MFA Alum Rebecca Burke on editing In Between Spaces: An Anthology of Disabled Writers

MFA Alum Rebecca Burke on editing In Between Spaces: An Anthology of Disabled Writers

Stillhouse Press, Mason’s student- and alumni-run craft press, published its first anthology November 1: In Between Spaces: An Anthology of Disabled Writers, edited by Rebecca Burke, MFA ’21. In addition to being the first anthology published by Stillhouse, In Between Spaces is also a milestone collection in its focus on disabled writers across several genres: fiction writers, essayists and memoirists, and poets.

In a recent interview, Burke was generous with sharing perspectives on how the anthology came to be, what she hopes readers will take from it, and what it’s meant to her. You can also find out more about the book at the Stillhouse Press website and order the book here.


What was the genesis of In Between Spaces, and what was your process for choosing the contributors here? 

Burke: The anthology came out of a discussion I led with the Stillhouse editorial board in the fall of 2020 regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion in publishing and the role of a small press in this space. We had a great dialogue about how disabled people are often excluded from diversity initiatives, despite how critical accessibility is to inclusion and equity. When I was handed this project, I was told I could do anything I wanted with it. From the beginning, there were two things that felt critical to me. First, I wanted to involve anyone who wanted to participate on the editorial side. This led to three editor teams (one each for fiction, nonfiction, and poetry), who read all submissions in their genre and discussed them with me in regular meetings. Second, I wanted to invite work from anyone who identified as disabled, whatever that meant to them. When writing the submissions guidelines, I wanted to ensure we received work from a wide array of perspectives and disabilities, and to ensure we were not prescribing the “types” of disability or work we wanted to receive. I wanted everything—joyful, sad, angry, honest—from anyone who self-identified as disabled, whatever that meant to them. As the genre editors and I discussed the pieces we received, we were enthusiastic about the breadth of work, particularly the wide array of very different perspectives. We wanted to feature as many of those different perspectives as possible while still selecting pieces that would sit well side-by-side.  

The contributors here range from emerging writers to veteran authors with many publications and awards. Was that kind of mix deliberate? And whether deliberate or not, what do you think is gained by that range? 

I’d hoped to feature works from different perspectives, though I’d admittedly narrowed in on featuring marginalized and intersectional perspectives. The mix of writing experience was not necessarily deliberate, but I am so glad the array we have is what we settled on. There is no one way to be a writer, as there is no one way to be disabled. I think the range in both writing experience and perspectives lends authenticity to the anthology as a whole. We didn’t solicit content, as is common for anthologies. We opened submissions and asked people to share their work with us. We cultivated a collection from what our submitters chose to share, rather than starting with a very specific notion of disability (or what makes good writing, for that matter) and only seeking out work that fit that very specific notion. The result is a book that might be a little eclectic, but is nonetheless representative of the realities our contributors experience. 

Speaking of range, the anthology includes fiction, nonfiction, and poetry—and within each of those, an extra bit of range: linear storytelling here, a choose-your-own-adventure (of sorts) there, and narrative poetry alongside more experimental forms. You earned your MFA with a focus in fiction, but how widely do you generally read in other genres, other forms? As an editor, how did you balance any personal reading preferences against a wider diversity of forms and approaches? 

I have a soft spot for emotionally devastating literary fiction—I mean that. I love a short story or a novel that hits me emotionally and stays with me, but I do read widely. Some of that was influenced by my time as submissions and acquisitions manager at Stillhouse. Our aesthetic is described as writing that treads off the beaten path of traditional publishing, and I often looked for work in our queue that felt unique. Something unlike anything we’d published as a young press, but also unlike work I could easily walk into a bookstore and find. During my MFA, I became a huge fan of short prose that utilizes nontraditional form to convey something the story otherwise wouldn’t be able to. And while my MFA is in fiction, I also really love narrative nonfiction and took a few nonfiction classes over the course of my degree. While I enjoy and appreciate poetry, I read significantly less comparatively, and my taste in poetry would probably be considered pedestrian. This is why it was so important to me to have genre-specific editing teams and to take their insight and expertise into account throughout the review and editing process. 

