“I would not have been treated this way if I were a white man, much less a white male author” — on the 2016 SJSU King Library Local Lit Fair

Hello Deborah,

I am writing you to inform you of my experience at the SJ Local Lit Author Fair. I’m sure, or I would hope, that one of your colleagues has, by now, let you know that I did not enjoy my experience, so much that I wish I did not share my stories and poetry at your event, especially after finishing a short 2016 book tour in San José, San Bruno, and Los Angeles.

There were problematic incidents that happened to me at your event, and I wanted to make you aware of the series of mistreatment that occurred. These events specifically involved your staff:

1) I was told that I had 7 minutes to read, as your e-mail had stated, and I only read for 3 minutes after you cut me off soon after I asked the audience if I could read one more poem. You said to me in front of everyone that your event was running ten minutes late and that you didn’t have time for me to go on. There was no apology, nor was there a sense of collegiality in that moment. I felt extremely embarrassed, and it was, of course, hard for me to recover. Your event was able to make up for the lost time, at the expense of cutting short my convocation.

I have been on panels at national conferences, and I have never seen, nor have I ever been treated in such an impolite way as a volunteer Convocation Speaker and proxy for Santa Clara County Poet Laureate, Arlene Biala. Your cutting me off was unprofessional and particularly embarrassing for me because I had family in the audience. Do you treat all speakers this way? This discontent puts me, professionally and personally, at a difficult space with Arlene, as I was upset about and re-considering whether or not I should let her know what happened to me.

2) Then, I was speaking on a panel with other authors, and while I was talking, three white women authors were talking to each other and talking over me while I was speaking on the microphone. I even looked at them while I was speaking, and the moderator did not step in to say anything to them. It was incredibly rude, to say the least, and I was livid then, just as I am now.

3) When I let one of the organizers know that I didn’t want to sign the waiver consenting to SJSU using my photo in the promotional materials — because I wanted to think about it — she seemed really upset, and she told me that I had to sign it. When she called you over, I remember that you were telling me to give you the signed waiver, and then e-mail you later on to see if I really felt the same way. I felt that this disrespected my answer and process and what I had just told the both of you: that I wanted to think about it.

I have decided: I do not consent to San José State University or the City of San José using my photo, name, book title, book cover, photo likeness, or audio contributions to any and all events or programs. If I have signed anything stating the opposite, then I’d like to now rescind that signature.

4) After a rude comment from one of the library’s patrons after other incidents not involving your staff, I decided to pack up and leave, and upon exiting and crying, one of your staff members talked with me, tried to get me to hold her hand to calm down, and whispered two “secrets” (her exact words) in my ear: 1) that most of the attendees were in “special ed” and 2) that the other authors are “awkward.” Those are also her words.

There were so many wrong, problematic moments here:

  • Your staff member insisting on holding my hand was inappropriate; physical benevolence is benevolently violent, especially in a workplace
  • Assuming, or sharing that attendees were in “special ed” is ableistic language, and it did not comfort me (nor should it have ever been used to comfort me) in any way to know that attendees had disabilities, and that this knowledge should enable my tolerance, nor should it be leveraged against my own feelings or understanding to excuse anything
  • “Awkward” is a personality trait, not necessarily an aspect of identity; awkwardness is perfectly fine with me, but it should not be used to excuse the disrespectful treatment I’d faced from fellow authors that day based on my identity and appearance

5) After one of your staff members followed me down the escalator, and after I told her everything I have just written out to you while crying, she still insisted on shaking my hand. I told her that I could not do it.

Here are other events that occurred:

6) A fellow author kept insisting on touching my non-sale belongings after I’d explicitly told her not to

7) A man at the fair asked me if I was from the Philippines only minutes after I had just read my poem about being from San José

8) The comment that caused me to pack up and leave: a woman said that my book cover looked scary, and that people only like to look at pleasant things

I was born and raised in San José. Just two weeks ago at my book launch at Silicon Valley De-Bug, I told a standing room-only crowd about my experiences and memories reading books from the SJ Public Library Branch at Independence High School, growing up in a family that could not afford to buy me books. I never imagined, just as I detest now, that I could be treated so disrespectfully at the main library of the city in which I was born and raised.

I am certain, and I told your staff this, that I would not have been treated this way if I were a white man, much less a white male author.

As a result of these frustrating accounts, I hope that your future programming includes more young, women of color and Filipina authors, and I hope that they are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve. I will be writing publicly about my experiences at this event, and I would appreciate, at the very, very least, your receipt or confirmation of this e-mail.

Janice Lobo Sapigao