Learning From Our Mothers' Gardens: How to Survive the Trump Administration as a Woman Writer of
This last week, I watched an MSNBC video clip of Abby Phillip leaning out of a crowd of reporters at a press conference to ask Donald Trump: “Do you want him to rein in Robert Mueller?” Jabbing his finger in the air at Ms. Phillip, Trump responds: “What a stupid question that is. What a stupid question. But I watch you a lot. You ask a lot of stupid questions.” Shortly afterwards, the same clip captures Trump blasting April Ryan, "I mean you talk about somebody who’s a loser. She doesn’t know what the hell she’s doing.” Perhaps, we could just file this as another incident under Stupid Things Trump Says, but Trump’s treatment of black women journalists is emblematic of a larger, historical disregard and suppression of the voices of women of color in general and black women, more specifically. As a writer, I am interested in Trump’s attacks on black women journalists, because I feel it also reflects the struggles women writers of color face in public spaces and in the publishing industry
For example, if we look closely at how many women of color are being published in mainstream literary publications, we find that the rate of publication is dismal. In 2014, VIDA, an organization that administers annual surveys to determine the number of women being published at a sample of popular literary journals, began to focus specifically on counting the publications of women of color. This shift in their approach surfaced as an effort to make VIDA’s yearly surveys more intersectional by examining race in addition to gender as potential influences on an author’s rate of publication. Unfortunately, the surveys have revealed what many women writers of color have known for decades; they are simply not getting published at the same rate as white women and men.
A year before Trump was elected, the 2015 Women of Color (WOC) VIDA Count showed that not a single survey respondent who was published in Granta, Boston Review, The New Yorker, Tin House or The Paris Review identified as Latinx. Less than ten of those who were published and responded to the survey identified as black. The results were equally discouraging for Native Indians and Asian American women. Indeed, if one reads the essays and testimonies written in the 1980s by women writers of color like Alice Walker, Octavia Butler, and Cherrie Moraga, one finds that the publishing landscape has not changed much over the last four decades. It is important to examine how these obstacles shaped the literature of women writers of color forty years ago in the United States, and how they continue to shape their work today.
In the eighties, the New Right emerged as a backlash against the social and civil rights movements of the 60s and 70s which created multiple challenges in everyday life for women of color. In “Beyond Mainstream Presses: Publishing Women of Color as Cultural and Political
Critique,” Matilde Martin Gonzalez explains how the Reagan administration was particularly
detrimental for poor women and single working mothers because it reduced government spending on programs that would provide support for services like daycare, which would allow
writers the freedom and time to perfect their craft (145). Additionally, the Equal Rights Amendment, which would have helped to dismantle institutionalized discrimination against women, did not succeed in being ratified (Gonzalez 145). This decrease in social spending affected Black and Latino women particularly, who in the 80s were more likely to live at the poverty line than any other group of people in the United States. Besides the obvious socio-economic constraints poverty places on the writer, women of color also had to fight the prejudices of the publishing industry, which could scarcely imagine an audience for fiction and poetry written by women of color, because they could not imagine that women of color read.
According to Barbara Smith, one of the founders of the independent press Kitchen Table, “If anyone had asked in 1980 if books could sell or whether a press that published only work by or about women of color could survive, the logical answer would have been ‘no,’ especially if the person who answered the question was part of the commercial publishing establishment" (Gonzalez 145). Assumptions about this type of readership were rooted in the type of real world sexism and racism that women of color had to navigate every day under the Reagan administration (such as the myth of the welfare queen, Reagan's very own piece of creative fiction.) Embedded within these perceptions was a lack of understanding of the rich tradition of storytelling that already existed in many of the cultures from which these women were writing.
College classrooms and creative writing MFA programs were also often discouraging spaces for these writers. In a 2009 radio interview with WNYC, in which Sandra Cisneros celebrates the 25th anniversary of The House on Mango Street, she describes her experiences at the Iowa Writers' Workshop.
I always like to say that I became a writer in spite of the University of Iowa Writers Workshop. It taught me how I didn’t want to be as a writer and how I didn’t want to teach. I think we often don’t hear of the dissident voices of the people who were enrolled there, people of color, women, working class people, because there are so few of them there, and when they do survive that experience perhaps they are not in a place where they can voice their opinions.
The creative writing college classroom of the seventies and eighties was not simply discouraging for women of color, it was hostile. In Cisneros’s words, the classroom was a place that she “survived,” instead of a place in which she grew her craft.
