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Pub Talk is a new interview and podcast series where KYD’s publishing director Rebecca Starford chats to some of Australia’s most experienced and influential publishers, editors and agents about the industry and the many pathways to publication for new writers.

Leah Jing McIntosh is the founder and editor of Liminal, a Melbourne-based antiracist literary platform that supports and elevates talented writers and artists of colour.

This piece is an edited extract of the full interview, which is available now on the KYD Podcast!

Leah Jing McIntosh wearing a black dress, standing behind a microphone with a pruple spotlight focused on her, holding a book in her hands.

Leah Jing McIntosh launching Liminal, 2019. Image: Anne Moffat

Tell us about Liminal? What is its origin story?

Leah Jing McIntosh: Liminal came out of my master’s research at University College London. I went to London at 23 with the idea of extending my research on white male postmodernist writers—I had recently written an honours thesis on David Foster Wallace. But during this year I had this real reckoning with race—both mine and becoming quite dissatisfied with the writers and the work we as Masters students were engaged to study. It just became glaringly clear that I, and my body, were not really welcome within this institution. This was never overtly stated, but more insidious: I never came across anyone who bore my resemblance, either in literature we studied or in the faculty.

I started getting really fed up, and I ended up choosing to write a dissertation on Asian–American poetics where I considered the relation of the othered body to the American landscape. And I found in this poetry that the body had this really uncomfortable relationship to space, and was often mutilated or made smaller or gargantuan. It became this site of unmistakable otherness.

Returning home to Melbourne, I just started feeling this really strong discomfort of being othered, being this minority settler on colonised lands. And I needed to have conversations with people who were feeling the same way. I emailed a few pals and said, ‘Hey, can we talk, do you mind if I record? Maybe we could take some portraits, I am thinking about starting this series…’ And thank god they all said yes! I just got so much from these conversations that I thought maybe others would too.

Liminal came into being through that. It started out as a capsule collection of 20 interviews, and five years later we’re approaching 200. We’ve published art, essays, fiction, poetry, comics, games, we’ve run nights for our community, we’ve presented exhibitions, and just formed a community with other likeminded people who I think feel that we can all do something together.

I wanted to use the power of the image to break up the reader’s starting assumption that the interview subject was white… This was a gesture towards visibility.

Can you tell us about the distinctive design of your website?

LJM: Lately, I have been thinking about Dr Chelsea Watego’s concept of how one can be ontologically white. And wondering about how we’re positioned to become ontologically white, and which structures are in place to colonise the mind. I’ve been thinking about this through the framework of literature, and also as a young reader. Because I’ve been reading for such a long time I came to just expect the characters to be white, or that the writer would be a white writer.

Because of this, my imaginary, or my imaginative landscape, was very specific—and thinking through this, I don’t think this was by accident, but rather by design. And it’s this mindset or imaginary landscape that’s clearly established and confirmed by both the Western literary canon, but also more through generalised representation, both on and off screen and in the media, as well as in general structures of power in Australia.

When I started Liminal, I was really concerned with visual representation, and I just wanted to use the power of the image to break up the reader’s starting assumption that the interview subject was white. And I used portraits throughout each interview because I wanted to make it clear who the interview subject was and who was speaking. This was a gesture towards visibility. And as I’m also a photographer, it felt really organic.

Three stacked copies of Liminal print volume 1. On the cover, Rainbow Chan sits in a garden with her head resting on one hand.

Liminal Print Vol.1. Image: Supplied

What does your role as editor at Liminal involve?

LJM: It’s mostly just a bunch of emails! But lately I have been meeting with some other orgs who are keen to do some projects with us, and then every few weeks, we have a meeting with the team if there’s a project on the go. We’re quite a small outfit.

I have to admit, I have fairly unconventional training. I have a Bachelor of Arts with Honours in literary studies, and a Master’s in English. So I have training, essentially, in literary criticism, which is an enormous privilege. And it’s a real joy, I’ve loved studying literature. I have, however, had two very wonderful editorial mentors, the first being Cat McInnis. She was just so generous in her guidance, and open and kind and thoughtful. The second is Adolfo Aranjuez, who is one of the best editors in Australia, I would say. He’s edited for Voiceworks, Melbourne Books, Archer, had a seven-year stint at Metro. He’s a font of knowledge.

How important is collaboration at Liminal?

LJM: Oh, so important! One of our guiding goals was to create stuff with and for one another. It really means so much to me that others are excited about Liminal. I didn’t expect it. And I think that’s part of why I needed to do it, because structuralised racism and internalised racism makes you feel like you’re not worthy, you shouldn’t be listened to, you shouldn’t really be there.

I’m just really honoured to work with the people that I work with. That’s Cher Tan, who’s also the books editor at Meanjin now, Adalya Nash Hussein is also a Liminal editor, and she edits Voiceworks. There’s Adolfo, there’s Danny Silva Soberano, who’s a poet, and then an incredible group of photographers, writers and artists. A very, very informal collective of people who are interested in this mood or feeling of making stuff together with and for one another.

How do you seek out new voices?

