One City: Many Writing Communities

The Space Needle with a Chihuly glass sculpture

At Chihuly Garden and Glass

On Thursday I sat in Third Place Books Ravenna, listening to a strained conversation about racism and publishing. A book has just come out, Seattle City of Literature: Reflections from a Community of Writers, edited by Ryan Boudinot, that is part of a bid for Seattle to be named a “Creative City” by UNESCO.

The book’s jacket copy says “it tells the story of books, reading, writing, and publishing in one of the nation’s most literary cities.” But the story it tells is not one that others recognize as the definitive narrative, and my fellow writing group member, Donna Miscolta, has written a response. Published online the night before the panel discussion, her essay notes the many writers of color left out of the narrative, writers like Octavia Butler, Alan Lau, Peter Bacho, Carlos Bulosan, Nisi Shawl, and August Wilson, who gets a passing reference but not a full essay. She says, “In the end, the failure to acknowledge the existence and work of writers of color fails all readers.” (Donna’s essay joins many others on racism in publishing; see, for example, Mali D. Collins and Daniel José Older.)

The person who put Donna’s essay online was Paul Constant, creator of The Seattle Review of Books and writer of the afterword for the book. He immediately responded with his own post in which he apologized: “I didn’t even notice the whiteness at the time. And I absolutely should have.”

Sitting on the panel at Third Place Books, then, were Boudinot, Constant, and two contributors, Sonora Jha and Lesley Hazleton. They were all aware of the controversy, and so they led with it, acknowledging the issue and promising a conversation. That conversation then unfolded — strained, painful, awkward. I felt myself at times wanting to pitch a softball question just to relieve the panelists of their discomfort; of course, I didn’t. Discomfort is often what it takes for us white people to take action. Our comfort with the status quo is part of the problem.

Where I felt myself getting especially frustrated was when panelists were asked to come up with solutions to the problem of inequitable representation. The main solution suggested was the importance of reaching out to communities of color instead of just accepting whatever comes in over the transom. While this may be a good idea, I was struck by how easily such a solution slides into paternalism, how it suggests that the problem lies with the writers of color who are not assertive or diligent enough to get their work into public view. It fails to acknowledge the ways that white privilege functions.

I have spent years addressing institutional racism as an academic; I have taught for over twenty years at Highline (Community) College, where I’ve been involved in many initiatives to diversify the curriculum and faculty. It’s forced me to try to answer questions like these: How can our faculty still be 80% white, even with a decades-long effort to hire more faculty of color and a perception on the part of some white faculty that applicants of color have an unfair advantage? How can so many of our students, over 70% of whom are people of color, still get an associate’s degree and rarely see people like themselves reflected in readings and films, in the images in their textbooks, in the examples used by instructors in class? Last year, when I had to take over the class of an instructor who was fired, I found myself having to teach with a recently published English composition textbook in which close to 90% of the excerpts of professional writing seemed to be by white people. How is this still happening?

I’ve come to believe that, for white people to be part of the solution instead of the problem, we need to understand implicit bias and structural racism. A blog post can’t possibly explore these topics in the complexity they deserve, but I want to try, at least, to add to the answers that were given Thursday night on how we can avoid inequitable representation.

Psychologists at Harvard University have done extensive research on implicit bias, the subconscious tendency to be biased in favor of characteristics associated with power: whiteness, maleness, wealth, heterosexuality, etc. As we begin any project, it’s useful to remind ourselves that we are inherently biased. It’s not a moral failure; it’s the result of living in this culture. Even people of color can be biased toward whiteness; that phenomenon is called internalized racism.

Structural racism refers to the ways racism is built into our systems, institutions, and culture. In Seattle, people of color were not allowed to purchase houses in certain neighborhoods until the 1960s. Friends of mine bought a house in West Seattle in the mid-1990s; when they received the title, they were shocked to see that it prohibited them from selling the house to blacks and Jews. Of course, this restriction was no longer in force, but it was a reminder that structural racism affects us to this day, with opportunities for writers — bookstores, classes, reading series, etc., like most resources in Seattle, concentrated in the whiter north end.

So my suggestions to white people for taking a more equitable approach to projects in the Seattle writing community are to ask these questions:

  • Who are the stakeholders and who should be at the planning table? Which voices are louder and which are softer? Do some at the planning table have more power than others, and is that appropriate?
  • What criteria will be used to decide who is included (in the anthology, on the panel, etc.)? When criteria aren’t clarified, biases will go undetected.
  • How are my own point view and personal networks, inevitably impacted by my whiteness, likely to affect this process? How can I tap into other networks? How can I see from other points of view?
  • How are existing structures tending to benefit white people? Assume they are benefiting white people and keep looking at them, trying to figure out how; it’s often hard for us to see structural racism at work because it seems normal to us, but we know it exists because outcomes continue to be racist. Consider policies, access to resources, dominant cultural narratives, the way announcements are worded, where events are held, and so on.

