The Challenge of Speaking Out
[Trigger warning: This post discusses patriarchy, oppression, violence, and abuse.]
We made plans to start Real Pants in the fall of last year, at a time when the idea of an open, supportive, cohesive literary community was crumbling. Revelations of violence and abuse perpetrated by editors and writers put the lie to any sense that we were somehow immune to culpability and victimization within the systems of patriarchy and oppression that are so entrenched in this world. At the same time, instances of police violence and the total lack of justice for Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and so many others underlined the always-urgent need for a critical discourse about race and racism in this country.
At home and among friends, we had difficult and honest conversations about our own privilege, how we are implicated in oppressive structures, how we are limited, and what we can do. Existing means of online communication did not offer us the kind of depth, seriousness, and civility that our face-to-face conversations offered, however imperfect (and privileged) those were. We made halting attempts to engage online, but we, and others who felt alienated by online discourse, were often silent. In the months after Ferguson and, elsewhere, the tension that pervaded the small press community, we talked to numerous people who said the nature of online discussions made them leery of contributing. They were concerned and listening, but silent. But being silent online amounts, at this point, to being silent period, and we were not satisfied with silence. Silence is also a privilege. At Real Pants, we’ve made it our goal to find a better paradigm for engaging online.
We haven’t totally figured out how to do that. So far, we have had a lot of fun, and goodwill has buffeted this enterprise. Our hearts have been often light. Our approach to topical events related to patriarchy and oppression has probably been too oblique, so far. The ability to have fun and to treat serious subjects obliquely, or sometimes not at all, is itself a product of privilege.
Right now, at this moment, we cannot be oblique. A renewed conversation about abuse in the literary world is escalating primarily on Facebook, which is one of the forums that we have found to be inadequate and alienating in the past. At the same time, Baltimore is engaged in a crisis surrounding yet another questionable, police-involved death of a young black man, and again the response to protests has been one of divisiveness rather than one that takes a hard look at the issues. Everyone says that everyone else is shutting down the conversation, and others stay out of the discussion until things blow over. And once they’ve blown over, the opportunity for progress has too often passed.
But now that Real Pants is a few months old, we want to reinvest in our charter to find meaningful ways to engage with things as they happen. We will continue our behind-the-scenes investment in social justice in a broader sense—as in Baltimore—but as it pertains to things we face as writers, editors, and publishers, we recognize the need to be direct.
Please note that we acknowledge our personal stake in this particular conversation. A Real Pants contributor, who is also a longtime friend and the publisher of several of our friends, has been the focal point of this renewed discussion, and on Facebook we (Adam Robinson and Amy McDaniel) have voiced our support of him, his press, and the people he’s published. It would be disingenuous to suggest that we are not at all motivated by our personal connections. That said, our purpose here is not to make a case for any single individuals.
We believe in supporting victims, whether they have come forward publicly or anonymously. It is all too easy for us to imagine why someone who has been abused would find it impossible to attach their name to an accusation, or to provide specificity that would threaten their ability to remain anonymous. This makes all kinds of horrible sense to us.
Our purpose here is to participate in this conversation in a responsible way. To that end, we do ask that any comments (should anyone choose to comment) refrain from using names. We have two reasons for this. First, while there must be space for accusations against individual perpetrators, this discussion of patriarchy, abuse, and oppression is larger than named individuals. Second, the use of names could fuel the kinds of threats that have already been made in several instances.
With all that said, here’s what we know about the current situation:
On Friday, someone wrote a meaningful blog post about the ways culture in general, and specifically the literary community, still hasn’t fairly accommodated women and survivors of abuse. Along the way, the writer says that at AWP she took a break from working her table at the book fair and went to the bathroom, where she found a document. The document, signed “Invisibles,” names several men who had previously been accused as sex offenders, then lists a wide variety of offenses—from assault to claiming photos to be their intellectual property.
By Saturday, discussion of the letter and some of the issues related to it reached a critical point. One of the men who had been listed among the offenders posted his response. In it, he said that he would be stepping away from poetry and his role as a publisher, at least in part because threats were made against his family.
There was a response at reblivingston.blogspot.in by an author he’d published. Coldfront also wrote a recap.
Because the AWP bathroom letter is the nucleus of this event, we want to start by understanding the intention, provenance, and implications of the letter.
In our reading, it does not claim to be a statement by, or written on the direct behalf of, an anonymous victim or victims. It may be possible that the writers obtained consent and, for whatever reason, decided not to mention that—but there has been no indication of this. The discussions around protecting and believing anonymous victims are only salient if a victim came forward in the first place, privately or publicly. Otherwise, the letter has no connection to possible victims, anonymous or otherwise. Instead, this letter reads to us more like a manifesto.
It is vital that we nurture a climate in which victims can privately confide in trusted intermediaries who can bring forward accusations while protecting the identity of victims. Sexual misconduct and abuses of power must be taken seriously in our community, and we cannot assume that those we love and trust are incapable of harming someone.
If we’d previously heard about accusations against all the people in the letter, we would react differently. We would better understand its purpose and message. We too believe that we need to do better, that the system is broken, and that we must not forget or move on from this necessary conversation.
Once the focus is redirected, that is exactly the conversation we hope to have.
Amy McDaniel and Adam Robinson
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