Admission: Vanessa Place published my third book with Les Figues. This does not make this essay invalid. It does not make my thinking invalid. It does not make my criticism or praise invalid.
Vanessa Place is a performance of Vanessa Place. I do not know the real Vanessa Place, and sometimes I wish she’d just stand up.
I think about Lady Gaga a lot, her performance. Does she ever wear sweats? I don’t own any sweats, either.
The performance of Lily Hoang: serious cuteness—cuteness here being diminutive, I diminish myself, attempts to make myself smaller and less obtrusive.
Back in 2011, I wrote a post for HTML Giant on this one Das Racist lyric: I’m not racist, I love white people. In the post, I discuss how as PoC, we can criticize and generalize whiteness is a racist way, but white people can’t actually call us out. Instead, it takes PoC—preferably from a PoC of a “lower” positionality—to call out another PoC on their racism.
And to call out a white person on their racism: just so terribly easy.
But let us then examine what racism means.
Like Das Racist, I am not racist either—because I love white people.
Perhaps like a fetish: all my boyfriends have been white.
Pigment as beauty, or handsome and charming.
The performance of her witchly black hair juxtaposed against her ghastly pale skin.
The performance of my grey hairs juxtaposed against my yellow skin.
You might notice I have yet to approach the Vanessa Place and AWP scandal—yet. Soon, perhaps, or not at all.
Is scandal the right word? What is?
Ravi’s humorous revelation: AWP: All White People.
When Molly Gaudry, Matthew Salesses, and Erinrose Mager hug, we joke that we are the Asian Alliance.
Maybe we don’t call it the Asian Alliance. Maybe I just made that up. But the truth remains that we hug and hence are a minor racial contingency at AWP, a way to make white people feel better about exclusion.
But Asians are practically white—or so I’ve been told.
Two years ago, I gave my parents a dog. It’s all black and my racist father calls it Nigger Dog. My mom tsks him—tsk tsk—Not in front of Lily, she’s too American. All of this happens in front of me. My dad thinks it’s funny.
Last year, my dad asks me for a white dog, to balance Nigger Dog and wetback dogs—two Chihuahuas—who unlike him, aren’t even US citizens. He’d like a reproduction of the hegemony please, a way to taste it.
Within hours, Das Racist tweets that I am stupid.
I’m not racist, I just want to be appropriated and used by white culture. I want acceptance. I want success. Besides, what’s so wrong about wanting to participate in power?
Drunken Boat published something that Vanessa Place wrote that could be perceived as racist, that has been perceived as racist.
And I’m guess it’s a bunch of white people who are most offended. I could be wrong, but probably not.
Asian v. Oriental: white people care about this more than Asians. Yes, I’ve read Said. Yes, I know the difference. Yes, I cringe, especially when Asians call themselves Oriental. If a white person said this, I’d call them racist. If a white person used the word nigger, I’d call them racist.
Is my father exempt?
As a WoC, I can call out a PoC. As a WoC, I can call out anyone. Especially white people.
Do you dare to call out my racism? I double dog dare you and I’ll whip out my WoC card and demolish your white fucking privilege.
White people tend to be the most politically correct—because they’re so scared of being called racist.
Mostly white academics.
In college, a white girl calls me out because I mix up the terms Latina and Chicana. She’s ¼ Chicana and codes white.
In grad school, a guy who’s ¼ Japanese bonds with me because Asians don’t sweat. He also codes white and that’s the dumbest thing I’ve heard.
But I do love the heat.
I come from the heat, and my body has yet to evolve.
In a final exam, I ask my students to compare Writers of Color and how their positionality has influenced the texts they generated. A student calls me racist. He doesn’t know that WoC is the accepted term now. Maybe he thought I wrote Colored Writer.
I tell my white boyfriend about this and he’s like, Person of Color? Seriously? He’s not an academic, per se, but he’s got a JD, which is close enough to know better. I argue with him until I become bored with how I need to defend language.
