November 26, 2014

Alt Lit and Rape Culture - Table of Contents

The Context: In late September, Sophia Katz wrote an essay detailing her sexual assault by "Stan." Soon thereafter, "Stan's" former roommate Sarah Jean Alexander read that essay, recognized Stan as Stephen Tully Dierks, and asked Katz's permission to out him as the rapist at the center of her essay. Katz's essay was the first domino to fall. More allegations and charges of assault, abuse and rape felled other influential figures in the scene, most prominent among them Tao Lin--and those allegations resurfaced previous claims of rape and assault against Steven Trull/Janey Smith (and others) and Gregory Sherl. Two months later, with barrels of ink spilled all over the internet, it seems fair to say that alt lit is dead. For further background about this series--and more links--read the original call for submissions

Alt Lit and Rape Culture - Table of Contents

Introduction: A Warning Before We Begin by series curator Sarah B. Boyle

Essays
Separation of Art and Hate - Stacia M. Fleegal
The Sincere Pose - Sarah B. Boyle
Rape as Manifold - D. Dragonetti

Poems
Even Though We Were Vegetarian - by Shevaun Brannigan
Good Girls' Belief System and others - by Margaret Bashaar
XXXIV - Sonnet L'Abbé
Service - Chelsea Carter

Rape Culture Roundtable, featuring: Sarah B. Boyle, Sarah Certa, Jos Charles, Kat Dixon, D. Dragonetti, Kia Groom, Eunsong Kim, and Alexandra Naughton

More Links for Further Reading

Alt Lit and Rape Culture - Contextualizing the Assaults in the Alt Lit Community - Further Reading

The rape and abuse allegations inside the alt lit community were not isolated incidents. Inside this year alone, Dylan Farrow wrote an open letter reminding the world that her father, Woody Allen, molested her when she was a child. Jian Ghomeshi and Bill Cosby were both outed as rapists. Colleges and universities across the country botched sexual assault case after sexual assault case. Unrelated to sexual assault, but just as damaging to the voices of women, Gamergate spewed rank misogyny all over Twitter, threatened the lives of prominent female video game critics, and doxxed any who dared take a stand against the movement. 

A sampling of news stories about and commentary on the patriarchy in 2014:

So imagine your seven-year-old daughter being led into an attic by Woody Allen. Imagine she spends a lifetime stricken with nausea at the mention of his name. Imagine a world that celebrates her tormenter.
Are you imagining that? Now what's your favorite Woody Allen movie?
Take these pills and be quiet.
You can talk about “it” in therapy.
My personal favorite: Forgiveness.  Shut your fucking mouth already, you’re the one who is making it worse for yourself, just move on and forgive.
Let’s get one thing straight as a Lanister’s arrow: No one asked for my forgiveness.

I can’t remember when I first heard these accusations but it has been many years. I’ve always believed these women but I have struggled because The Cosby Show meant so much to me. That episode, the one where Theo tries to prove he is independent and has to learn a life lesson about money? Classic. This is the pernicious trap a man like Bill Cosby has created. He believes his artistic legacy will absolve his criminal behavior. It cannot. We have to say enough. We have to stop implicitly or explicitly supporting Cosby. We cannot justify our fondness for him any longer. We have to demand that his show be taken off the air. We have to stop supporting any of his endeavors. His art does not absolve him. Art is nothing compared to humanity, nothing at all.

What Greg did to me, well, is something I'd prefer no one ever have to experience, and the literary community, in all its insularity, is particularly inclined to foster this sort of behavior—or, at the very least, to shut down discussion of it under the guise of some grand separation between so-called art and artist. In the case of Greg, who exploits his relationships for his work and uses his professional status to prey on women, allowing this false separation comes at a detriment to all women, and it sends the message that the lives of the women he has already victimized are of lesser value than his final product.
Sign the petition to get Oprah to pull Greg Sherl's book from her Book Club. 


Bay Area Writers speak out against sexual assault in their community:
We are speaking out because we want to protect ourselves and our friends and share information that might make it easier for other people to do the same. We have not always done a great job with this, but we want to do better. We want to make sure that as new people (not just women) enter our communities and attend readings, they will have the information necessary to make informed decisions. We want organizers of reading series and public event spaces to have this information, too.

Enough is Enough Community Meeting Handout
, courtesy of Jennifer Tamayo:
PRELIMINARY suggestions for making our spaces safer, more equitable, and more liberatory:
  • If you hear of an incident of sexual assault in your space, address it publicly and in a timely fashion, expressing genuine concern and soliciting feedback about how to ensure it doesn’t happen again. Use all of the platforms on which you typically advertise your events and activities to spread information and seek suggestions from the community.
  • If you are in a position of hiring or promoting and you are made aware of wrongdoing (assault, harassment, discrimination, etc.), be prepared to take steps that could be publicly messy in order to make change. There are people who abuse positions of power, who still get invited to do readings, to teach, to publish, to mentor, who still have careers, because of a status quo silence or worse, fear or passivity. Are you willing to fire someone or otherwise refuse to bolster the career or legacy of an abuser? If not, consider whom and what you are protecting.
  • Consider your relationships with people who have been accused of sexual assault, abuse, and/or misogyny. Do you want to continue curating them into your series and allowing them into your spaces? If so, why? Whom might you be excluding by working with and supporting these individuals?

With the Johns Hopkins case, though, more information is available. It's a sadly typical--and typically infuriating--story of institutional ineptitude and negligence, of a school intentionally and enormously failing a sexual assault survivor and the campus as a whole. According to CBS, Johns Hopkins failed to alert the student body about a "drug-facilitated gang rape" that took place at the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity house in the spring of 2013. In punishment, though, the frat was suspended for an entire year!!!! That definitely showed them! Throw the book right at them, Johns Hopkins!

A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA, by Sabrina Rubin Erdely:
One need only glance around at some recent college hijinks to see spectacular examples of the way the abasement of women has broken through to no-holds-barred misogyny: a Dartmouth student's how-to-rape guide posted online this past January; Yale pledges chanting "No means yes! Yes means anal!" And despite its air of mannered civility, UVA has been in on the naughty fun for at least 70 years with its jolly fight song "Rugby Road," which celebrates the sexual triumphs of UVA fraternity men, named for the very same street where my guides and I are now enveloped in a thickening crowd of wasted first-years. Through the decades, the song has expanded to 35 verses, with the more recent, student-penned stanzas shedding the song's winking tone in favor of something more jarringly explicit:
A hundred Delta Gammas, a thousand AZDs
Ten thousand Pi Phi bitches who get down on their knees
But the ones that we hold true, the ones that we hold dear
Are the ones who stay up late at night, and take it in the rear.
In 2010, "Rugby Road" was banned from football games – despite a petition calling it "an integral part" of UVA culture. But Wahoos fearing the loss of tradition can take heart that "Rugby Road" verses are still performed on campus by UVA's oldest a cappella group, the Virginia Gentlemen.

