I am deeply moved by Claire Vaye Watkins’ brilliant speech-turned-essay published on Tin House, “On Pandering: How to Write Like a Man.” She begins the long essay with reflections on teaching that include being sexually harassed and utterly dismissed as a writer by the male editor of the Rumpus. But then she reveals the heart of the piece: she has spent her career up until that point “writing to impress old white men…a beseeching, approval seeking, people pleasing.” The piece was trending online yesterday and went viral in many writers’ circles this week.
According to bestselling novelist Carolina De Robertis:
“it is rare for a male writer’s egregious misogyny to be called out so publicly, and in such a clear and thoughtful voice. It is even more rare for a female author to write with such rigorous self-reflection about how internalized sexism has shaped her writing, what she’s chosen to write and portray in work that has been published to acclaim….How our minds can be colonized at the moment of actual writing — that is a slippery yet crucial piece of how patriarchy operates in our field. Claire’s dissection of her own relationship to the male gaze, and her deepened commitment to blast that apart, is brilliant.”
I have heard numerous women respond that this confession brings unwanted revelations that hit particularly close to home. For me, however, the revelation is about how I have, apparently, been protected from such temptation to pander. And this protection appears to have the most unlikely origins.
The gift of fatherlessness.
The gift began with grandfatherlessness. By the time I was born, both my grandfathers had been dead for decades. They had both died while each of my parents was in middle school. Which meant there was lingering trauma from their deaths, but no sense that I had nearly missed having either of them as grandparents. More like that well’s been dry for years.
My parents’ marriage fell apart when I was a baby, and I grew up with a single mom. By the time I was four, I had already gained and lost many family members, and calcified my vision of family that it was me and mom against the world.
Before I even entered kindergarten, I had given up on my father, and by extension, on all men. I was utterly and completely defeated by the system of male domination that decreed me unimportant. So I decided fuck that. I went where there was food and shelter and warmth. I would be a mama’s girl.
For better or for worse, I bring this sensibility into my writing. I write for women, and I always have. I don’t write for men. If men like my writing–want to buy it, or to support my work–awesome. But I had too many early lessons that preclude me from looking to men for that type of validation or structure.
I say my parents’ marriage fell apart, but that’s not totally true. My dad was not adjusting well to being a father. He was probably scared out of his mind, but he expressed his fear by berating my mother. So she left him. And she was able to leave, because she could move in with her mom–my widowed grandmother. So my earliest memories are of living in a multi-generational family of women.
Growing up as a black girl, there has been a constant lament about my community’s fatherlessness. But at some point in my 20s, I had the following revelation: yes, I was heartbroken that my biological father left, but I was better off without him. My dad is a good person, but too caught up in the music in his own head to be present as a father. He can be volatile, moody, withdrawn. It turned out to be harm reduction: the damage of his abandonment and absence was the lesser of the two evils. In fact, the most painful episodes with my father are not about his absences, but about the broken promises that followed the times I did see him. My dad loved me, but he was unable to fully see me and honor me. This is a valuable lesson in a male dominated society. Even though men may have a disproportionate quantity of the good stuff, it’s dangerous to count on men as your source.
And as I walked out into the world as a black girl, I didn’t encounter much in the way of male generosity. My teachers were mostly women. Apart from my very caring stepfather, everyone who took any interest in me was female. As a pre-teen, I was utterly invisible to boys and men.
And then I developed a woman’s body. Suddenly, I became visible. I had been thinking and speaking and walking in the world for many years, but suddenly men could see me. Suddenly men could hear my voice, because they wanted me to speak to them. To say yes to them. Men’s previous lack of interest in me as a female human with no breasts or hips but a working brain made it clear that my mind played little or no role in putting me on their radar.
Throughout my artistic career, there have been men who cared, who were supportive, who gave me wonderful opportunities. But never men who utterly championed me and my work. That is to say, no man ever went profoundly far out of his way or made any major sacrifices to support my work. As a spoken word artist, my core audience was always women, because I was often speaking to women about womanhood. So I don’t have a little white man inside of me whom I’m trying to please with my writing.
