Can the Nation's Largest Writers' Conference Transcend Lit's Lack of Diversity?

Aya de Leon and Simha Stubblefield at the AWP book fairEXPAND
Aya de Leon and Simha Stubblefield at the AWP book fair
Photo by Jessica Langlois

I was reading Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen: An American Lyric in a hotel bar in downtown Los Angeles Saturday afternoon when I got a series of texts from my partner, who was in Ventura County, sitting by a lake and writing poetry.

The police were harassing him. Three white men with guns. He is brown-skinned and has a thick beard. They’d threatened to tase our dog, a rambunctious puppy. “I’m so scared,” he wrote me.

I was at the annual conference for AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs), tasked with reporting on how the national conversation on race, equity and inclusion in the media was reflected at the nation’s largest writerly gathering — 12,000 poets, novelists, journalists, publishers and academics talking and reading and networking for three days at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

I needed to get to a panel on the wealth gap in the literary world, but my mind was stalled beside that lake in Ventura. I called my partner a half-dozen times. No answer. I seized up, heart quickening, as I mapped the two-hour drive north.

Just a year ago, he was stopped at customs in Montreal on his way home from presenting at a cinema studies conference. Men with guns took his passport and put him in a room alone for 20, 30 minutes. They told him nothing, and he had to take one of the pills his doctor had given him in case of a panic attack. Eventually, he overheard one of the men say, “He’s not the guy,” and they released him.

I looked down at Rankine’s book and read, “There exists the medical term — John Henryism — for people exposed to stresses stemming from racism. They achieve themselves to death trying to dodge the buildup of erasure.”

At last, my partner called and said that they'd given him a ticket for not having a fishing license and left. He and the dog were sitting in the car, where they would wait for 20, 30 minutes, until it was safe to drive home.

Rankine — whose prose-poetry book made the New York Times best-seller list and achieved social media fame when a woman photographed herself reading it at a Trump rally — gave the keynote address at AWP on Thursday. At the conference’s featured event, she told the crowd that writing cannot be separated from politics, that racism is an issue that affects everyone.

Jean Ho, Sunyoung Lee and Ky-Phong Tran at Book FairEXPAND
Jean Ho, Sunyoung Lee and Ky-Phong Tran at Book Fair
Photo by Jessica Langlois

“When the universalizing idea is whiteness and you’re not white, you don’t exist,” Sunyoung Lee told me earlier on Saturday. She publishes writers in the Asian diaspora at L.A.-based Kaya Press.

I had dropped by Kaya's booth at the AWP book fair to talk about why we need to read stories and poems by people from marginalized communities. 

Later that day, Buzzfeed’s deputy culture editor, Karolina Waclawiak, talked to me about what equitable representation in literature has to do with AWP. “This is a space where you can wander into a panel, have a spark of ideas, see writers from around the country, get access to them and have one-on-one conversations,” Waclawiak said. She had just wrapped up the panel on the wealth gap — which I made it to after all — addressing visibility of poor and working-class people in literature.

This year’s AWP felt riskier than past conferences, she said: “There’s a sea change happening. We’ve read enough hand-wringing articles saying we have a diversity problem. There are people who want to do something about it. People in positions of power.”

More than half of the 200 events listed for Saturday were tagged with “feminist,” “LGBTQ” or “diversity,” with titles such as “Writing Characters Who Buck Gender Norms,” “Eating Disorders in Poetry,” “Escribiendo en la Frontera” and “Writing Policed Black Women’s Bodies” — and those were all held during just one of the event's three days.

The matter of inclusivity at AWP hit a fever pitch last summer when Kate Gale — managing editor of Los Angeles’ best known indie publisher, Red Hen Press, and member of the Los Angeles 2016 subcommittee — wrote a glib essay for Huffington Post that dismissed claims that AWP has marginalized certain communities. She later replaced the post with an apology confirming her commitment to diversity in publishing.

Luis J. Rodriguez, Los Angeles’ poet laureate and author of the acclaimed East L.A. memoir Always Running, told me he thinks the summer’s controversy may have sparked more people to get involved with the conference.

“I’ve been coming here for a few years and it’s mostly white, but it seems different this year,” said Rodriguez, who was also on the regional subcommittee. He said a lot of his friends in the Los Angeles writing community — many of them people of color — came for the first time this year.

Back at the Kaya Press booth — which was shared by Tia Chucha, a community center and publisher in Sylmar that Rodriguez founded — Neelanjana Banerjee told me that L.A.’s local presses have made a concerted effort to invite people of color to the conference.

“When we’re looking around at the community, it looks just like L.A.,” she said, casting her gaze out on the hundreds of booths in the sprawling book fair. “But I had a friend walk in — her first time at AWP — and she looked around and said it was so white.”