Mattress-Carrying Rape Protesters Take Columbia by Storm, by Katie Van Syckle and Amy Lombard:
Hundreds of Columbia students darted across Amsterdam Avenue in the rain yesterday evening to stack 28 soggy mattresses at Columbia president Lee Bollinger's doorstep. (They left a little room in front of the door, so as not to create a fire hazard.)
"Presbo, Presbo, you can't hide ... Be the leader on our side," they chanted, as they taped a list of demands for how Columbia should reform its sexual-assault policies to the president’s door.
The action was one of approximately 130 similar protests taking place across the globe, from Hungary’s Central European University to Berkeley, to raise attention to the struggles of sexual-assault victims on campuses and beyond. The mattresses represented 28 complainants in Columbia’s Title IX case, and were inspired by Emma Sulkowicz’s senior thesis project, Carry That Weight. Giving an outlet to ongoing frustration among Columbia and Barnard students, as well as providing support for Sulkowicz, Wednesday's event had the tagline "Carrying the Weight Together."

One of the new women to come forward is a woman in her mid-20s who was a CBC producer in Montreal who dreamed of being on Q . He met her at one of his book signings. Ghomeshi allegedly took her to his hotel room, threw her against the wall and was very “forceful” with her. She said she performed oral sex “to get out of there.” The woman, who still works in the media but not at CBC, said she decided not to complain about his behaviour because she feared he was too powerful.

It Happened to Me: I've Been Forced Out Of My Home And Am Living In Constant Fear Because Of Relentless Death Threats From Gamergate, by Brianna Wu:
I have to be honest. A mob telling you they will castrate your husband, make you choke to death on the parts, murder any children you might have and then rape your ass until it bleeds has a way of scaring the hell out of you.
But, you know, because I am the Godzilla of bitches, by Saturday morning I was pissed off. I’m talking Jack Bauer pissed off. So, I decided I was going to do everything in my power to stop these fuckers.

Gamergate in Posterity, by John Herrman: 
The ideology that leads a young fan of Call of Duty to tweet threats of violence at women who dare make or write about video games is old and broad and thoroughly rotten. His venues, however, are new: They lower the bar for participation, bringing words that would have been shared in private out into the open, on the internet, turning cruel jokes shared between gamers on the couch into real and terrifying threats posed in public.
The urgent consequence is that this private speech projected into public is harassment. 

November 25, 2014

Alt Lit and Rape Culture - Rape Culture Roundtable - Part Two: A Writers' and Editors' Guide to Dismantling Rape Culture

In the time since we finished this discussion, Black Lawrence Press made an official statement about their decision to pull a novella written by Elizabeth Ellen (writer of the now infamous Open Letter to the Internet) from an upcoming anthology. The announcement has generated no end of angry writers fighting about whether the decision was censorship or whether it was a principled--and ethical--stand against rape culture. The discussion below, though it does not directly address BLP's decision, does discuss why editors make the decisions they do--and why we think it is an editor's responsibility to be mindful of who they choose to publish, not just what they choose to publish. As you will see below, the conversation surrounding BLP's decision cannot be treated as simply an academic debate about nebulous ideals. Though it is about ideals, it is also about how even tacit support of rapists and abusers (and their apologists) can silence the abused--can silence real people who have suffered real violence. (Read Part One: Alt Lit Destroys Itself.) --SBB

Rape Culture Roundtable, Part Two: A Writers' and Editors' Guide to Dismantling Rape Culture

SBB: Editors, what factors do you consider when putting together your publication? Writers, what factors do you consider when considering where to submit your work? Specifically, how does diversity affect your actions as a producer and publisher of literature?

D. Dragonetti: I think the top consideration should be prioritizing “outsider” art. Alexandra Naughton and I actually co-founded Empath Lit for that explicit purpose: curating a venue for and by survivors, wherein they may “reclaim [their] narratives.” I also curated a showcase called “In Fear of a Trans Planet” through Be About It Press (another collaboration of Alexandra’s and mine), which highlights exclusively trans artists, including Jos Charles, Joshua Jennifer Espinoza, Manuel Arturo Abreu, and Amarah Selaphiel. I have plans to expand on both projects, because, as I have stated, “I want to cultivate myself as a throne for the marginalized.”I feel it is the responsibility of the editor—and writer—to do just that: if not to specifically gear publications toward “outsider” work, then to acknowledge marginalization and privilege, to be conscientious of perpetuating facets of oppression in their own work (I’m looking at you, "whiteboys"), and to remove themselves from spaces wherein voices like theirs dominate.

Alexandra Naughton: As an editor, I look for good writing and underrepresented writers. I don’t want to publish what everyone else is publishing. I champion the underdog. I welcome those who feel marginalized.

Kia Groom: Well, I started Quaint, with Soleil Ho, because I was tired of hearing that women were under published and underrepresented in the lit world because we didn’t try. I read this article that suggested women just didn’t submit as much, that the VIDA stats were skewed because female identified writers (and by implication other minority writers, WoC, trans* authors) were lazy or frightened or both. I think that’s a crock of shit. We’re not all seized by some collective performance anxiety that intimidates us into silence. We’re just not getting published as much. That’s fucked.

So, Quaint started out, from the very beginning, as a transgressive space muting the dominant male voice. Initially, we defined this as “women” (with a very clear description of what that meant to us, that was, from the very start, hyper-inclusive of transwomen). Soleil Ho, who is the editor who puts in the hardest work, who has from the very beginning done the most for Quaint (along with our designer Alicia), is a WoC, and she’s worked extremely hard from the get go to ensure the voices of those women are represented in equal measure. She solicited Eunsong Kim for Issue 2, and Eunsong is now guest editing poetry for #4. We’re building this awesome network and community.

That said, we’re not flawless, and we fuck up and we make mistakes. That’s probably mostly my fault. I am in a constant state of learning. When my friend and writing partner Mo wanted to submit to issue 3, they brought up the valid concern that, while the female experience was definitely something they were concerned with in their work, they didn’t identify as female. So at that point, we all took a step back and talked out what it meant to draw a line in the sand when it came to gender and about what we wanted to do with Quaint. It became obvious pretty quickly that most of the editorial staff had, for better or worse, not necessarily seen Quaint as awoman’s space, but as a not-cis-white-male space. A lot about the magazine is tied up with the idea of the feminine, yes—we’re interested in “girl aesthetic,” in what it means to transgress and subvert girlhood and womanhood. But we realized we needed to more explicitly embrace genderqueer and nonbinary writers. “Women” were less important to us than “not men.”

Eunsong Kim: I think tremendously about where I am going to place my work. I’ve had some horrendous experiences with editorial directions and have had to pull several pieces from journals for these reasons. However, I do not consider visibility to be some grand answer to the serious misogynistic world of publishing. The equation isn’t: “More of feminist me will make less one less of misogynistic them.” It always seems to be: “One of me means they’ve met their WoC quota.” So I am less interested in visibility questions (one is a token, and two is never enough), and more concerned with structural placement, structural shifts. One way to do this is to look at Mastheads and then to challenge them, to write about it (I call this strategy “rogue counting”). I look at the publishing record of the journals. I search and search for a place for my poems—this I realize, is more work for the WoC writer. But most spaces aren’t safe for us—let’s tell each other about the spaces that aren’t safe. They will not care for us—they keep proving that they don’t care. So I can’t support them and I will not be weaponized for their agenda. And I want to say all of this out loud so we know how to navigate such terrains.

