Her Plumage: An Anthology of Women’s Writings from Quail Bell Magazine
Edited by Christine Sloan Stoddard and Gretchen Gales
Quail Bell Press, Nov. 30, 2019
204 pages, $24.99
Quail Bell Magazine was founded by Christine Sloan Stoddard in Richmond, Virginia while Stoddard was a student at VCUarts. The magazine is run by a staff of women who dedicate themselves to critiquing values and issues “not always carefully examined by mainstream magazines.” Her Plumage is Quail Bell’s third anthology, and the first to be published by their Quail Bell Press. Proceeds of Her Plumage go towards RAINN, the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline. RAINN is an unfortunate necessity—especially during this time of forced stay-at-home orders; vulnerable people are more in need of their services than ever.
When I asked the managing editors of Her Plumage why they specifically chose RAINN to support, their answers were enlightening. “While women certainly aren’t the only population affected by sexual violence by any means, advocating for women’s voices to be heard and validated brings attention to causes stereotyped as ‘women’s issues’ only,” said Gretchen Gales, co-editor of Her Plumage.
“We also felt it was important to choose an organization that maintains a presence throughout the country, including the South,” explained Christine Sloan Stoddard, co-editor. “As a Salvadoran-American, I personally also thought about how many survivors are immigrants, children of immigrants, and people of color who live outside of cities. I wanted us to choose an organization that didn’t forget about them.”
As The New Southern Fugitive’s credo is to “help disrupt the southern literary landscape,” I thought Stoddard’s comment deserved to be highlighted. Too often the South is forgotten in efforts to help end systemic violence—forgetting, perhaps willingly, that the South was rebuilt in an image of systemic oppression. According to the Human Rights Campaign, for example, there’s an epidemic of violence against trans bodies of color in the US and worldwide. Of the 26 reported homicide deaths in the United States in 2019 of trans and non-gender conforming people, 91% were black women, 81% were under age 30 and 68% were from the South. And yet there are fewer resources for women of color, non-gender conforming, and trans people in the South than in the rest of the country. RAINN is one of those few, valuable resources.
Her Plumage celebrates “the experience of being a woman,” Gales said. That is apparent in their selections, which feature both Quail Bell staff members as well as contributors to the magazine, all women. Though overall, the collection may be lacking voices from the LGBTQIA+ community, Stoddard mentioned that Quail Bell would “be interested in working on an anthology for trans and non-binary voices in the future.” She went on to say that she and Gales “have brainstormed tons of ideas for other anthologies and [she] look[s] forward to realizing [their] dreams.”
The sections of Her Plumage are made up of folios of each artist’s work, chosen by the editors at large as well as the writers. These folios “were a means of starting with the women as individuals and then seeing what relevant writings they had to offer for the anthology,” said Stoddard. “Some of the pieces were new, others had been published in the magazine.”
I can’t help but to look at the pieces selected by the editors and writers. Why these specific pieces? Why not others? When a folio is comprised solely of one piece, as is the case for Lashelle Johnson’s folio, “Reclaiming Blackness,” you have to examine it a little closer. Johnson is the founder of Watermelanin, an independent magazine by and for artists of color. The essay is well written, emotionally driven, and important because black bodies face violence at rates several times that of white bodies. But Johnson is a poet, and it is a shame that we see none of her poetry in her folio. It’s an interesting choice that makes you read “Reclaiming Blackness” again.
Several folios made me go back to them more than once.
There was brutal honesty in the words of Mari Pack, about her disabled body moving through an abled world. The systemic oppression faced by bodies not perceived as “normal.” In “The Cost of Things: On Illness and Privilege,” Pack’s father begs: “Please,” he says. “Be kind to my daughter.” There was anger in Erynn Porter’s pieces: “To be chronically ill is to be vulnerable…out of focus.” Leah Mueller is the only writer among the bunch in her 60s, who has lived experiences the rest may not and the ability to shed honest light on the boomer/millennial divide. Emily Linstrom’s folio, made up of a travel essay in acts, shows how even a fictional/historical body belonging to a thirteen-year-old girl is no longer hers once a man has written it down.
Beyond these, there were other spectacular pieces of writing. Archita Mittra’s prose poetry is stark and haunted by family and tradition and the colonial world she lives in:
i light candles every dusk & know what the twitching in my left eye means but i’m no brave durga like my grandma or my mother or all the other magic-women who’ve learnt to wrap patriarchy round their necks like scarves not shrouds.
Monique Quintana—one of the non-staff writers—makes us live in her narrator’s body and its pain as she navigates the streets of her California town and reclaims her heritage:
Pain radiates from the top of my spine to my ankle. Fake pearl buttons mark the top of this pain…I tease my hair with a rattail comb and Aqua Net and choke my ankles with red leather sandal straps to mark the end of the pain. I burn sage in a soup bowl, and my neighbors shrink away in their bungalows like little rabbits. If only they could be rabbits with pink eyes, they would understand me better. They would not demonize my gods.
I hadn’t realized until I’d read through the end notes that the bulk of the anthology is made up of Quail Bell Magazine staff. Only four pieces—the last four—are from non-staff members. It makes you question why Quail Bell Press’s first publication looks inward in such a way. “Quail Bell is proud to be a women-run publication,” said Gales. “Throughout the years, we have learned so much about each other through the writing we have created. It made sense to honor their hard work as a collective feminine voice.”
There is some startlingly beautiful work in Her Plumage. Like a blue jay appearing outside your window, heralding the coming of spring with its brilliant blue wings. We’ve all been waiting for spring, longer than any other year many of us have faced. “It doesn’t even matter if we’ve had the exact same personal experiences or not,” Stoddard reminded us. “We could all relate to feelings of exclusion, alienation, otherness, and oppression, as well as our willingness to fight, persevere, and rise again.” It’s been a long, hard winter, and with the uncertainty of what comes next, we all need something startling, something beautiful.
If you or a loved one are suffering from domestic violence, please call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673, or visit https://hotline.rainn.org/online
You are not alone. Confidential help is available, for free, 24 hours every day.