“Living in the South, specifically North Carolina has been a culture shock and very different as an artist of color,” poet Khalisa “Kelly” Rae Williams says. “I have found the artistic community is very segregated, and folks here assume a lot about you before getting to know you.”
Williams helped start the Bottega poetry slam, as well as hosted a living-room open-mic series in her home. Despite having a master’s in poetry from Queens University, and garnering experience as a teacher and published author (“Real Girls Have Real Problems”), she’s felt a sense of not belonging to the artist/writing community of Wilmington.
“On several occasions, I have been to UNCW or local collegiate writing events or open mics/readings, and have been asked, ‘Oh, you’re not at UNCW? So what do you do?’ (looking very unimpressed),” she remembers. “I have helped build the independent writing and arts community in Wilmington for many years, and have felt like I wasn’t welcome at art events, readings, etc. . . . There was a period I would reach out to folks in the academic writing community and wouldn’t get any response—no support—and it really made me question my significance.”
To Williams it became apparent there is a certain type of writing or stories people find “worthy” or appealing. She didn’t fit the mold as a young woman of color, sharing her work and art. She noticed older folks in the writing community also were segregated from younger people. Williams wanted to bridge the gap. “Of course, it is all about representation and exposure,” she adds.
Enter: Athenian Press & Workshops. Founded by Williams, Lori Wilson and Daisuke Shen, Athenian is currently raising funds via Kickstarter to launch a feminist bookstore, print press and supportive hub for femme writers and artists in Wilmington. Moreover, they want to represent all ages, backgrounds, creeds, and ethnicities.
“We serve women and any femme-identifying people anywhere on the queer spectrum,” Wilson clarifies. “We will have programming for all ages, femininities, sexualities, races, religious affiliations, etc. A friend of mine who came to our recent launch party previously identified as a man, but at the event I found out [wants to be expressed] as a nonbinary person. This person is incredibly supportive of us and what we’re doing, and I think that’s because we’re very sensitive about the language we use. If we said ‘women only,’we wouldn’t be able to reach queer folks who are also often marginalized.”
As a white woman, Wilson acknowledges she’s experienced more privilege than her co-founders—both women of color. She’s found positions as a professional writer and editor at UNCW’s Atlantis magazine and as the former marketing coordinator with Pomegranate Books. Nevertheless, she says, in almost every professional setting, the company is managed by men. She believes femme-identifying folks suffer from a drastic confidence and pay gap as a result of centuries of ingrained gender expectations.
“Studies show as soon as young girls begin to identify with their version of femininity, they begin to raise their hands in the classroom less and less,” she observes. “I do this. I drop my hand or stop talking when a man in the room jumps in, even though I’m aware of the problem. Our organization is about writing and art, but it’s also about agency—giving women a voice in all fields through their own self-assurance and language.”
To be fair, Wilson observes men suffer from stereotypes, too. Just as young girls lose their voices when they begin school, boys feel pressure to “stay strong” and adopt masculine roles and qualities. However, there’s a reason female authors have used pseudonyms for hundreds of years, well into the 21st century.
“JK Rowling, for example, used her initials because she knew she wouldn’t have been as successful otherwise,” Wilson observes. “We’re making a point to give women and femmes the attention and resources men have had for centuries ahead of us.”
Wilson became inspired to open a feminist bookstore several years ago as a UNCW student who was learning about under-representation and misrepresentation of women in publishing. After the 2016 election, she started looking for partners to make something happen. “I couldn’t do it by myself,” she notes, “but I couldn’t wait any longer.”
They launched a Kickstarter a few weeks ago with the goal of raising $35,000. Last weekend, they had an anonymous donation of $10,000 come through, so as of press time, they were a third of the way closer to their goal. The founders hope to find a downtown brick and mortar. Until then, they continue to strengthen the femme community of artists and writers through hosting Wine (or Beer) Down Wednesdays at Flytrap Brewing, 5:30 p.m. – 7 p.m.
“This is an opportunity for other women and femme creatives to get together in a safe space to chat and network,” Wilson notes. “We also have our Athenian at Large meetings on Sundays at Pomegranate Books at 3:30 p.m. It’s a volunteer meeting, but also an opportunity for the community to learn more about we’re doing and a way for us to gage what is needed.”
Once the bookstore launches, they will host Athenian workshops for writing—fiction to screenwriting, technical writing to copyediting. Williams will hold a “Poetry as Protest” workshop to teach the use of poetry as a vehicle for social change. Shen will focus on outreach within public schools and coordinate creative writing programs for youth.
“Beyond craft we’ll offer professional development seminars by bringing in literary agents, being résumé coaches, and more,” Wilson continues. “We also want to partner with other nonprofits who serve women—perhaps connecting with domestic violence advocates to teach writing skills to women who are looking for work after surviving an abusive marriage.”
Athenian is currently seeking volunteers and interns who want to help with marketing and communications. They particularly need digital experts, graphic designers, photographers, and folks who can assist with fundraising and other events.
“We are also looking for Athenian members,” Williams says. “They are writers and artists who want to help build a community, galvanize support, and be the foundation of supporters and customers once we open.
Athenian will be a nonprofit, too. So they have to build a board. Folks interested in becoming a board member can reach out to the ladies. “In order to stay afloat, we must have a strong support system and a strong board,” Wilson tells. “We need seasoned women, passionate about our mission, and experienced in a particular career field to sit on our board and guide us. That’s what a board is all about, but also to help leverage their resources and contacts to make us sustainable and long-lasting.”