Jos Charles: Questions of representation and access to power—money for writers, who is featured where, who is on the editing staff—ought to be central to any publication. For THEM, a trans lit journal I co-edit, we don’t just say, “shit a lotta white binary trans guys submitted, how do we fix this” but also “is this a helpful narrative or scene or thought or whatever to put out into the world as associated with (in this case) a trans journal.” Recognizing a journal has fucked up representation, i.e. lots of white dudebro, is a valid critique. But having perfect liberal diversity doesn’t put you beyond critique. For me, I like to make sure I have a core of solicitations from writers I know will turn out solid work, make sure they know they can, if comfy, ask others to submit, and so on. Ultimately, I try to be vocal about fucked shit, be material, proactive, and responsible to critique, but aware at the end of the day I’m just another white US baby and it’s super valid for peeps to distrust the hell outta that.

SBB: Jos, I love that—allowing others to distrust you as part of the process. We always talk about checking privilege, but rarely talk about what comes after that. Being open to critique—to letting others call out your blind spots—is necessary to opening doors and righting wrongs.

Sarah Certa: My relationship with Sherl ended in May, so I’ve spent most of the previous months recovering—not writing a whole lot, and definitely not submitting anywhere, since what I was writing was so new to me, so raw and terrible. Empath Lit is one of the only places I felt safe in sending that work. And before that, during the relationship itself, there was ZERO time for writing or submitting. I approach all of this so differently now and it will be interesting how to navigate from here on out. I wait for solicitations or send to spaces that have demonstrated support for victims and a dedication to being a part of this discussion. Or I just self-publish on my blog. My full-length manuscript is coming out with University of Hell Press—they are good friends with Write Bloody, who still holds one of Sherl’s titles, although I do think they will drop the title when I ask them to do so (because I am going to ask them to do so). And honestly, if they refuse to drop his title, I will pull my manuscript. I will just have to. University of Hell Press and Write Bloody are sharing a table at AWP. Obviously I cannot and will not take part in this if they don’t drop the title. And I’ll make sure everyone knows about it.

Kat Dixon: I’ve reached the point where I very rarely submit anywhere. I’ve said in the past that I am more concerned with producing longer work now, work that isn’t well-suited for the kind of submitting I’ve done in the past, which is partially true. But the larger truth is that sniffing out publications—and editors—that feel safe is a tremendous burden—and one that I am not always emotionally equipped to undertake. I began seeking publication at 17, and in the seven years since, I have received just about every form of sexual harassment or attempted sexual manipulation from one editor or another. That alone would be enough to deter me, but the list of things to be wary and aware of when considering a potential submission has only gotten longer. Now it’s a matter of: does this publication have a female editor? If so, will she be the one I am in contact with? Has this publication previously published or promoted work by my abuser? If so, has it disavowed its relationship with him? Has this publication published or promoted the work of any outed abuser or rapist in the community without disavowing its relationship with that person(s)? Has this publication published or promoted content that promotes or normalizes violence against women? Does this publication allow open commenting? What is this publication’s gender ratio? It goes on and on, and the list of publishers I would trust gets smaller and smaller. Anyway, I get exhausted from it more often than not, so I mostly wait around for solicitations from people or places I know are safe.

SBB: Reading Sarah and Kat talk about the burden of publishing after surviving trauma—specifically, trauma at the hands of influential writers and editors—is exhibit A in why this conversation about literature and rape culture matters. As D.wrote, the rape becomes manifold. That past trauma would inhibit a writer is both totally obvious and completely obscured from public view, as editorial decisions about who gets published and who doesn’t occur in a black box.

SC: Yes, most definitely. It was great news earlier this week to hear that Write Bloody did indeed drop Sherl’s title from their press. And I didn’t even have to ask them—someone associated with the press, I think, or maybe just an avid reader, clued Derrick Brown in on the latest news re: Sherl and that day Write Bloody dropped the title. And since then my editor at University of Hell Press has personally reached out, supporting me in my work on this issue and offering help. They follow my Facebook posts and Tweets on the matter and fully support me, and that’s so important. I couldn’t work with them if they had any qualms about the activist work I’ve been doing or wanted to be hush about it in any way.

SBB: What is an editor’s responsibility when it comes to creating spaces free of oppression and equal to all comers?

JC: I’m very annoyingly material about these sorts of things, if a publication isn’t less than ~30% white men and more than ~20% women of color I side-eye the heck outta it. If there are no trans people I am gonna distrust it. I get there are extenuating factors, no one journal should be scapegoated for the whole system, and blah blah blah. But really, at a certain point, if a US journal can’t achieve demographics even close to that of the US’s demographics then jesus try harder. Again though, having on point representation means nothing outside of itself—it says nothing about access, distribution of capital, empowering of victims, etc.

KD: For marginalized people, no place is safe by default. Every editor worth her job title has the obligation to create as safe a space as possible, and that starts with refusing to publish outed abusers and rapists, refusing to publish content that promotes or normalizes the oppression of marginalized groups or violence against them, refusing to publish content that exploits marginalized groups, and refusing to allow user or reader commentary that does any of the above (looking at you, now thankfully defunct HTMLGIANT). It also means making sure that a publication is as diverse and representative as possible, whether that’s done through solicitations or open submission periods for non-majority groups or some other means. It’s no longer acceptable for editors to just “take what they get” in terms of the submission-to-publication process. I’d encourage any current or would-be editor who isn’t willing to put in the work—or to take such a definite stance—to consider another field.

KG: I think it’s difficult not to appear tokenistic. I think a lot about those “ALL WOMEN” issues that seem to have become kind of vogue recently. The intentions are good--I do believe that—but it shouldn’t be a case of “here is our one bumper issue of women/transwriters/PoC . . . and now back to our regularly scheduled programming.” Underrepresented writers are not marketing tools. It’s not okay to jump on the bandwagon for a month and a half because intersectionality is de rigueur right now. I also understand where editors are coming from, when they worry that choosing not to publish material that might be offensive to some readers could constitute censorship.

It’s a hard line, it really is. I don’t have the answers. And as an artist, I do believe that you should be free to say what you want to say. The catch is you also need to be prepared for the fall out. Like maybe don’t write a book that appropriates people’s names and identities, and places them in a sexual context without their consent, if you don’t want to damage your reputation and possibly face legal consequences. Tl;dr: I guess it’s up to the editor to decide what they want their publication or press to be, and how much responsibility they want to take for their own brand, their own image.

DD: I think good editing recognizes complicity and seeks to curate that “space.” The most clear-cut example I can think of is the decision whether or not to publish a known abuser—topical always, but especially considering the recent endorsement of abuser/rapist Gregory Sherl by Oprah Magazine. I would say the responsibility there is to not publish said abuser. I can imagine there are a lot of “gray area” situations though, with transgressions that are less obvious, but I still think it falls on the editor to screen the work for unethical content and reject/publish accordingly.

I actually disagree with the idea that publications should be “equal to all comers,” because minority artists are already disadvantaged by canonical/industry standards, and thus should be prioritized in any context. I do also think that soft exploitation and its various facets (Kia mentioned tokenism) can present problems, but I feel that these won’t arise if the editor seeks to defy oppression/promote “equality” in earnest. I, for example, don’t run into that so much because I curate spaces specifically for marginal writers. But there are always limitations, and as Kia wrote, it is “up to the editor to decide what they want their publication or press to be.” Maybe if the publishing industry weren’t so oppressively cis, het, white, and male, the responsibility would be different.  

