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How editors Sue Goyette, Jen Sookfong Lee, and Stacey May Fowles created an inclusive environment for working with sexual-assault survivors

This story appeared in Q&Q’s sexual-harassment survey feature in the May 2019 print edition.

Traditional editing standards and practices give editors authority over whose work is published. Editors influence word choices, tone, sentence clarity, and matters of form and structure. How heavy-handed or collaborative they are with their writers is an individual choice. But as more survivors of sexual assault publish stories and other works about their experiences, a new, more inclusive editorial approach is emerging.

Halifax-based poet Sue Goyette agreed to edit Resistance (Coteau Books), an anthology of poetry by survivors, in response to high-profile sexual assault trials that started hitting the media in 2016. Goyette points out that survivors’ stories are often told in certain ways – both in the judicial system and in the broader culture – that can leave the survivors themselves with little dignity. 

“I’m not saying art is therapy, but I am saying any kind of self-expression affords an opportunity to make something and in the making we create understanding for ourselves,” Goyette says. “I think that re-dignifying is a crucial element of the transformation that can happen when we make something out of our pain.”

Her approach to editing Resistance took into consideration those vulnerabilities. Goyette saw her role as creating a hospitable place for those willing to write. “My position was holding the pages down so people could find their place [in] them rather than being a gatekeeper to it,” she says.

Goyette didn’t reject any submissions unless they veered too far from the collection’s central themes of harm or reflections on personal experiences. When editing individual works, she asked questions to address ambiguities but didn’t assume authority or ask anyone to change any words. 

“I wouldn’t trespass. That was my ethical position,” she says. “It was my feeling this needs to stay in the way that this person meant it to be. It wasn’t like the way I would edit a poetry collection for someone. I wasn’t reading it to say, ‘These words are weak,’ because it’s not a collection about the poetry, it’s a collection about the voices.”

Goyette’s approach is similar to that of Vancouver author Jen Sookfong Lee and Toronto author Stacey May Fowles, who co-edited the essay collection Whatever Gets You Through: Twelve Survivors on Life after Sexual Assault (Greystone Books). Lee says, “One of the magical things about this anthology is that we conceived of the space for these stories but we didn’t place limits on what those stories would look like.” 

Lee says she now edits in a way that’s more inclusive than the editorial conventions of the past. “It’s being aware of the perspective of the writer and not editing to a white hetero cis male eye.” As an example, Lee says when she first started writing and publishing 20 years ago, her editors would have italicized words like bok choy or mahjong in her work. “That doesn’t happen anymore,” she says.  

Throughout the editorial process, Lee and Fowles did their best to provide non-oppressive sensitivity toward sexual-assault survivors, including contributions from people of colour, LGBTQ, and disabled communities. In other words, they weren’t trying to control anyone’s narrative. They listened instead. 

“I learned everyone’s experience of managing trauma is different,” Lee says. “My job was to make the editing space safe and nurturing, creative, and productive.” 

Fowles says that in asking people to write about sexual assault, editors are requiring survivors revisit some of the most difficult moments of their lives and should honour that vulnerability both during the editing process and after publication, especially given the present climate and possibility of trolling on social media. 

“I think it’s definitely important to respect the sensitivity of the subject matter and to understand the emotional labour inherent in revisiting trauma repeatedly to write about it, and then to edit that writing, and then have that writing read and talked about,” Fowles says. “Empathy, kindness, understanding, openness, and flexibility are fundamental.”