In the introduction of the 10th anniversary edition of The House on Mango Street, Cisnero writes, “In graduate school, I was aware of feeling like a foreigner each time I spoke...I couldn’t articulate what was happening then, except I knew when I spoke in class I felt ashamed, so I chose not to speak” (126). She goes on to describe feeling alienated during workshop because her peers had normalized their own individual experiences of “home,” in turn using their ideas to measure the “reality” of Cisneros’s stories about where she grew up. Workshops often critique a story or poem by how recognizable its characters, plots or landscapes feel. However, if the students are not diverse, this can result in the privileging of one type of experience over another. When this happens, the classroom does not become a place where the story is simply critiqued; it also becomes a space where the author herself is workshopped.
Given the challenges that the publishing industry, governmental policy and academia created for women writers of color during the eighties, what and who could they rely on to help them develop their craft and publish their work? As Gonzalez explains, small independent presses like Kitchen Table and Third Women Press formed to publish the writing that mainstream publications would not. These presses also did well financially, reprinting many of their books, proving that there was a demand for literature written by WOC that traditional publishing failed to recognize. In the introduction to Cuentos: Stories by Latinas, a 1983 anthology published by Kitchen Table, editors Alma Gomez, Cherrie Moraga and Mariana Romo-Carmona explain:
Most Latinas, in looking to find some kind of literary tradition among our women, will usually speak of the ‘cuentos’ our mothers and grandmothers told us. This knowledge is what we hold close to our hearts when leafing through volume after volume of anthologies of literature, "American" and Latin American, and seldom seeing a name or a line by a Latina writer that speaks accurately of our experience. For the most part, our lives and the lives of the women before us have never been fully told, except by word of mouth. (vii)
Cuentos was an attempt to gather those stories together and to make sense of the struggles these different Latinx authors shared, by exploring repeated themes and metaphors. Gomez, Moraga and Romo-Carmona also emphasized that Latinx voices were often eclipsed by those of men during the different cultural and civil rights movements of the sixties and seventies. Women, they wrote, were either “fucking silent or fucking silently.” In contrast their project intended to create a platform for these writers, while also building and documenting a literary tradition of Latinx voices.
Similarly, Alice Walker’s 1983 collection of critical essays In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens demonstrated the need for scholarship on the work of black women. It also provides us another lens for understanding what the literary culture and publishing industry was like for women of color in the seventies and eighties. In one essay, Walker discusses an interview with Toni Morrison to demonstrate some of the unique challenges black women faced when encountering the page. Walker explains:
When Toni Morrison said she writes the kind of books, she wants to read, she was acknowledging the fact that in a society in which 'accepted literature' is so often sexist and racist and otherwise irrelevant or offensive to so many lives, she must do the work of two. She must be her own model as well as the artist...To take Toni Morrison's statement further, if that is possible, in my own work I write not only what I want to read — understanding fully and indelibly that if I don't do it no one else is so vitally interested, or capable of doing it to my satisfaction — I write all the things I should have been able to read. Consulting, as belatedly discovered models, those writers — most of whom, not surprisingly, are women — who understood their experience as ordinary human beings was also valuable, and in danger of being misrepresented, distorted, or lost... ( 13)
One can trace this combined racism and sexism as far back as the eighteenth century, when in Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson writes about Phillis Wheatley: “But never yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration... Religion, indeed, has produced a Phyllis Whately [sic]; but it could not produce a poet. The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism.” Scholarship is crucial not only to document and reinforce the value of the work, but also to inspire and encourage new generations of black women to write, in spite of all the modern day versions of Jefferson who are trying to silence them.
It is no coincidence that much of the work written by women of color during the eighties includes repeated imagery depicting silence. For example, Audre Lorde’s poem “Coal” exemplifies the tension between the forces that hide the voice of the speaker, while also simultaneously shaping it. The “I” in this poem emerges from the center of the earth to make her blackness more visible, linking language and identity: “I/ is the total black being spoken from the earth’s inside." For the speaker of this poem, speech also requires labor, and often words have consequences or a price. Sometimes even language is impossible. Lorde writes: “Some words live in my throat.” But, ultimately, even though speaking can be painful and dangerous, Lorde depicts it as beautiful and valuable like a piece of coal that when placed under pressure transforms into diamond. Through this image, Lorde captures what it was like to be a black woman writing during this time.
The recently archived diaries of Octavia Butler further illuminate the struggles black women faced with marketing and the publishing industry. In 1988 Butler wrote:
My novel will go onto the above lists whether publishers push them or not, whether I’m paid a high advance or not, whether I win another award or not...I will buy a beautiful home in an excellent neighborhood. I will send poor black youngsters to Clarion or other writer’s workshops. I will help poor black youngsters broaden their horizons...I just want to be okay; I want my family/community to be okay.
