by Melissa Chadburn and Lauren Eggert-Crowe
One December night in Culver City, I, Melissa Chadburn, was talking to Lauren Eggert-Crowe about Kate Gale’s Huff Po missive about AWP’s inclusion and Carol Muske-Dukes’ defense of said article. Lauren said she’d wanted to write a response but it takes her time to write these things. I suggested we collaborate on a response to be read aloud at a Red Hen Press event. So on Thursday April 7th, rather than read the essay that Red Hen published in the Los Angeles Review, I read this:
I used to live in a group home. I used to wander the streets looking into people’s dining rooms with the worst kind of ache. I used to stand around with teenage boys on the street corner waiting for the stoplight to change color. I used to hitch rides through the Palisades to go to my group home for girls by the ocean. I used to worry about gonorrhea and feel like I was the worst piece of shit alive. I used to pat my mother’s hair between my hands like hamburger meat. I used to practice kissing girls by kissing the back of my hand or kissing my own shoulder just to see what my skin tasted like. I used to do graffiti on government issued desks waiting for my name to be called. I used to long to belong to a world of the ordinary.
Being a teenage girl in foster care was being a clot of want. We wanted so much. We wanted parents. We wanted a home. We wanted love. We wanted a future, college, an apartment, a good job. We just looked at all that want and then we wanted to get completely and utterly obliterated, beyond the point of knowing for real that all of that shit was never ever gonna be ours. I look at pictures of myself as a young girl and I often feel like that girl has died and in her place sprung a completely different person with a different family and a different home, and a different school.
And so much of my writing is a quest for home. In fact I can think of two themes that link queer writing and working-class writing— the quest for home and the rejection, through writing, of shame. In this society, in which the poor are blamed for their own poverty, we are taught to feel shame if we have not “succeeded.” Similarly, those whose sexual desires “deviate” from the norm are taught to feel shame for those desires. Yet here I am, a queer blackapina woman, invited to read for an independent press established by women.
We all have that defining moment in our lives when we thought our life was going one way but then it goes another. And for me it wasn’t when I went into fostercare or when my brother died or realizing I was queer. It was much simpler than that. When I was a little girl I loved everything. I loved everything and everyone. I loved my street. I loved the trees. I loved my mailbox. I loved the bus driver. I assumed they all loved me back. My life changed the first time I learned they didn’t. I learned this through their use of racist or homophobic or theistic language. Language like, “How gay are you?” “How many pairs of Doc Martens do you have?” “How many times have you seen Bound?” “Are you occasionally gay?” “I can be gay again too. Should the need arise.”
This isn’t just about one specific person…It’s very easy to hate what this one person did. It’s very satisfying to join the chorus of people calling her out. But that makes me feel self-righteous in a way that I’m uncomfortable with. I don’t want to pretend that I won’t ever make a mistake, that I am above failure.
How do you feel when you see that men’s writing gets published and reviewed more often than women’s? Do you feel invisible? Angry? Discarded? Have you ever tried to talk to a man about the gender imbalance in literature? Did he dismiss you? Did he react so defensively he failed to even listen to your pain? Did you feel powerless in that moment? And has that moment happened over and over again, with many other men, and maybe even with women who defend them?
That’s what many people have done in knee-jerk reactions to the demands to make the literary world more just and inclusive. They take the passionate, righteous, angry, beautiful cries of people demanding to be seen and heard, and they flatten them into cardboard villains easily blown over by the force of satire. They play fast and loose with old stereotypes. Sadly, many of the people failing the literature community right now are women. White women. Even though they surely have suffered similar indignancy at the hands of men. The disconnect is staggeringly disappointing.
We are women. We have been belittled, dismissed, patronized, gaslighted, mansplained, scoffed at. We know how it feels to assert our full humanity, only to be told to shut up already. Our bodies know danger and the threat of violence. I want to ask women everywhere, specifically women with the privilege of race, sexuality, and ability, to remember a time when a man made you feel small, just because he COULD. Remember that feeling. And vow to never cause it in anyone else. To care about literature means to cultivate empathy, to reach outside our own experience and connect the dots between our liberation and that of others.
