Brian Alessandro and Lupe Rodarte met in 2013, became a couple, then almost as immediately began hatching a plan to publish a literary magazine to represent our culture’s most marginalized communities. In a recent series of email volleys, I’ve been asking Brian and Lupe about the original conception of their still maturing creative collaboration.
“Lupe and I were both disappointed by the lack of diversity and risk found in many pedigree journals,” Brian told me. “So many of them seemed quite vanilla, and formulaic, and even flat in style. Too damn safe!”
Lupe, a Harvard graduate in the humanities, was a bit more blunt: “The world is on fucking fire and what we’re reading in many journals is bland bullshit. Okay, some journals are doing good work. I just want to see more relevant, fiery, personal work across the board. Just more of it!”
Thus, in July 2016, was born The New Engagement. Click the “About” button on TNE’s website and you will find a description of the journal’s needs: LGBTQI, People of Color, and with a special interest in the work of indigenous Americans. It, and other new journals like it, may be among the most empowering and galvanizing tools we can get our hands on as we head into the next dark age.
Lupe, who is half Mexican and half Tohono O’odham Native American, refined the pair’s mission for me by making it personal and contextualizing TNE in terms of his own background.
“As a Queer Person of Color and the son of very poor field workers, I’ve always believed, since my twenties when I was studying art history in college, that it’s very important for people to be able to see themselves in art, literature, and in popular culture. And still to this day, in 2017, you would think that there would be an abundance of characters and scenarios for these people in these mediums, but there’s not. People are clearly wanting to tell their stories and there are a lot of people who want to hear their stories.”
It’s one thing, of course, to have high hopes and another to start a journal that reflects the right ideals. Help on the first phase of TNE’s development came when Brian contacted Charles Flowers, former executive director of the Lambda Literary, a poet, and ultimately the founder of his own queer journal, Bloom.
“Charles was generous with guidance. He had published an excerpt of my debut novel, The Unmentionable Mann, a few months prior in Bloom, which I adore,” says Brian.“There were many obstacles to getting the journal off the ground, but I’m not sure any of them were totally unexpected. They ranged from technological glitches and administrative quandaries to financial strains to striking the right tone in design, theme, and language. Naturally, we were also worried about from where we would receive submissions, beyond my immediate, and somewhat robust, network of writers and artists.”
Lupe added, “The biggest issue for me was to ask, ‘who are we to start a journal? Who are we to create something out of nothing, and assert to people that these are worthwhile ideas and art, and worth reading? Who are we to determine what should get published and what shouldn’t?’ And I think posing those questions have informed our philosophy of publication. We don’t see ourselves as gatekeepers as much as facilitators, or shepherds for writing and art. Of course, we have to make choices, but I think those choices show that we aren’t afraid to publish new writers, writers who are finding themselves artistically, writers who are experimenting. But all the while have something truthful, and important, to say.”
TNE publishes new work online each month, so their concern about finding the content wasn’t unmerited. Lupe set about promoting their vision in the first two issues on social media.
“Writers and artists began to catch wind of us.”
So did other journals. Sam Desmond, editor-in-chief of HiConcept Magazine, another online outlet that will launch its first print edition this spring (during Frieze New York) watched the guys develop TNE from the start: “What is most unique about TNE is its devotion to social justice and its crusading ‘sense of voice’ in showcasing LGBTQ, minority and native writers and artists. They do not shy away from fierce political commentary.”
In growing TNE and allowing it to thrive under the pressure of strict monthly deadlines, Brian and Lupe came up with the idea of calling for entrants into their James Baldwin Literature Prize, it carries a cash prize of one thousand dollars, which “attracted many contributors and yielded an avalanche of submissions.”
The first year’s James Baldwin winner is genderqueer poet Hafsa Musa—three of whose poems will be included in TNE’s inaugural print issue. Hafsa, who prefers the pronoun they for purposes of self-identification, replied to my request for a few words with passion and speed:
My work pertains to the crux of my multitudinous identities. As a queer, black, nonbinary, mentally ill, not-entirely-able-bodied individual, I rarely see myself depicted, cared for, or discussed in literature. My poetry seeks to bring myself (and those like me or who can sympathize with me) into the light; challenge conventions of ‘normal’ and ‘popular’ poetics; uncover avenues of radical softness and vulnerability; and interrogate myself and the world(s) I inhabit without buying into a narrative of victimhood.
To TNE, Lupe and Brian each bring different talents and personal tastes.
Brian is a published fiction writer, essayist, and accomplished filmmaker (his full-length feature Afghan Hound was screened at the Left Forum and selected by the Institute For Contemporary Psychotherapy as part of its trauma studies training program), and a playwright whose work is regularly staged in New York and elsewhere. He’s also a trained psychotherapist with an advanced degree from Columbia who has taught gender and human sexuality on both the college and high school levels. Brian is the editor-in-chief and Lupe, a whiz at the digital arts, is mast-headed as the publisher. He puts it all together while maintaining a complementary editorial role.
Less than a year in, the collaboration is already bearing fruit, and when I asked them if being partners/lovers is helpful to the enterprise, Brian described the division of labor: “Lupe trusts my judgment enough to allow me to select most of the content (literature and art), edit, choose the accompanying art for each written piece, post the daily social media feature, and interface with our contributors. He’s responsible for finding audiences, targeting our pieces and messages to those audiences, gaining maximum exposure for those pieces, as well as growing TNE as a business. He also writes copy, selects images, reads submissions, helps me make decisions about the prizes, manages design and layout. Generally, Lupe strives to keep balance, as he is very sensitive to that.”
Yet, says Lupe, “I also spend time on the items that Brian has decided not to publish, just to give them a second eye to make sure that something strong was not overlooked. We trust each other’s core competencies so it really allows the other person do what they do best. I’m also very keen on finding more indigenous authors and artists, and it’s something we’ll be focusing on in the coming year.”
