Six Afghan Women Writers from The GOAT PoL

 
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Matthew Stadler

Art by Latifa Zafar Attaii

 

Most literary journals function like boutique shops: someone, or several, with exalted tastes and a broad knowledge of the field selects the very best writing from out of an ocean of lesser work and rewards their readers by exposing us to great writing while shielding us from the mediocre or truly bad work. As in all scarcity economies, the value and reputation of the journal is buoyed by its exclusivity (the best reject the most) and by its expense (which is not strictly monetary . . . a hard-to-obtain journal, or one available only to a select audience, merits praise, while blogging platforms, so-called “self publishing,” and free circulars raise suspicion). This is neither a good nor a bad way to circulate new writing to readers; it’s simply the normative model—what new journals aspire to and are measured by—and it has been for many centuries.

Boutique shops can be exhilarating, but they can also be exhausting or discouraging. No one can doubt the sincerity of true fans who praise the unique discernment of their preferred shops and are loyal, but for me it’s mostly exhausting. Probably I’m blind to the quality of what they purvey. I lack appreciation for their central task of selecting only the best, because I don’t know what is “best,” so I gravitate toward thrift stores.

Thrift stores offer essentially the opposite service of boutiques: in most thrift stores we escape the unhindered exercise of the proprietor’s taste. Accident and circumstances (including the proprietor’s taste) birth a chaos of offerings, a dynamic, variable mix of the good, the bad, and the ugly that is similar to life lived in public spaces, or in cities, among crowds. There’s volume and sifting; there is boredom and sudden reward; there is confusion too. It helps to go slow. Every object holds secrets and sometimes you are the key that unlocks them. Going to a thrift store with a bunch of friends is thrilling—everybody finds their own treasures—by contrast, an avaricious fan of this or that boutique will fight for a place in line, competing with friends for the scarce “best-of” whatever it is they seek.

The GOAT PoL (The Geopolitical Open Atlas of The Polity of Literature) is a thrift store. As a journal of literature it offers readers the mundane chaos of a dynamic, variable mix of the good, the bad, and the ugly. Its pleasures are the pleasures of thrifting—surprise, difference, wallowing haphazardly in a garden of subjectivities. It is a superb place to meet people, especially strangers whose lives are entirely unlike your own. It’s also a thrilling and uplifting place to read and write. I’ve never before had so much pleasure and reward as an editor and reader. Having done this work in the old way for many decades (my first job in publishing was reading the slush pile at Antaeus in the 1980s), time and circumstance brought me back to thrifting, and I’m pleased.

Like so many good thrift stores, The GOAT PoL makes a mockery of the “free market” (that ubiquitous framework in which more money signals increased value). Money is exchanged, yes, but only as a token of respect for everyone involved in the exchange: everyone gets the same, roughly, and it’s not a lot. We pay our writers fifty euros each time they publish with us, regardless of what they make and publish. The money confirms our belief in the legitimacy of their work and the equality of our regard for each of them.

The GOAT PoL is designed to displace the free market of literature with a polity of literature. It’s that simple. Rather than arguing about the merits or flaws of literature’s current market, those who write or read in The GOAT PoL sidestep it to enter a polity. The great refugee writer Hannah Arendt explained that a polity, properly speaking, “is not the city-state in its physical location; it is the organization of the people as it arises out of acting and speaking together for this purpose, no matter where they happen to be … It is the space of appearance in the widest sense of the word, namely, the space where I appear to others as others appear to me.” Such, Arendt says (following Aristotle) are the preconditions for politics. In The GOAT PoL writers who might otherwise be excluded from citizenship, agency, and belonging can find those things in a polity of literature.

 

At The GOAT PoL, one of the nine Reader/Advisor/Editors (RAEs)—Parwana Amiri, Negar Masroori, Niels Bekkema, Louis Greenwood Lüthi, Kimberly Mutandiro, Izra Rosario, Audrey Simango, Matthew Stadler, and Alison Turner—will agree to work on and publish the story a writer sends us. The RAEs are not arbiters of quality, only fellow travelers in the activity of writing and reading. We pay every writer for working with us and letting us publish their story. The writers retain all the rights, including to republish the very same pieces with anybody else who wants to publish them. Our money doesn’t buy the commodity of their story—we secure no future rights to it—but pays every writer equally for working with us to make a polity. We’re midwives, laying no future claim to that which we help birth.

Unsurprisingly, when we launched The GOAT PoL it quickly filled with writers, most of them women and almost all from the Global South. In our first year of operation we’ve published more than six hundred original stories by over four hundred writers, largely from sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. We’re forced to close our public submission for many weeks or months because the nine RAEs swiftly reach our limit of working with one hundred writers at a time (aggregate). The last time we reopened it, all one hundred spots were filled within a day. One of the puzzles that lie ahead for The GOAT PoL is how to keep a living polity of literature open with scarce resources (our total budget is $150,000/year paid for by the Musagetes Foundation in Guelph, Ontario).

The polity grows through word-of-mouth and online readers. So, after we work with one or two writers from this or that African city, or a school in Afghanistan, or a refugee camp, we tend to get dozens or scores more of writers applying from the same places. Dowa, Malawi now has more than fifty stories on The GOAT PoL. And in Herat and Kabul we’ve had the honor of working with a dozen young women whose reactions to the exclusion of girls and women from the schools has led them to seek our support as Reader/Advisor/Editors: we accept them, honor them, pay them, and we get to publish them. Their resilience astonishes me. In the face of worse obstacles than most people can even imagine they’re forging a body of work that’s effervescent, funny, wry, and bitterly knowing. I barely know their influences and cannot find any limit to their creativity. Their prose is burning with vitality, furious with life. For a thorough immersion, readers should look at Mozhgan Mahjoob's debut book of stories, which is the first book in The GOAT PoL's new publishing imprint. You can find Under the Sky Beneath the Moon available through Publication Studio.

At Dale Peck’s invitation I’ve assembled a portfolio of six young women writers from Afghanistan. Some are teenagers and some are older; they are sisters, daughters, granddaughters, and all are producing vibrant literature against all obstacles and odds. You’ll find them, and more, at The GOAT PoL. Get ready to slow down, browse and sift, and be surprised. Readers are as vital to a polity of literature as are writers, flipsides of a single coin. So we welcome you to our thrift shop—the doors are always open.

 
 

Spring / Summer 2024



Matthew Stadler

Matthew Stadler is the author of Allan Stein, Landscape: Memory, The Dissolution of Nicholas Dee, and The Sex Offender. He is the recipient of Guggenheim and Ingram-Merrill fellowships, a Whiting Writer’s Award, and a United States Artists fellowship in the inaugural round. He edits the Fellow Travelers series of books and is founder and editor of The GOAT PoL. He lives in Seattle.



Latifa Zafar Attaii

Born in 1994 in Ghazni, Afghanistan, Latifa Zafar Attaii’s journey took her from Quetta, Pakistan, where she lived as a refugee, to pursuing fine arts at Kabul University. She was awarded the UMISAA scholarship and continued her artistic endeavors at Beaconhouse National University in Lahore, graduating from the School of Visual Arts and Design in 2017. Latifa has showcased her work in numerous global exhibitions, from China and Switzerland to Dubai, Abu Dhabi, India, and Pakistan. She was the second-prize winner for the Allegro Art Prize 2021. She currently resides and works in Tehran.



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