Color in AW(hite)Place
By Vanessa Mártir
I’m sitting here thinking about AWP 2015 in Minneapolis. I could write about the magic that I experienced the first day. How I ran up on Roxane Gay as she was sitting at the PANK table in the book fair. I was at the VONA table when I saw her down the aisle. My eyes widened and I said, “Oh shit, Roxane Gay!” VONA fam followed, “like the Pied Piper” my VONA sis Tanuja said later. Roxane was talking to a young man, about what I don’t know. We waited. When the young man walked away, I said, “I’m sorry for rolling up on you like that.” She smirked and shook her head, “Nah, I love that.” I said, “Hi, I’m Vanessa, I met you in Brooklyn a while back.” She looked at me and smiled this mischievous smile, “Oh, I know who you are — Vanessa Mártir.” She said my last name correctly in this bad ass sass that made me giggle and my knees became jelly. Don’t lose your shit, V. Play it off. Play it off. She said she loved my posts on Facebook and “your daughter’s great. Tell her I said hi.” (At a reading at Book Forum in Brooklyn, Vasialys asked Roxane, “What advice would you give a ten year old writer?” My baby girl has an effortless way of making people remember her.) When I walked away, I was giddy. “Oh shit, Roxane Gay recognized me. Oh shit! Oh shit! Oh shit!” I was like a little kid, all fan girl crazy and swooning. I won’t front, this is hands down one of the highlights of my AWP experience.
I could tell you about the hilarity that ensued in the materials distribution section of the AWP registration during my four hours of volunteer time. The old man who made me giggle when he said, “Is that for me?” when I passed him the AWP canvas bag, like I was handing him the world’s most beautiful flower. “Yes, I was waiting to give this just to you,” I said with a wink. His face lit up and he clasped my hands and said, “Oh, bless your heart, dear. Bless your heart.” He walked away with the biggest smile I’ve seen in a while. I was happy to make someone’s day.
I could tell you about how after a really hard second day, the universe gifted me good company, good drink and a pool table. My I-am-the-greatest-Muhammad-Ali-skills came out in full bloom as I proceeded to spank every single person I played, including the editor of a crème de la crème poetry press. He kept racking up. He wouldn’t give up. I spanked him four times while we talked about how pool is a metaphor for writing. I learned that he too has a daughter (she’s fifteen), and he too is navigating life as a single parent, and he too does not have an MFA, while all around us were people with MFAs. (Thank you universe for the reminder that I don’t need one!) After leaving him with skittles on the table for the fourth time, he gave up and I left because “I think my job is done here,” I said, laughing.
I could tell you about so much but my mind goes to that black body on the floor just outside the men’s bathroom, one sneaker just inches from his face.
I saw at least a dozen people step over that body to enter the bathroom.
I saw even more people walk right by.
And not one of them, in a conference attended by 12,000, thought to call security.
I didn’t understand what I was seeing at first. I’d just come out of a panel on writing about violence where Roger Reeves said, “Violence is the American version of love.” (I can’t get that fuckin’ line out of my head.) So much sage shit was said at that panel, so much rattled me and made me choke up and cry, that I had to go outside and feel the air, the blue sky over me. It happened when I walked back in. I was still raw.
I was walking to the main entrance of the book fair, right by registration where everyone who attended, all 12,000, had to go to get their name-tag and AWP bag.
I first saw his hand. Then I saw his sneaker, just inches from his face, slack and waxen, his mouth slightly open. Then I saw the people stepping over him to get into the bathroom. I looked around. The scene was surreal. No one’s helping this guy?
I walked toward the fair, searching for security, because to be completely honest, I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t understand what I’d just seen. White men stepping over this man’s body to enter or leave that fucking bathroom. And, yes, they were all white. It was hard not to notice that shit.
I told the first security officer I saw. He too was black. He looked at me, startled. Shocked. “There’s a man outside the bathroom on the floor?” he asked with disbelief.
“Yes, and people are just stepping over his body.”
A white man who was walking by interrupted, “Yeah, he looks high as a kite. It has to be heroin. He defecated on himself and all over the bathroom. It’s disgusting.” Then he walked off before I had a chance to react.
The security officer walked a little ways with me so I could point to the man’s body, still on the ground, people still stepping over his body. People were milling around the convention center, talking and looking at the AWP brochure with its list of hundreds of panels and readings. No one was paying attention to that body. The security officer grabbed his walkie talkie and spoke into it. He looked at me and said, “Thank you.” I walked into the book fair. I was trembling.