I talk to this white boy about white privilege and he says he’s never experienced it because he’s from Cuba. I tell him, But you code white, and he’s like, But I’m not, and I’m like, When you walk into a room, are you constantly cognizant of your Cubanness? Do you feel the discomfort of not belonging?, and he still argues against me, knowing that I am right.
I mostly appropriate white texts.
Our dear white canon—
Does Vanessa Place’s whiteness by default make her appropriation racist? Idk, but I’d like to see you call me out if I’d done the same thing. Bam: who fuck do you think you are, white person, to dare to call me racist? As if!
I want the hegemony to fold my Otherness into its power.
My ex-husband used to tell me that the only reason my books got published was to relieve white guilt. To parade my non-white last name.
His white guilt was a burden on me.
So I got rid of it.
Ahem: I got rid of him.
I’m worried this essay is unfeminist.
What variety do you include in your imagined community?
If numbers dictate a certain truth, it’d be mostly white.
At &NOW—a conference on conceptual fiction—the swarm of whiteness. It’s like only white people dare to experiment. Are allowed to. Have enough power to challenge power.
Am I, therefore, white enough for your liking?
I don’t code white, but I practically am, except for my body. Except for my experience. Except
for my life.
My white boyfriend believes in the meritocracy. Hahahahahaha.
I am critiquing myself more than Vanessa Place. I find little pleasure in calling white people racist. It’s too easy.
I often think white guilt is crushing. I’d hate to be white.
I’d prefer to be called a writer than an Asian American writer. Both are true, but white editors really like my Asianness to be called to highlighted. As if my name doesn’t betray who I am.
Indie whiteness. Indie Otherness. Say what?
In a Department Head meeting, I want to tell the Dean how she should be ashamed of how old white male the demographic is. I don’t, of course. I don’t even have tenure yet.
I don’t need to be reminded that I am a token. I can’t ignore it.
I don’t want to believe my white ex-husband. I want to believe my books were—are—published because I am a good writer. But what if he’s right? What if Vanessa Place just wanted a Woman of Color in her catalogue?
I’d be hard-pressed to agree.
I’m scared to agree.
I am a coward.
Post-racial should not be understood as past-racism. The on-going dialogue should be acknowledged.
I know Vanessa Place as much as she knows Lily Hoang.
Vanessa Place is a site for conversation. Text substitutes body. Racisms abound.
This week at Drunken Boat we will be posting various responses to the Vanessa Place’s situation on our newly redesigned blog and invite folks to share their own thoughts by tweeting #WhosePlace? to @drunken_boat or sending a potential blog post to [email@example.com]. I’m sharing mine, because I received an urgent email from a member of our staff asking me if I had heard about the AWP petition to remove Vanessa Place from their panel selection committee, a petition that prominently featured a link to a piece by her we had published back in 2009 in a folio on conceptual fiction in Drunken Boat#10. Within hours, I had received at least a dozen more emails, some of them expressing incredulity, others accusing Drunken Boat for providing a platform for racists, sending us and our staff into a prolonged bout of introspection and self-analysis. How could we have possibly provided a forum for someone whose ostensibly project as espoused in her artist statement was to steal “Margaret Mitchell’s “niggers” and claim them as [her] own?” we were asked.
Good question. Leaving aside the fact that this piece appeared over six years ago in an issue that contained ten folios and over 200 artists, and that we’ve published thousands of writers and artists over the fifteen years we’ve been in existence, ignoring also that we were far from the only journal to have supported Place’s project and that most of the others from The Iowa Review, Ugly Duckling, The Poetry Foundation, Jacket, The LA Times, have full-time, often paid staff, who help make editorial decisions, the question remains. Drunken Boat, founded on the very principles of diversity, inclusivity and the egalitarian distribution of the arts, a magazine that on a shoestring budget has published folios on Native American Women Poets, the Affrilachian Arts, Aphasia and the Arts, the Librotraficante Movement, and a collaboration with the Asian American Writers Workshop, among many others, is an all-volunteer organization and our Contributing Editors put together folios that we vet, but clearly, in the aforementioned case, not as thoroughly as we probably should have. We’re not afraid to publish something that is controversial, even disturbing in nature, but clearly the kind of internal editorial discussion that we needed to have before publishing such a piece did not take place and that will only serve to help us grow.
