Monday, August 24, 2009

WILA & other possibilities

About three weeks ago I started seeing postings here and there, on blogs, on Facebook, about an initiative begun by a couple of young writing professors. It arose out of frustration with the limitations of the annual conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs--more than frustration, something more like anger, specifically at AWP's failings, shortcomings, slights and offenses vis-a-vis women. One too many proposed panels focusing on issues relevant to women writers were rejected. And so these two, Erin Belieu and Cate Marvin, decided it was time for a new conference. Thus was born the now three-week-old effort to organize a Women in Literary Arts conference.

Interestingly, once a Facebook group was set up, it took off like crazy. Something over 4,000 women signed on in just a few days. Less interestingly, for me, it became evident pretty quickly that this conference won't be hugely different than AWP itself. It's a progressive development, sure, it's always a progressive development when women strike off on their own to organize around their own interests. But the class and national character of the entity that has become WILA is pretty clearly going to be like the class and national character of the entity from which it is a breakaway. One obvious clue to this came last week, when the WILA organizers sent all 4,000-plus members of its Facebook group a link to this piece of neocolonial, paternalistic, we-the-chosen-ones-must-save-and-enlighten-the-women-of-the-brutish-backward-Third- World offensiveness. I immediately deleted the email, so I'm not sure, but I think its heading was "Why we're doing this," so apparently they're doing this, organizing a women writers' conference in the U.S., in order to somehow save the poor, ignorant, incapable-of-speaking-for-themselves women of Asia and Africa. Via capitalism, of course, heroic benevolent capitalism of the mini-entrepeneurial variety, or at least that's the route to salvation espoused in the article which all of us WILA Facebookers were sent. Oh my. Of course, I shouldn't have just deleted the email, I should have responded, I shirked my duty by not doing that, which was brought home to me once a woman of South Asian descent on the WILA list posted an angry response. The organizers' aligning themselves with the likes of Nicholas Kristof does leave one with let's say not the highest possible hopes for this WILA business.

Wouldn't it be lovely to attend a writers' conference that really met our needs ... That was affordable first and foremost. That was not exclusively or even primarily oriented toward the academy. That took into account the real lives of women who work for a wage and contort themselves to find time and psychic space to write. It's not an impossible dream, for once upon a time there was such a conference, and I was lucky enough to attend. It was called Flanked. It took place over an all too brief summer weekend three years ago in Washington, D.C. The whole extraordinary confab was conceived and funded by Andria Nacina Cole, a terrific writer who had at that time recently won a Maryland arts grant--and took the inconceivable step of using it to put on the Flanked conference instead of keeping the money for herself.

It was obvious to me and everyone else who was there that Andria and the others with whom she worked to put on the Flanked conference had given a great deal of thought and put in a great deal of effort to shape the gathering in a particular way, a way that was very different than conferences like AWP or like I'm afraid this WILA thing is going to turn out, with their majority-white, majority-university-affiliated, middle-class, etc., conferees. Flanked was not like that. It felt so alive, so affirming. I learned a lot. And I made a good friend, with whom I've gotten closer over the ensuing years.

There are, then, other possibilities. Other ways for women writers to gather, read, write, talk, learn, than AWP, or even alt-AWP. It happened at least once. Although I highly doubt WILA will be the way, I hope it will one day happen again.

UPDATE: WILA's Erin Belieu wrote a Facebook note in response to the criticism of the link to the Times article. I'm posting it here with her permission and without any comment of my own.
Thank you for your good feedback on the link I sent out. And I mean it when I say thank you--this kind of constructive criticism is going to be very important to Cate and me as we shape WILA to be an organization that functions transparently, thoughtfully and fairly for ALL women who wish to be a part of it. We know we have a whole lot to learn from our potential members and have already had some of our basic assumptions challenged in ways that she and I genuinely welcome. That's actually part of the pleasure in taking on this project. We don't claim to know everything and we're going to learn as we go. This is all still in a very nascent stage of development. But we will always be forthright with those of you who care enough to give us feedback about what WILA is doing and why.

Right now we're trying to understand what (if any) direct advocacy role WILA might have to play eventually. But the greatest and most immediate part of our mission will be to bring critical attention to the excellent work being done by women who write and to provide an intellectually exciting and safe environment for discussions of that work.

Finally, I should have been clearer and thought more about context when I sent that link. I didn't mean to imply that I put the stories repeated there on par with the average struggles of women writing in America. I can now see how that seemed disproportionate in the extreme. I thinnk what I was getting at is how that mainstream article--for all its thorny political slant--underscores the fact that women everywhere still struggle to be treated as first class human beings and that we as women do have great affinity with each other beyond our differences. I hope that maybe those of you who wrote and I will have the chance to talk about this in more detail. As I said, there was a great amount for me to consider in your responses. I'll look forward to the day when we can actually talk about it in person.