When I got to the VONA table, my safe landing place, I was visibly shaken. My sister friends Nivea and Melissa asked, “Are you okay?” “No,” I responded. I told them what I’d just witnessed. “Thank God you were there to help, V. You did the right thing,” Nivea said. I knew she was right but I didn’t feel any better. I had to go check on the man.
I leaned on a column about fifteen feet away and watched as paramedics treated the man. They all had various color gloves on, pale purple and yellow. I winced at the idea of them not touching him with their bare hands. I get that they had to put those gloves on for safety reasons, but the image of someone putting on gloves before they touch you is still a painful one.
The man was now upright, leaning against the wall. A paramedic swabbed his fingers with what looked like an alcohol pad then he went to his bag and took something out and put it to the man’s fingers. I remembered seeing my brother do that, using a needle to check his blood sugar. What had been labeled a heroin-induced daze appears to actually have been a diabetic attack.
I wonder if someone would have helped that man sooner if he’d been white. I wonder if he’d have been assumed a drug addict. I wonder many things, like how many times people stepped over my brother’s body…
I thought of that line that has stayed with me since I read that essay some time last year: “If you know someone who’s using or has used, you should know that this isn’t as simple as them making bad decisions. They’re running from something that, to them, seems a whole lot scarier than a needle.”
There was a time when I refused to believe that race was such a pervasive issue. I’d cringe when people cried “racism.” I’ve been known to say, “Not everything comes down to race, dammit.” I’m not that naive anymore.
The past few days at AWP in Minneapolis, I was reminded of the pervasiveness of the issue. When I saw that black body being stepped over on Friday, my second day there; then later that night, when walking by two white writers at the Hilton bar, I overheard the man say to the woman, in an exasperated tone: “She said there isn’t enough diversity. What the fuck does that mean?” The woman responded, “I know, right. I mean, I’m there.” When they saw me passing, they turned their conversation to whispers.
At Saturday night’s VONA reading, David Mura said he’d gone to a reading of thirty poets the night before, 28 of those poets were white and not one of them mentioned Ferguson or Michael Brown or the most recent incident in North Charleston, S.C. “That’s a political statement,” Mura said. David said that it’s at AWP that he’s often reminded of how segregated this country is.
As I reflected on my AWP experience and everything I saw and felt, my mind went to this message I received some time ago. On January 25th at 7:10pm, a man who identified himself as the person who runs a journal of books sent a message to my Facebook in response to my Huffington Post essay“Writers of Color Need Something More.”
He wrote: I read your most recent post on HuffPo and agree 99%. That Toni Morrison’s forthcoming novel is easily the most anticipated work of literary fiction in 2015 says something. But then of course a bunch of really white people in Scandinavia gave her the Nobel Prize.The above aside, I am in total agreement that we do not see adequate representation of literature reflecting the various worlds of people of color gain the recognition due… [My journal] aside from other missions, such as shining a light on smaller presses that don’t get enough attention has long wished to add to our panel reviewers who will focus on the rich body of literature by people of color… We need more voices such as yours, representing the broad arc of diversity in our country and in the world.
I didn’t get the message until weeks later. The first thing that struck me was the snark and how he underhandedly tried to negate everything I said in that essay by mentioning Toni Morrison, because, you know, one black writer is evidence of diversity. One black writer is supposed to pay for the sins of hundreds of years of whitewashing in American literature. Hers is the name they pull out of their asses every time the conversation of invisibility comes up. I told him as much in what I now see as a far too kind response. “I’d like to consider your offer but I’m not sure you starting your email with snark is the way to approach someone you’d like to write for your site.” He didn’t respond.
I confess: I searched out fellow writers of color at AWP. I gave them extra love when they came over to receive their AWP bag during the hours I was volunteering. I tried to make eye contact when I saw one walk by. I smiled and gave a head nod. I hoped they read my “we in this together” face. When someone walked over to the VONA table, I sold the program with gusto. I am a walking VONA billboard. I’m proud of that shit. Why? Because this shit is hard. Because being in these predominantly white places is hard. Because we get reminders of it when we see a black body stepped over. When we go to readings and not one of the 28 white writers mentions the killing of black men and women by police that has been all over the headlines for the past year. Because silence is a political act.
Vanessa Mártir is a NYC based mama, writer and educator. She is currently completing her memoir, Relentless, and chronicles the journey in her blog vanessamartir.wordpress.com. Vanessa’s essays have been widely published including in Portland Review, Poets & Writers Magazine, Kweli, Huffington Post and the VONA/Voices Anthology, Dismantle, among others.
Custom illustration by Lisa Hsia
*This essay was republished and re-edited from Vanessa’s personal blog listed above.
Originally published at sidebmagazine.tumblr.com.