Monday, December 3, 2012

A Response to Raftery's Far East Editorial

(Disclaimer: I have not read the book [though I did order it yesterday]; some of my photos are featured on the site and in the exhibit.)

It was with great disappointment that I read yesterday’s editorial about The Far East Project in Miriam Raftery’s East County Magazine. I have long been a supporter of Raftery’s work in this one-of-a-kind online publication, so it was with an especially heavy heart that I saw her dismiss another unique attempt to give East County a voice.

The Far East Project, headed by Justin Hudnall and funded through a small grant from the San Diego Foundation, resulted in a website, book, exhibit, and readings focused on East County. Hudnall hopes to continue the project (sans funding), expanding to oral histories and multimedia accounts from residents.

Raftery’s headline sums up her position: “FAR EAST PROJECT PRESENTS SKEWED AND OFFENSIVE VIEW OF EAST COUNTY.” You can read the other 3,000 words for yourself; I will attempt to reply with fewer.

The crux of Raftery’s argument is that the project is rife with East County stereotypes, that it is “filled with ugliness,” “devoid of inspirational value,” and “culturally insensitive,” among other sins. Since she refuses to link to the website or present more than a handful of carefully selected images, she also asks us to simply take her word for it.

What Raftery fails to mention is that every single contributor is a resident or former resident of East County. The Far East Project isn’t a case of outsiders bashing the region; it’s an attempt (albeit limited) to give first-person voice to some of the insiders. To that extent, Raftery is ridiculing the very population she claims to defend.

One gets the impression that Raftery went into the book and exhibit intent on that ridicule. She interprets every word, every image negatively. Mention a hooker? Oh, that’s bad! (Never mind the poetry of the writer adding dimension to a character that I guess Raftery would just as soon remain hidden.) A photograph intended to show the unanticipated beauty of a late-winter snowfall is described as “a deer with a broken-off antler.” First of all, it’s not a deer; it’s a fake plaster garden deer and just one element of the photograph—tellingly, the only element Raftery focuses on.

Raftery writes, “Efforts should have been made to reach out to local publishers and photographers to assure balance.” I’m not sure why Raftery thinks the views of publishers and established photographers are more legit than those of local residents, but the statement itself speaks to her misunderstanding of the project.

In addition, Raftery overlooks that Far East is a fledgling effort: it’s new, the organizers are young, there’s no template to follow, and they had only a year to complete the work. Was the project overambitious? Perhaps. Would we be better off had it not even been attempted? No way.

Raftery also glosses over the distinction between journalism and a creative endeavor such as the Far East Project.  Far East was intended to present individuals’ perspectives; by definition, such accounts are situated and limited. I’m guessing, but I doubt that anywhere in the proposal or other associated materials did the organizers suggest that this project would result in a comprehensive 360-view of the region. 

I do agree with Raftery on one key point: the quality and breadth of the project could have been enhanced with a broader range of submissions. Publicity of the project was thin. A resident of East County, I found out about it only through a friend who was on the mailing list for the San Diego Foundation. I don’t know what outreach attempts were made by project organizers—small ads in some local publications would have no doubt elicited a response that went beyond the arts community. 

However, I do know that as soon as I found out about the call for photographs back in September, I immediately posted about it on the Lawson Valley blog (which is probably read by all of three people) and contacted Raftery  (whose publication is probably read by thousands) to let her know. She indicated that she would definitely publicize the event. Unfortunately, that never happened.

I hope that Justin Hudnall and others who worked on the project, contributed submissions, or otherwise helped out will not be discouraged by this one negative response. Indeed, Raftery’s editorial suggests that more, not fewer, perspectives are needed in the region. Let’s get to work.

Correction: Although I searched East County Magazine for an announcement regarding the call for photos and didn't find it, that was my failure. Raftery did in fact run a story on the project: My sincere apologies for the oversight.

(Postscript: I attempted multiple times to post a version of this response in the comments for the article, but despite trying two different browsers, was unable to do so. Probably just a glitch.)


  1. Leslie - We DID post what you sent us before the contest to encourage people to enter,back in September: I also mentioned it in our newsletter to our subscribers. What more could you expect? We have 150,000 readers. Stories scroll off the homepage quickly so you're right, a small ad on the top might have reached more people for minimal cost to the project sponsors.

