Mensah Demary is an associate editor for Catapult. Originally from New Jersey, Mensah lives and writes essays in Brooklyn.
What are three things we should know about Mensah Demary?
a. I have a soft spot for literary curmudgeons and recluses,
b. I wear an Apple Watch unironically,
c. and I think the modern personal essay is in dire need of reexamination, perhaps renovation, but that’s less important to know about me than the first two things.
Can you give us an intro to Catapult and its mission?
a. Catapult is a for-profit publisher of novels and nonfiction books, a daily online magazine of new literature, and a workshop of writing courses taught by emerging and established authors—the classes are currently held in our NYC office, with online courses coming later this year.
b. Our mission continues to take shape and change form, as all worthwhile missions do, but in short: We publish extraordinary stories by extraordinary people. Some of these people may be what we call “writers” in the professional sense, but extraordinary stories come from all places, from all people. They may not be “writers,” but they too deserve space on our bookshelves and in our daily consumption of online literature.
At AWP in Los Angeles last month, we had the privilege of having you join our panel on Ethnic, Gender, and LGBTQ Diversity in New Media. You talked about the importance of finding a mentor and of being part of a community. In your essay “This Is How You Become an Editor,” you mentioned how, to deal with social anxiety, you “developed tools to navigate a room full of people.” What are some of these tools? Any tips for those of us who feel much more comfortable writing alone than networking and, dare I say, schmoozing?
a. Networking is essential in fostering a professional literary career, which is independent from the more spartan tasks of reading, writing, editing, and publishing. Writers often conflate all of these tasks as “the writing life,” but really, it’s just career management.
b. If everyone in the room, including you, is awkward, then it is more prudent to feign confidence, even if just to stand out. “Fake it until you make it” is the motto.
c. Remember, it’s business. It’s always business.
d. The answer to “how to schmooze”: Get yourself a bourbon, neat, and introduce yourself. You’ll be amazed how much happens on its own after this initial step.
At the AWP panel, you said, “A diverse space is one that is accessible.” What publications or organizations are doing a good job at being accessible?
a. Catapult is so far doing a good job at being accessible, primarily because we’re not interested in promoting “diversity” as a new fashion. Workspaces, especially creative ones, operate best when multiple opinions from various walks of life speak and offer valuable information, and help create then execute successful plans. This is not “diversity,” or its more limp version “inclusion,” but the basic principle which often guides competent organizations and companies to great levels of influence.
b. There really should be no label for what we do; if anything, it should be considered “average” or “banal,” but instead it is considered “exceptional” when, in fact, the continued siloing of people of color in publishing is the gross exception, the warped abnormality.
This is a personal question for me, but a lot of current discussion on diversity has centered around white privilege and racism against African-Americans. As an Asian-American, I sometimes wonder what my responsibilities, privileges, and role are in discussions of diversity. I know this is a loaded question, and impossible to answer in a single interview, but may I ask what your thoughts on this? Where do I start to promote diversity? How do I fit in, or what do I make of it?
a. I think each person needs to find his or her own way to answer these questions. And yes, the discussion on “diversity” is typically defined by a black/white paradigm, a rigid division often excluding others. But the onus on correcting this imbalance, in every manifestation of the word, as it relates to publishing, is on the editorial side, those of us who, whether we like it or not, are seen not only as gatekeepers, but as arbiters of literary taste.
b. A Black writer speaking on issues pertaining to Black writers makes sense; an Asian-American writer doing the same thing also makes sense: each agenda, addressed to power (white men and white women in publishing), is separate from but runs in parallel, and often but not automatically intersects, with each other.
c. The editor, the publisher, on the other hand, is charged with being inclusive, for lack of a better word. It’s his or her responsibility. Literary taste, and publishing access, is as broad or as limited as the gatekeepers, the arbiters, the influencers, want it to be.
d. That’s why editors and publishers of color are so vital.
Can you talk about your experience starting Specter Magazine and how it led to other professional opportunities? At the panel, you, Jennifer 8. Lee, and James Yeh mentioned that starting your own publications/businesses eventually led to other media opportunities. Is this the path you’d recommend for people–especially those from underprivileged groups–who want to get in the door, that they should start their own publication?
a. Specter gave me a nascent, perhaps naive, if narrow, perspective into publishing literature. Starting it didn’t lead to any one opportunity; if anything, its sole purpose for me, professionally, was the way in which it taught me to pursue my passions, mainly because there was no money in it. Running Specter cost money, but the magazine generated no revenue. That’s fine because I loved the project; I loved watching it grow. Specter taught me the value of doing purposeful work.
b. Start a new publication only if that’s what you want to do, and not because it could be one rung along the ladder climb up toward some end goal. Otherwise it’s not worth the trouble. No one will pay you for the pleasure, and no one will care that you’re stressed and angry because a writer is harassing you about the publication date for a piece that will be read by one hundred people and will net the writer zero dollars.
You’re clearly very adept at both writing and cultivating a social media “presence.” Do you think it’s important for writers to be on social media these days, in terms of increasing their likelihood of becoming “successful” writers? How do you balance the amount of time you spend writing vs. posting on social media?
a. I don’t tweet much anymore. I decided over the last few months to dedicate my professional time to writing and editing, with very little room for anything else outside of my family and friends. I personally like Twitter less and less every day.
b. That’s not to say Twitter is a waste of time; it’s not. It can be leveraged to make and establish working relationships, contacts, even friendships, or love.
c. There are some writers who appear to be camping out on Twitter, waiting for a break, the big score, using social media as a get-noticed-quick scheme, and yet they fail to recognize that the “successful” writers, the ones with book deals and cool projects and, yes, even huge Twitter followings, do not, in fact, camp out on Twitter; they often go quiet for stretches at a time, because they’re writing, they’re editing and revising, and they’re publishing.
d. I will concede that a great tweet is far easier to write than a short story anyone would care to read. There’s something to be said about that.
You’ve written quite a lot about dealing with depression. How has dealing with depression shaped or fueled you as a writer?
a. I haven’t been depressed in over two years, this after a decade of seemingly never-ending episodes, with stories and essays to match. Depression no longer shapes or fuels me as a writer, much to the chagrin of my audience, perhaps. Not that my readers wanted me to be sad all of the time, but depression was my aesthetic. I was the sad black writer guy, but not anymore. Now I write about music. I write about old television shows. I write about Black consciousness, the universe, and Kendrick Lamar. This paradigm shift is what shapes and fuels me as a writer now. It thrills me.
What’s next? Any upcoming projects, for you, Catapult, and/or LIT?
a. Both LIT and Specter are now dead; I just don’t have the time. I have about five upcoming projects but they’re not real yet, as in they’re still ideas, plans. They’re just words, magic. These days, I’m writing and editing, but mainly reading.
b. I’m creating, in other words.