This is a long post because I’m trying to give a timeline of events in a situation that bodes ill for #diverselit writers and some background for my readers who are not familiar with the situation or even with the organization and players. This series of events begins with the announcement of panel acceptances for The Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP), the nation’s largest national organization for writers and academic programs that teach writing. There is always fierce competition for representation on such panels—by individuals because travel funding from their institution to even attend AWP (which is an expensive, huge conference) often depends on them being named to a panel and by AWP’s various communities because, as with so many large national organizations, the default tends to white male. This last, I want to point out is something that AWP has been working on in recent years. They still have a long way to go, but they have made real progress from the early days when AWP was primarily white and male. The panel representation has diversified remarkably from those days, although it is still problematic, and the establishment of caucuses for marginalized communities within AWP has been a major step forward.
After a disastrous earlier mix-up which inadvertently made some unofficial decisions public and caused dissatisfied speculation and murmurings even before the official list came out, the list of official panel acceptances was announced on Twitter. An AWP member named Laura Mullen tweeted in reply (from her personal account), asking if they would furnish demographics on the panel selections. AWP director David Fenza then sent her an email chiding her for “casting aspersions” on AWP and copied both her department chair and associate chair. For someone on tenure track or non-tenured or adjunct, as many AWP members in the marginalized communities are, this would have been an effective silencing tactic, threatening their employment. In Mullen’s case, she is an endowed professor and tenured, as well as director of LSU’s writing program, so she was not silenced. She wrote about it on her blog and posted Fenza’s letter, and the whole situation blew up on social media.
Soon, a petition was posted at Change.org, focused on the lack of disability panels and asking for increased transparency and for Fenza to apologize to Mullen and for the AWP Board to officially underscore that intimidation tactics by Board or staff of AWP against members would not be tolerated.
At that time, AWP should have risen to the occasion. Fenza should have publicly apologized. The Board should have issued a statement disavowing such intimidation tactics and stating they would not be tolerated. AWP should have agreed to more transparency and entered discussions as to how this could be accomplished. If this had happened, AWP would have been seen as a responsive and responsible organization. But, of course, it didn’t. The Board members are located all over the U.S., the leader of the staff was the person (Fenza) with the most to lose, and institutions in general move slowly in making decisions and dealing with crises. But finally AWP began to release some stats on panel selection and talk about the possibility of more transparency in the future—without, unfortunately, addressing the issues raised around disability or Fenza’s letter.
Next in this unfortunate sequence of events, we come to founder and CEO of Red Hen Press, member of the AWP 2016 conference committee, juror for panel selection for AWP 2016, Kate Gale, and her Huffington Post piece, “AWP Is Us.” (She has been scrubbing all evidence of this from the internet, so I have included screenshots of her actual original article as graphics on this post.) Also, here’s a link to a PDF of the original article.
There is so much wrong with this article that it’s hard to know where to start, the offensive, insulting stereotypes of so many groups—could she have packed more stereotypes into one short piece?—the chiding tone, the “you people” right up front in her first paragraph. I’m going to focus on the second and third paragraphs for purely personal reasons—because she used those paragraphs to insult and offend me and mine and because I believe she used me and mine as a stalking horse since she didn’t have the nerve to write a piece ridiculing and insulting people with disabilities (who were the originators of the petition). A lot of folks are fine with ignoring people with disabilities and treating them as invisible, but then worry about being seen as cruel if they publicly make fun of people with wheelchairs, canes, braces, and walkers. (I say this with more than a hint of personal bitterness, since I’m one of those people on canes.)
But Indians, hey, everyone makes fun of Indians. It’s a national pastime. In Washington, D.C., people make themselves up as caricatures of Indians to go to ballgames in big groups and ridicule us. At music festivals, hip young things don our sacred regalia or perversions of it to dance around half-naked. America’s been insulting us and underestimating us for centuries.
“One of the complaints lobbed at AWP is for not enough inclusion of different groups, another is for more transparency. This summer I was at a dinner and someone leaned across to me and confided, ‘AWP hates Native Americans.’
‘Really now?’ I said, ‘I'm going to be in Washington this summer and I'd love to discuss this with them.’ I took out a pen and paper. ‘Who hates Indians at the office there? Is it Fenza?’ I pictured David Fenza saddling up a horse, Stetson in place, going out to shoot Indians. It was an unlikely image. The woman began fumbling around; she couldn't tell me who the Indian hater was.”
Yes, let’s look at that image of David Fenza shooting Indians. How nineteenth century for such a twenty-first century woman? Perhaps she doesn’t know any of us survived the Removals and Indian Wars? No, that can’t be. She has prominent Native writers on her board and has published Native writers (none of whom I will name here because I know they must be cringing over this debacle already). So, it’s not ignorance. It must be a deliberate attempt to bring in a reminder of the genocidal Indian Wars, a reminder to us that we should be careful and not challenge powerful white people. I don’t think David Fenza hates Indians, but her own words make me think Kate Gale does.