LJM: I would say it’s quite haphazard. Often we get pitches; often we find people through other literary magazines. Often we’ll be recommended to interview or commission someone. In a way, it’s incredibly organic but also responsive. Half of the interviews are planned throughout the year, the other half with someone saying, ‘Hey, I really love this person’s work, and I notice they’re not in there,’ and I’m like, ‘Cool, are you interested in arranging an interview?’

You have to believe that what you’re doing is staking at least a small claim or shifting the conversation even just a little bit, even just for one person, towards a better, more equitable future.

We bring together the whole team and we brainstorm and see who will fit with whom, and who’s busy right now, or if we’ve heard about anyone new. The main guiding goal in how we commission is thinking through who we have worked with, and who we would like to, and who we don’t know exists, and acknowledging that there are real gaps and trying to actively fill them.

Tell us about the Writing Commissions and Editorial Mentorships with Writers SA?

LJM: Writers SA, which is headed by Jessica Alice, approached me, and together we thought through what it would mean to not only do writing commissions but bring on emerging editors of colour to work with the Liminal editors on the actual writing projects. So there would be two tiers of writing and editing, and bringing together South Australian writers with Liminal, because we’ve always had such a Melbourne and Sydney focus.

Hopefully in this process we can upskill some people, publish some really amazing fiction and non-fiction and in doing so, and for those SA writers to hopefully have and create a more lasting relationship with their writers’ centre and with Liminal in Melbourne.

How important are litmags in shaping the discussions about racial inequality and representation in Australian publishing?

LJM: I think you have to believe that what you’re doing, whether it is writing or editing or publishing, is staking at least a small claim or shifting the conversation even just a little bit, even just for one person towards a better, more equitable future. So if that’s in demanding accountability, yes. I think if you have any kind of platform, whether you’re a literary magazine or not, that helps. But again, this is really a question of power—who holds it and how do they wield it? So yeah, I think literary magazines are both really important, and not important at all.

I always think about the fact there are no life or death emergencies in the arts. I love that line—it’s just, there aren’t! And I wonder if I’ve been thinking a lot about what it would mean to have a kind of life or death emergency in the arts and what that would look like.

An audience of people sitting in a dark room looking towards a brightly lit area out of shot. Many are laughing and smiling, there is a banner in the background saying "Emerging Writers Festival".

Liminal at the 2019 Emerging Writers Festival. Image: Hashem McAdam

At KYD, we have a lot of conversations about the ideas that are generated in Liminal and how they reflect on what we do as an organisation, our structure and our staff. And that confrontation is challenging, it’s uncomfortable, it’s awkward, but it’s crucial. Do you think these issues are being fully considered in larger organisations?

LJM: I think yes or no. Both myself and Liminal have benefited enormously from arts workers who are seeing what we’re doing. I’ve been invited on to many panels; I’ve been told that some people comb our archives for panel guests, or for commissions, or just to find new talent. So that’s exciting. Even the fact that there are people out there in different organisations who are willing to support Liminal and the people who make part of it is thrilling to me. And I think it speaks to change, but also just to learning, to people being open and people being willing to think through what structures have helped them, and how they can then turn back and pull someone else up.

I think—and obviously this is very general—and there are many issues with people who don’t do that, or issues with diversity as simply an aesthetic or a box to tick. But I think generally it’s been so heartening to see the support and the shifts that have been happening in the last five years. I feel so lucky to have started doing this work at a point where people were ready for it.

I started Liminal alone and have brought people along, and they’ve all collected through the same feeling…I love that we’ve created that kind of community.

In May 2021, Liminal  interviewed Radhiah Chowdhury, an author, commissioning editor and senior audiobook producer at Penguin Random House, and she said ‘there can be no equity without the powerful ceding some power’. How can the industry work harder towards the ceding of some of that power?

LJM: I feel so lucky that Radhiah gave us that interview. There’s this part where she explains that publishing houses just have not been built for us, and describes, at some point in the life of a book, a writer of colour coming up against a wall of whiteness that will leave a mark. I’m always thinking about what that mark is and what we could do to shift or change or delete or erase that mark, or make sure it doesn’t happen. I started Liminal alone and have brought people along and they’ve all collected through the same feeling. It’s why I really love doing this project: we can publish these incisive and generous and thoughtful conversations.

What are both the challenges, and the joys, of running an org like Liminal?

LJM: I mean, obviously a problem is always capitalism and capital—literal capital. Funding is very difficult for arts orgs, it’s only getting more difficult. We are applying for funding for next year, so it’s always a bit of an odd waiting game where you pour out so much of your emotional and intellectual labour into a grant application and send it off, and hope for the best.

But I think from the very start I’ve always known it’s fairly commercially unviable, unless I have a few major donors. I’m sad that these ideas must always be anchored in finding money, finding funding. But that’s just the truth of it.

And are there any unexpected joys? There are so many joys! I’m overwhelmed with the joy—I think most of the time, my real joy is finding people who have found other people through Liminal—good friends or best friends, or even their partner! And that’s so cool. I love that we’ve created that kind of community.

What are you working on now?

LJM: We’re currently in the process of putting our second volume to print. It contains essays, interviews with people like Jenny Kee, Tony Ayres, Fuzzy, there’s new fiction by Julie Koh, there’s some poems by Bella Li and Omar Sakr. It’s been in the works for three years, and COVID shifted around some stuff, but it should be out by December, and I am ready to hold it in my hands!