Magazines Canada Highlights Women in Publishing

Jul 31, 2023

Magazines Canada is proud to feature Alia Dharssi, Deputy Editor at Asparagus Magazine. Alia is a journalist, editor, and sustainability consultant based in Vancouver. Her writing and investigations on sustainability, global development, human rights and immigration have been published by a range of media outlets, including the New York Times, the Guardian, Al Jazeera, the National Post, the Financial Post, and Reuters. Asparagus Magazine is the 2022 Alberta Magazine Awards: BC Magazine of the Year.
What ignited your passion for the publishing industry, how did you get into it?
Growing up, I took an interest in the news after watching my father read the newspaper practically every day. I’ve also always been concerned about women’s rights and social justice issues. When I was about 14 or 15, I picked up an issue of The New York Times Magazine with an investigation into sexual slavery in the United States. I was stunned and alarmed: girls my age were being trafficked into and within the US and forced into unimaginable situations. I was also inspired by how the reporter dove into this topic and brought it to light.I realized I wanted to help illuminate hidden or under-reported issues to help raise awareness of them and spark positive change. I explored a variety of ways to do so before landing in journalism. As a journalist, I found myself wrestling with the tension between observing and writing stories. I wanted to get my hands dirty and work on solutions to social and environmental problems. I’m still struggling to find the balance, but, today, I am a sustainability consultant working on climate action plans for governments while working as Deputy Editor at Asparagus.What do you love most about Asparagus?
I was working as a sustainability reporter when I met Jessie (Editrix-in-Chief of Asparagus) and she shared her idea for Asparagus. I loved the idea of a magazine that told the small and big stories of sustainability with humor, creativity, and thoughtfulness—from how to figure out the most sustainable option for toilet paper to how Indigenous communities in the Pacific Northwest are restoring old-growth forest in the face of climate change.We can’t solve the catastrophic problems in front of us—like climate change, plastic pollution, and global injustice—if we only tell serious, critical stories. People tune out when we only focus on the doom and gloom. At Gus, we are trying to tell stories differently.Problems like climate change can seem so big and difficult to solve, and so much onus is put on individual action that there’s a disconnect. We’re being told the world is heating at an unprecedented rate and we can help by switching to LED lightbulbs. I’m not hating on the LED lightbulbs (we should all use them), but it seems like an insignificant action when we think about the level of pollution created by large organizations and systemic challenges like how we plan our cities or our global food system or emissions from the fashion industry. It’s no surprise many people become apathetic or feel paralyzed.We need to spend more time telling stories about solutions—the ones we can participate in individually, as well as systemic ones—in an engaging, accessible, inspiring, creative, and, when appropriate, humorous way. It’s the only way forward.

What advice would you give to up-and-coming young women in the publishing industry?
I’ll answer this from the perspective of publishing journalism, since that’s my background, and offer three pieces of advice. First, study your favourite publications. How do they tell stories in writing and visually? What writing structures work best? What tone do they strike? Understanding their approach will help you as a writer and editor.

Second, undertake some journalism training, including how to approach interviews, even if you’re not a journalist. Such training doesn’t have to be a degree. It might be one course or reading a book or as simple as studying successful journalists and how they approach their writing. Or, if you’re in school, joining the student newspaper.

(I wrote my first articles for UBC’s student newspaper The Ubyssey, where I learned the basics of reporting and how to structure news stories. This set me up to get my first journalism internship and explore the field before I undertook formal training as a Global Journalism Fellow at the University of Toronto.)

At Asparagus, I’ve edited the work of promising writers without previous experience in journalism and found that some of them lack skills related to fact checking and interviewing. Undergoing some training would set them up to submit even better work. And, as an editor, my journalism experience helps me to critically examine stories and the information writers use to tell them.

Third, small opportunities can turn into bigger ones. I started off writing an article for Asparagus back when it was only an online magazine. I didn’t get paid much, but I was excited about Jessie’s vision. Jessie soon gave me some editing assignments and before I knew it, I was Deputy Editor working on Gus’ first print issue!

If you could change one major aspect about the publishing industry with a snap of your finger, what would it be?
I’d make it more representative of Canada’s diverse population, including Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour, as well as those from other underrepresented groups. There are so many rich stories we could tell with more representation from diverse individuals.

At Asparagus, we’ve made this a priority from the start. Our First Voice column appears on the first page of every issue and features Indigenous perspectives on sustainability. We also actively seek out contributors of colour and diverse lived experience. In 2019, we published our inaugural issue with over 40% of contributors from BIPOC communities, and since then we’ve regularly featured an even higher proportion of racialized contributors—something that’s virtually unheard of at other Canadian publications. These diverse voices have shaped our content and played a role in our winning BC Magazine of the Year in 2022.

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