I don’t believe for a second that this conversation took place, or if it did, it was not in those words. I know a large number of the Native writers who attend AWP, and I know of not one who would say, “AWP hates Native Americans.” Frankly, I know a hell of a lot of writers from many marginalized communities at AWP, some of whom have been quite angry with AWP for a while, but no one I know would say the organization hates Latinos/African Americans/LGTBQ people/whatever. I suspect this is more what a privileged white person thinks a person from a marginalized community would say. It’s basically Tea Party rhetoric in an environment where that kind of discourse is the last thing I would expect.
Indigenous writers at AWP have been working with the Board and the staff to increase Indigenous representation and participation, and while AWP is slow in implementing desired changes (as one learns to expect from big organizations), the staff and Board have been basically supportive. We keep pushing, and they slowly respond with greater representation and participation. We wish they were faster to change, and they wish we would stop asking for more, but our conversations and relationship have never been marked with hostility on either side. As I said earlier, I suspect Gale didn’t want to say something as openly and pointedly ridiculing and offensive about people with disabilities, so she chose our community as a safe and acceptable stalking horse. This was a mistake, of course, but then the whole piece was a massive mistake, insulting people of color, LGBTQ folks—and people with disabilities were not fooled, anyway.
Immediately, the comments section at Huffington Post began accreting negative comments, some of it quite thoughtful and excellent feedback for Gale if she bothered to read it. A stream of even more hostile comments began on Twitter. Facebook, especially in groups dedicated to traditionally marginalized writers, developed long, multi-faceted conversations around “AWP Is Us.” Thoughtful blog posts sprang up, and Higher Education Inside and Publishers Weekly published articles about it.
With all the negative feedback swarming around, AWP finally made a limited comment. In a tweet from the official AWP Twitter feed, they said: “AWP board and staff were unaware of Kate Gale’s Huffington Post article until it was posted. AWP did not and does not endorse the article.” Many people felt this was too little, too late, especially as the chair of the AWP 2016 conference committee, a Board member, initially “LIKED” this article when first posted, only to remove that later when all the negative publicity arose.
Then Gale took down her article on Huffington Post and posted the following non-apology.
Other than the first sentence—“I apologize for this post and the hurt it caused.”—the rest of the post is basically the Red Hen Press mission statement and an ad for the press. Apparently, she had become aware of the way her article was adversely affecting Red Hen Press. There had been suggestions that it be boycotted. Along with others, I cautioned that such a boycott would harm the writers of RHP, who were probably in pain already from the piece their publisher had posted in such a huge public forum. I do have great sympathy for RHP’s authors and its board members, who were almost certainly not consulted before this blog was posted and who must have felt it as a great betrayal from someone whom they trusted.
As this post is going up, the most recent media coverage is an article in the Los Angeles Times, which also criticizes her portrayal of Los Angeles as not welcoming to literary culture.
Gale is reaping the whirlwind that she sowed, and my final word on her aspect of this huge fiasco is a suggestion that people look up her resume. She is woven through the warp and weft of national literary culture, sitting on the boards or in leadership positions of many of our largest and most influential organizations that give awards and grants and publication. Ask yourself how little confidence writers of color, writers with disabilities, LGBTQ writers, and other marginalized communities can have that their work or the work of the best people in their communities will have a real chance at any of these awards, grants, panels, or other opportunities when someone who thinks this way is in power. Ask yourself how this is fair or just.
To me, however, the most important part of this disaster is the organization, AWP. This organization is a vital one for writers, academic programs, and literary culture in this country. It has made some real progress, after initially being dragged with a little screaming into the diversity of the twenty-first century. I hate to see its forward momentum blocked. I think establishment folks don’t actually realize that many writers in marginalized communities, who are fighting for every tiny scrap of representation in the larger community they can get, fear that those people in charge of all these large organizations feel the way Gale writes about their communities. I think it’s a subtler thing than that, a more institutional and unconscious bias in favor of the familiar, but those in leadership positions at AWP need to understand that many will read Gale’s piece and say, “Wow! What I was always afraid of is true!” It is imperative that AWP make absolutely clear, not just that they disavow any hint of approval for this piece, but that they will take concrete steps immediately to move toward greater transparency and make a strong formal statement that tactics of intimidation by AWP Board or staff toward members are unacceptable and will face serious consequences. And I think AWP must ask itself honestly whether it can continue to enjoy any confidence from its membership if David Fenza remains as its leader without formal reprimand to Fenza or apology to Mullen.
I have been so pleased to see the transformation over the years of AWP into a much more diverse organization and conference. I have so enjoyed seeing my fellow writers from marginalized communities begin to show up in greater and greater numbers every year. I would hate to see a reversal of all the very real good work that hard-working people on that board and on that staff have put in through the years to make this happen. I hope AWP will meet the challenge it is currently facing and, for once, do the right thing fully when it needs to be done and not much, much too little too late.