AWP in Los Angeles

Last Saturday, I took the bus downtown to go to AWP at the LA Convention Center. AWP is the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, and it hosts an enormous annual conference. (Last year it was in Minneapolis! I didn’t go.)

I arrived early because a particular 9:00am panel had caught my eye: The Politics of Translation: Aimé Césaire’s The Tragedy of King Christophe. La Tragédie du roi Christophe is a play I read as historical background for a college class on contemporary Haitian novels by women. I remembered almost nothing about it, but it started to come back to me at the panel. I also took literary translation in college, so I was curious to hear about the translation of the play. The panel turned out to be less of a discussion than three distinct presentations, with Aimé Césaire as the only unifying thread. One of the panelists, Paul Breslin, recently translated La tragédie du roi Christophe in collaboration with Rachel Ney, and he talked about how they chose to translate the word nègre (Negro) in different contexts. They also rendered French alexandrins with English heroic couplets (a term I did not know) and French creole with English creole. Anyway, the whole panel made me nostalgic for my days as a student of Francophone literature and made me want to reread Césaire’s Cahier d’un retour au pays natal.

Next I wandered around the bookfair, where small presses, literary journals, and writing programs were tabling. I stopped at the booth for WriteGirl, a Los Angeles creative writing and mentoring organization that connects women writers with teen girls. I actually went back before my last panel of the day to learn more, at which point I was given a copy of an anthology they produced. Here’s hoping I can find some time to volunteer with them before I leave Los Angeles…

At noon, I headed to the We Need Diverse Books panel, entitled Shifting the Narrative Lens. Mike Jung was moderating, and I must say he was an immensely entertaining moderator. I’ve never heard so many hyperbolic descriptions of applause before. The applause was for the panelists: Audrey Coulthurst, Alicia Williams, Brandy Colbert, and Daniel José Older. I didn’t take a lot of notes, but it was a good panel. The panelists may have been preaching to the choir, but they still had thought-provoking things to say. One thing I did write down was Daniel José Older’s call for more white writers to write white characters who confront their own whiteness. White writers worry a lot about writing the Other, but it can be even harder to write the Self.

The next panel was pretty much the whole reason I decided to go to AWP, after thinking for weeks that I wouldn’t. It was Social Justice in Speculative and Fantastical Fiction for Young Readers. I didn’t really realize it till after publication, but that’s basically what Sparkers is. So is Wildings. Anne Ursu, the moderator, joked that the panel was literally the hottest at AWP since the room was packed and it was extremely warm. The panelists were Sherri L. Smith, Daniel José Older, William Alexander, and Tananarive Due, all of whom had great insights. There was a fair amount of discussion of subverting tropes like the Magical Negro or Female Villain = Bad Mother. Older also talked about different cultures’ relationships with the dead, which gave me all sorts of ideas.

At the end of the panel, I went up to introduce myself to Anne Ursu because she blurbed Sparkers. To my astonishment, she recognized me! Even in my new spectacles. So that was delightful.

From the social justice panel, I went to Non-White Authors Also Worry About Getting It Wrong: Diversity in Children’s Literature. (There was definitely a coterie of folks trooping from one diversity-related MG/YA panel to the next.) The panelists here were Rahul Kanakia, Heidi Heilig, and Day Al-Mohamed. Heidi Heilig introduced herself as “half-Chinese, half-white, hapa haole.” She grew up in Hawaii. I’d heard of her debut novel, The Girl from Everywhere, but I didn’t realize the protagonist was also white and Chinese. Another one for the TBR!

The panel was mostly about non-white authors writing the Self, grappling with having to appeal to a white audience and with feeling a responsibility not to perpetuate stereotypes about one’s own people. I was actually more interested in hearing about non-white authors also writing the Other: Is it different for us than for white authors? Perhaps not, since anyone writing the Other has to do their research? Does being marginalized along one axis make one better equipped to write characters marginalized along different axes? There was some discussion of being “given a pass” (e.g. Kanakia wrote an Indian-American girl–will his portrayal of a teenage girl receive less scrutiny because he’s an Indian-American writing an Indian-American protagonist?), but to be clear, most of the panel was not about these questions.

This was the panel where I took the most notes, and I appreciated that the panelists weren’t afraid to voice uncomfortable questions. For instance: the idea that diversity is a trend is anathema to advocates for diversity in kidlit, but even so, some gatekeepers may well conceive of diversity as a trend, and (according to Kanakia) there’s a perception that straight white authors are “cashing in” on diversity. The question is, what if marginalized authors are too? Even if unwillingly? The idea is disquieting. Personally, I wonder if it doesn’t really matter; as long as a story that wasn’t getting told before is now being told, who cares if the gatekeepers picked this story because they thought it was “trendy”? To give another example, when the A Birthday Cake for George Washington incident came up, Kanakia asked his fellow panelists point blank if they would tell their agents to stop shopping subsidiary rights for a work that had been criticized to the extent that they (the author) had come to believe it was genuinely harmful.

There was also discussion of sensitivity readers. A sensitivity reader is someone who reads a manuscript and offers feedback on the portrayal of a character with an identity that the reader shares but the author does not. For instance, I asked two Deaf readers to comment on Caleb’s portrayal in Wildings. The panelists talked about paying sensitivity readers, the possibility of their telling you not to move ahead, and the importance of getting input early so you don’t pour years into a book only to have someone recommend you shelve it.

I think asking sensitivity readers to give you feedback on your manuscript can be delicate. There’s an inherent power imbalance in the relationship between an author and a sensitivity reader, particularly if the author already has a contract for the manuscript in question. Although I did not offer to pay my Deaf readers, I think offering to pay sensitivity readers is actually the right thing to do (in other words, I was wrong). In particular, you shouldn’t put the reader in the position of having to ask to be paid because they probably won’t ask. You the author should offer from the start. Also, you should recognize that your sensitivity reader may not feel comfortable critiquing your portrayal as much as they’d like to. This is probably exacerbated if your sensitivity reader is also your friend. Either way, the reader can’t force you to change your manuscript or halt the publication process. They risk offering you their feedback only to be ignored or even attacked, so in some ways they don’t have much of an incentive to be honest in their critique. That’s why we as authors can’t use the fact that we consulted sensitivity readers as a defense against later criticism of our portrayals.

The last panel I went to was Writing Sex in YA: Choices and Consequences, with Elana Arnold, Corey Ann Haydu, Brandy Colbert, Carrie Mesrobian, and Terra Elan McVoy. The panelists, all of whom write contemporary fiction, talked about realistically portraying teenage sexuality, books they’d recommend, and things they’d like to see more of in YA (e.g. asexuality, boys saying no). They were very funny and entertaining.

All in all, it was a great day, and I’m so glad I got to go. Next up: the LA Times Festival of Books this weekend!

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