Writer and environmental historian Jessica J. Lee believes nature writing has a diversity problem. Having lived all over the world and sat on numerous panels at book festivals, the British-Canadian-Taiwanese author of Two Trees Make a Forest: On Memory, Migration and Taiwan (Hamish Hamilton, 2020), decided in 2018 to found The Willowherb Review, a digital literary magazine devoted to nature writing by people of color.
“We’re interested in amplification of voices rather than bemoaning the state of diversity in nature writing,” she says of herself and her two-person staff. “There’s such a strong history of nature writing being a certain way, and that trope gets reproduced over and over,” she adds. “What I’ve really enjoyed so far is the huge range of submissions from all over the world – not just limited to people steeped in traditional American nature writing. It’s a great way to disrupt our expectations of what the genre can be.”
Tone, editorial content
Willowherb editors look for nature writing on a wide variety of topics. As they note on the website, “We believe nature writing can tackle all sorts of issues: from stories of farming to long treks, tales of migration, racism, community, and beauty. You might be writing about remote places, cities, lost landscapes, or old homes.”
Lee is particularly interested in the overseas tradition of nature writing and would love to see more works in translation. She advises those writing reportage on current events to submit to a different publication. “There’s a timelessness to the work we publish,” she explains. “It’s possible to allude to real events without a piece feeling news-hooky. We look for sensory details – evocative writing that opens up a magical space in the text.”
She’s eager to publish nonfiction pieces like South Korean writer Dasom Yang’s “Enemy Green,” which explores a mother/daughter relationship in a seaside town in Korea in the 1990s. “It’s really resonated with readers, particularly because it engages with colonial histories and how they shape the experience of landscape and the ways it’s possible for something to be beautiful and troubling all at once,” Lee says.
She points to Nina Mingya Powles’ essay “Small Bodies of Water” as another exemplary piece. “It does so much so delicately, handling migration, family legacy, and issues of language and belonging in a sensory and visceral way,” Lee says. “It’s one of the first pieces of nature writing I’ve read that allows New Zealand and Malaysia and Shanghai and all the spaces that matter to the author to exist in one liminal space in the text.”
She also appreciates Jinling Wu’s personal essay “Chinese Leaves.” “It’s centered on food,” she says, “and perhaps only tangentially a piece of nature writing that was able to address issues of racism and belonging in migrating to a new place while focusing on traditional connections to a past homeland and to food, in particular. As well, the piece looks at how so much is freighted in microaggression.”
Lee is excited to publish a piece by British Caribbean writer Zakiya Mckenzie, who was named a Forestry Commission writer-in-residence in the U.K. in 2019. “It’s about her experiences of getting to know and watch birds throughout the pandemic, along with the ways in which we’re no longer getting dolled up to go out,” she explains. The piece opens with a woman getting her hair and nails done in a salon, and stepping outside and getting pooped on by a bird.
“We so rarely see humor in nature writing,” Lee says. “We don’t often get jokes and space for the sort of ridiculous things that often happen in nature. The piece is a real departure from so much of what we see, which is so often very solemn and earnest.”
Advice for potential contributors
All of the pieces on The Willowherb Review’s digital site are available for free, and potential contributors can study them for the editors’ preferred content and tone. “Keep it simple,” Lee says. “Sometimes we get pieces that are a bit too theoretical – philosophical without actually generating a sense of place or intimacy with a particular landscape.” Rather than submit a philosophical essay on humanity’s position in nature, she says, submit a piece on “that particular afternoon when you walked through a particular forest.”
Submissions are open to writers of color worldwide, and the main language of the piece must be in English. Email prose submissions up to 3,000 words or three poems. Willowherb pays all of its writers, thanks to the generosity of donors worldwide. “It’s gotten on people’s radar,” Lee says. “They understand that we’ve created the publication as a space to create and nurture writers, to offer as much mentorship and guidance as we can.”
The Willowher Review at a glance
Length: To 3,000 words.
Genres: Nonfiction, fiction, and poetry related to nature by people of color.
Payment: €50 to €150 ($60 to $175).
Submission format: Email with website submission form.
Contact: Founding editor Jessica J. Lee at [email protected]; thewillowherbreview.com.
—Contributing editor Melissa Hart is the author of Better with Books: 500 Diverse Books to Ignite Empathy and Encourage Self-Acceptance in Tweens and Teens (Sasquatch, 2019).Twitter/Instagram: @WildMelissaHart