Let me be clear: maybe it would have been different if I had ever gotten any positive reinforcement. But in my experience, the white, male literary establishment has been so consistently uninterested in me, people like me, what people like me might have to say, people like me as protagonists or even well-developed characters. Thus, it’s not personal. I truly get it, at least at an intellectual level that men’s lack of interest in my work isn’t based on anything I’m doing wrong, but based on sexism (and racism). However, if you scratch the rejection deeply enough, there’s a level of hurt and maybe even hopelessness. It stings to know that half the population sees you as invisible, doesn’t give a fuck about you, or would be glad to have you in some kind of faceless support role to make their life go well. But being hurt by that kind of snub to your humanity isn’t the same as being confused by it. I know what’s true here: it’s not me, it’s you. So in my daily life, it’s a peaceful coexistence with patriarchy: you don’t care about me, and I’ll just add that to my list of reasons that I want to take you down.
Every rare now and then, I take a risk and attempt to get some kind of support or resource from a male teacher or writer who’s well-established and sought after. On these occasions, I feel incredibly anxious and distraught. I’m back to being that kid waiting to see if her dad will keep his promise or not. And then, back in the present time when I receive the predictable rejection, I got back to business as usual. Right. Fuck you, patriarchy. I’m still gunning for your ass.
Now, my personal life is a different story. I have struggled mightily over the years to balance wanting something from a man, and not being defined by it. My biggest lessons have been in my romantic relationship with my male partner. Ten years in, I’m learning to build healthy interdependence with my spouse. I love him. But I married a sci-fi geek. He loves me, but doesn’t particularly read my work. I envy women writers whose partners–male, female or otherwise–also partner them in their writer’s lives, who have that built in beta reader as part of their relationship. But it’s fine with me not to have the same deal. For example, probably a dozen people have read my book, and all of them are women. It’s never even occurred to me to ask a man, or to see what men think. Because, ultimately, I don’t care what men think about this book. It’s Urban Women’s Fiction. It will succeed or fail based on the response of women. If legions of men leap from the woodwork to prove me wrong, I’ll be pleasantly surprised. But I’ve read the VIDA count. I have Jennifer Wiener‘s post in yesterday’s Guardian. I know the stats. I’m not betting on it.
Which is probably part of the reason I was so enthralled at BinderCon. This networking and professional development conference is just for women and gender non-conforming writers. It’s such a relief. I don’t have to wade through dozens of panels and workshops led by men and constantly correct for their gender bias. I know that everything these veteran women offer is actually relevant to me. I approached speakers and hotshots with confidence that they wouldn’t think I was wasting their time. I knew I wouldn’t get brushed aside for some bright up-and-coming lad they’d heard so much about, who reminded the men of their younger selves.
“On Pandering,” is so brilliant because it reveals with utter clarity that there are two things that are needed to address sexism in the literary industry. One is a demand that women be taken seriously as writers, and that we be given an equal shot at publishing opportunities, education, mentorship, awards, critical acclaim, and compensation. The other is an acknowledgement that some of us are upset by the sexism in the system, not only because we want to be successful, but because we want the big boys to like us. Unlike Vaye Watkins, many women are unwilling to surgically de-conjoin our twin emotions: rage at sexism and our deep desire for the approval of men. Granted, we have a right to professional respect and good regard in communities, but Vaye Watkins exposes something else: the wounded little girl’s need for love masquerading as professional aspiration.
I want to be clear: there’s nothing wrong with men other than sexism. The system of male domination is not about individual men. It’s an institutionalized form of oppression that subjugates women and transgender people, but also is vicious to boys. Men are lovely human beings whose brutal early conditioning steers them toward self-absorption and oppressive, entitled attitudes toward women. But some are able to be kind and generous and supportive in spite of this, including some male writers. Vaye Watkins did an excellent job of clarifying this: it’s not about the individual men who have mentored her. They did great. It’s about the man in her head. About her conditioning that she needed to please them. About her epiphany that her entire career was steeped in a desire to please them.
