I felt elated and a tiny bit nervous reading over an Instagram DM from the ladies at Dear Journal just over a year ago. They wanted my “feminist rants, photography, visual and emoji art, bathtub revelations, failed/fake online dating bios, rejected grad school applications, erotic fan fiction … you get the idea.” Immediately, I opened a Word document and began typing the lead to a piece I’d had on the brain for months.
That winter, after a gleeful acceptance email, edits, and conversations over Messenger, I stood behind a microphone at The Tallest Poppy, ready to share the contents of that Word document. This time I felt equal parts nervous and elated. I gave myself a shake, grinned sheepishly (a gesture I later saw recorded on video), and began to read.
That night I was met with compliments and laughter in all the right places. I hugged women I’d known only through their social media pages, shared moments of animated conversation, exchanged smiles of encouragement across the room.
Now it’s a Saturday in June, and I’m set to spend the afternoon wandering along the river and chatting with Dear Journal’s founders, Laina Hughes and Dunja Kovacevic. As they strike poses out of a Sear’s catalogue and we joke about The Spice Girls and America’s Next Top Model, the trees echo with shutter clicks and laughter. Our conversation flows easily and spills over well into the afternoon.
FULL: What made you decide to start Dear Journal?
DK: We had always talked about doing something in the distant future, but felt like we weren’t quite ready; we needed more skills, more experience. At some point we realised that we would never feel ready, we just needed to do it. I think it came out of the two of us wanting to submit work, but then feeling self-conscious about it, or not really knowing any outlets in the city that we felt comfortable submitting to.
I took a course at the University of Winnipeg with Heather Milne called Topics in Women’s Writing, Life Writing. That course was such a revelation for me. It expanded my idea of what you could read in a class and exposed me to different contemporary narratives. I became really interested in the concept of writing our lives and how for women, non-binary people, two-spirited, people of colour, that is still a radical thing. Life writing is still often dismissed. It’s termed as being not literary enough or confessional, all those sort of coded words that are really quite dismissive.
We were interested in that as a place of resistance, a place to write from. We wanted to create a platform to celebrate that. It was important to us that it wasn’t an academic journal, so we could encourage emerging artists and writers, people who had never written before, people who don’t consider themselves artists or writers, but have something they want to say. We wanted to resist that hierarchy of experience that often happens in journals.
The main concern for the first issue was whether anyone else would care about this. We thought we had a really cool idea, but we weren’t sure if anyone else would care. And we were really surprised by the response.
LH: Lots of people from Winnipeg, lots of people from elsewhere – Canada, the States, we had contributors from Australia, Bulgaria, Ireland. It was really neat to watch this thing become bigger than ourselves.
FULL: What do you do to encourage diversity in what you publish?
LH: We have to acknowledge first and foremost that Dunja and I are both white, able-bodied, cishet women. We recognize that voices and experiences like ours are not the only ones out there, and it’s important that Dear Journal reflect that. The fact that we were even able to take on and produce a project such as this is a great privilege.
DK: In our first issue, we accepted everything that we received. The issue was about 80 pages. After it went out, we started dialogue with a few people who pointed out that our first issue was pretty white. And we said, “We took everything that was given to us and that’s what we got.” But then we started recognizing that by calling ourselves an intersectional journal, there’s a responsibility that comes with that. If the majority of submissions were from white people, what is it about our submission call or the things that we’re posting?
LH: Where we’re posting, what platforms we’re using, who we’re connecting with?
DK: So we definitely made a much bigger effort for issue two to reach out to specific influencers and communities. We developed a relationship with Black Girl Magic and traded calls for submissions and social media support. We’ve also reached out to some Indigenous women and writers in Winnipeg.
FULL: What are some of your goals around community with Dear Journal?
DK: Part of why we include people’s social media info in their bios is because we want people who really connect with a piece to be able to go and follow that person online.
LH: Now I’ll be on Instagram and notice that someone who contributed posted something and another contributor liked it and that connection was made through Dear Journal.
DK: I was struck too by what a positive, welcome space our launch was. It was almost everyone’s first time reading creative work, we were a little uncertain and knock-kneed, but the place was packed and people were so effusive.
FULL: There’s something about having that community right in front of you. To be able to go out into a space and feel safe as a feminist woman is a special thing. Those connections are so substantial as opposed to how we think about online ones.
DK: Part of my thinking and research is around growing up in an online generation. I have developed real friendships online.
