…the idea that there were writers of my ilk, my ethnicity, my races, my familia, that somehow felt left out of the American canon, or out of certain anthologies and journals, or who felt mistrust toward anyone because they were marginalized, was not only foreign to me, but infuriating.
Yet, the one common thread I can link all of these writers to is a phenomenon I call Table of Contents Anxiety. This is not an affliction, to my knowledge, that is suffered by Anglo writers. (I will happily stand corrected if need be.) Table of Contents Anxiety arises when the first reaction to holding a new journal or anthology in your hands, before you even read one line of literature, is to flip open the Table of Contents and quickly scan it for black folks, or Latinos, or Native Americans, or anything, ANYTHING, besides the usual Smorgasboard of the Unsurprising when it comes to editors and their lists…
–Me. 2011. “Poets/Editors on Race and Inclusivity.” Presented at AWP.
Yes, I am inspired by a recent controversy—a series of them, at this point—that is currently shaping discourse in the literary world: specifically, institutional spaces and their wack responses to challenges in their efforts on diversity. To be clear, I have many thoughts, and I imagine you do too, about the model of any kind of literary or critical output that tells writers of color that we have to ask the permission of white people and large institutions in the first place.
There are any number of places you can find out those specific facts, ill-written HuffPo articles, and social media posts from the people who posed the questions and the people who responded to them. I think if you get creative with the Google, you can feed your particular brand of jones. I do not intend to give more energy to the institutions and people at fault for the various firestorms. Because truly, one bit of bochinche or another does not change the whole truth of what marginalized writers have to handle on the daily.
In 2011, I described a very specific phenomenon at play whenever we get a new book in our hands. Like the students we teach, like the curious othered kids we were, we needed to see ourselves represented in the literature we were being asked to read and glean life lessons from. Ask anybody you think is your ally: Table of Contents Anxiety is the realest. But I think we in the literary world can more accurately term this phenomenon Representation Anxiety. That is, the act of searching through any curated list of featured readers, reading lists, pedagogies, graduate school admissions statistics, conference panel selections, festival lineups, contest winners, or national or regional literary events, for evidence that people of color and their work are being accurately and proportionately represented.
Obviously, one reads this and thinks, well, so what do you people want? Numbers of writers of color for every damn journal? Percentages of people represented? Equal representation for all? I mean, JEEZ, you people are really pushy! Is it literary affirmative action you’re looking for? And do you have to be so NASTY about it?
The answers are: 1) Numbers would be great. 2) Percentages would be great too. 3) Equal representation would be lovely. 4) Yeah, my mom says I’m pushy too. Funny huh? Ever since I was a kid. We call that “being a jodón.” 5) Yes. And no. 6) You need to read more June Jordan. “The civilities that grease oppression,” and such.
I mean. Obviously.
Listen. I know enough Latin@ writers who bristle being called Latina or Latino at all. And more than one critic I respect hates the idea of us being lumped together as people of color. But I’ve yet to meet anyone, any writer or editor, when asked if diversity within the literary world is a bad thing, who would answer to my face, “Why, no Rich, I rather enjoy my all-white lineup of MFA graduates and Pulitzer finalists.” (That’s not saying they’re not out there. I’d actually like to meet them, in the open, in my Pancho Villa stance where I can see them.) In my experience, any journal or festival or conference or grand old literary institution actually benefits when more people are involved with it, and happily so. So why wouldn’t diversity be a good thing?
Yes, we count. Yes, we use numbers. When one finds themselves completely invisible from a given publication, damn right you use the numbers of people you find—big, massive numbers like “2,” or “1,” or “0”—to calculate how disappointed you are. Any institution that aspires to represent a large swath of American writers should probably expect to be asked a few questions. It should be considered neither rude, nor pushy, nor particularly shocking, when a person asks for numbers and percentages. This is what accountability looks like. This is not difficult, unless you don’t feel like being accountable. I should not expect to engage with literary organizations the way a parent deals with a petulant teenager.
And yet, this is the behavior we’re now being forced to deal with. The centers of American critical capital, even those with a demonstrable commitment to diversity, are losing their collective shit when someone merely asks a question, or pens an essay, or makes an inquiry. You can expect passive-aggressive phrasing in the introductory paragraphs of a list of writers: “I’m colorblind. Let’s just focus on the writing.” You can expect angered responses from executive directors. And somehow, despite the battles we fight, you can still find several all-white reading lists in major global publications. These are not accidents. Not in the light of this day. I don’t buy that.
Because in this day, there are indeed writers of color who are employed, engaged with, published, and featured in journals and spaces that weren’t always for them. They are the administrators who have to be called upon to send a backchannel note when one of their white allies demonstrates some non-allied behavior. And they are the writers and publishing professionals of color who are asked—or more accurately, feel obligated—to maintain silence and demonstrate loyalty to the organization that gave them room, when that organization (or someone representing it) decides to sound off on how unfair it is for people to count numbers.
Representation Anxiety doesn’t end when you get your foot in the door in the literary space. Far from it. Now that you’re here, you have to stay here, you have to bring the next one, you have to make sure the door remains propped open. Maybe you have to open a door. Maybe you have to pry it back open from the inside because it closed on you. And you have to put out fires. Like Edward James Olmos said in Selena: It’s exhausting.
But whatever. We do this shit every single day, we live our lives like this in the literary world, and we give ourselves agita and bang our heads against the wall, and we don’t complain about it until we finally have our necks just above the quicksand. Why? Because this is not merely about how much we spend yearly to jump on a plane to wherever the conferences are. It’s because literature is the story of the culture, the snapshots that tell us how we are as a society in the present moment. We don’t write simply to express our individual existential anxiety, or the triumph of practical magic in a cynical world. To be sure, we can, and we often do. But for many of us on the margins, we do it in service to the communities we come from. For us, literature is the witness to the times we live in, to the human beings who rise and fall and live and die in every last thread of the American fabric. Living, and dying, by every means you know in the popular media, and a few you cannot know until you read us. That’s why we value the perspectives of Latina essayists from Bushwick and East New York, black poets from the South Bronx and Oakland and New Orleans, Filipina and Haitian and Hmong and Palestinian fiction writers and filmmakers and playwrights and performers from Detroit and Houston and Chicago and Philadelphia and Paterson. That’s why we do it, even when we don’t have institutional backing, even when we have to publish and fund ourselves, even when we don’t have an MFA.
An ally is someone who knows all this, without being told to know it. An ally is someone who remembers the genesis of our anxieties, and helps us to put an end to them. Because here’s a shocker: in the end, we really don’t give a shit about your numbers, either. We want to see your concrete intentions to truly know what it is we say and do and witness. And if you really don’t want to know what we know, I’d like you to be honest enough to say, not in my backyard. It’s cool if we can’t be friends. But what we really don’t want is a grudging friend, a half-assed ally. We don’t need your lectures, your snark, or your satire. Act with us. Stand with us.
Or, at the very least, stay still while we work around you. Despite you.