Whenever a journal accepts a short story of mine I seem to act (at least in my head) all crushed out on the journal that took it. No different than a teenage girl, really, I get all smitten that someone is smitten enough with my words to want my story. They probably all rely on that reaction—if they didn’t we’d get paid more, or at all in some cases.
Such is the case of this one particular journal that took a story of mine. The main character in the story explores her emancipation from an early twenties bad or worse—mundane sex life by following her dreams. Literally following them with a Tom Waits soundtrack no less. Inventive, I thought. It’s had a great reception when I’ve read it at various places. Goes well in bars. It wasn’t explicit. It just used a word. Once.
When the editor first accepted it, I was elated because to me that meant that someone else got it or at least someone else thought he got it—and that really, was good enough.
And then something weird happened. An editor—not the one who accepted it but a woman from the same journal wrote me and asked me to make changes. I’ll admit that having reworked stories and revised many times often there’s a mistake in tense here and there or some other overlooked grammatical issue that I attribute to working with ESL and community college students too long and wearing trifocals. I’m blind and I hear rotten English all the time. I ‘m not always stellar with the grammar right out of the gate.
But the second editor didn’t want to fix any grammatical errors. She wanted to change the voice of the character.
The character is in her early 20s and because I feel like they are under represented, I’ve been writing a collection of stories called the 605 Freeway Stories—all about those underrepresented folks born along the same freeway I was born near—kids who want to get out but find it’s not quite bad enough to leave. Kids that grew up in Los Angeles’ shadow. So she has an accent or rather a way of speech that I affectionately deem ‘chola valley’—one part chola, one part valley girl, etc. This accent exists. I had it for awhile for goodness sakes. It is the accent of KROQ in 80s/90s LA.
But the editor informed me that this accent doesn’t exist. She seemed to think Mexican American characters should focus on getting out of the barrio or something I know little about since I know more about the Mexican Americans that followed the Smiths and wanted to have Morrissey’s love child and open art galleries when they were older. That’s the kind of hood I know about.
But I’m use to that. I once had an editor suggest that instead of a character having whiskey they should have tequila because that’s the more believable libation for a Mexican American. Never mind that it was a memoir piece. A piece about me. And what I drink.
But what really got the female editor freaked was that I used the P-word. The main character who by design is not in touch with herself and has not ever had an orgasm from someone else discovers in her dreams what it’s all about—and to celebrate? She uses the P-word: PUSSY.
I don’t even particularly like the word pussy. When I see it in dialog I think bad porn movie. When it’s been whispered to me in the throes of passion it’s made me totally break into laughter. It’s too hairy and seventies to me. But for my character the P-word is a source of strength and acknowledgement. If it was me, I’d have said ‘cunt.’
The woman editor, the one who didn’t accept the story but was working with the story, said it needed to be changed. We can’t have the P-word in there. It wouldn’t be literary to have the P-word. Could I refer to it instead as going down? Or down there? Or something to that effect?
Perhaps it is because many journals have accepted my work in the last two years. Perhaps it’s because they’ve paid for my stories. Perhaps I was just in a bad mood. Or perhaps I just thought of my character in all her glory just not being in her glory if she had to hide behind ‘down there’ and not be forthright with her anatomy—especially when it was finally being attended to properly. I didn’t change it and after holding onto my story for SIX MONTHS, the initial editor, the one who got it wrote me a note with a bit of an apology for thinking I was literary when clearly , pussy got in the way of that.
Yes, I’ll send my story out once again for submission and someone somewhere , hopefully will find it just as funny, witty , and yes LITERARY as the initial editor and I did. It’s a good fucking story.
As to that other editor, the one who wants her Mexican Americans with specific immigrant diction and too demure to say ‘pussy’? Well, maybe she just doesn’t know what’s down there.