These questions need to be asked at the beginnings of projects, not halfway through when we realize that mostly white voices are being included; such an effort at that point leads to tokenism. Yes, this takes time and energy. But a healthy, deliberate, inclusive, anti-racist process is our best hope for ending with equitable representation.

In fact, no anthology can tell “the story” of literature in Seattle; there are many stories. The question is: which stories are being told?

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A Summer of Readings

Modern Hotel

The Modern Hotel

I read recently from The Ghosts Who Travel with Me at the Modern Hotel in Boise, one of my favorite stops on the book tour. In 2008, when Arline and I began the literary pilgrimage that would inform the book, we stayed at the Modern Hotel, and I fell for its midcentury modern design: hip but relaxed, luxurious but homey. The owner’s grandmother, who opened the first Modern Hotel in Nampa, Idaho, makes a cameo in the book, and I was pleased to share my fondness for the hotel with the locals who get to visit whenever they wish.

After the reading, the owner, Elizabeth Tullis, told me a story about her grandmother. She had asked her grandmother to speak about her life into a tape recorder. When Elizabeth replayed the tape, her grandmother looked startled to hear herself. She said, “How did my life get into that box?” Elizabeth told me she had the same reaction to hearing me read about the Modern Hotel: How did her life get into that box?

How do our lives — messy, complicated, contradictory — get into these boxes that are books? Books are linear, each sentence marching after the last as if it inevitably follows, the bound pages forcing us to read the paragraphs in a certain order. That’s the tension for memoirists: to take the mess of our lives and organize it, but not so tightly that it feels inauthentically sterile. I’ve discovered, reading from the same passages over and over this summer, that I want to keep editing, and so I do; before each reading, I practice, imagining my audience and editing accordingly. Listeners who buy a book will see what’s fixed to the page, but perhaps the revised version will still linger in their ears, a ghost that travels with them.

A book is like a Polaroid taken at a party, stopping the host’s mouth half-open, the laughing eyes half-closed. The book stops sentences at a moment in time, freezes them in position. And like the Polaroid image, which gradually sharpens, the book’s power and the book’s flaws gradually sharpen as the writer reads it out loud again and again, and as readers encounter it. Unlike the unlucky host in that Polaroid, who did not know when to smile, the writer has control over the final version. Still, that control can feel like an illusion. Long after publication, the writer may still see words, phrases, whole sentences she would like to change.

So this is what I’m feeling these days after a summer of talking about the book in interviews, reading reviews, and listening to its sentences emerge from my mouth in front of microphones: a bit startled. How did my life get into this box? By which I mean: How did this particular version of my life get into this box? What does this version say about me? Who is the me that is revealed on the page?

I am many drafts into a new memoir. The sentences are in motion. I will try to appreciate all the possibilities they still represent.





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Interview with Waverly Fitzgerald

Waverly Fitzgerald, a Seattle writer with an impressive list of publications and a popular teacher of writing at Hugo House and other venues, has interviewed me about my publication journey. We spent a lovely week together in 2014, along with two other writers, at a Centrum residency; we are about to go to Port Townsend again for another week. One of my favorite things about writing is being in the company of smart, kind, interesting writers, and Waverly is one of those people.

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Interview with Michael Silverblatt on Bookworm

It was quite an honor to talk with Michael Silverblatt on Bookworm earlier this month. Thanks to KCRW and the Bookworm staff as well as Emily Goldman, the Ooligan staff member who interviewed with me.

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Interview on KPFA’s Women’s Magazine

Thanks to Kate Raphael for taking the time to talk to me on my recent visit to San Francisco. The podcast is here.

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Travels with La Roja, Part 1

Red Eurovan Weekender in Fort Worden

Recently, my brother went to Vancouver for the World Cup, where he watched Canada beat Switzerland and England beat Canada. To keep costs down, he camped on the edge of the city, spending one night in his car and taking a “bath” in a lake.

I’m not that kind of camper.

But I don’t need the full-on glamping experience, either, with a personal chef tossing my lime-cilantro cabbage slaw outside my teak-furnished yurt.

For me, a Eurovan Weekender parked in the forest of Fort Worden during the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference is the perfect blend – call it cultured camping.

Arline got the urge to buy a Eurovan last summer, and after a series of conversations in which I attempted to keep my mind open (“You want to do what?”), we found a 2003, cherry red Weekender on Craigslist, and this summer we have had our first opportunities, not counting one night last fall, to camp in it.

