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


From: L.A. Weekly

awp_professionalI 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.

“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.” Read Rest of Article Here


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