For this collection, as with any time I’m editing, whether it be a full-length manuscript or short work, I try to set my personal preferences aside and read for the larger whole. What is an author trying to do with each of their choices in a piece? What is working and what could we refine to help it work better? What needs a different approach? When it came to piecing this book together, I wanted to make sure the wildly different forms we feature here still worked together, which is where breaking the pieces into smaller sections came from. We felt that sectioning the pieces and arranging them somewhat thematically, or putting pieces that read well next to each other, would help provide some organization to the immense variety featured here. 

In your introduction, you talk about your own disabilities—not only in terms of vision but also more recent diagnoses. I was struck by your comment in that introduction that “For people close to me, this may be the first they’ve learned of my diagnoses, as I find writing about them easier.” What insights did you personally gain from editing this anthology, how has your editing work perhaps impacted your own writing, and what are your hopes for what the book might offer to other readers and to other writers as well? 

In October 2020, when I was still drafting the submission guidelines for this project, I had never read the work of another visually impaired writer. This wasn’t for a lack of trying, but I have also always gravitated towards work about mental illness and trauma. For years, I craved writing in that sphere to process my own PTSD and what I thought was depression but more recently learned is actually type II bipolar disorder. When we opened for submissions and received work from several visually impaired writers, I felt a connection I hadn’t realized I’d needed, or how badly I needed it. Here were writers, some with visual impairments similar to mine, some with very different ones, writing about experiences I could relate to for the first time in my life. Their writing was funny, emotional, deeply human, as was nearly every submission we received, regardless of the perspective the author was writing from. And, I believe as a direct influence of finally connecting with work like this, I published my first short story about a visually impaired character, and I have an essay forthcoming in December about the expectations abled people place on disabled people. I don’t know if I would have been able to write either of these pieces without first working with these writers. I have written about my PTSD before, but not recently. I write rather slowly, letting the words turn over in my head for months before I ever put fingers to the keyboard. I’m still processing my bipolar diagnosis and figuring out how I want to write about it. When I do, I imagine it will be with a greater understanding of myself and the larger context of who might eventually connect with the work I’m writing, both things I would not have had without having worked on this collection. 

I hope readers, and other writers, will find something to connect with within the pages of In Between Spaces. Whether it’s seeing a condition you’ve lived with represented on the pages of a book for the first time, or how someone writes about queerness, joy, or getting through their day-to-day. I feel incredibly strongly about the importance of diversity in media, and I hope the wide diversity included in these pages gives at least one reader the same feeling I had the first time I read work by another visually impaired writer. That sense of feeling seen, for lack of a better phrase, for the first time.  

Is there anything we didn’t ask that you wish we had? 

Ha, hm… Someone asked me recently who the anthology was for, and the question has stuck with me enough to want to expand on it further. Did I imagine it would only be something other disabled people would be interested in? Or would the content still resonate with abled or neurotypical people? And, something I love about this book, that I hope others see when they read it, is the vast array of lived experience within these pages. There are pieces on autonomy, queerness, dating, loss, parenthood; the quiet minutiae of everyday life and the big, thrilling accomplishments we strive for. One of our contributors, Teresa Milbrodt, has said in a previous conversation with me, that disability is simply “a character trait;” like any other trait, it isn’t the only thing that shapes a character, their experiences, or their story. I feel like this collection embodies that perspective. No piece in this book is just about a disability. None of our contributors are reduced to only their disabilities. And I think that speaks to the reality that while disabled people or disabled characters in media are often condensed to just their conditions or diagnoses, that should not be the case. This book is by disabled people, certainly for disabled people, but it’s also for anyone who wants to read good fiction, good poetry, good creative nonfiction, about the same things nearly every other writer writes about, but from perspectives that often go overlooked.