LH: And feminist communities have gotten stronger because of these online, supposedly tenuous connections. They can become stronger than a lot of real life stuff. If you’re living in a small town and there’s no one who you relate to, it’s powerful to go online and post something and have all these shares and likes.
DK: Or just to see an online presence that you connect to when you feel like an anomaly, an aberration. You go online and see all these other people just like you, it’s comforting.
As someone who struggles with cyclical depression, there are times when getting out of the house is really hard for me. I feel very isolated. It’s nice to have friends in other places who will check in with me online. I’m part of group chats with people who don’t live here; we send each other pep talks. So for someone to say that that isn’t real, or those connections aren’t valuable isn’t okay. I feel like that conversation about the realness of the internet will always be around, but internet friendships and internet activism isn’t always armchair activism, it’s real.
Even being visible as someone who is deemed other by society is a form of activism, and a legitimate form of rebellion. One of the main attacks on today’s feminism is that it’s selfie feminism, superficial. I disagree with that. I think that it can be, but that there’s also power in that kind of feminism. There’s a power when a woman takes a selfie simply because she feels good.
LH: To feel like you hate the way you look and then one day you feel good about it. Why not record and share that?
DK: Then you’ll have other women respond and say, “Babe,” that sort of stuff. It’s empowering to have women supporting one another instead of finding flaws or tearing one another down.
LH: I feel like the only people I’ve ever heard legitimately complain about selfies are men. And I go, “Well, she didn’t take that picture for you, is that why you’re so sad?”
DK: Then five minutes later, it’s, “You’re so beautiful, I don’t know why you don’t know that.” But when you take the photo, you’re narcissistic and shallow.
FULL: There’s so much internal turmoil that goes on when you’re a feminist, in the sense that you want to stick up for yourself when you’re confronted like that, but then the moment comes and you’re caught off guard. You start to carry around scripts in your head just in case.
LH: I think about how I “should” behave as a feminist, especially regarding Instagram. When I first started, I thought it was a cool way to take and edit pictures. Increasingly it became, “What’s going to get the most likes? What’s going to be the funniest?” And then I started thinking about the fact that I had this platform, this space that I’m taking up, and that I’m not using it in a political way to convey a message.
DK: But that’s exhausting too.
LH: It is, and that’s why I just post cat pictures.
DK: I’ve gone the other way. I’ve really been trying to work through some of my more theoretical ideas and using Instagram as a platform for that performance: particularly when it comes to practicing a form of conscious vulnerability or radical softness.
People in my extended family or who I’ve known in a professional context have reacted to my Instagram very negatively because they felt like it didn’t make sense with who I was. They imply I can’t be a person with mental health issues and also be professional. I think the reason why people respond that way is because it’s very threatening to see young women, or anyone who’s a member of a marginalized or repressed group, owning their identity and confronting or playing with certain stereotypes. I do think that Instagram can be a very powerful medium for that.
But sometimes I forget that I’m putting this out there in the world, and then I’ve finally gotten out of the house after debating for four hours if I can possibly leave my bed, and I run into someone at the bakery who asks, “Is your day going okay?” I forget that I’ve shared this information with people.
LH: I’m only representing a small part of myself on Instagram: the superficial, funny cat pictures. But because I’m just doing that, I’m not showing my true self. I worry about not being a good example, or a strong feminist because I’m not using it politically. But then I go, no, at the end of the day this is what I want to make of it, and I don’t want to spend too much mental energy on this platform.
DK: I think that’s healthy on some level. I feel like there’s additional pressure now. We all have to be role models or public figures: people who perform our politics and our identities online. Sometimes that’s to the detriment of our own health.
FULL: The internet definitely opens up a lot of opportunity for complexity when it comes to our identities and how we connect to other people. Tell me more about the decision to bring Dear Journal to print, rather than exist as an online publication.
DK: We wanted to create a community, but also legitimize everyone’s work by publishing it in a volume rather than throwing up a blog. It’s something to hold. And it’s encouraging for writers to have something published in an actual physical journal.
FULL: People talk about print media going away, there is still something about it that seems more legitimate.
LH: I work in publishing, which people often think of as a dying industry because books are on their way out. But they’re not actually. eBooks have already peaked and now they’re levelling off, because people still want to have a book.
DK: It’s like the vinyl revival. People will continue to buy this, there’s just more pressure on you to make sure that the actual physical thing is worth the money. So for us, we want Dear Journal to be visually stunning.
By doing work online, printing and hosting events, we’re opening up a lot of space for community. We both want Dear Journal to be a space for connection and we hope that other projects will take off from those connections. There’s an infinite amount of space for that.