In the aftermath of that initial email, I watched with amazement as the petition garnered over 2,000 signatures in 48 hours, the din of voices calling for Place’s dismissal, calling her a racist and her project reprehensible, and within days, AWP had acknowledged this groundswell by removing her from the committee, issuing a statement that only suggested that they “must protect the efficacy of the conference subcommittee’s work.” The first AWP conference I attended was back in 2002 in New Orleans and while I was there, a black writer I know took me aside and asked me whether I knew what the acronym stood for? Associated Writing Programs, I tentatively offered; he laughed and said, no it stands for “All White People.” Sure enough, back then, there were few panels and readings dedicated to people of color, or diversity of expression and in time, that has changed as the very complexion of creative writing in academia has shifted. Surely not as fast as any of us would like, but AWP should nonetheless be congratulated for being more open to voices of otherness even as diversity has become a kind of catch phrase for the mission of that and many other institutions. But as we all know, a principle espoused in name is very different than one enacted in practice.
In the clamorous response to Vanessa Place, I fear that a genuine discussion about race and conceptual writing has not taken place and that indeed the possibility of one has been summarily shut down. To take the latter, less fraught subject first, clearly some of the backlash engendered by Place is to conceptual poetry generally, which as Kenneth Goldsmith has defined, “The best thing about conceptual poetry is that it doesn’t need to be read. You don’t have to read it….My books, for example, are unreadable.” This is part of what its practitioners consider “uncreative writing.” Numerous critics and poets have weighed in on this phenomenon but it begs the question first, is unoriginal writing even original?
For my druthers, the moment Marcel Duchamp submitted and had rejected his porcelain urinal, signed “R.Mutt” and titled “Fountain,” to the exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in 1917, conceptual art was born into its fullest expression and everything since then has been more or less derivative. And yet this idea has held sway in the art world for decades, eventually leading to the work of a group like the OULIPO and then the late Sol LeWitt, both of whose works I greatly admire. According to LeWitt, a full 50 years after Duchamp conceived of his piece, “In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.” Nearly four decades later, Goldsmith plagiarizes LeWitt, word-for-word with a wink, in his statement, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Writing,” and begs the question of what if anything has been furthered?
In some of the criticism to Vanessa Place, I sense a resistance to the fact that these conceptual writers, nearly a full century after Duchamp, are continuing to perpetuate what some see as tired acts of appropriation and yet are nonetheless being validated by various institutions. After all Goldsmith read at the White House and Place was the first poet to ever be featured in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s biennial and Place’s work has been covered by everyone from the New York Times to the LA Times. For those poets who struggle over every line-break, who work tirelessly to create new metaphors and figurations, who are not afraid of strong emotion or subjective perception, who still believe that the old imperatives of poetry being a refuge for spiritual practice and human connection remain valid, and even exceedingly necessary, surely this institutional love of conceptualism must chafe.
Or as Calvin Bedient has put it in his essay “Against Conceptualism”: “the under-examined bone of contention in today’s poetry is the value of affect in art. More and more poets are suspicious of lyrical expression and devote themselves to emotionally neutral methods. The representation of affects—feelings that are often either transports or afflictions—has been increasingly muted in American and European art since the 1960s. Vehemence of feeling nonplusses the modern personality, a hostage to ambiguity and irony. This turn against strong emotion leaves much at stake. Writers who pride themselves on conceiving projects and executing them according to plan—thus relatively indifferent to the intrinsic value of what is produced and to the quality of the production itself—neglect life values, which include a trembling web of receptivity, sharply interested observation, the ability to make instant adjustments, and organic developments within a constantly changing context, all properties as important to lyric poets as to cats. The new cerebral writing implies that the conceiving head is superior to the intuitive heart, to use the old words.”