I can understand why you might have felt defensive when you heard so many demands for better representation at AWP along the lines of race and ability and sexuality. Maybe the scared child inside you said, “But why am I not good enough? It’s not my fault I’m white. What is so wrong about my white straight writer friends? We’re not bad people.” I can understand if you bristled at tweets and petitions. Communication is 90% non-verbal, so when we communicate in writing, our brains fill in the context, tone, and emotional cues for us. Often erroneously. Maybe you tensed up at the calls for a gender/race/ability breakdown of AWP panels and went on to interpret every criticism as antagonistic, and therefore invalid. Maybe in your head you invented a monstrous voice for all of the writers filling the internet with their calls for justice. Maybe they scared you, these straw activists in your imagination. I’d understand if you let your stressed mind run away with you until you felt threatened by every person who criticized you or your organization. If you got so triggered that you confused a crowded Twitter timeline with real violence.
I wish you had stopped there. I wish you had taken a breath, stepped away from your computer, and processed your misgivings privately until all the hot red reactions subsided and your mind was calm enough again to listen, to really listen. What might you have heard?
I’ve felt those immediate defensive feelings too. I’ve let my anxiety get the better of me before. It’s the hardest thing in the world to sit with the uncomfortable emotions for a moment instead of hurling them at other people like a weapon. I suspect most of us would rather fire off a snarky missive than step outside and take a breath until all the lit-up stressors in our bodies fade and allow us to listen again. But when we transcend the wounded animal in us, we open up and create more space for dialog. We create more space for community.
This year at AWP I met with other Filipino writers and learned that on April 1 2016, a fire decimated the Faculty Center (FC), in the Diliman campus of the University of the Philippines. The FC was second home to hundreds of people who walked its halls everyday—faculty members, administrative and support staff, and students. While some parts of the building were spared from the flames, the larger part of it, most of it, was totally gutted. The fire ate up everything in its path. A particularly gut-wrenching loss: In February this year, the family of the late Francisco Arcellana, National Artist for Literature, donated his library to the department. It comprised over a thousand books, the most special ones marked with annotations in his hand and inscribed by their authors for him, along with rare first editions of Philippine literary works. It’s already the case that books in the Philippines generally tend to have short shelf lives. Our environment is host to many conditions that are not friendly to books, conditions that constantly threaten their survival. This is a country where language is revered, a special commodity vulnerable to mail theft and floods and fires and so my people are thirsty for language that disavows obedience, language that breeds imagination and a necessary freedom. So you see, I stand before you today without the luxury of tongue suicide.
Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge. Those of us who walk away from sexist language, racist language, theistic language— have reached for a new narrative. The story that language tells me is the story I told myself in fostercare— that I’m a monster. And the story that has sprung in the place of the one that tells me I’m a monster —is that I’m enough. I’m smart enough and funny enough and attractive enough and talented enough and I belong.
Melissa Chadburn, author of the Poets & Writers essay, “Submission Blitz: Finding Courage at a Writer’s Conference.” Melissa has written for Guernica, Buzzfeed, Salon, McSweeney’s, The Rumpus, American Public Media’s Marketplace, Al Jazeera America and dozens other places, her essay, “The Throwaways,” received notable mention in Best American Essays and Best American Nonrequired Reading. Her first novel, A Tiny Upward Shove, is forthcoming with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. When she is not teaching, she can usually be found protesting somewhere.
Lauren Eggert-Crowe is the author of three poetry chapbooks: In The Songbird Laboratory, The Exhibit, and Rungs, collaboratively written with Margaret Bashaar. She has written essays, book reviews, interviews, and cultural reportage for Salon, The Rumpus, The Millions, The Nervous Breakdown, Midnight Breakfast, and L.A. Review of Books. Her poetry appears in Tupelo Quarterly, SpringGun, Sixth Finch, Interrupture, Terrain.org and DIAGRAM, among others. She has an MFA in poetry from the University of Arizona.