EK: Well as many many critical race theorists have pointed out: equality isn’t justice. I don’t want equality—I want justice. Justice might mean that white, cis men stop privileging their desires via expression and instead actively maintain safe spaces for new narratives. Justice might mean, as Enough is Enough pointed out, Burning Bridges. It might mean that editorial responsibility entails actively banning certain writers. This isn’t suppressing or oppressing male identified writing—this is the only way to create spaces for new female, non-binary narratives to emerge.

SBB: Yes! As I learned teaching special education, "equal” is not necessarily “fair.” Also, suppressing (ignoring, rejecting, etc.) male-identified writers should not be construed as a threat to their freedom of speech—an argument I can hear forming in the minds of some people reading this. As writers and artists, we are all absolutely free to say what we want, but that doesn’t mean a publisher has to give us access to their platform.

EK: It’s really important not to frame oppression as freedom. So much of literature and literary publishing has privileged patriarchal-focused, oppressive imaginations. This isn’t freedom, it isn’t equality—it’s oppression. I don’t think we need to coddle those who wish to KEEP a certain version of literature in tact. The oppressor will not give up his tools voluntarily—as Paulo Freire has articulated, he will protest the “loss” of his freedom to oppress every step of the way.  

SBB: As a reader, which publications do you love? Why? Who out there is using their platform to push back against the dominant culture of literature—which is to say, the patriarchy as a whole? What do you think they are doing to help promote underrepresented voices?

KG: Well, first off, if you haven’t checked out Topside Press, you should probably do that like yesterday. We hosted them for a reading a couple of months ago, and it was completely incredible—they’re a trans* only press, which is completely vital, and the work they put out is stunning. There’s also Instar Books, helmed by Jeanne Thornton, who is the guest fiction editor for Quaint’s 4th issue. Not only are they committed to diversity in publishing, they’re also doing interesting stuff with mixed media and really pushing the boundaries of contemporary publishing. I lovelove our friends at Room Magazine. Not only are they women-focused, they’re also Canadian, so they’re DOUBLY marginalized (I jest). I just purchased their Sci-Fi issue and I can’t wait to read it. Minerva Rising are great, too, as well asPersephone Magazine and Bone BouquetCalyx have been doing their thing for ages, and they put out incredible work. I also want to give a tiny plug to my friend Lily Duffy’s journal DREGINALD. They’re not strictly women’s only, or queer only, but I guess these days I look for editors whose aesthetic sensibilities and politics I know to be aligned with...can I get away with saying “the forces of good”? Because yes. The forces of good. FENCE put out some weird but totally badass shit, too. Obviously I also love Empath Lit—particularly, I admire that a space is being carved out specifically for survivors of abuse. I like the platform with Empath, too. It feels like a community, rather than a freaking arena, as publishing so often can.

DD: I love THEM Lit and Jos Charles, I love Maanta Mag. Publications like these are subversive and “promote underrepresented voices” in the sense that they are made for “underrepresented voices.: THEM is the first trans literary journal in the United States, and Maanta is “dedicated to fostering a critical space for Somalis of the diaspora.” I’m trying to run my own publications by emulating places like these. I also appreciate spaces like VIDAThe New InquiryHuman Partsand Luna Luna Mag, all of which seem to be at least open to more critical pieces and marginal narratives, though they definitely have their failings, as Eunsong discusses  below. But I feel like any publication that gives space to minority voices is noteworthy in the “push-back” for that alone, because that is a basic/direct subversion of dominant culture of literature.
I also want to give credit to the writers I love in more or less the same way: Jos Charles, Manuel Arturo Abreu, Safy-Hallan Farah, Lauren Traetto, Sarah Certa, the list goes on.  

EK: Hmmm...so there are some publications listed above that haven’t always been friendly to WoC or PoC—and I point that out not to be contentious, but as Kimberlé Crenshaw reminds us, race, among others, adds an entirely different dynamic to spaces. With that being said, I really appreciate Action Books recent releases (Don Mee Choi, Lucas de Lima), and Coconut Books. They are platforms that are actively centralizing decolonial theory and pushing for a decolonial poetics.   

SBB: At the risk of asking the oppressed to explain their oppression, Eunsong, can you expand on how race adds another dynamic to publishing?

Eunsong: This is such a big question. Certain spaces that have been great for women have not been as accessible, aware or responsive when it comes to race and writing—this is to say that our current spaces are never neutral and filled with complicated dimensions. I know certain female focused organizations have accused poets of color of playing up their "identity politics" and derailing the unification against patriarchy project–as if racialized writing and politics are side games deployed to mess the revolution up. Language is racialized and gendered and we don't know how to read non white cis male writing very well—and white publishers really like sloppy yet strict categories, or the ones they've already created. Often times POC who "write" like "white guys" get published. And "racialized" poetry gets the big "identity politics" sticker. (Sidenote: no one advocates for identity politics. Angela Davis has said that WoC formations were supposed to be the chance for IDENTITY to be BASED on POLITICS rather than politics based on identity. So this framing is totally weaponized and we need to protest it every step of the way.) Anyhow, here is one article that talks about this.

SBB: Here’s a big one: How do we use writing and publishing to challenge and dismantle the privilege of the white, cis, straight, male writer? Can art be enough? What else do we need to do?

KG: Art is the beginning. Art is always the beginning, right? Being conscious of your own privilege is the first hurdle, and just about everyone can stand to do that—D’s essay on Whiteboy Poetics is a great example of that—it’s important to acknowledge that just because we’re marginalized on one level or another, that doesn’t mean we’re immune from fucking up. And you know, the first step to acknowledging our own privilege and minimizing harm in our own work is just listening. Just listen. You write a poem or a story, and somebody tells you that it was offensive or that you need to consider it from another angle? Fucking listen. It’s your work, of course. And your right as an artist to ignore the feedback you’re given. It’s your right to proceed with problematic rhetoric if that’s what gets you off. But at the very least, listen. Shut your mouth for a second and let other folks speak.

Key to this, I think, is creating a space where non-dominant voices can speak. This has to happen in publishing, but it has to happen elsewhere too—particularly within the academy. So many writers are choosing to go and get MFAs, and I think, yeah, wow, that’s awesome. But it’s not all that awesome if their entire graduating class is middle-class white folks, if their entire faculty is middle-class white folks, if the books they’re assigned to read for their lit courses are by middle-class white folks (often dead middle-class white folks). There needs to be a conscious effort at every level to embrace diversity. And when it comes to studying the canon, that can be hard. Maybe we just give the canon the middle finger and be done with it. Aren’t we all a little bit tired of Ezra Pound by now, anyway?