Vaye Watkins’ own complex and infamous father died when she was a child. I don’t know enough about her story to draw a dotted line from him or other men or their absence or presence to her revelation about writing for an older man in her head. I do, however, have Galadrielle Allman‘s brilliant and haunting memoir of her famous/infamous father Duane Allman as a model of how the early death of a father can leave a daughter looking for him all her life. Also, Vaye Watkins’ father died when she was six years old. I have a six-year-old daughter, and I can tell you that if her dad died, she’d be devastated.
So I’m not raising her as a single mom. Rather, with married parents who have significant challenges, but work through them. While lack of a dad taught me not to invest in the patriarchy, it wasn’t an ideal situation. It wasn’t lost on me that people with two parents had more resources: emotional, financial, more parent hours to invest in making a comfortable life.
My daughter’s early messages about men are already very different from the ones I got. She has her father’s love, and she can count on him. But I hope that she’ll see the community I’ve built for myself, the world of women I move in, and learn that women can rotate in a real solar system of our own that doesn’t revolve around a male sun. We are solid enough to bet on and build our lives upon.
So I’ve been posting WriterMomPortrait selfies for the past month. “Portrait of the artist in line at the grocery store,” etc.
These are alternative visuals to the usual images of artists we see, either hard at work on their craft, or looking fabulous and glamorous at some party.
It’s about economics. Women artists who are operating at a very high earning level can afford to delegate all parts of their domestic work. Then it’s possible to be photographed on the red carpet in a gorgeous gown while someone else is watching your kid, cleaning your house, and managing your family. I just finished reading Shonda Rhimes’ FABULOUS memoir, Year of Yes, and it was inspiring at many levels. I appreciated that she talked openly about how she is able to do what she does because she has a great deal of domestic help.
Most writers don’t have those kinds of resources. Most of our hours of writing are unpaid or underpaid or any pay is significantly delayed. Those of us who are women, who create and parent, often end up doing a disproportionate amount of domestic work in our families. If we have male partners, we may see their work lives change much less than ours do. And if we are single moms, we certainly end up having to do it all. Many of us are pushed to give up our writing or slow our momentum way down after becoming parents. We simply don’t have as many hours to offer to the craft. If we’re lucky, we figure out how to squeeze in a few hours here and there. I went to a great workshop at BinderCon where Veronica Chambers gave tips on how to squeeze it in (it included sleeping on the kitchen floor and wearing the same type of clothes every day).
My selfies look really different from most of the images of writer moms I see. It is rare that I get to attend a glamorous event, although I am certainly hard at work on my craft every day. However, if I were to take a selfie working at the computer, the domestic work would be implied by the cluttered table, the unswept crumbs on the floor, the pile of dishes in the sink, and the fact that I’m working in my pajamas (which aren’t really pajamas, but my shirt from yesterday). That is to say, I make time for writing by stealing time from domestic work and self-care. I do the minimum to get by, which is still many hours of domestic labor.
Having done four weeks of portraits, I can now articulate my writermomportrait aesthetic: the writer mom is alone in the frame, doing or posing with some domestic chore (the first was Portrait of the Artist with Unwashed Laundry). I don’t want images of us with our kids. The burden isn’t our kids. The burden is the disproportionate way the domestic work lands on us after we have kids. The kids are a joy and a challenge and miraculous and exasperating. But the human connection and the capacity for deep growth and lessons in that human relationship is phenomenal.
In contrast, the actual work of keeping a house doesn’t hold the same possibilities. I am sure anything can have personal growth opportunities when done mindfully, but domestic labor has yet to become my meditation muse. I’m just trying to get it done as quickly as possible so I can get back to writing. Domestic work isn’t inherently miserable–some is more pleasurable than others–but rather, the solitude of the work makes it lonely and at times boring, particularly when parenting can lead us to be isolated and under-stimulated in our lives overall.