Unfortunately, the first planned excursion – my birthday weekend in Prosser, Washington, at the Wine Country RV Park – had to be cancelled due to temperatures forecast in the three digits. No amount of wine tasting at Vintner’s Village next door to the camp site was going to distract me from 111 degrees; I would have wilted in a dehydrated haze.

Instead, we spent our first two nights in the van at Moran State Park on Orcas Island. It’s painful to confess how distressed I was to find, upon dropping into my camp chair after we arrived, that not only did we have no LTE internet access in the park, but no cellphone service at all. What’s camping without checking my email and posting photos on Facebook? But I did swim every day in the lake, and Arline was able to test her bin organization strategy. The bonus was chocolate muffins at Brown Bear Baking in Eastsound.

About a week later, we drove to Port Townsend, set up our camp site at Fort Worden, and settled in for five days of the writers’ conference. Now, this is my kind of camping: a lodge with tables and Internet access for rainy mornings; writer friends dropping by the camp site in the afternoons for glasses of wine; dinner with Nyla Dartt and Marcia Perlstein of KPTZ radio, who had interviewed me a few weeks before; readings by Pam Houston and Luis Urrea in the evenings. We walked to Pane D’Amore in Port Townsend for bread and drank beer at Sirens, overlooking the Sound. Not really “getting away from it all.” More like: eating, drinking, hanging out with cool people, and taking a walk on a beautiful beach.

Our next camping trips are in August: Mount Rainier and the Oregon Coast. No guarantee I’ll be able to check Facebook from the Mount Rainier campground. But it looks like we can walk from our beach camp site to Manzanita, Oregon, which I know has a wine bar. Salud!

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Screen Shot 2015-05-29 at 8.48.18 PM

On a screenshot of Google Earth’s Idaho, yellow thumbtacks mark the sites where the writer Richard Brautigan traveled in 1961. Arline and I found some of these places when we followed in his footsteps on a literary pilgrimage described in my newly published memoir, The Ghosts Who Travel with Me. Now that years have passed since the pilgrimage, the place names have taken on a mystical quality: Stanley, Little Redfish Lake, Worswick Hot Springs.

For Brautigan, too, his Idaho trip receded into nostalgia. Early in his book Trout Fishing in America, he says, “O, a long way from Idaho, a long way from Stanley Basin, Little Redfish Lake, the Big Lost River and from Lake Josephus and the Big Wood River.” This sentence appears in a chapter called “The Autopsy of Trout Fishing in America.” Brautigan’s travels into the wilderness are over, and nothing remains but the dissection.

I’m drawn to nostalgia. It’s tricky because it can make us romanticize the past. But nostalgia can be more textured than that. It’s part yearning, part grief, part reckoning with complicated feelings. I’m feeling nostalgic these days about my book project coming to fruition. I poke through my computer folders, remembering how the project started. A file called “original chapters” has some that made it into the book and some that didn’t. Here is a passage that didn’t make it: “And so we went to Idaho. Two women with different accents in one car with no incriminating bumper stickers.” I liked those sentences, but they didn’t fit. My folders contain half a dozen versions of the book with the chapters in different orders. A scene that now appears late in the book was in the first chapter of the first version.

I remember, too, bringing sections to my writing group. Donna Miscolta, Jennifer D. Munro, and Alma García were honest about what was working and what wasn’t; regardless, they expressed enthusiasm for the project, and that kept me going. One of them suggested the book start with the departure for Idaho. What seems an obviously good opening now just wasn’t then.

By fall 2013, I was querying Ooligan Press, and the editors requested a proposal. Three months later they wanted the manuscript. When a member of the acquisitions committee emailed to say the committee had voted to accept it and the manuscript now was going to a vote of the entire press, I held my breath for five years — or was it five weeks? — until they offered me a contract.

Over the last year, I have worked closely with Ooligan staff on revisions, copyediting, permissions, and marketing. Now the book is available online and at select bookstores. Already, the journey of writing and publishing the book is receding into nostalgia: O, a long way from Idaho; a long way from my desk in the attic dormer of a house where I no longer live; from critiques and revisions; from queries and proposals. Now the journey begins for readers.

Another feeling I’ve had a lot of lately: gratitude. At the book launch, I asked people to stand up and be recognized: my parents; my partner; my writing group; the photographer of the author photo; the Ooligan staff; friends, colleagues, members of my writing community. I thanked Elliott Bay Book Company for hosting and Hedgebrook for sponsoring the reception. Finally, I asked lovers of books to stand up, too. All those people standing? That’s how many it takes to make a book. We all do it together.

So thank you. And thank you.

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