JC: I’m not always sure what anything does outside of the immediate and local. I don’t know if THEM, by being a journal of trans authors, “makes a difference in the world.” That’s so big. I do know publishing *this* author over *that* author at least makes the difference between the two. Representation isn’t the revolution, but it allows revolutionary words and bodies a place of visibility. It allows certain possibilities that wouldn’t otherwise be allowed. Publishing “radical” writing is at least telling the story of white supremacy, capitalist exploitation, colonization, transmisogyny, patriarchy. It puts those stories out into the world, laying that violence bare, over and above other narratives that could be affirmed—the ones that so often can obscure—the love story, the loss story, the sex story, the community story, the grief story. Publishing people systemically disempowered forefronts their voices and bodies—bodies of color, trans’ bodies, women’s bodies--over and above the reinscription of white guy bodies and the labor and oppression assumed to uphold their position as normal. If at the end of the day all I did was present an author with a typical trans narrative in the place of a “thinking about my dead dad while holding his watch driving through a field of wheat Best American Poetry typical white boy grief poem,” well, at least I did that, and that’s something.

SC: On a personal level we have to first examine our own privileges and all the shit we have absorbed—D. did an excellent job of this in that piece about whiteboy poetics—and how that seeps through in our writing. Are we contributing to rape culture? I know I have, and I had to pull a poem from my book because of that. That poem is a problem and I have to make sure it doesn’t get into the world (unless I were to dissect it & explain why it is a problem, like D. did). So first we must challenge & dismantle ourselves. And we must do this over and over. We also need to support spaces like Quaint Magazine & Empath Lit—publications dedicated to dismantling the current system in place by promoting the voices of marginalized writers, helping victims reclaim their narratives, DECENTERING the white cis straight male writer’s voice.

On a personal note, I am so burnt out that I don’t even know what to say about art anymore. It hasn’t been a thing that I’ve been able to engage with very much. Or, I am a vastly different person than I was a year ago, and so maybe it is new forms of art that I just haven’t come across/had time to engage with. I am not easily moved. I cannot be touched. And this is how I know that art is not enough. Maybe I used to think art was enough, but art has never been enough. I see that now. Art can be a medium for discovering ways to break things open, ways to dismantle, ways to reclaim narratives, ways to heal, too—art can change the ways we think, which, essentially, can change the way we structure our world. But art alone will not rewrite our laws. Art alone is not strong enough to push back against the deeply rooted histories of oppression upon which our society has been built. Art can be a vehicle for figuring out strategies for this pushing, but the art itself is not strong enough to do the pushing. Unless you become the art, become the dismantling by dismantling even yourself.

But, like everything, there has to be a multi-faceted approach because we are steeped deep inside of layers upon layers of oppression, and, to echo Eunsong, the decentering is not enough—we have to decenter, yes, but we have to actively centralize what has been historically made other. If we don’t actively centralize, what is taking place of what we’ve decentered? If we don’t actively centralize it seems easy to let a pseudo-decentralization take center. Slip back into center. Or, remain center. Meaning, nothing has really changed (thinking now of mainstream feminism). And now I’m back to thinking about Alt Lit—it maybe seemed, and was, alternative in some ways, but not fundamental ways, not in ways that challenged systemic oppression. At its roots Alt Lit was nothing more than a pseduo-decentralization.

DD: Well, for one, we can stop publishing the white het male writers. We can remove their omnipresent voice from spaces and start soliciting—and paying—marginal artists. We can use those spaces and their reach to prioritize “outsider” voices and critical work that dismantles and defies. We can introspect and deconstruct the influence and insulation of privilege and oppression in ourselves. (Thank you to Kia and Sarah both for referring to my piece as an example of this.) We can stop silencing and start listening. Of course, art is a gear in a greater system, a stepping stone to “progress,” but you work with what you have, and the ties to media and the “human condition” concept are significant. It presents a matrix conducive to advocacy, through which larger culture can be changed.

AN: We keep working. I don’t know what else to do other than keep at it and not let them shut me up.

EK: Art is never enough—but let’s use it to dream. I’m so tired of art that’s suppressed by our reality: We need more. Whiteness and maleness will continue to be at the center as long as power remains intimately connected to whiteness and maleness. However, dismantling white supremacy and decentering power will never be enough: Centralize and affirm Blackness. Let’s start there and never stop—

KD: Art isn’t enough, and I think that is in part due to the false separation that has been created between art and artist. If we allow men who hurt women or otherwise abuse their privileges to continue creating art, then we are allowing them to continue dictating our culture. It’s impossible to reclaim what was never ours, but we can try like hell to use our writing to burn what’s been given to us and start new.

SBB: What does the future of alt lit—and literature in general—look like? What do you hope it looks like?

DD: I think it isn’t as much a consideration of “alt lit”—which, for all intents and purposes, has no future—as it is the future of the “alternative,” as in, prioritizing marginal, i.e. truly “alternative” voices, as opposed to using the “alt” veneer to reify oppression. I don’t know what the future of literature holds—probably, in truth, more of the same. Sarah Certa and I have discussed advocacy as eternally blazing the trail. But I certainly hope that it is non-canon and non-male.

KD: I’d like to see big publishing make a more concerted effort to publish and promote intersectional feminist texts. I’d also like to see an alternative literature wherein the “alternative” doesn’t just mean that the power has been shifted from old white men to young white men. In short, I’d like to see a literary world in which alt lit cannot exist.

SC: I think the more immediate future is a more broken up literary “community”—already, in my own spaces, I can sense it. I’ve no doubt lost many connections and “friends” since speaking up about abuse and being so relentlessly vocal on basically a daily basis. Though of course this isn’t a loss at all because in the place of these pseudo-supporters I have found my way to people like the ones here, at this table. But it’s definitely feeling less “buddy-buddy” out there. There’s more division. The fence-sitters are sort of retreating into their safe little circles. And because so much systemic change still needs to happen, the future looks like a bit of a war zone—or, at least I hope it does. I hope people continue to speak up. I hope conversations like the ones we are having here make their way towards the center. But I’m not hopeful in that being an easy or quick thing to happen. I hope for a future of more critical thinkers. A future of empathy. As Kat said a more concerted effort towards intersectional feminist texts. A future of dismantling.

EK: The future of literature looks like Don Mee Choi. And Claudia Rankine. And Dionne Brand. The Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo. Pretty please. Poetry without poets—

KG: The first thing that came to mind was an animated gif of a majestic rainbow unicorn cantering into the sunset. Can it look like that, please?

JC: I hope we grow out of the idea of literature as privatized. I hope we grow out of the idea of literature as private. I hope we grow out of the idea of literature. I hope we grow out of the idea. I hope we grow out. I hope we grow. I hope we. I hope.


Have something to say? Email comments, questions, responses, and links to relevant articles and literature elsewhere to: rapeculture.and.altlit [at] gmail [dot] com. For background and the original call for submissions, see here. To read all the responses in the series, click here 

Contributors

Sarah B. Boyle is a poet, activist, mother and high school teacherHer work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Menacing Hedge, Sugar Mule, Cheat River Review,and elsewhere. She has an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. 

Sarah Certa was born in Germany in 1987. She is the author of the chapbooks RED PAPER HEART (2013) and JULIET (I) (2014). Her first full-length poetry collection, Nothing To Do With Me, is due out from University of Hell Press spring 2015. Find more online at sarahcerta.tumblr.com.

Jos Charles is the founding-editor of THEM – a trans literary journal.  They have poetry published (and/or have publications forthcoming) with BLOOM, Denver Quarterly, The Feminist Wire, EOAGH, Metazen, boosthouse’s THE YOLO PAGES, as well as variously online.