Motherhood doesn’t need to be this way, and in many cultures, it isn’t. For those in the US who live in extended families, it’s not as isolated. But the US ideal of a single nuclear family in a middle class home may look good in dwell magazine, but the interior of that life might be very isolating to any real mom who occupies it.
Anyway, I find many aspects of motherhood profoundly isolating, so this project is a way to reach out and connect with others, and to share this part of my life.
Here we go again. Amber Rose, a black former sex worker, has said something that is a cornerstone of our society, and yet gets vilified. What did she say? Women should seduce men to get what they want.
Come on, people. This idea is neither new nor shocking. But she didn’t offer it in our society’s usual sugar-coated terms. Plus she’s a black woman, a former sex worker, and therefore is getting dragged for it.
Let me be clear: I don’t think this is the ideal advice to give to all young women in all situations. But it’s not the worst advice for a woman who came up facing some of the challenges that Amber Rose faced. She told Curve magazine, “I grew up with a single mom. She was a waitress. We were really, really, really, really poor.” At fifteen, Amber began stripping. “It was a survival tactic.” As a curvy young lightskinned black woman, she quickly figured out that she would be sexually objectified regardless of what she did, and decided to make the most of it. I never blame a woman for making lemonade out of lemons. She’s sharing her survival strategies, and I respect that. As opposed to blaming Amber Rose, I would say WTF is going on with our society that her family had no safety net?
And while I’m at it, I would also say that this is a direct result of the pay gap. If women can’t get paid what we’re worth when we do the work ourselves, it makes sense that some women seek to access wealth through male partners.
Let’s notice other places throughout history and in contemporary culture where women get the same message:
Old school: Lady MacBeth. One of the most famous women in literature, who had to live out her ambition through her husband. Screw my courage to its sticking place. You know she put it on old boy but good that night before he went out. But you don’t see anyone slut-shaming her…
The pulpit: Reverend Pat Robertson recently encouraged women to give their husbands sex in exchange for doing the dishes. Yes, people, he said that. But you don’t see the masses of people giving the old, conservative white guy a hard time for advocating for the same thing. Maybe because he was encouraging women to sell themselves too cheap.
Advertising: Every kiss begins with Kay. How many diamond ads have you seen that clearly imply: give her this ring and you will get sex. A sparkly rock, soft lighting, a delighted woman’s face, and white people singing in the background sounding like a Mormon choir don’t actually water down the message: your female partner is for sale. Give a gem and get lucky.
It’s the same thing I keep saying about sex work. Yes, there are some things about the sex for cash exchange that are clearly rooted in male domination. But there are plenty of other types of exchanges that are based in sex as currency. I want to see the end of the whole system of male domination, and not just cleaning up the parts that are messy and lack pretense. I’m sick of sex work and sex workers getting blamed for a dynamic that is at the core of our culture.
Also from the Curve interview:
“Because I was a stripper at 15 years old, I think a lot of people look at that and they think I was a prostitute and I was a whore and I did dirty things for money. When really, I was very young and I did what I had to, to survive at that time. It’s not like I was a little girl thinking like, Oh when I grow up I want to be a stripper! And I want everyone to treat me like shit.”
And as black women are consistently objectified, told our bodies are the only thing about us that is even interesting to the society, barely even valuable. “I was in like, the hood, and I did what I had to do to survive,” she told Curve, “and I constantly get ridiculed.”
I’m writing a sex worker heist novel because I’m sick of our culture dismissing the wisdom of women who learn lessons about money and labor through sex work. My protagonist came from an economically similar situation to Amber Rose. She doesn’t come to the exact same conclusions. She prefers to rob wealthy men than partner with them. But she uses her own brand of seduction as part of the heist. In a patriarchal society, women of color who fit objectification criteria are pushed to trade on that sexual currency and then blamed for it.
Amber rose is walking the talk of her particular brand of feminism. Respect, sis, respect.
The challenges of writing are nothing like actual combat, yet I found myself using metaphor after metaphor of warfare in describing BinderCon to my sisters on the Debutante Ball. So I decided to post it here, as well, for Veterans Day.