    Several have commented that there are some nature photos on the project website. That's true, but they are not in the book, and it's the BOOK that I reviewed. It still bothers me greatly to see such a skewed view of our region in a print book purporting to show the "soul" of East County.

    This project is to include displays at El Cajon and La Mesa Centennials. I wonder how those cities will feel when they see how they were portrayed?

    There IS a journalism component to the project; they even had a story published on Huffington Post. Justin writes for CityBeat, I've been told. Besides the public entries they did ask professional poets to write poetry, so it wouldn't have been a stretch to ask professional photographers or artists to supplement whatever the public sent in. Journalists familiar with East County could also have suggested people with interesting stories to tell who were left out, such as tribal elders.

    You got me on the phony deer; I didn't know it was a fake under that snow. Though that makes it worse in a way; they didn't have any real wildlife except a squirrel.

    Some people do see humor in the book, but to me it isn't funny to ridicule a region and its people. Highlighting mostly negative stereotypes of East County to me is as bad as telling racist or sexist jokes; as editor of East County Magazine I hear all the time from people how sick they are of San Diegans treating East County residents with disrespect. This just seems to be an extension of that, though you're free to disagree of course.

    We've asked our webmaster to help you post on the site; our spam filter is being over zealous. If anyone else has that problem, let us know.


  2. "You got me on the phony deer; I didn't know it was a fake under that snow. Though that makes it worse in a way; they didn't have any real wildlife except a squirrel"

    There was also a snake eating a lizard.

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  4. So, the affection and admiration I feel for Juan and Javier in my poem Both Our Flags Got Eagles On Them is, to you, disrespectful of cultures?
    So, the tragedy of that beautiful mom and her son and the choices she is forced to make to support him in Hooker On The Court make them ugly?
    Or did you even bother to listen to or read either of those pieces?
    I am sorry that you're offended by them but I will never apologize for them.
    Sometimes there is more beauty in a single human life than in four thousand acres of scrub brush.

    1. @AJ HAyes: "Sometimes there is more beauty in a single human life than in four thousand acres of scrub brush." Ugh, what drivel. The fact that people put down "scrub brush" in this way is exactly the reason we have an ecological crisis. Stop dissing nature, or you'll quickly find that ecological catastrophe has extinguished innumerable copies of that supposedly all-important "single human life."

    2. I get what you're saying, whoever you are. I got trapped in a too rapid response. So, for that I'm sorry. I'd delete that last line if I could.

  5. "The Far East" contains a great deal of brilliant writing. Several of the brief fictions are powerful pieces. Several of the contributors are award-winning writers. Who would have thught there were so many powerful writers to have come out of East County? There are lyrical pieces about the East County back country but much of the work, especially the fiction, is gritty, urban, unprettified contemporary American fiction. And the package is handsome & beautifully designed. I thought the photography and paintings were very strong, some of it gorgeous. In all, a terrific collection by East County writers and artists. What a nice project honoring the talent in our communities!

  6. I think that the comment which was the most telling in the ECM review was: "I’ve lived in East County for over 50 years and this is not the East County that I know," It was very early and seems to be so entirely the wrong way to approach an anthology. For one, fifty years is quite a long time, a lot longer than many of the contributors have been living. To some, stories about grandchildren or going to the five and dime or camping in the Cuyamacas would be just as foreign. The project didn't seem to be about 'providing a positive and endearing picture of East County to promote tourism' so much as a venue for East County residents to relate their encounters with the region. I have an essay (as opposed to a poem) about a driveby shooting outside a kitchen staff Christmas party in Spring Valley that I completely forgot to submit, and is just as valid a representation of the area because that is where it happened. I know, because I was there.

    Though, I think Ms. Raftery is slightly at a disadvantage in how she judged the anthology, coming from a journalistic perspective. Editing a literary magazine or anthology is quite different from a newspaper. Literary publications don't have quotas for 'home' and 'sports' and 'classifieds.' For this project they likely weren't thinking "We need to fill up that space with something uplifting about gardening." They had (I'm only assuming, not being a part of the editing) their criteria to consider something East County enough, and then looked for the best they could find. The reason a lot of literary journals are so eclectic is because they have excellence as their main criteria, regardless of tone.

  7. Just saw this - were you able to get your comments posted on our site? Sometimes the spam filter catches real people. Rest assured that we have allowed a robust debate on this story (as on all stories) including views that were critical of ECM, as well as those that were supportive. If anyone posts a comment that doesn't appear on any story, email