Kat Dixon is the author of the full-length poetry collections TEMPORARY YES (2012) and BLACK RACKET OCEAN (2014), the novella HERE/OTHER (2014), and four chapbooks. She lives in Seoul and online at www.isthiskatdixon.com.

D. Dragonetti is an angel boy, creator of Post-Alt, and co-founder of Empath Lit. He has written for SalonFanzine, and published a chapbook of poetry, Tangier (2012). Find him online @aliteralwerther on Twitter and @angelboyangelboy on Tumblr.

Kia Groom is founding editor of Quaint Magazine and an MFA candidate at the University of New Orleans, where she teaches freshman composition and works as associate poetry editor for Bayou Magazine. Her work appears in Westerly, Going Down Swinging, and Curbside Splendor, and she tweets @whodreamedit.

Eunsong Kim is​ writer and educator residing in ​southern California​. Her ​poetry and writings on contemporary culture have appeared or will be forthcoming in Minnesota Review, Interim, Coconut Magazine, Iowa Review, Seattle Review, Tinfish, Denver Quarterly ,​ AAWW's The Margins​, The New Inquiry, Model View Culture ​​amongst others. She tweets occasionally @clepsydras.

Alexandra Naughton is the boss at Be About It press and zine and co-founder of empathlit. She wrote a book called I Will Always Be Your Whore and writes things for different things and for herself.

Alt Lit and Rape Culture - Rape Culture Roundtable - Part One: Alt Lit Destroys Itself

Part one of two in a roundtable discussion. Kat Dixon, Sarah Certa, D. Dragonetti, Alexandra Naughton, Kia Groom, Jos Charles, Sarah B. Boyle, and Eunsong Kim dig into the death of alt lit, including how alt lit contributed to the oppression of minority voices and brought about its own destruction.

Rape Culture Roundtable, Part One: Alt Lit Destroys Itself

Sarah B. Boyle: There has been much talk about the death of alt lit in the wake of the rape and abuse scandals of the past year. So, what do you say, is Alt Lit dead? Why?

Jos Charles: Communities come together in the midst of violence. The question is less ‘is there violence’ than what are we doing within it, to upset it, disempower those at the top, empower victims, and so on. I would like to think alt lit existed, at least in part, in resistance against the gatekeeping within the academic writing/publishing world, a system largely built on nepotism shot through with white supremacist and patriarchal fuckery. I say this to say: alt lit existed in  in the context of the academy, in the context of white supremacy, in the context of patriarchy, in the context of rape. People who say “alt lit doesn’t have a problem, our society does” try to shift away from this. But alt lit had a problem precisely because this society that produced alt lit has problems. We’ve inherited our power and disempowerment. We’ve been materially grouped.

Alt lit was white supremacist, patriarchal, full of colonialist shit, transmisogynistic, defended rape, and was generally creepy as hell. Not taking a stand against these things, proactively, is to default. Alt lit defaulted to disempowering victims of rape and assault, to empowering those who assaulted, and, even during the aftermath, focusing on the behavior of the rapists and abusers over and above empowering and defending victims. We still haven’t finished the conversation about ethics, about what is right for men to do or not do, to move on to repair, recovery, and collective responsibility to trauma. I don’t know if that means alt lit is dead, was dead from the beginning or what. I would like to see writers I came to know and respect continue working with and beyond the voices they developed within it. Everyone should care about gender and sexual violence. Not everyone should care about alt lit.

Kat Dixon: I would argue that alt lit is not dead inasmuch as it has been violently dismantled. I don’t think this is simply an issue of its having an unsustainable number of scandals; rather alt lit has sort of thrived on what might be traditionally labeled “scandal”—you know, the normalized use of heavy drugs, “awkward” sex or the forward display of (possibly large numbers of) sexual partners, etc. Remember that time Tao Lin and Megan Boyle eloped in Vegas for publicity? Alt lit was never a vanilla community. But the outing of so many of its altar boys as rapists, abusers, or men who found other ways to abuse their power or to exploit women isn’t “scandal” so much as it is an unveiling of the troubling dynamics operating within the community and the overall rape subculture that it has fostered.

Alt lit’s subsequent decline is important for everyone, I think, to take note of; it was a time when women and trans individuals collectively began to say “enough is enough” and were, amazingly, taken seriously. It was this incredible refusal to continue to endorse this kind of behavior within literary circles, and it was widespread. There’s power in this, and it’s certainly a model that can and should be replicated in other circles.

Sarah Certa: The dismantling of Alt Lit has so clearly exposed the oppression, exploitation, and celebration of rape culture on which so much of it thrived that at this point anyone who wants to defend Alt Lit or “save Alt Lit” in any way has either been living under a rock or is part of the problem of Alt Lit to begin with. (And honestly if you live under a rock and then come out from under the rock without educating yourself on what has happened the whole time you were under said rock—you are a part of the problem, too.) At this point anyone who takes Alt Lit seriously as a literary scene worth time/energy/praise is complicit in rape culture. And it’s not because Alt Lit has been ruined—it was ruined to begin with, operating on tired tropes, rape culture, centered on the same systemic privileges much of greater society operates on, and was simply disguised as being “progressive” with its emotional aesthetic and seemingly liberated approaches to talking about things like drugs and sex. We’ve just peeled back the disguise, is all.

Alexandra Naughton: Alt lit never felt very real to me as a literary movement. It wasn’t serious. If anything, it was a brand, a  message board I posted on because other people were posting on it and sometimes a cool conversation happened. Alt Lit Gossip is synonymous with alt lit for me, because that is how I was first introduced to alt lit, through facebook. Alt lit was something for me to mess around with while at my day job. Shit talking that sometimes involved literature, shit talking that maybe felt poetic at times. Some of my friends are there. I tagged things on tumblr as ‘alt lit’ sometimes, not because I felt the writing was ‘alt lit’ but because it’s a brand that I associated with.

tl;dr: Rape culture is still a thing and a prevalent problem regardless of what we’re calling whatever literary movement.

D. Dragonetti: Yes, “alt lit” is dead, because, at this point, “alt lit” is most known for its scandals. Inter-community dynamics aside, its public image (e.g., via the Gawker coverage) has become arguably synonymous with rape culture. “Alt lit” is neither redeemable nor worthwhile enough to recover from that. Why try to revive something that was rife with problems when you could more easily create something new and better?

Kia Groom: I don’t know if literary movements ever ‘die’, honestly. And there have been, already, articles published that wax lyrical about how great the movement is/was, how writers like myself and D. and Alexandra, the folks at Gawker, all of that—how we’ve chronically misrepresented Alt Lit, how we’ve cherry-picked and cast it in an unfair light. Is that true? Hard to say. But I think it’s definitely the case that the poetics of the movement were mired in a really damaging worldview that dismissed, objectified, and marginalized women. That female identified poets belonged to the movement does not negate that. So is it dead? Shit, probably not. Probably not as long as the boy’s club keep summoning it from the grave with these halcyon eulogies.

SBB: How has alt lit treated minority voicesfemale, trans*, POC, queer, etc.? Do you think that treatment has shifted in any way through the ongoing outing of the abusers in the community and movement?