Everyone at BinderCon was SO GENEROUS. We took each other so seriously. It was for women in the trenches of writing, trying to advance ourselves professionally. And it had the foundation of it was about getting more women & gender non-conforming folks into the various writing industries. So it was like we were all on the same team. Or the same side in a guerilla war.
DAY ONE: Saturday, I heard the keynote by Jenn Pozner and Lizz Winstead (creator of the Daily Show) talking about women’s leadership, using humor to be effective, and impostor syndrome.
Then I caught a WONDERFUL talk by Veronica Chambers with great tips on productivity–even as a working mom.
Then a great panel called Lessons Learned: Published Authors Share Hard-Earned Insights. Which I couldn’t live tweet because the basement room had lousy internet access. I’ll try to delay tweet some of that…
DAY TWO: Sunday, I looked on the website and saw that a spot had opened up to pitch Mother Jones. I took it and rushed over from Brooklyn, arriving two minutes late for my ten minute pitch appointment. The editor was understanding, receptive, and helpful, although I haven’t yet found the newshook for my pitch. Does anyone know of anything in the public record that either Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio has said about sex work?
Later that day, I pitched Bustle, and went to a FASCINATING panel on ghostwriting.
Finally, the panel “Hot…and Bothered: Exploring Sex/Sexuality/Desire in Creative Non-Fiction and Fiction.”
DAY THREE: Monday, I took the train to my agent’s office and met her for the first time!! I also met her colleague, the agent I originally queried, who forwarded my query. We took the train to meet my editor for lunch, and they met for the first time. Lunch was lovely. We talked about TV shows we loved (all die hard Good Wife fans) and then talked a little business, as well. After lunch, we walked over to the Kensington Books offices and I met my publicist. We chatted for a few minutes, but then it was time for me to head to JFK.
It was a 4-day vacation from my regular life that I really needed. On the plane, I wrote up my Deb Ball post for the week, plus one of the pieces I had pitched to Bustle, and then rewarded myself with a pay-per-view movie: Spy with Melissa McCarthy, who is my new favorite action hero.
Some people go to Disneyland. Some people go to Mount Rushmore. Now I go to BinderCon. Best vacation ever.
See you at BinderCon LA in March 2016!
For a full twitter report, check the #BinderCon hashtag, or peep my live tweeting TL on twitter at @ayadeleon.
I’ve been enjoying my series of #WriterMomPortraits
White Fragility, The Day of the Dead, and the Power of the Second Person (with BONUS “Are You Racist?” Quiz!)Posted: October 28, 2015
I’ve been blogging here for almost three years now. I have published over 200 posts. I have had nearly half a million visitors and over half a million views. But by far the most viewed post has been the one from 2014 around this time: “Dear White People/Queridos Gringos: You Want Our Culture But You Don’t Want Us – Stop Colonizing The Day Of The Dead.” It received over a thousand comments, and over 400,000 views.
I want to appreciate Anna-Marie McLemore, Ella Martin AKA E.M. Caines, and Móni BQ for tweeting about the piece earlier this month, as we move into Day of the Dead season for 2015. Unfortunately, it’s just as relevant this year as it was last year. And people are still commenting on it, nearly twelve months later. I don’t generally read my comments, but I was surprised when my friend Shailja Patel alerted me last year that it had over 800 comments. When I went to read them, I was shocked to find that the majority of them (that I read at the time–I am not sifting through 800 comments) were negative feedback from white people that I was racist.
I found this very surprising because I had been so careful to say that I wasn’t talking about all white people. To be specific, I said: “Not all white people feel this way. Thank you to those of you who speak up against this. Thank you to all who boycott these events, support Latin@/Chican@/Mexican@-led events, hire our community’s artists, and hold the tradition with reverence. For those of you who haven’t been doing so, it’s not too late to start. Challenge white people who attempt to appropriate. Boycott their events and be noisy about it. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to participate in this deeply human holiday, there’s something wrong with wanting to colonize.”
