Joumana Khatib, who graduated from Kenyon in 2013, works as a senior staff editor on the Books desk at the New York Times. She spoke with KR Intern Liv Kane over Zoom, reflecting on her Kenyon experience, the value of literature in translation, and what she thinks the world might look like moving forward. Originally from Columbus, Ohio, she currently lives in New York City.
Joumana participated in the Young Writers Workshop, where her experience with the Kenyon Review led her to apply to the college. An English major and anthropology minor at Kenyon, she studied abroad in Lisbon, learning Portuguese, and originally planned to pursue a PhD in comparative literature. During her senior year, she worked three jobs: she was a writer for the Public Affairs Office, a senior interviewer for the Admissions Office, and a Kenyon Review Intern. Writing press releases provided “very real, hands-on exposure,” said Joumana. She has fond memories of the KR internship.
“I had a lot of fun with the slush pile and with editing, and overall, I was really inspired by how the Kenyon Review engendered a very passionate, fervent literary community. That was very formative for me and something that gave a lot of structure to my life, too.”
After Kenyon, Joumana pursued an internship at the Brooklyn Museum and temped. In March 2014, less than a year after graduating, she landed a job at the New York Times, where she worked on the Science desk as a news assistant before transitioning to work for ombudsman columnist and Public Editor Margaret Sullivan. There, Joumana often operated as a sounding board for columns focused on reader feedback. In 2016, she became an editor on the National/International desk, pulling from her previous experience as a news assistant to aid in the real-time questioning and problem-solving that figure in an editor’s job.
The best editors are people who are able to instinctively imagine the impression a story will leave on the reader, she feels. Understanding how to thoughtfully frame a story seems more important than ever. For example, being especially sensitive to display type—such as headlines, deks (sub-headlines), and social media language—can make all the difference in what is read and what is simply passed over.
Joumana went on to the Books desk, originally writing for Paperback Row, a column featuring six new paperbacks each week. That job led to her current position as a senior staff editor with Books. Today, although she is less involved with routine line-editing, Joumana continues to ask the big-picture questions involving issues like reception and accessibility.
Throughout her career as both an editor and a columnist at the Times, Joumana has been charged with finding new audiences, and she speaks with deep sensitivity about the great need for diversity in the publishing world. She hopes that, by now, everyone in the industry would agree that “having a diversity of backgrounds is paramount” in the enterprise of bringing information, opinions, and analysis to the world. For her, the concept of diversity should also embrace an individual’s news diet. “It isn’t healthy to only get your news from one source,” she said, “regardless of what that source is.”
Even in the world of book reviewing, she believes that “one of the central tensions of being a journalist” involves personal preference and the extent to which writers should put aside their own tendencies in the service of objectivity.
Although she is not explicitly a book reviewer, Joumana does write a monthly column covering what she believes will be noteworthy books due out within the coming month. The works she puts on the list, however, are not necessarily ones that she herself would pick up. Her personal taste is more in line with literary fiction and works of translation, and she notes that her interest in comparative and world literature began even before Kenyon. Although translated works make up only a small percentage of what the American public consumes, Joumana says it’s encouraging to see the success of breakout authors like Elena Ferrante and columns such as the Times’s Globetrotting, which promotes translated works every three months.
When Joumana was a senior at Kenyon, the college had not yet created the Comparative World Literature Program, and she recalls that there were a few seniors, including herself, interested in works of translation for their senior projects. The general consensus had been that English majors should remain focused on works written in English, but Joumana remembers that a large percentage of the works she had read for postcolonial literature and theory classes were in translation. Growing up in a multilingual household (her father’s native language was Arabic), she had enjoyed reading books that weren’t in English, and she recalls the multiple literary traditions she was exposed to as both formative and informative.
“It’s the most banal, basic thing that books can do, but they can get you out of your own mode of thinking and put you in the mind of anybody else,” she said.
She has watched the current upheavals in the world—the coronavirus pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement—with a keen sense of how life can change dramatically. She hopes that readers seek out experts to educate themselves about racism. As for the pandemic, she recognizes the uncertainties shadowing the literary world and, especially, the difficulties facing debut authors. But she has hope for reading in the future. She’s waiting for the first good “quaranzine” to come out, and holds a firm belief that whatever is going to happen, good art will be made in the process.
“At the end of the day, I think we’re all in agreement that the world we walk back out into, on Bambi legs, is not going to be the one we left.”
In a time of so many unknowns, Joumana also offered some of the most empathetic and honest advice for students wanting to pursue a career in writing or editing.
“You can’t really use anybody else’s experience as a yardstick, so be prepared to have a very open mind. Try and not use the same milestones. You should definitely take advice from those who have gone before you, but you should also have faith that your own distinct path will work itself out in time. For writers, and really for everyone right now, take every opportunity you can to keep practicing.”