KG: The impassioned eulogies for Alt Lit certainly like to invoke the names of prolific minority voices within the scene. I’ve read many articles over the last few weeks that harp on about zines like Illuminati Girl Gang and Shabby Doll House, or writers like Mira Gonzalez and Melissa Broder. Look, I don’t think anyone was ever saying “there are no women in Alt Lit,” or “women have/have had no place in the movement.” That’s obviously and blatantly incorrect. But just because women and minorities have a marginal representation within a scene doesn’t mean they’re not being exploited and objectified by the manchildren who write poems reducing them to body parts—sometimes reducing them to body parts by name (I’m looking at you, Janey Smith). It appears to me that it was always a toxic environment for underrepresented groups. Personally, I’m curious why women, trans folk, and POC were ever attracted to the scene in the first place. When people spend that much time writing poorly conceived poems about their dicks, I for one just see an array of giant red flags...

DD: “Alt lit” has never been good to minority voices. There has always been lot of obvious neglect and silencing, and there was incredible tokenization, which I feel actually increased as abusers were outed. On the one hand, it was incredible and unprecedented for call-outs of notable gate-keepers to be taken at least semi-seriously, and the solidarity of survivors/allies like Alexandra Naughton, Sophia Katz, Tiffany Wines, Isabel Sanhueza, and myself actually gave us considerable clout. It became so obvious, so pressing, that people were forced to really face and interact with problems, many of which had been previously and casually enabled (Janey Smith/Steven Trull’s presence is a good example). And that is what ultimately “killed alt lit,” that continual confrontation, splintering the community.

On the other hand, the months of “scandal” really drew out and reified “soft exploitation,” co-opting of the cause. I mean, how many times did we see cis/het/white men, who used to pal around with and publish  the alleged rapists, post heart emoticons on victims’ posts and share articles captioned “brave,” “must-read”? I wrote about this in my Salon piece: “As a trans and non-binary survivor of sexual violence, I do not feel any better or any safer when I see a heterosexual white man marking the posts of survivors as ‘important,’ or lamenting the horrors embedded in our reality.” It amazes me how often I’ve been called “opportunistic” when people, as in the case of “alt lit,” will literally only recognize abuse when it conveniences them. This begets tokenization, when a few people become the “go-to” survivors—read: “go-to” outsiders—and then others defer to their authority, or invoke them to seem aligned with “progress.” I feel this had already happened in “alt lit” with people like Stephen Michael McDowell (prior to their confession of abusing people themself) and Safy-Hallan Farah criticizing its racism/whitewashing to mixed responses, or Joshua Jennifer Espinoza becoming tokenized as a trans woman author, undermining the value of her work and voice.

SBB: Can you point me to a couple of those articles that wax on about the greatness of alt lit? I read Emily Swanson on HTMLGIANT and found myself persuaded. She wrote, “This ‘boy’s club’ narrative of the alt lit community also distracts from the real problems at hand – that rape, sexual abuse, and destructive understandings of consent and power can and do exist in all communities – even those widely populated and helmed by women and individuals uniquely committed to addressing feminist issues.” And this echoes what Kia says above that just because there are women in a movement doesn’t mean that the movement isn’t dangerous to women. And I absolutely agree, Kat, that “scandal” is a trope baked into the alt lit aesthetic/movement. So, what I wondered, after reading Swanson, was if, at the same time alt lit trafficked in scandal, in fact creating more scandals to feed its own endless appetite, it also created an atmosphere conducive to exposing scandal (or oppression). The question then would be: how do we salvage the part of alt lit that led to people taking minority voices seriously and replicate that model in other circles, as Kat suggests?

DD: I wrote my response to Swanson’s piece because I found her analysis to be misrepresentative, which is also what makes it dangerously persuasive. It’s a fallacy that “alt lit” was conducive to exposing/remedying oppression. I discuss this in my Tusk response (and, to an extent, in my Delirious Hem piece, because that was context of my experience of the “manifold rape”), juxtaposing Swanson’s fallacy against the reality of what happened to me and Alexandra. Also, mainstream publishing is a “boys’ club,” so I don’t find that narrative irrelevant at all; the“scandal” surrounding “We’re Fucked” and Plain Wrap Press was well-aligned with this. If there was any semblance of an “anti-oppressive” atmosphere, we, the survivors, created it.

KD: I agree with D. Swanson’s “boys’ club as distraction” argument is itself a distraction—and a justification for inaction. Just as the presence of women within a male-dominated group does not negate that group’s male-dominance (um, Congress anyone?), the existence of male privilege abuse in larger circles does not make its existence in subgroups any less palpable or its interrogation and dismantling any less necessary. Alt lit may have trafficked in “scandal,” but the systemic abuse of women—I say systemic because, apart from the instances that have been revealed, the literature produced within the community has itself been used to objectify women and to perpetuate damaging tropes, which D. has outlined in the past—is not scandal; it’s an affront to human rights. If alt lit had ever been a community that fostered real freedom of expression outside of what was deemed patriarchally acceptable, especially for its minority members to express grievances, we wouldn’t have seen the reproduction of tropes that misrepresent and mistreat women, and we would have seen more outings sooner. Word went round that Tully had been carrying on rape behavior for a long time and that there were a lot of people staying hushed about it. That’s not an environment that encourages victims to come forward.

SBB: In other words, there is no part of alt lit that is conducive to outing abusers. It is only the strength of the survivors, which allowed them to rise above and break out of a literary movement that, by its very nature, is built on scandal and oppression.

SC: It depends on what the voices are saying, because people can be marginal yet still uphold the patriarchy and are thus more likely to be celebrated and given spotlight. I’m thinking about Elizabeth Ellen in particular, since she’s had the gall to defend outed abusers on more than one occasion, and even mock victims who have spoken up—she is one of those women who, because she doesn’t upset the patriarchy but plays right into it (under the guise of some pseudo female liberation, of course), is without a doubt included in Alt Lit and perhaps even championed as something “new” when really there is nothing new about patriarchy at all.

And yeah that whole interview between Ellen & Juliet Escoria in which they joke about being “bad feminists,” defend abusers, and say anyone who calls their interview “sexist” is an “asshole” who needs to focus on “bigger issues in the world” as opposed to these “tiny, mostly-imagined instances of oppression.” Even though the abuser they defended was MY abuser at the time this interview came out, and of course he immediately found it (Googling his name with every morning & afternoon cup of coffee), and used it to further gaslight me and control the narrative of what was actually happening. I don’t know if I can give you a more concrete example of rape culture in play. The attitudes of women like Ellen & Escoria normalize oppression, normalize domestic abuse, and those in power, those doing the abuse, sweep up their words like gold & wave them like flags, proclaiming innocence & silencing victims.

AN: Alt lit is like an in-joke, exclusive and navel gazey and disapproving. Everyone wants to be popular and buddy-buddy so when someone brings up legitimate dissent (and by legitimate dissent I mean not someone just playing devil’s advocate to be net-edgy) it is frowned upon. Think about the way Andrea Coates has been derided for sharing her work in the alt lit sphere. I talked about this subject a lot with Luis Silva, who runs Electric Cereal, in a piece we did for HTMLgiant a while back. Seems like hardly anyone really cares about fresh writing or including minority voices, and by minority I mean anyone not a straight white cis male or catering to that gaze. I think some venues are, but it’s not widespread. The standards should be higher and the reach should be more encompassing, particularly if you’re going to brand yourself as ‘alternative.’ Alternative to what? It’s like tuning in to the college radio station and being lambasted with commercial-laden muzak. If you’re going to play by the same rules as the oppression, you have no business calling yourself ‘alt.’

