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Women-led Paper Darts magazine returns with tales of bearded ladies and help from Roxane Gay

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After a three-year hiatus from making physical copies, Paper Darts Magazine is publishing its latest print issue today. The pages are filled with stories of bearded ladies, snail women, and musings on the importance of Eartha Kitt in one’s dating life. There's gorgeous artwork from the likes of Andrea Carlson and Caroline Kent, and it also features last year's short-story winner, selected by Roxane Gay.

The issue is pink, as Paper Darts is embracing its identity as a women-led magazine that seeks to amplify diverse and marginalized voices.

“We’ve been trying to shape a new kind of literary magazine for years, and I think it’s taken this long to do what we originally set out to do,” says co-founder Meghan Murphy.

Murphy founded Paper Darts in 2009 with Jamie Millard and Regan Smith. Lit mags were boring, they felt. They were too serious and didn’t have enough humor. Together, they wanted to change all of that. The magazine began as a way to create something a bit more accessible and lively than your typical literary fare.

However, as a women-led magazine, they didn’t want to appear frivolous, and that fear got in the way of achieving that original goal. 

“We thought in order to be taken seriously, we had to be extremely vulgar and abrupt and in-your-face,” Murphy says.

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Last year, Murphy had a wake-up call that came in the form of a New York Times review. The piece was on John Jodzio’s latest book of short stories, Knockout. In the review, the writer called out Jodzio’s earlier book, published by Paper Darts, as being “embarrassingly male.”

At first insulted, Murphy came to realize the critic had a point.

“While Paper Darts has always been created by a team of women, admittedly we once published more men than women,” she says.

She realized the magazine was hiding who they really were. They were trying to show the world they could be tough, strong and serious so they wouldn’t be seen as too young and feminine.

“Eight years ago, I would never have designed a pink cover for Paper Darts,” Murphy says. “I hate that we felt that way, but we did. I wish I could go back and tell myself and my fellow editors it was okay to just be the young, shy, awkward, nerdy women we were.”

While Paper Darts isn’t exactly mainstream, they do have a wide readership as far as literary magazines go. “We try to keep our tone approachable, and always engaging,” Murphy says. “We are trying to appeal to writers, appeal to artists, but also, hopefully, our stories are beautiful enough and strong enough and offer just a small insight into humanity in a way that anyone can really grasp what they are.”

Murphy is the only one of the three founders that’s still with the magazine on a day-to-day basis. Millard currently runs Pollen Midwest, though she’s still in the periphery, while Smith has moved on to other projects. Unfortunately, the magazine is a money-losing operation. “Jamie and I have lost money on Paper Darts for years now,” Murphy says.

A highlight of the new issue is Jess Zimmerman’s “The Bearded Lady,” a delightfully surreal tale that touches on the insecurity and pressure women are conditioned to feel around their appearance via an alternative reality where beards have become the fashion trend of the moment. The story was last year’s contest winner, selected by Roxane Gay, and Murphy says Gay’s participation carried through the entire issue.

“The level of talent [Gay] was able to help us pull into our submissions was just unbelievable,” Murphy says. Paper Darts received over 600 works for the contest, and about 70 percent of the submissions for the rest of the magazine came from the contest.

After they release Volume 6, Murphy says they are scheduled out for the rest of the year. They publish online at least twice a week, and are planning a series of podcasts that will hopefully launch at the end of this year.

Next year, Paper Darts will launch a new call for manuscripts. “It will take all of this year to get ourselves set up for that,” she says.