Another essay, “Notes on Conceptualism,” posted on the Harriet blog by Alan Davies claims, “conceptual poetry is mainly about unearthing neuroses in the minds of the people who make it.”
Using that as litmus test, certainly Place’s project of appropriating the text of Gone with the Wind certainly speaks to her own neurosis, perhaps of having benefitted by being from a white Southern family, perhaps of what she senses as the kind of tacit acceptance of racism in society at large. Place herself in an interview states that her explicit purpose in her piece is to get Margaret Mitchell’s estate to issue a cease-and-desist order; according to her, “while we all “know” that GWTW is a racist text, but that doesn’t stop its circulation as property….[it] sells more than 250,000 copies a year; the theme was played during the 2012 Oscars. There are sequels and prequels done and commissioned. It is a cash cow in addition to being a staple of Americana. It seems good to try and kill a cash cow, especially with something as supposedly free as social media.”
So this begs the question; does the end justify the means? To re-traumatize people by reproducing racist texts in an effort to gain reparations, even while courting fame for oneself? In thinking about this, I tried to find analogies—what if a white installation artist exhibited photographs of lynchings in the Jim Crow south with the explicit purpose of having the family of those responsible to bear some of the weight of complicity? What if a black artist did this? One of the aspects of Place’s interview that I personally found most objectionable was her comparison to herself to Kara Walker when she writes, “Kara Walker uses violently racist imagery to make art about the racial imaginary—the American imaginary. This project does the same thing. Some art offends, and sometimes it is the job of art to be offensive because the world art mirrors and moves is offensive.” Walker whose 2013 graphite and pastel drawing “the moral arc of history ideally bends towards justice but just as soon as not curves back around toward barbarism, sadism, and unrestrained chaos,” included images of a burning cross, Obama at the podium and a black woman being forcibly thrust into giving a white man a blowjob. It’s a powerful, if disturbing image, but am I wrong to believe that while Walker has the right to mobilize such imagery, Place does not? Or does the very notion that certain kinds of imagery, certain kinds of language acts, belong to certain groups but not to others, replicate the very sort of racism that it attempts to critique? Does a queer white woman whose press has done important work, even published writers as varied as Dodie Bellamy, Timothy Yu, Jen Hoffer and Sawako Nakayasu, and even Drunken Boat’s own new Nonfiction Editor, Lily Hoang, have more or less right than anyone else to take on the voice of Mammy?
When this controversy exploded on social media, I found myself full of questions, which were not easy, nor easily answerable. In discussing this with our staff, we all had polarizing and often diametrically opposed points of view, from those who felt horrified to even be associated with our journal and wanted us to issue a blanket disavowal for ever publishing the piece, to others who felt that we should not apologize for something we published simply because it has become unpopular and that in fact, including the piece had the “potential to catalyze what a genuine dialogue about race, history, and culpability could look like” as our Managing Editor T.M. DeVos so eloquently stated.
During our discussion, some of the other questions that came up, included:
—Are all those so outraged by Vanessa Place’s piece also equally active in mobilizing against police brutality, human trafficking, lack of a living wage, educational inequity, environmental devastation, and other forms of injustice that affect many more people than this controversy?
—Does the very fact of this heated discussion over whether or not someone should serve on a literary conference panel speak to a kind of privilege that numerous individuals, irrespective of, although compounded by race, lack and should that matter?
—Should diversity and inclusivity also include the assholes?
—Is there something self-satisfied and even disingenuous about a group of people taking offense on behalf of another group? In the end, what is the difference between taking offense and taking action?
