Women claiming space is more important than ever — and that's the mission of Erin Klassen's new zine
Digital and print zine The Vault is urgently concerned with the stories women have yet to tell
The first sentence of Erin Klassen's book Portraits reads: "Feelings can be art."
Those words are simple but profoundly felt. (Perhaps you have seen them printed onto tote bags, spotted hanging on from the arms of women around Toronto, as a sort of wearable form of emotional activism?) Since 2015 and the publication of that book, Klassen has gone on to establish her own independent company, With/Out Pretend, and publish more anthologies that have that sentiment at the core, such as the self-care focused You Care Too Much and the intuition-based Happy If You Know It. She also runs event nights called Unresolved Feelings — featuring spoken word stories, poems, plays and other forms of writing by readers about particular moments they may be stuck on — and Unruly Bodies, focused on the stories about women and the body.
But it is with her new digital and print zine, The Vault, that Klassen's ethos of feelings and the artistic space they take up can evolve beyond being printed in anthologies, one at a time. Launched in August of this year, The Vault regularly publishes fiction and non-fiction stories by women, rotating genre once a month. Klassen will debut the zine's first quarterly print edition this November, with the first issue "On Healing" exclusively featuring poetry. The Vault features emerging female-identifying writers and is urgently concerned with the stories women have yet to tell.
When we meet in a café in Roncesvalles in Toronto's West end, Klassen immediately asks me about the book I have on the table. (I'm currently reading Eve Babitz's Slow Days, Fast Company.) Though her interest is piqued at any sign of literature, as a voracious consumer of words, she is more specifically tuned into words by women. She lists the names of authors who inspire her without missing a beat: Zadie Smith, Chris Kraus, Roxane Gay, Anais Nin. That specific, almost obsessive interest in women's worlds and words transfers over significantly into her work.
"It's important for me to focus on what was referred to as...women's personal stories," Klassen says. She pauses and emphasizes: "You know, personal writing." Personal writing is seen both as a women's medium and as categorically terrible because of it. Historically, women have to push their way through a litany of self-indulgent male queries about existence to even be heard at all — and then, if heard, are often dismissed. "Chris Kraus, who is one of my favourite writers of all time, talks about — why can't we see the concept of vulnerability the same way we see philosophy?" she says, paraphrasing Kraus's viewpoint from this New Yorker piece. "Why can't be that heralded as important and universal and something that connects us to larger ideas?"
It may not seem like that's the case currently, or even a handful of years ago, when personal essay writing blossomed (or wilted, depending on how you look at it) online. Sites like The Hairpin, The Awl and The Toast propped up women's words, while xoJane was certainly criticized for its excavation of trauma for clicks in the "It Happened To Me" series. This is where The Vault differs dramatically, and substantially: it exists in a medium that often demands that people (women) constantly rip themselves open for the sake of content and for traffic. The Vault is not concerned with clicks or traffic; Klassen is more focused on taking the time to produce quality work that her readers will want. "There's no comment section. We want people to feel connected and engaged but it's still owned by the storyteller in a way."
I think what I am trying to do is… I don't even want to say it's important. What I want to say is it's serious. It's more serious than people have taken it or given it credit for.- Erin Klassen
Of the stories in The Vault so far, there is a eulogy-turned-story by Margeaux Feldman called "Forest Fires," Klassen's own short fiction piece featuring a Lou Reed cameo called "Islands" and more. Paired with each written piece are original illustrations by well-known artists like Julianna Brion, who has designed a New Yorker cover. To Klassen, the interpretations of emotions and how they're felt are not simply relegated to the written word; it's important to her that visual art is an incorporated component into the story for readers to connect further to the story.
The Vault is not rigid in terms of the work it will publish. In fact, Klassen shudders almost immediately at the word "rigid," feeling the limitations in its syllables pulse through her. She encourages experimentation and nurtures the relationship between writer and editor — a primary reason why the editing and publishing process takes much longer than other outlets or publications. The Vault has an editorial board comprised of Klassen and her associate editors (Elizabeth Polanco, Erin Pehlivan and Najla Nubyanluv), all of whom Klassen says have varying styles and approaches to editing, making the process more thoughtful and less quantity-based. While she is the editor-in-chief, the hierarchy effectively doesn't exist when working on a piece. An editor may be assigned a piece based on their set of skills and development, but it is still collaborative overall.
The Vault has a subscribership, with monthly subscriptions going for $5 — or, if you want to be what she calls a Keeper, pay a one-time $100 fee and that's it for the entire length of the publication's existence. With an existing base locally through her event series and other publications, Klassen already has a community that wants this work. But the digital realm opens up the possibility of expanding that community far beyond Toronto, as much of a slow burn as it might be to get there.
Klassen says that in prior interviews she's been asked how her work will solve the world's problems, as though a singular independent publisher can take on such a daunting task. But her approach looks inward. "I am doing a thing that I think is important to me," she says. "Sometimes it starts with the seed of something that can seem narcissistic or selfish, but these are the stories that these women have inside them."
Sometimes it feels like in the current moment, women's stories — and women taking up space generally — is more important than ever. The bubble over of Trump's America and the vitriol toward women with absurd claims that men are more at risk than we are makes it feel as though women need to double down on the taking that space before it is taken away — and to be deliberate in that.
"It's not [that] telling women's stories is a new concept. It's not new to people. It's not even modern or 'it's time' or 'good for you.' I don't want a parade for this," Klassen says. "This has been something that has been happening forever. I think what I am trying to do is...I don't even want to say it's important. What I want to say is it's serious. It's more serious than people have taken it or given it credit for."