But this didn’t seem to have any effect on the massive number of comments from white people who felt personally attacked by what I had to say about “all white people.” I was truly baffled.
I developed two theories:
- I wondered if the commenters weren’t reading the whole post. Perhaps they were getting offended by the beginning part and then spouting off on the comments before they finished reading the entire piece.
- On the other hand, I wondered if it was possible that once the reader believed that I accusing all white people of being racist, they were so triggered in guilt, anger, and defensiveness that they couldn’t actually comprehend that I didn’t mean all white people, even though I explicitly said so. That is to say, once a person is triggered, it is difficult to take in new information.
I was really curious. In fact, so curious that I asked one commenter: “did you not read the whole post, or was my explicit distinction between white people who do and don’t choose to appropriate POC holidays not enough clarification for you? I am particularly curious because you say I have done a mass generalization about white people, but I was very clear about which white people I was criticizing and which ones I was appreciating….I’m not sure if people just read the first few paragraphs of the post and then comment, or if some white people can’t tolerate any criticism of the racism of any white people….Would I need to start with a bold disclaimer “I’M NOT TALKING ABOUT ALL WHITE PEOPLE” in order not to have this problem repeatedly? I know online conversations can be snarky, but I am hoping for real dialogue here, because I feel frustrated when people comment on my posts by criticizing something that I explicitly addressed…”
As I was reading the comments, I recalled a hashtag that has been trending on Twitter: #WhiteFragility. It seemed as if these folks might be able to help me understand. According to a great article on alternet by Sam Adler-Bell, the concept of white fragility was developed by Robin DiAngelo, professor of multicutural education at Westfield State University and author of What Does it Mean to Be White? Developing White Racial Literacy. DiAngelo (who is white) defines it as “a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include outward display of emotions such as anger, fear and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence and leaving the stress-inducing situation.”
This perfectly described my experience. I also wondered if the problem was exacerbated by the use of the Second Person. In creative writing, we sometimes call this Point Of View, where a piece is either speaking in the voice as follows:
First person: “I”
Second person: “you”
Third person: “they”
Because the movie “Dear White People” had just come out when I wrote the post last year, I decided to call the post “Dear White People/Queridos Gringos,” and to put the post in the second person. I think this may have heightened the experience of white people feeling accused. Afterall, I did say “you.” But when R&B singers say, “I’m coming over to your house to sex you up” (I’m paraphrasing) and the doorbell rings, I don’t expect the singer to actually be there. That is to say, we all have experience with an author using the second person and not thinking they’re actually talking to us, personally. However, as part of white fragility, the defensiveness may be so heightened that the second person is too confrontational.
So as the Day of the Dead draws close once again, I’ll close this year’s post with a quiz.
US White People: Are you racist? Do you colonize the Day of the Dead? Take the quiz!
How many people of Mexican ancestry live in your area?
a. few or none
b. many or very many
If you answered (a), go to Part IV, answer A.
True or False:
I have never heard of the Day of the Dead.
If you answered True, go to Part IV, answer D.
When the Day of the Dead comes around:
a. I don’t participate
b. I like to participate in events run by and benefiting members of the Mexican@/Xican@/Latin@ community
c. I like to paint a skeleton on my face and go to my tech company’s Day of the Dead microbrew party where my CEOs rock band is playing
If you answered (a), go to Part IV, answer A.
If you answered (b), go to Part IV, answer B.
If you answered (c), go to Part IV, answer C.
Part IV – ANSWERS
A: I have no idea whether or not you are racist.
B: I don’t know if you are racist, but I appreciate you making an effort to support our community.
C: you are definitely appropriating the holiday. Appropriation is part of racism. Please reconsider.
D: if you live in an area where there are lots of people of Mexican heritage and you have never heard of the Day of the Dead, then I suspect you might be racist, because you are so unaware of the cultural traditions of the people of color around you. On the other hand, The Day of the Dead is not celebrated in all parts of Mexico, so maybe there isn’t a strong tradition in your area…