Published on February 29, 2024

The Resilience and Reality of Headlight Anthology

How a student publication survived the pandemic with renewed force

by Calvin Halvorsen

Following a two-year hiatus, the Concordia graduate student-run journal returned to win the prestigious Forces AVENIR Universitaire 2023 prize in the Arts, Literature & Culture category.

I made twenty-four wishes.
                                                           Each wish
the same.
In essence, to survive, to survive,
to survive.

Manahil Bandukwala’s hybrid poem, “Turning Twenty-Four on the Rise of the Sturgeon Moon,” opens Headlight Anthology’s twenty-fourth issue with a singular refrain: “survive,” and for the embattled graduate-run journal out of Concordia, its inclusion was a no-brainer. 

For over twenty years, Headlight never failed to publish, with twenty-two consecutive issues being selected, edited, printed, and distributed to the English writing and reading communities of Concordia, Montreal, and beyond. Names like Moez Surani, Erín Moure, and Robyn Sarah populated the steady outflow of rising and razing voices, voices adept at turning a sharp eye to the personal, political, hypocritical, and emotional. In other words, twenty-two years of Montreal. 

Until the pandemic. 

Like so many journals, COVID-19 placed Headlight firmly on its back foot. A combination of financial and organizational complications brought twenty-two years of consistency to an abrupt halt. The editors hit the brakes on issue twenty-three, and 2020 became the first year without Headlight

Unfortunately, the next year would bring much of the same. Despite reopening for submissions, retooling the masthead, and working with a year of pandemic experience under the belt, 2021 again saw a failure to publish. Headlight had gone silent. 

Cue 2022. The new year brought several critical changes. One was clearly the lifting of restrictions and reopening of campus life. Another was the increase in funding for creatives and their projects. But these alone wouldn’t guarantee a lift from the fog that had enveloped the publication. There was still the problem of submissions: two years of backlog had accumulated in the emails of the editing team. Two years of poems, short stories, essays, selected and left to linger in the suspension of COVID-induced limbo. 

Then, Carlos Pittella, a poet and MFA recipient whose 2021 submission to Headlight was one of those stuck in limbo, joined Sherine Elbanhawy, a fellow MFA recipient, writer, and researcher, as co-managing editor for 2022–23, tasked with breaking through the fog and delivering an issue worthy of the two year wait. “The lost issue,” as twenty-three would come to be known, was immediately seen by the novel leadership as an unquestionable precursor to moving forward with twenty-four. 

“It was just, I think, embracing the full responsibility, not just twenty-three… we [were] gonna take it all on,” said Sherine in a brief Zoom interview. 

This “responsibility” became no less than a complete overhaul of the publication in its entirety, from website, submissions, and code of conduct, all the way to a personal favourite: Carlos’ cross-campus book-hunt in search of all twenty-two editions; a consolidation of Headlight’s history both physically and digitally. 

“Literally, Carlos went room to room in the English department, searching boxes until we found almost all [of the issues].” 

The result was twofold. A renewed vision and sense of purpose for numbers twenty-three and twenty-four, and a team whose understanding of Headlight went beyond the simple resume stamp that such publications usually represent. 

Sorting, contacting, and editing took another three months, September to December, but finally, on December 1, 2022, the world received Headlight issue number twenty-three: “fragments of a lost issue.” Notable inclusions such as “The Party” by Cailas Wiebe, in which an author who has discovered the key to happiness succumbs to toxic despair under the positivity he’s unleashed on the world, and “Interview with a Chichiman” by Linzey Corridon, a brief yet powerful poem on queer confidence and strength that crosses continents, led the online-only edition to be met with warmth from both readers and former members of the editing team. But most importantly, “the lost issue” returned a sense of self to Headlight as a journal. 

Issue twenty-four came next, opening with questions of legacy and positionality. How to honour Headlight’s past and present? How to be conscious of former honorees who had failed to uphold the journal’s values? How much weight should an author’s personal identity carry in discussions on their writing?

“What that line is is different for every editorial team, and as long as it’s not offensive I want art to always push us to think,” said Sherine on the topic of positionality. Either way, talking to the team at Headlight makes it clear: the days of one-size-fits-all representation is over, and whether or not the editorial team’s stance on these questions led to a better overall edition, the results are certainly convincing. Headlight’s issue twenty-four is complex, diverse, and painfully raw. Its sixteen pieces range from a tender and hilarious poem on the ubiquitous nature of tubes, to Bandukwala’s ash-soaked elegy, to an engrossing short story about a girl taking on the life of her recently deceased celebrity doppelgänger, all packed into the textured personality of risograph print.

Unique in both form and content, it’s no surprise why, despite the inevitable politics of language in Quebec, Headlight won big in the Arts, Literature, and Culture category at the 2023 Forces Avenir awards in Quebec City. With its award-winning twenty-fourth turn, the Concordia staple and its team finally managed to cast aside their limbo and, in doing so, curate a mosaic of contemporary concern, identity, and personality so vulnerable it stings. 

The Headlight team with the Forces AVENIR 2023 prize in the Arts, Literature & Culture category.

Now, all eyes turn to issue twenty-five, where a new team headed by Misha Solomon, the author of the previously mentioned “tubes,” and Alex Affonso, a Brazilian-Canadian writer with a passion for the fantastical, are hoping to carry the momentum into 2024, all while placing their own twist onto the flagship publication. For them, Headlight is exactly what its name indicates: a beacon for writers from all backgrounds, perspectives, and passions. A place to survive together. 

In Misha’s words: “We like it weird, we like it good, we like it Headlight.”

To see how other student publications have navigated through the COVID-19 pandemic, check out the three journals below:

  1. Soliloquies Anthology
  2. The Veg Literary Magazine
  3. The McGill Tribune Creative Supplement

Calvin Halvorsen is a writer who spends his time working between Montreal, Toronto, and the Cree territories of Eeyou Istchee. He draws on the width of his background, including experience in genetics research, educational programming, and AI consultation, to fuel his fiction and the passion he holds for the fiction of his peers. 

Illustration by Emily Sweny.