Another, newer strategy of the couple’s for growing TNE was the introduction of their Flash Fiction Challenge carrying first- through third-place cash prizes (the winners of which will also appear in the second print edition). “We’re challenging fiction writers to grab us with their stories in 1,000 words or less,” said Brian. “It is indeed a challenge to craft a plot, develop a character, build a world, and explore a theme compellingly in under 1,000 words.” TNE is awarding three prizes: 1st place: $500, 2nd place: $250, 3rd place: $100.
Also, contributor art will be reproduced in full-color, high-quality spreads in the print versions as well as online. TNE provides content for EBSCOhost, a leading information platform for university and public libraries around the world, making contributors’ work available to an uncountable audience of teachers and students and general readers. The New Engagement is listed on the Poets & Writers database, furthering their visibility. And editors Brian and Lupe annually nominate their authors for the creme de la creme Pushcart Prizes and Best of the Net, helping boost authors’ accessibility by granting them important entrance into print anthologies. The seed originally planted continues to grow.
Still, being partners and co-workers has its challenges. There are the occasional hiccups and frustrations. But, as Brian puts it, “Those are unavoidable in any relationship. But we’re able to reconcile tension early on and move forward. We both resolved at inception that the work is too important for it to be disrupted by any personal issues that may pop up between us. I bring to the table fifteen years worth of experience as a writer, filmmaker, illustrator, and educator, and Lupe brings eighteen years’ experience as a product manager, designer, programmer and art buff. Our skill sets and experiences complement one another’s. We’re really a two-person team doing the work of a staff of a dozen. If not more. We each wear at least six hats!”
Beyond the nuts and bolts of the operation, I asked about their commitment to their Queer People of Color mission, to which Brian replied, “It’s central. And we’re not exclusively focused on Queer people or People of Color or Queer People of Color, but also on people who are differently abled, the disenfranchised, women, Muslims, individuals dealing with mental or physical illnesses, people living with disfigurement. Really anyone who has been marginalized or dispossessed or oppressed. We created TNE in order to raise their voices and shed light on their stories, to share their perspectives. There’s been such a dearth. It’s inexcusable. We hope to help correct this literary and artistic oversight.”
With his extensive background in theater (some of his one-acts are going up at the Theater for the New City in May), as well as his interest in the depictions of minorities and their uneasy rights in America, Brian is happy to publish the work of African-American playwright Leroy Kangalee, who for a time ran a theater company in Harlem (the National Black Theater on 125th, which closed when Chase Bank took over the property).
As Kangalee told me, “My association with TNE came about casually and easily as Brian and I had been great admirers of each other’s work. I come from the theater and was initially a theater director in my twenties. I left Juilliard to focus on reviving the marginalized dramas of the African-American canon—but with an emphasis on the more militant and political visions of Amiri Baraka and Adrienne Kennedy. James Baldwin of course. And then the more avant-garde writers like Jimmy Garrett and poet Bob Kaufman.”
The political lens is not merely American-focused.
Also to be included in the upcoming first print edition is Nadia Ibrashi, an Egyptian émigré from Alexandria living in Michigan, who only began writing in the ten years since her retirement from practicing medicine: “In these troubled times, The New Engagement fills a void in the literary world with compassion and understanding, and most of all, with beautiful art.”
One of Ibrashi’s stories appearing in TNE, “The Prisoner I&II,” is written entirely in dialogue. Ibrashi described the freedom of subject matter and style the editors allowed her: “[My story] deals with the mirror image experiences of an Egyptian and an Israeli prisoner discussing memories of the 1973 Yom Kippur War with their respective psychiatrists, a war which resulted in both sides claiming victories as bodies were picked from the Sinai.”
(Another upcoming story of Ibrashi’s is “The Fetishist,” about an ex-patriate Egyptian man who watches a revolution unfolding in his old country, on television in New York City. He remembers his childhood on the beaches of Alexandria, and “as the revolution reaches its zenith on T.V., he engages in his particular sexual fetish with his girlfriend.”)
Although boundary busting and earth-scorchingly radical sexual and cultural realism would seem to be the order of dissolute subterraneans, aliens of a wider, more popular affection and aficionados of delicious anomie, Brian and Lupe met on the OK Cupid website in New York and proceeded almost directly to Tucson, where Brian took an adjunct instructor job teaching the psychology of gender and human sexuality at Pima Community College. Brian especially missed his friends and contacts back east and at the end of 2016 they relocated to New York. They live with two other men and six cats, all rescues, in Washington Heights, where they run the whole enterprise in a three-bedroom apartment.
“I appreciate working out of our apartment,” said Brian. “It gives us the headspace to create. And the cats provide the occasional, necessary diversion.”
“I’ve been living in Washington Heights with Reese, my best friend, since 2001. It feels like home. I’m the culprit in terms of the cats … it started with my Best Friends Animal Society days. I just can’t say no to a homeless cat.”
Cisgender author Ron Burch attested to their incredibly catholic and cosmopolitan view of the world: “We are in a new time in America right now, a time when racism and misogyny has regained a small handhold in the mountain that makes up America and the many dreams of it. Inequality, hate, and other social ills that have burdened the country in the past have returned due to a new president and his shameful brand of politics. But there are lights out there, buoys of hope in a dark ocean, and The New Engagement is one of them. Luckily, TNE has stepped up for writers and readers. As is prompted by their very title, they look for work that engages: honest explorations that gaze deeply into the body human and the world around it. TNE wants authentic and real, but they don’t need a realistic take to get there. They’re open to adventure and experimentation, any way to capture the unique experience of living in our world today. No filler here. No formulaic bullshit or re-played stories that could appear in any magazine.”