author – activist – faculty – mom
Elmaz is a co-founder of VONA (Voices Of Our Nations Arts foundation), but she has always been overshadowed by the fame of her co-founder Junot Díaz. Yet Elmaz was a breaker of barriers in her own right. Elmaz worked with Toni Morrison while writing her memoir Children of the Roojme: A Family’s Journey from Lebanon, published in the 1990s. In it, she wrote beautifully and honestly about four generations of her family in an era where previous generations demanded that communities of color needed to hide the dirty laundry—lest we get hit even harder by racism. In her generation, she broke that taboo and told the truth.
Elmaz founded VONA with Junot Díaz, Victor Díaz, and Diem Jones in 1999. They made the decision—which was unheard of at the time—to have a multi-genre workshop for only people of color. This created an incredible amount of safety for writers of color, but it also created a massive institutional liability: they were not eligible for any public or most private funding. But VONA struggled along. Elmaz and others ran the organization mostly as volunteers. And as Junot Díaz’s star rose, the community gained visibility and status from his star power. And now we all know that whatever his contributions were to the community, Junot Díaz also did incredible harm that has yet to be repaired. Yet, however much fame and status Junot Díaz gained, the economics of the deal remained. VONA held the line for people of color, fought to provide scholarships, and struggled to break even.
And through it all, for nearly two decades, Elmaz has functioned as the mother of VONA. She did massive amounts of executive, administrative, and emotional labor, working unpaid year-round to make this community happen, year after year. Her only financial recompense was for her 1-2 weeks of teaching. She was my first teacher at VONA, where she ran an amazing cross-genre workshop about including political content in our work. As our community demands accountability from her as a VONA leader, I want to acknowledge and appreciate her at the same time. I don’t want to minimize the harms that happened in VONA, but I also don’t want to erase the behind-the-scenes labor or the many accomplishments of the community, either. I want us to hold both: the beauty of the artistic space they created, and the gendered abuse and sexual trauma that happened behind the scenes. Just like in so many of our families.
In some ways, VONA is a classic story of sexual abuse in a family. Mothers are often the ones called to account for men’s behavior. What did she know? How could she not know? Why didn’t she stop it? Why didn’t she kick him out? Historically, mothers have been expected to protect from a profoundly subordinate position in the society, far less status than the men but only slightly higher than the children. And after the harms are revealed, the perpetrator often may be inaccessible for any number of reasons. Then it is often the mothers who bear the brunt of our rage and disillusionment. And often it is the mothers who stay and weather the storm, continuing to do the emotional labor of holding down the families or communities.
Patriarchy targets different generations of women with different types of mistreatment. Younger women are most heavily targeted with sexually predatory behavior. But middle-aged women are most heavily targeted with exploitation of their labor behind the scenes. Middle-aged women toil to exhaustion in obscurity. In family systems, communities, and institutions, most participants tend to take this labor for granted. Things just seem to “happen.” In reality, these middle-aged women raise the money, coordinate the logistics, stroke the egos, develop the partnerships, listen, counsel, soothe, guide, mentor, manage the staff, hire, fire, put out the fires, and just generally make sure that everything goes well and that everyone is getting what they need, without particular attention to what they themselves need. Younger women do this kind of labor, too, but middle-aged women are often the ones holding these precarious institutions: not so big as to be well-resourced, but big enough for many, many people to depend on its resources.
The form of patriarchy that manifested as sexual mistreatment at VONA of women and femmes of all ages must be reckoned with.
The form of patriarchy that allows middle-aged women’s labor to be invisible must also be acknowledged.
We often ask the following: how many amazing works would women have been able to create if they weren’t derailed by the brutality of sexual misconduct in education, the workplace, and arts communities? I also want to ask this: how many more amazing books would Elmaz Abinader have been able to write if she hadn’t been busy raising a whole generation of writers of color?
I grew up working class, with a single mother who had been raised in the projects. Her account of motherhood is about always feeling on the edge, like we might not make it through. She recalls always doing what she felt she had to in order to ensure our survival. The grind was merciless and only in hindsight can she see some of the questionable calls she made.
To be a mother under patriarchy and white supremacy means we were raised under the previous generation of those institutions. We still hold traumas and defeats, places where we were left unprotected and spots where we had to go numb to survive. As mothers, we betray our daughters out of the scars of those places. We betray them in the spots where we, ourselves, were betrayed. And we need our daughters to rage to us about how they deserved better, because they did. And we respond that we did the best we could with what we had, which is also true. This isn’t to excuse any mothers for what they do or what they fail to do. But rather to acknowledge how motherhood for women of color is a set of impossible choices under patriarchy and white supremacy, where lives hang in the balance. And it’s unpaid, underresourced, unacknowledged labor that we take on out of love.
As a daughter of a fierce mother, and a “woke” feminist myself, with decades of therapy under my belt, I can still see—usually in hindsight—the ways I fail to prevent harm to my own daughter. Much less significant than the harms of previous generations, but impactful nonetheless.
As mothers, we need to stand in solidarity with our daughters, whom we have harmed, whom we have failed to protect, and whom we have failed to support when they most needed us. Yet as daughters, we need to also stand in solidarity with our mothers, and the heavy burdens of various types of labor they took on for us without enough resources or chances to heal their own traumas, doing all the hard work while the men drank beer and shot the breeze, so we could grow into women who had language to confront them. And when very real harm takes place in the families and communities that they lead, and when we go to them with our very valid criticisms, I want us to also hold in our hearts their decades of thankless work. Not as a justification for harms that happened on their watch or an insistence that we be grateful, but in solidarity with their struggles and in acknowledgement that our silence about their work is our own collaboration with the patriarchy that strives to make that labor forever invisible and undeserving of compensation or notice.
Both those who have been harmed and the larger VONA community deserve accountability from Elmaz and the rest of the VONA leadership. The work of interrogating gender dynamics in spaces for writers of color, and making them fully safe for women and femmes is essential. And these difficult conversations are all part of shaping the more gender inclusive literary landscape we all need and deserve. In that spirit of intervening in sexism, I am calling for compassion and acknowledgement alongside our demands for accountability for the work of Elmaz Abinader, as the mother of VONA. And I celebrate her with all my heart today on Mother’s Day.