Sunday, July 1, 2018

On Listservs, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Sisters in Crime

As some of my friends and followers on social media know, I have been distressed by reactions to the ALSC renaming of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, as expressed on the Sisters in Crime listserv. In part, this disappointment was because Sisters in Crime had recently launched a diversity initiative of some ambition and had been taking a lot of the right steps to make their overwhelmingly white organization truly inclusive, so I had a lot of love and hope and high expectations for this organization of writers. The many comments that ranged from simply entitled and tone-deaf to dog whistles to open racism (an actual comparison of the award name change to lynching, for example) felt like a direct slap in the face to Native and African American writers and readers, while some with broader references like “putrid political correctness” and “victim culture,” probably slammed home with other writers and readers of color, with disabilities, in the LGBTQ community, as well.

They certainly reminded me, viscerally, of the hurt I felt when I was a childish bookworm reading Wilder's books and encountering statements that insulted and diminished Native people, such as “there were no people there, only Indians.” When a famous and respected writer writes that you and your family are not even really human, the child you were sustains damage, whether you become defensive and angry to protect your people or ashamed and feeling guilt about your own heritage and culture. One of my friends was African American, and as I read what Wilder wrote about African Americans, I had wondered if it hurt her as much as her remarks about Natives hurt me—and I had thought it surely must.

The angry comments in reaction to the award name change filled the listserv in an onslaught with only a couple of people (for whom I am truly grateful) speaking out against them. It looked so lopsided that I almost gave up hope for the organization. This was probably easier to do because of the dark political climate of the past two years—and especially the past week. As all these stressors from the national stage pile up incrementally, it becomes easier to despair, and any kind of optimism becomes difficult to manage, creating extra impact for any local negativity, especially if it echoes the national trend of targeting Natives, people of color, people with disabilities, LGBTQ people, immigrants, Muslims, poor people, and women. (It probably didn't help that I am housebound with a shattered right shoulder and other injuries connected to that. Injury and illness are depression's handmaids.)

Then, after a private conversation with me about the situation and social media posts about it by me and others, a past president of the organization, Catriona MacPherson, wrote a passionate but lucid and cogent essay on Facebook (
in rebuttal of the problematic comments on the Sisters in Crime listserv (reminding me immediately of why she is one of my favorite people). Hundreds of people in the mystery community and SinC responded to her post—all in support, save one. More than 175 people shared her post on Facebook, often with their own statements of support added, and each of those shared posts accumulated many responses from the mystery community, almost all supportive, as far as I could see. Then some of the people who had shared her essay put their own strong statements in favor of the name change or in support of members from marginalized communities on the SinC listserv, and I began to see that my initial faith in the organization had been justified.

Finally, the Sisters in Crime Board closed the listserv, with President Kendel Lynn saying its eventual closure had been discussed for some time, but this ugly discussion had prompted them to shut it down now, in hopes of reinventing it soon in some way that would be healthier, more constructive, and less likely to become hurtful. ( I didn't particularly want the listserv closed, and I don't think anyone else did, either, but I believe the Board faced a difficult situation with no easy solutions and made the best decision they could after one of the listserv monitors tried to end the discussion on this topic and was completely ignored. The Board made a decision that they knew would be unpopular with some members, because they wanted to keep the organization true to its expressed ideals. They have my respect for their courage and commitment to the organization's mission and goals.

I have been burned many times by organizations that talk the diversity and inclusiveness talk but fail to make needed changes to carry out these goals or retreat when faced with divisive situations, such as this that Sisters in Crime faced. SinC and the mystery field, in general, are overwhelmingly white, ablebodied, and heterosexual but more and more writers from marginalized communities are showing up and being published—and the field has always had interest for readers from those communities. The situation that Sisters in Crime and the larger mystery community is facing is one that all literary communities in this country face. It is the same situation that our nation as a whole faces. The many communities of people who have been left out or dismissed or openly (or covertly) oppressed are tired of the status quo and insist that the United States live up to its expressed ideals. This upsets, frightens, threatens, and enrages people who have benefited, willingly or unwillingly, consciously or unconsciously, from the status quo.

Publishing and the mystery field are a microcosm of that larger situation. Sisters in Crime, which began thirty-two years ago as an advocacy and mutual support organization for women in crime fiction, who faced discrimination and prejudice, has had great success in that initial mission and has now expanded it to include other kinds of discrimination and prejudice. I look forward to seeing the organization once again leading the way in the field of crime fiction and in publishing itself, as it has proven itself so capable of doing.