I don’t know the answer to these questions but I believe that it is important to ask them. My first reaction at the criticism we received was to quote the statistics that show that African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans are likely to be arrested and incarcerated at a much greater rate, and that they earn significantly less than their white counterparts, because that seems to me so much more important to advocate against than whether someone is coopting and even profiting off Gone with the Wind. But as was pointed out to me, that reaction was defensive and deflective, not only because the condemnation we were receiving was so far removed from what our explicit purpose as a journal has been and the kinds of work we’ve published over the years, but because racism for me is not a theoretical construct but something that I live with on a daily basis. I was wrongfully arrested by the NYPD on a stop-and-frisk, called a “sand-nigger” and detained in Central Booking, an experience I detailed on NPR.
I’ve subsequently had other, ongoing problems with the criminal justice system that, even if due in part to my own poor decision-making, have been adjudicated differently and received undue media attention for reasons about which I can only surmise. I have also written about these experiences in a memoir that my agent has been shopping around and most of the big houses who have responded have come back with some variant on this line, “the writing is superb, the story so important and compelling, but unfortunately we are not sure whether we can break this out into the marketplace in a big way.” My Orange is the New Black, it appears, is too brown.
So in thinking about race in the world of letters and the larger world itself, I recognize it is not an easy conversation to have and I fear that the recent outcry will only submerge what should be brought into the open to be talked about. I’m thinking about the handful of times at the AWP conference where I have been mistaken for poet Kazim Ali and he for me. I’m thinking about living in a state where the richest neighborhood in America (the Round Hill neighborhood in Greenwich) is mere miles from communities (in Bridgeport and Hartford) where over half the population live below the poverty line, but where no one talks about it because we are a blue state and aren’t we all happy to be liberal. I’m thinking about getting my MFA in Creative Writing at Columbia University in the mid-nineties and being assigned literally zero writers of color to read (well, wait, there was that one time someone brought in a Yusef Komunyakaa poem but I’m pretty sure that was just a visitor) I’m thinking about sitting around in workshop where I’ve submitted an admittedly subpar poem but where the other writers around me are afraid to say so because I’m the only person of color in the group and therefore validate the other writers’ own sense of diversity. I’m thinking of the number of times I’ve been pulled out of line in the airport to be searched. The times I’ve been called Bin Laden or Seven Eleven or asked whether I play the sitar. I’m thinking of James Baldwin asking if he really wants to be integrated in a burning house. And I’m thinking about how, as poets and writers, we can begin to put out the fire.
The stack of books next to my bed includes equal numbers of books that I’m reading for the first time and books that I’m re-reading. Among the ones I’m reading for the first time is Men by Laura Kipnis, whose Against Love caught my attention years ago. When I was a college student, I didn’t read the work of my advisor Deborah Gorlin, so the pleasure I’m taking in reading her latest book Life of the Garment is full of new discovery as well as old fondness. I’m also reading White Girls by Hilton Als, which is extraordinary. I already love and frequently re-read The Women (which was originally recommended to me by Deb Gorlin), but even with that familiarity, the first essay in White Girls left me reeling.
I am surprised that it has taken this long for anyone to question Vanessa Place’s contribution to the Drunken Boat conceptual writing folio. I was extremely disturbed by it. Which was the point, as Place said. Gone with the Wind still sells millions of copies worldwide, and is still wildly adored by many readers. As Place points out in her statement, her text consists of all the lines that contain the “n” word. It’s hard to read. In fact I find it unreadable. Place is an artist who pushes her art to disturbing, uncomfortable extremes.
She is also a southern white woman, as she makes clear in her statement, and she appropriated the words of a southern white woman. Who does Place intend to provoke with this text? Place has repeatedly stated that she would like the Margaret Mitchell estate to take responsibility for its racism—for the book’s part in the history of racism in America. Another group I think Place’s text intends to provoke is the millions of white people who enjoy Gone with the Wind without a critical awareness of the history of slavery. Finally, she is provoking herself.
Does this piece disturb me? Absolutely.
Why publish something disturbing? My editorial vision has always been open to various aesthetic styles and perspectives. At the time it was posted—in 2009—the piece seemed both uncomfortable and highly relevant.