Butler’s repetition of the word “not” and “okay” show her desperation, even as she tries to speak her own success into existence. Here, Butler also places her struggles with the publishing industry next to the racism that her community and young black children endure. In this way, Butler demonstrates how these conflicts are interweaved.
Images of silence also occur in an early Octavia Butler short story called “Speech Sounds.” Published first in Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine in 1983, it is a strange and brief story in which a large population of the world suddenly wakes up unable to speak. Through the close third person point of view of a woman named Rye, we slowly witness the violence that happens when people can no longer communicate with each other and when language becomes a privilege. At the end of the story, we are surprised to learn that the protagonist in fact can speak, but has kept quiet all these years because she was afraid of the resulting violence. It is hard not to think about how Butler’s own challenges to be heard might be reflected in this plot.
We also see depictions of invisibility and silence emerge in the early work of Native American author Louise Erdrich. In 1986, Erdrich published a short story in Esquire entitled “Fleur” that she would eventually revise two years later into a chapter of her well known novel Tracks. Though rarely written about, this earlier 1986 rendition is remarkable because of the way in which Erdrich handles the first person narration, at first making its troubled 15-year-old girl narrator, Pauline, invisible not only to the other characters in the story, but also to the reader. The first person narration is hard to detect at all until the fifth paragraph in which Pauline uses the first person plural pronoun “our” while describing Misshepeshu, an underwater monster. “Our mothers warn us that we’ll think he’s handsome...” Pauline observes, providing the reader with the first opportunity in the story to discern a character behind the voice describing Fleur’s life. As a result, in the short story version, more so than the novel, Erdrich emphasizes Pauline’s invisibility and voicelessness by creating a speaker who is more observant than self-reflective.
In fact, although Pauline is the narrator, she does not use the word “I” until the third page, when she finally offers:
I was invisible. I blended into the stained brown walls, a skinny big nosed girl with staring eyes. Because I could fade into a corner or squeeze beneath a shelf I knew everything, what the men said when no one was around and what they did to Fleur. (730)
Pauline’s characterization of herself is the first time she emerges from the narrative’s woodwork to become a character who may have something at stake in the story. Up until that paragraph, Pauline seems to blend into the narration and background of Fleur’s mythology, the same way that she describes herself blending “into the stained brown walls.” In this way, Erdrich uses the actual narration to mirror Pauline’s invisibility.
Pauline’s narration is also an act of resistance. Instead of staying the quiet onlooker, she chooses to explain the events that lead up to Fleur’s rape, making this ultimately a story about Pauline and her quest for recognition and the resulting violence of being unheard (the rapists’ death). So, in both Louise Erdrich’s "Fleur" and Octavia Butler’s “Speech Sounds” we see how silence and storytelling emerge to magnify real life anxieties about authorship. Both stories reflect deeper challenges about what it means to be a woman of color telling her own stories at this time.
Since the eighties, one might argue that publishing has diversified and that higher education has grown to incorporate more “ethnic” literature in its classrooms. Some mainstream publishing houses started to increase their efforts to sell books by black and Latinx authors. One might also point out that writers like Louise Erdrich have enjoyed robust careers and have gone on to publish many books at reputable publishing houses. Alice Walker, after all, won the Pultizer in 1983. A decade later, Toni Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. And now, texts like This Bridge Called My Back (published by the independent press Kitchen Table) are required reading for most Women’s Literature courses (Gonzalez 152). However, these successes were accomplished in spite of, not because of, mainstream publishing or academia. Just as Sandra Cisneros points out in her interview with WNYC, there are many other writers who have not survived the experience of oppressive classrooms or the rejection from the mainstream publishing world.
The emergence of ethnic literature in the eighties and nineties combined with ill conceived efforts to market and brand the work also turned out to be problematic. In a recent article for the Ploughshares Blog, Daniel Peña describes how the expectations of ethnic literature can sometimes turn into a type of “script”:
...you don’t find complexity in a lot of the commercial fiction of those U.S. Latina/o Literature writers who try to capitalize on publishing industry expectations: exoticized, cardboard Latina/o narratives that serve as a kind of walking tour of our culture. From the beginning, we’re taught that this kind of tour sells: Here’s the cocina; here’s a rebozo; here’s Frida’s blue house or something like it; here’s some day of the dead stuff...
For stories about and by women of color, this script becomes even narrower. Though the script may shift depending on what culture the woman is writing from, it still threatens to limit the
work by formulating narrative expectations by gender.
