Image credit: flickr.
EDIT 6/3/2015: After receiving a legal threat from lawyers retained by one of the named parties in the Invisibles’ letter, Quaint Magazine has elected to redact one of the names on the list. Quaint Magazine and associated staff would like to note that at no point did we personally accuse this individual of anything. We would also like to reiterate, once again, that we are not the anonymous authors of the letter found in the AWP bathroom. May the SEO be with you, sir.
It has been just over two weeks since AWP 2015 ended. It has taken me two weeks to write this essay. I don’t know what the mental block is. I know exactly what the mental block is. Despite being an active voice in combating abuse and oppression, sometimes I am naïve. Sometimes I am a child. Sometimes I want to cling to the illusion of community, of solidarity, of support, and pretend that, at least for now, we have vanquished the enemy. That we are moving forward. That we are doing better.
My personal AWP experience was without incident, and overwhelmingly very positive. I mostly avoided people I didn’t already know from the internet, and spent the majority of my time with women. I had so many wonderful, empowering conversations about literature, poetry, publication, visibility, and how to combat oppressive systems that silence marginalized voices. I felt untouched by the shadow of abuse that has loomed over the literary community for the past twelve months. I did not feel vulnerable. I did not feel scared. This was my privilege.
On the final day of AWP, on a break from staffing the Quaint table at the book fair, I found the following document in the bathroom. It is reprinted here in full, and no names have been censored. I refuse to couch my choice to reprint this document in legalese and rhetoric that questions and dismisses victims, that shields abusers. For those of you who did not see this circulated at AWP, here it is:
I did not expect to see the name of my abuser staring up at me from a crumpled white page in a bathroom at the Minneapolis Convention Center. I did not expect to see the names of folks I have been acquainted with, have been friendly with—folks I believed were allies. It was jarring to see those names on paper, to see this message—the same message I had been repeating for the past year—in a tangible form. To know it had been typed, printed, and distributed in physical space, that the hands that had prepared it were likely the same hands that had balled to fists, that had cut fingernails into palms, that had risen to defend themselves against these men.
There was some kind of psychological disconnect. It was strange to see this message in the real world. It was strange to know that some of the men on this list might be only a few hundred feet away, physically present and occupying the same space as not only me, but potentially their victims.
It was a slap in the face: a vital reminder that however comfortable the bubble of digital connection feels, our on-line “community” is illusory and fleeting. It is so easy to retweet, to favorite, to share content. So easy to type a few words of empathy or solidarity, to talk the talk without putting in the hard work it takes to really support victims. It is so easy to play at ally when it suits you or serves your purposes: allyship has become the new networking tool, currency for the privileged to win favor with the marginalized. And it’s trendy, now, to appear outraged. But what happens when the outrage loses its appeal? What happens to the people you claim to support when their trauma is no longer a hot button issue?
Jay Dodd, writing for the Huffington Post, says that “allyship, in its best form, is constant work”—and he is right. The Invisibles are right, when they assert with anger and conviction that “we can only heal once they take seriously our pain”. This is not even an issue of individual victims, individual perpetrators–though it would be wrong to erase individual trauma in the effort to address the broader issue. This is a problem with the climate and culture of our literary community, a community that pays lip service to the ideals of safety and equality, while still being firmly rooted in a tradition that oppresses and marginalizes people of color, women, and the queer community.
Recently, poet Carina Finn penned an impassioned screed on her Tumblr that railed against the fissures she saw developing in the poetry community. Finn, who identifies herself as “a victim of racism sexism rape and other things” is distressed by what she sees as an absence of love and kindness within the community. She decries “call out culture” and “reactionary politics”, while in the same breath discounting anonymous statements by victims as “rumor”, as “oppressive”.
“I will love everybody,” she says—as if this is the answer, as if responding to racism, sexism, misogyny, and abuse with “kindness, compassion, and understanding” is a practical solution to a systemic problem.
I feel for Carina Finn. I want to believe her, to believe that being pleasant and kind to other human beings will solve these horrible, appalling problems not just in the literary community, but in the world at large. The progressive, equitable veneer of her community is peeling away right in front of her eyes, and her response is to cling tight to the lie of allyship and the emptiness of internet empathy. She is angry at victims. She is angry at survivors. She is angry at The Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo and other anonymous collectives both for being mean (read: angry), and for wanting to preserve their anonymity in a hostile environment.
It is distressing when something you sought comfort in, something you felt was safe, is revealed to be decayed and damaged. It is distressing, being forced to confront the fact that you are participating in and perpetuating that decay, often without even knowing it.
The Invisibles are asking us to examine not only the other guy, but ourselves. They are telling us, in no uncertain terms, that it is no longer okay to be lazy allies—to finger point without self-reflection, to echo the message without adding to the conversation. It is not okay to hold onto friendships and professional connections because to sever them might damage our reputations, might hurt our chances of publication and employment. It is not okay to hide behind neutrality because I mean we just don’t know what happened, do we? We weren’t there.
Carina’s disappointment and sadness, her cry for kindness and love, is not unusual. The Mongrel Coalition, with their unfiltered anger, their refusal to self-police tone, are upsetting the privileged because their manifesto and mission statement do not allow for easy engagement. They are not letting Gringpos off the hook: they are saying “examine yourselves”. They are saying “you are the problem”.
Nobody likes to be told they are the problem. Nobody likes to see the names of their friends and colleagues on a list of alleged abusers, to be told that their silence and denial have made them complicit in that abuse.
And yet, as much as I want to buy into the myth of kindness and love, as much as I want to remain in the bubble that was my AWP experience–the bubble where I felt supported, not threatened, safe and not afraid—I cannot. I cannot be kind to people who have raped, abused, and/or oppressed others. My kindness is not currency: I will not use it to buy favor, to win brownie points. I will not use it to professionally insulate myself when all around me are the walking wounded. I will not. I cannot.
I do not have a solution to this problem. I do not know how to “fix” something as damaged as this–a community with a storied history of silencing, dismissing, and traumatizing minorities. I am not sure how to even begin to posit a solution when the language and culture of English Literature is by its very nature oppressive.
In all facets of life there are those who will use their power to exploit the less powerful. In our community, it has become a troubling trend to dress up this manipulation and abuse as support, as allyship. Some of the names on The Invisibles list are outspoken “feminists”, champions of women’s rights, queer rights, the rights of POC. There are people on that list, and others unnamed, who use their status as members of marginalized communities to shirk responsibility for their actions. And we are told to be kind to those people. To listen. To understand.
This is a call to arms: bite the hand that feeds you. Gnaw at the wrist, chew it off at the elbow crook. You do not need breadcrumbs. You do not need empty kindnesses.
Take your nourishment from the flesh that beats you down.
Kia Groom is founding editor of Quaint Magazine, and an MFA candidate at the University of New Orleans, where she works also as associate poetry editor for Bayou Magazine. Her work has been published in Curbside Splendor, Westerly, Cordite, and Going Down Swinging, and has been shortlisted for several awards including the Judith Wright Poetry Prize. She can be found online at kiagroom.com, and tweets @whodreamedit.