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Ignyte Interview Series 2021: Diana M. Pho

The Ignyte Community Award celebrates the Outstanding Efforts in Service of Inclusion and Equitable Practice in Genre. We’re delighted to that Diana M. Pho nominated for her second Community Award. Diana is a Hugo Award-nominated developmental editor, writer and the creater of the #Edits4BlackSFF Project and essential member of the speculative community. We caught up with Diana and followed up on what she’s been up to over the last year since the last award.

In the last year, you’ve continued work on some phenomenal initiatives and have begun some new, important, endeavors too! Can you talk to us a little bit about your ongoing work with genre fiction and creators?
Thanks for having me back as part of the Ignyte Award’s interview series — loved learning about last year’s finalists and interested in seeing what people are up to nowadays. 🙂

I’ve had the immense pleasure of working closely with last year’s #Edits4BlackSFF winner Jill Tew on refining her novel. The writing event had satisfying results, and I want to thank the #Edits4BlackSFF readers and agents for their hard work in making this project a success. The past year had really exhausted me in ways that I hadn’t anticipated (well, I should’ve, considering we’re in a pandemic), so I’m trying not to overload myself with projects! But I’m in talks about a second #Edits4BlackSFF for 2022.

In the meantime, I’m honored to participate as writing judge and editor for Levar Burton Reads’s current contest, sponsored by FIYAH Magazine and Tor.com. I definitely encourage all writers to apply before August 31st! Short fiction always has a magical place in my editorial heart, and I can’t wait to see what submissions come through.
You’ve worked with a bunch of incredible, amazing artists. Among the Black/ Diaspora creators that you’ve recently worked with as an editor are P. Djèlí Clark and Bethany C. Morrow. What was it like working with such incredible talent? What did you learn from editing their stories?
Aw, shucks, being part of a writer’s publishing journey is one of the joys of being an editor. 🙂 Being a witness to the brilliance of Phenderson, Bethany and many other writers has taught me a lot of what it means to be a storyteller. I view the story-making process — in print, audio, drama, or whatever format — as a deeply reciprocal one. While I may bring the institutional knowledge to refine and position stories for the market, authors bring their unique perspectives as well. We collaborate about how to create the strongest art possible, of course. I also hope authors get some insight on how to navigate the sometimes overwhelming publishing industry (and with my current job, the audio world).

In turn, I learn from the stories, projects, and shows I acquire — the valuable artistic imagination and creative perspectives that push me beyond my own experiences and expose my ignorances. Especially when it comes to my background and relating to the Black experience, I never assume I know as much as these authors. At the same time, I can see the intersections between the Black Diaspora and my own Asian Diaspora roots. Thinking about stories as more than mirrors and windows of experiences, but as vast networks of connection which can link us together, is important in understanding how art can ripple out in unexpected ways.

I act — in my worklife and outside of it — from a specific point of the world: growing up as daughter of political refugees, and as a queer Asian woman. As a child, I wrestled with a lot of internalized shame about feeling like an outsider in mostly white, cis, hetero worlds I wandered through. I never felt “enough” to fit in. What I got from creativity working with Black writers is a sense of connectedness. And that together, we can buoy each other up.

One of the challenges I think about all lot is the pervasive anti-Black racism in Asian-American spaces, and the orientalization and heedless consumption of Asian culture in Westernized spaces, including Black spaces. How can we overcome these hurtful shortcomings? How can we learn from each other in ways that are equal and not exploitative? This is what I contemplate as an editor and as a storymaker.

Not to mention there are experiences and details about different Caribbean and African cultures and mythologies that I have cherished as a fan of mythologies. And history! Thinking about the gaps in history that oppress us but also empower us. I’m always grateful for the vulnerability and honesty in my editorial relationships when we can have convos where we learn something new.
You’ve done a lot of phenomenal work in publishing and you’ve been a long-term advocate that uplifts diverse voices. How are you continuing this work as a story producer for Realm?

I’m happy to land at a company whose creative DNA is a mission to promote representation & inclusion since the beginning. One of my acquisitions aired earlier this year: Spider King by Justin C. Key, a creepy, body horror twist while also being a cutting critique on the prison industrial complex and shedding light on the terrible history of medical experimentation in the Black community. I have other projects in the pipeline that I’m excited to see land on your favorite podcasts platforms, so be on the lookout!
SFF and society at large greatly benefit from a wealth of diverse voices and stories in genre. Why do you think it’s so hard sometimes for marginalized creators to have their voices heard? What has made publishing seem so hesitant in the past to amplify a wealth of marginalized stories? How have you circumvented this as an editor?

Representation for creators happens in cycles, I think. Usually, there is a blow-up, then some remedies to fix it, and then the backlash against those remedies. In my editorial and producing career so far (15 years for those counting), I’ve literally seen this cycle happen like clockwork: RaceFail2009, BookExpo fallout/ rise of diversity initiatives like We Need Diverse Books, Puppygate, and another wave of publishing & media reactions in alliance with the George Floyd protests. Right now, we have had a lot of institutional changes but I’m waiting for the backlash to happen (and arguably, say we’re going to see more of that in the coming months). The only silver lining is that everytime a cycle happens, some measure of change remains. It’s two steps forward, one step back.
That’s why it’s hard for marginalized people to break out. It’s exhausting to keep up with an industry that wears you down. Sometimes it feels like you become a broken record, asking for the same changes instead of focusing on your art-making. It wastes your valuable time. Sometimes you wonder if your fears and anxieties about acceptance and support of marginalized creators and art workers are real: that can stagnate your energy. And, worst of all, sometimes those fears are real, and that can be crushing. I’ve gone through all those scenarios. It sucks.
The best bet you can have is to keep at it with like-minded collaborators, plotters, and visionaries. There will always be those people who can help you, support you, and amplify you. Hold on to that collective power. Don’t let personal egos get in the way. Think beyond what institutions have told you, but be realistic about what progress can mean. Be generous when you have the energy to be. Take risks, but also make sure you have a soft place to shelter and nurture your creative, mental, and spiritual self when things get rough. That’s what I’ve learned as an editor, and I think it applies to a lot about life in general as a marginalized person.
What do you hope to see from the future of SFF, the types of stories it’s telling, and the types of voices it’s amplifying?
The future? Right now, I hope that our creative fields can still be a feasible industry to work in the future — that it will still have full-time work with benefits and growth opportunities that don’t get converted to temp jobs or freelance gigs with no traditional benefits for workers.
I want writers and artists to be able to gain collective bargaining power in industries where they had been unable to before (video games, I see you!). I want to continue to support accessibility for non-Western and Global South creators to reach “the Industry.”
I want to make sure that large and small spaces — whether you’re a two-person staffed online magazine, an indie press, a Big Five publisher, or a podcasting company — treat their artists and staff with fairness, respect, and open hearts.
I think these support networks are some of the things we desperately need to make sure SFF as an art and media can be sustainable. I want SFF to be open to telling innovative stories that don’t have to rely on monolithic “commercial” standards to succeed.
That way, we’ll see new science fiction and fantasy stories that are interactive, more diverse, and more wide-ranging in topics and scope.  That is when we can break open the imagination in ways I can’t even guess at.

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