In spite of these challenges with publishing that have persisted and evolved throughout
the last four decades, there are women writers of color whose literature actively resists and interrogates expectations of what their stories should look like. For example, Roxane Gay’s first collection Ayiti includes a short story entitled “Things I Know About Fairy Tales.” Its narrator, a Haitian American woman, is kidnapped while visiting Haiti with her husband. Afterwards, she tries to make sense of what has happened by telling her own story.
When I was very young, my mother told me she didn’t believe in fairy tales. They were,
she liked to say, lessons dressed in fancy clothes. She preferred to excise the princesses
and villains and instead concerned herself with the moral. Once upon a time, not long
ago, I was kidnapped and held captive for thirteen days. Shortly after I was freed, my
mother told me there was nothing to be learned from what had happened to me. She told
me to forget the entire incident... (Gay 196)
Though fairy tales do not hold much currency or power in the narrator's home, she tries to utilize this model of storytelling to understand her kidnapping. She begins the story with the words, “Once upon a time.” But how can she explain what has happened when the models of storytelling available to her do not fit what she has experienced? Roxane Gay brilliantly dramatizes this tension.
In this story, Gay also challenges the reader to interrogate how white male authors
represent women of color or appropriate their stories. She writes:
Three years later, I would overhear one of these colleagues, trying to be charming at a
cocktail party, telling a precocious graduate student that he knew someone who had been
kidnapped in one of those Third World countries. When I walked by, he wouldn’t have a
strong enough sense of shame to look away. Instead, he would tip his glass of wine in my
direction before taking a long sip and continuing to regale his audience with the few
lurid details he knew.
By including this man’s anecdote, Gay asks the reader to compare his story next to the
narrator’s, so that his authorship appears suspect and exploitative. His charm feels vapid. Gay
reverses the man’s gaze of the narrator, so that now he is the one who must bear scrutiny. This
reversal is symbolic of the way that many women of color now must challenge those who try to
coopt their narratives.
In her more famous collection of essays Bad Feminist, Gay writes about the importance
of women telling their stories. “Rarely do women get to be the center of attention. Rarely do
our stories get to matter. How do we bring attention to these issues? How do we do so in ways
that will actually be heard?” (Gay 8). More recently, we see an example of this type of transformational work with the success of Glory Edim’s book club Well Read Black Girl, which she started two years ago at a local book store in Brooklyn. That club quickly gained momentum and popularity, which led Edim to organize a conference in which she invited black women authors to read and facilitate workshops. The conference ended up being sold out, which demonstrates that there is a vast audience of black women and girls who read and want to buy books by other women of color. Hopefully, the publishing industry is paying attention.
As history has shown us, the writer is not the only one who must do this work. MFA creative writing programs must strategize around ways to make their classrooms inclusive. In addition, the publishing industry needs to become more diverse. Finally, it will be important to pay careful attention as to how our current political landscape endangers women writers of color today. Otherwise, without these efforts, we may find ourselves still facing the same challenges forty years from now.
Butler, Octavia. "Speech Sounds." Bloodchild. New York: Seven Stories Press, 1996. Print. Cornell, Daniel. “Woman Looking: Revis(ion)ing Pauline's Subject Position In Louise Erdrich's Tracks.” Studies in American Indian Literatures, vol. 4, no. 1, 1992, pp. 49–64.
Cisneros, Sandra. A House of My Own: Stories from My Life. New York: Knopf, 2015. Print.
Erdrich, Louise. "Fleur." The Oxford Book of American Short Stories. Ed. Joyce Carol Oates. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. Print.
Gay, Roxane. Ayiti. New York: Artistically Declined Press. 2011. Kindle Edition.
Gay, Roxane. Bad Feminist. New York: HarperCollins, 2014. Print.
Gonzalez, Matilde Martin. “Beyond Mainstream Presses: Publishing Women of Color as Cultural and Political Critique." Race, Ethnicity and Publishing in America. Ed. Cecile Cottenet. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. 143 – 161. Kindle Edition.
Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia. New York: Penguin. 1999. Kindle Version. Lorde, Audre. "Coal."
The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde. New York: W.W. Norton Company and Inc, 1997. Print.
Peña, Daniel. "The Millenial Gen X Rift and the Trouble With Latina/o Letters." Weblog entry. The Ploughshares Blog. Ploughshares at Emerson College, 15 January 2015. Web. 10 September 2016.
"The 2015 VIDA Count. The Year of Intersectional Thinking." VIDA Women in Literary Arts. 30 March 2016. Web. 5 August 2016.
The Leonard Lopate Show. Interview with Sandra Cisneros. WNYC, New York, 23 April 2009. Radio. "The Octavia E. Butler Collection at Huntington." The Huntington. Web. 20 November 2016.