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But Aya de Leon, another AWP first-timer who directs the Poetry for the People program at UC Berkeley and was hanging out at the Kaya booth, told me the conference has been an incredible experience. She came to promote her forthcoming book, Uptown Thief, which she describes as an “intensely politicized book about feminism and wealth redistribution disguised as a fun beach read,” and has met many journalists and media influencers who could review or blurb it.

Christian Teresi, the director of conferences for AWP, told me this conference is one of the most inclusive literary events in the nation. “A full third of the conference for at least a decade has been dedicated to multicultural or diverse issues, or events and readings that have a diverse lineup of authors,” he said over the phone, adding that board members and trustees are continually working on making it even more inclusive.

One group who felt left out this year was writers with disabilities.

Jennifer Bartlett, poet and founder of Zoeglossia, an organization that advocates for writers with disabilities, initiated AWP’s first-ever disability caucus after last year’s conference.
She and many others were disappointed to learn that AWP hadn’t accepted any panels related to disability for this year’s conference (although it had had disability-themed panels in the past, and there were a number of writers with disabilities on other panels this year).

Bartlett told me over the phone that the issue was twofold. “Universities aren’t hiring disabled writers to teach and it’s harder for writers with disabilities to get published,” she said, which means disabled writers are less likely to have the institutional backing necessary to pitch a competitive panel.

She also says it’s an issue of access — AWP needs to do more to make the massive conference welcoming and accessible to writers with physical, psychological and emotional disabilities. Teresi says he and his small staff have made hundreds of changes to accessibility services this year, like staffing an accessibility desk next to the registration area. Bartlett says AWP has made great strides, but it needs a dedicated accessibility coordinator.

Some writers took matters of inclusivity into their own hands. After the blowup over the Huffington Post article, Chiwan Choi, Skira Martinez and Lauren Traetto set to work organizing an alternative AWP. For two days, CIELO gallery in South L.A. featured panels and readings that had been rejected by AWP — all addressing issues related to marginalization — and the organizers hired an American Sign Language interpreter for all the panels.

Others focused their efforts on gathering data and recordkeeping in the greater literary establishment. Since 2009, the organization VIDA: Women in Literary Arts has been counting bylines and reviews of books by women authors in major literary magazines, exposing a systemic lack of gender parity but also encouraging shifts over the years. The 2015 count included an intersectional survey, in which some of these women authors self-identified their race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality and disability status. Pickings were slim across the board for women who were not white, straight and able-bodied, mostly in the single digits for each magazine.

The women behind VIDA aren't the only ones counting. A panel of poets and academics presented research on the race and gender of authors taught in Ph.D. creative writing classes. They examined 2,340 readings in 116 syllabi for one semester and found that 87 percent were written by white authors.

So, while the AWP conference may be diversifying, equity in publishing still has a long way to go. But Amy King, the chair of VIDA and president of next year’s AWP women’s caucus, still has hope.

“I’m a queer writer. Technically, I shouldn’t be at the top, but what I have to say is important and worthwhile,” she told me after a panel called "The New Girls’ Network" with organizers from Hazel Reading Series, Hedgebrook, BinderCon and She Writes, all advocacy groups for women writers. People seem to be listening.

Five years ago, controversy swelled at AWP when Claudia Rankine challenged the poet Tony Hoagland for writing in the voice of a racist narrator.

“Claudia Rankine made a huge splash last year; Tony Hoagland didn’t. So, she got the keynote,” said King. “AWP is paying attention to the national conversation.”

Amy King, Stacey Parshall Jensen and Shruti Swamy at New Girls' Network panelEXPAND
Amy King, Stacey Parshall Jensen and Shruti Swamy at New Girls' Network panel
Photo by Jessica Langlois

Later on Saturday, when all that was left of the book fair was a sea of folding tables and scattered papers, and 12,000 writers streamed out of conference rooms and into bars around the city, DTLA haunt the Falls was pulsing with one final reading.

Nearly 100 people came to hear authors from Voices of Our Nation, or VONA, a summer workshop series for writers of color.

My partner had made it back from Ventura and we crouched on the floor in the front of the crowd as poet Reginald Flood took the mic. He read a poem about teaching his son to drive in Los Angeles — which, for him, meant teaching him to slowly remove the keys from the ignition and exit the car with his hands held high in the air.

The room was still as Flood read. “Slowly. No. Slower than that.” When he finished, the crowd roared.
I thought of something I heard Kyle Dargan, a poet and the director of creative writing at American University, say on one of the panels that day: “Literature can be that thing that allows us to recognize each other again.”

Claudia Rankine at AWP
Claudia Rankine at AWP
AWP/robbsphotos.com

CORRECTION: This post was amended to reflect that Hazel Reading Series also participated in the panel entitled "The New Girls' Network." 


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