Readers immediately can support Athenian at their upcoming Femme Rock Fest on November 19, at 5 p.m. at Flytrap Brewing. The fundraiser will feature Wilmington-based female singers, songwriters and rock bands, including Chasing Opal, Johanna Winkel, Cara Schauble and Laura McClean. Athenian will host a fundraising auction at Mayfaire and Pembroke’s in The Forum from Nov. 26-Dec. 1, with more details to come at athenianpw.org.
Read on for an extended interview with Kelly Williams and Lori Wilson.
encore (e): What have been some of your personal experiences in as professional writers/creatives?
Kelly Williams (KW): As a whole Athenian has felt like we haven’t been supported in the community because of our mission and because we are young women, and the two of us are young women of color that identify as queer. Wilmington has never seen that before! I’m sure it’s a shock, but we are literally having to find support in other cities and states because we have not seen mass support, for something this groundbreaking, and we think it’s because of the skin we are in. Young women—young women of color making a huge political statement that we want our voice heard, and we want to stop being discriminated against in the art and writing world.
Just yesterday, I was vending at an event for Athenian and a man walked up to my table and threw our papers aside, and again asked me what I did, and laughed when I told him. Then another woman asked, “Is this a black thing?” Here in Wilmington, the way I look and the color of my skin makes people assume I can’t possibly be an artist, or a writer, and a published author and professor. When I tell them I am, they scoff, or don’t believe me. I also have seen where my white peers, with less experience get more opportunities, job offers, and support than I have, especially from art enthusiasts. It’s, like, for some reason, when young women of color are starting something, people don’t trust or believe that you know what you are doing—and Lori and I and Daisuke have collectively had 10-plus years doing this work. I have run a nonprofit before and am fully capable, but, again, we constantly feel like we have to prove that.
e: Kelly, you talked about women having “fake confidence” in your recent WHQR interview. Can you expand on what this is and how it’s instilled in professionals, as well as your ideas on how to build real confidence with Athenian?
KW: When I say “fake confidence,” especially in women—and particularly women of color—women are told to smile, and grin and bear it. Well, black women are taught to be strong, never seem weak. In the same regard, women—from the time they get out of college—are taught it’s a dog-eat-dog, man’s world, and you must be vicious and hold your head and nose high, never look down or [look] like you don’t know something because if you do, the men will eat you alive. And [we] become accustomed to not living full lives and not being truthful with ourselves; that we are whole people—we make mistakes, we feel pain, we get lost, etc. This fake confidence gets perpetuated because men and other women in our lives praise it, but, also, no one ever stops to ask us are we OK, or tells us that it’s OK to not “know it all” and not be strong all the time. I think Athenian is a place where we can be real, for one. It will be a safe space where women can come and say, “I need help,” or “I’m angry about this situation—misogyny, racism, sexism, feeling looked over and left out, etc.” Also, I think giving a woman a voice, an outlet to express and create, a means in which she can self-actualize, naturally creates confidence. The press and stage are great because it asks women and girls about their stories, and it allows them to share that with the community and the world.
e: Per the independent press aspect: Are you already reviewing work to publish? Are there any pieces you can tell us about?
Lori Wilson (LW): I’d love to be publishing now, but that’s not the smart decision for us. We need to build a network and audience before we try to sell books. Right now, we’re focused on building the community and a hub for our organization. This is what the Kickstarter is funding—the bookstore, resource center and event space. In the future, the same space will serve as a hub for editorial meetings, conferences, etc. We will be accepting submissions for our online lit mag in the summer of 2018 and accepting full-length manuscripts in 2019. You might see a few one-of-kind print zines from us, but we won’t be printing books of major distribution until 2020—unless, of course, we secure a major sponsor or donor who wants to see this happen sooner.
e: You mentioned looking more closely at spaces for Athenian this month. Are you closer to finding a home?
LW: Unfortunately, we won’t be able to secure a place until we raise the funds. That’s another reason why we really need the community support to come together and support the Kickstarter campaign. However, we expect success, so we’re already working with Terry Espy and Joan Walker Loach at Momentum companies to find the best deal and venue. We know we want to be downtown, so we can be accessible to some of the schools with the majority of minority students. We like the Castle Street area or Brooklyn Arts District, or maybe a space by Folks Café or the Rusty Nail. I have faith the perfect place will present itself.
e: Can you give our readers examples of what you’ll be able to accomplish first with reaching your fundraising goals?
LW: I’ve sort of answered this throughout, but I can’t stress enough the need for a space for our patrons. First of all, this provides a safe haven for our volunteers—a place to call their own and a place to feel vulnerable so that they can work together to resist marginalization.
If that doesn’t tug at your heart strings, then you should know that securing a space allows us to generate income. We are a 501(c)(3), so we can secure grants and donations, but a nonprofit can certainly generate commercial income. We have a strong business plan that requires our own venue.
Right now, we have to rent a space or meet at a coffee shop or bar for any of our programs. I’m more than happy to collaborate with other local businesses, but we’ll be holding unique events no one else in the community offers on a regular basis. It’s part of our business model to generate income at those events. Our supporters show up. We saw that with our launch party. They buy beer and wine and merchandise. Let’s benefit from that support at our own venue. In addition to selling books, we’ll have a space to sell beer and wine, stocked with products from women-owned companies.