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George Vlahakis

Last modified: Wednesday, May 22, 2002

Leading writers of color featured in special issue of IU literary journal

NOTE: Shannon Gibney, editor of the spring issue of Indiana Review described in this release, was unavailable when the release was being prepared. She should be available for interviews later in May. Contact George Vlahakis at 812-855-0846 or to arrange for interviews with Gibney and others. Many book editors have been sent review copies, and a limited number of additional media copies are available. Publication-quality digital images of the issue's cover are available at

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Writer Charles Johnson is considered one of the most gifted writers today. His novels have been widely praised, including Middle Passage, which won the 1990 National Book Award. In 1998, he received a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, popularly known as a "genius" award.

But nearly 20 years ago, like many other talented young writers, the African American author sought outlets for his work in a small number of respected literary journals at places such as Indiana University. Indiana Review, a student-edited journal based in the English Department's Creative Writing Program, offered its pages to Johnson's short story, "Menagerie, a Child's Fable."

IU's literary journal was the kind of exposure Johnson needed. Two years after being published in Indiana Review, the story was reprinted in his first collection of short stories, The Sorcerer's Apprentice, which was nominated for a PEN/Faulkner Award in fiction. Since then, "Menagerie" has been anthologized several times, brought to the stage and broadcast on National Public Radio.

"I've always felt grateful to the editors at Indiana Review for first publishing this story," Johnson said. "Most likely, a mainstream, mass market publication would never have accepted this tale. In my opinion, only a literary magazine of very high quality, such as Indiana Review, would have published this story 20 years ago."

Johnson is one of nearly 40 writers and artists of color whose work is featured in the spring issue of Indiana Review. This is the first time in the nationally distributed publication's 25-year history that it has devoted an entire issue to writers and artists of color.

Other writers featured in the special issue include Carl Phillips, a recent winner of the Kingsly-Tufts Award for poetry; Marilyn Chin, a poet featured in Bill Moyer's PBS series The Language of Life; and Ray Gonzalez, a past editor at the Bloomsbury Review.

"Having special issues almost always addresses perceived areas of need, neglect or marginalization. The implication is that there is not enough work by writers of color that is ordinarily published," said Tony Ardizzone, IU professor of English and incoming director of the Creative Writing Program. "The idea behind this issue is that it adds and gives particular attention to an area that is sometimes neglected."

The issue was edited by Shannon Gibney, an MFA student from Ann Arbor., Mich., who received the 2002 Hurston/Wright Award in Fiction. While at IU, Gibney studied African American literature and wrote a novel, Yellow Girl, as her thesis project. She graduated this month with master of arts degrees in English and creative writing fiction.

"When we first started to publicize that we were going to do this issue and asked people to submit work, we received a number of e-mails and phone calls from people saying this wasn't such a good thing politically," acknowledged David Daniels, associate editor and an MFA student from Dallas, Texas. "We talked about whether, to some extent, this was problematic or segregating writers.

"However, we received hundreds and hundreds of submissions, in fact, from huge writers and beginning writers, who were clearly looking for an outlet for their work," Daniels said. "As much as some people might resist this sort of label of being a 'writer of color,' and our excluding white writers, there was a larger pool of people really excited and wanting to submit their work.

"We ended up attracting people who are considered some of the best writers in the country," he said. "Doing this specialized issue actually revealed how strong and varied writing of color is."

The journal received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, which allowed editors to recruit visual artists of color as well. The special issue includes a section of artwork by minority artists, and the cover features a work by William A. Rasdell, recent resident artist at the Eiteljorg Museum in Indianapolis. Other funding and support for the magazine came from the English Department and the IU College of Arts and Sciences.

Over the last 25 years, a number of significant authors from all backgrounds have been published in Indiana Review, including Sherman Alexie, Raymond Carver, Stuart Dybek and Ursula LeGuin. It received the American Literary Magazine Award in 1996, and contributed works have won honors such as the Pushcart Prizeand the O. Henry Award.

"First and foremost, it's an important venue for the literary arts, and many significant writers depend on it," Ardizzone said. "Almost all of the lasting literature comes from the kind of middle ground that's populated not by a couple of top markets that pay for stories, but rather by literary magazines. These stories and poems are read by editors of national anthologies such as Pushcart Prize and Best American Stories, and the IR has a good history of seeing things reprinted in those anthologies."

In addition to hitting bookstore and library shelves, the special issue will be used by students in freshman-level English creative writing classes at IU this fall, said Jason Lindquist, the journal's business manager and a doctoral candidate in fine arts from Pleasant Grove, Utah. "That's another way that this kind of diversity represented in Indiana Review gets out to the public," Lindquist said.

Phillips recently visited IU Bloomington, and Ardizzone said it is possible that other writers featured in the special issue will be invited to visit campus and give readings this fall.

Normally, Indiana Review does not accept the work of current and past students in IU's MFA program. However, editors decided to make two notable alumni exceptions for the special issue: Khaled Mattawa, translator of two volumes of Arabic poetry and editor of a major anthology of Arab American writers; and Vandana Khanna, a poet and winner of the Crab Orchard Review First Book Prize. Both worked on the staff of Indiana Review as students.

"It's more evidence of the program's long history of diversity," Ardizzone said. Daniels added, "As people associate Indiana Review with the MFA program, as a place that is strongly dedicated to diversity, then we are going to get the strongest and most diverse student body. This has already been happening; this is reflected in our current students and our current faculty."

Johnson, fiction editor of The Seattle Review from 1978 to 1998, said that efforts like the special issue are particularly important now. "These works expand and deepen our understanding of the social world, which is especially important after September 11," he said. "It gives novice and emerging writers an opportunity to begin the lifelong task of building a body of work that will enrich our national literature."