of so many writers, and I think there’s a huge swath of people who are interested only in short stories that don’t get as much attention, because they’re not as commercial potentially, or for whatever reason.

They don’t sell! I mean, that’s why. You see people who are like “Oh, the internet has shortened people's attention spans, and these shorter stories should be so popular.” But, yeah, short story collections don’t really sell as well as novels, which is why they’re not purchased by editors as often as novels. I mean, you know, it helps to have certain stories appear in certain reputable mags. But, it’s difficult. I can’t ever see myself exclusively writing short stories. But I think they’re worthwhile nonetheless. And I think if one puts forward the kind of energy needed into making a good one, it deserves to be celebrated. And I also think that one of the things that happens is that many minorities, for one reason or another, can’t place their stories in bigger magazines, and they end up in smaller magazines that probably have websites, but no samples available!

I really appreciate the project. The reason I asked for permission to wrap-up on the weekends is because I thought it was really important, and I loved the attention you were bringing, and the exposure, to writers I’d never heard of. So, personally, I really appreciate it. Is there anything I should have asked, or something you’d like to talk about?

I would like to make a small apology. One of the things I’ve realized is that my most accessible minority in 2015 was the white woman. I used many stories by white women. It wasn’t until the end of the year that I realized just how many. I think, without going too deep into the reasons why that might be and the importance of intersectionality, it’s something that I wasn’t aiming to do, but something I ended up doing. And that reveals certain biases of my own, ones I should have been better at catching that I can fully recognize now.

You know, the whole reason I put this project together was yes, I want to celebrate minorities, and that includes women, but often I ended up celebrating white women because they were the nearest ripple in the minority pool. I can’t emphasize how much of that had to do with time constraints; there are so many more easily accessible great short stories written by white women than there are by people of color. But still — when I look at this project, this seems to be its greatest weakness. I’ve taken note of that — and I plan to think about it more when it comes to how I discuss short stories, what I look for in them, and the extent to which that is a product of training.