I don’t necessarily feel any sort of sense of community or camaraderie with alt lit as a whole, but I am happy to know the people who I do know from alt lit. I feel like the roots for a healthier community are beginning to take place.

SBB: Perhaps it is that very “navel gazey” stance that masked the problems in the movement? As in, it sometimes seems in alt lit as if no one is listening, only waiting for their turn to talk. Is it crazy to suggest that in simply “waiting to talk,” not enough people were paying enough attention to what other people said to be offended? And that’s how we got some high-profile women, trans*, and POC voices in a movement sometimes obsessed with the voice of the patriarchy?

KD: There is always a certain faction of women (and probably a faction of all oppressed groups) that is attracted to this sort of boys’ club. Simone de Beauvoir calls them “liege-women.” Becoming complicit with men, especially those who claim a level of power, even if it is within a very limited community or space, yields its own set of rewards and privileges—namely inclusion, publication, promotion, the works—so long as the non-white-cis-men in question bought into the culture that was already in place (a culture conveniently prescribed by men). I have no doubt that alt lit’s liege-women were championed—at least until they broke some unwritten rule and stepped outside the in-house normalized boundaries of acceptability, as I believe was the case for Safy-Hallan Farah and others previously mentioned.

SBB: I’d love to dig a little deeper into Safy-Hallan Farah calling out alt lit out for its “fake” and “real” race problems. Mostly, I wonder how we take that criticism and move past tokenism, which Dianna points out has real negative consequences for the community and the individual “tokens.” These are the questions where I always get stuck. I know tokenization is a problem—and can recognize it. But what actual concrete, steps do we take to fix it? And, to build on what Kat said, how do we help “liege-women” fight from the inside?

JC: Tokenism, in my experience, happens in shitty microaggressive ways which work to establish it as a structure. I’ve certainly been published or included in stuff cause I’m trans. I imagine some of those times I might not have gotten published if I wasn’t trans. Sometimes this is communicated explicitly and sometimes not. Largely, for me, I don’t mind being published somewhere because I’m trans if one, there are other trans people being published, two, I am given equal access or power (within the capacity of the publication or scene or whatever), and/or three, people involved are working on their shit. However, if all that shit is in place, it’s not going to alleviate that awareness of the structure of tokenism, not going to change that I’m navigating that space as someone who is tokenized, read as a trans writer before being ‘just’ a writer. I think we work to dismantle that precisely by those examples—talk about and commit yourself to equitable publishing, give not just equal representation but equal power, then consistently do it.

SC: Can we help “liege-women” fight from the inside?

SBB: Ha! I was just about to add that question: is fighting from the inside even possible?

SC: In some cases I highly doubt it and wouldn’t waste much energy in doing so. I’d rather put that time and energy into helping victims reclaim their narratives, speaking with those who truly want to learn, help, etc. Not that we shouldn’t take opportunities to educate each other, but there comes a point when you just have to let it go, when you realize that some people, some “liege-women,” don’t WANT to fight from the inside. They like being on the inside. Just like the men who have no interest in examining themselves and how they might help dismantle patriarchy. As an example: When Elizabeth Ellen wrote her beyond troubling open letter to the internet, once again defending outed abusers, writer Kate Zambreno shared the article and when Kate was called out for it, she took the post down and wrote a lengthy apology in response. She listened. She took responsibility for her ignorance in this situation, and, in doing so, called for others to do the same. I then wrote a detailed response to Elizabeth Ellen and soon came to learn that Elizabeth Ellen is not someone who has any interest in dismantling rape culture. She has no problem with her role in rape culture.

And it’s not just Ellen & Escoria—we see these attitudes everywhere all the time, and I am starting to call this blatant dismissal of abuse allegations harassment, because that’s exactly what it is. When someone comes forth with an abuse allegation and you interject your opinion as grounds for dismissing the victim, that is harassment. That is further belittling the victim. It’s bullying and it needs to be called out as such.

“Liege-women” who want to fight from the inside ultimately will have to decide to do so for themselves. Those who want to hear us eventually will. I think continuing to bring these conversations to the table, like we’re doing here, is a great concrete step. Continuing to write, speak, dismantle, and expose. Bringing in voices from various social circles, widening our audience and reach.

KD: Haha I’ve been trying to think of a way to turn a liege-woman double agent style. But what do we have to offer them? Risk losing the scant privileges you’ve garnered through complicity with men and rejoin the oppressed masses! It’s not the most compelling bid. But we’re also not only fighting patriarchy for the souls—so to speak—of liege-women. There’s all of neoliberal ideology to contend with—that insidious, self-help-movement-stylized individualism that keeps us mired to ourselves to the detriment of any possible collectivity. I think the best we can do under these circumstances is to hold liege-women accountable for their choices, especially when those choices come at the expense of other women, as is the case with Elizabeth Ellen and her penchant for victim-blaming. And let’s not forgot Juliet Escoria, who joined Ellen in blindly denying allegations against Sherl when I outed him earlier this year and then went on to call Alexandra and D. “fascists” for discussing their experiences of abuse and supporting other victims (instead of perpetrators).

SBB: The crumbling of the alt lit scene has been a tempest in a teapot in that, while it has rocked everyone within alt lit and many writers adjacent to the scene, it has gotten very little attention in the broader culture. Why should people outside literature care? How do we get them to notice?

AN: I’ve been trying to think of ways to get people to notice and get people to care. It’s shocking for me to deal with some of the aggressively negative responses I received after bringing the abuses I experienced from Janey Smith/Steven Trull to light. It was shocking to see women writers actively defend rape culture and known abusers. It was shocking to not feel solidarity from the writing community, to feel like some people totally had my back but there were also quite a few who were stone silent or spitting nastiness. Coming out about anything is not easy to do. Making yourself really vulnerable, in public, is anxiety inducing. It is not a ticket to popularity, it’s not something you just do for funsies or because you want to join in on the pile on. I’ve been victimized by people who want to accuse me of a great many things maybe because they feel defensive and threatened because maybe they have really shitty values too and maybe bringing this topic up in conversation makes them feel self conscious. But I don’t really know what’s going on in their heads.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that we have to keep talking about this and making an example of these bad behaviors.

KG: So, when I first heard about Janey Smith & PeterBd’s “We’re Fucked,” through D., I wrote a little article about it, and about this wider problem I saw, within indie lit and indeed literature in general, of using women and women’s bodies (not to mention trans* bodies, and the bodies of POC) as props. My mentor asked that I bring it up in MFA workshop as a point of discussion and, wouldn’t you know it, some dudebro felt the need to shrug his shoulders and say, with exactly the degree of practiced boredom you’d expect from a young, white, male writer, “Yeah, but like...why are we even talking about this?”

SBB: Argh, fuck that!

KG: I think it can be difficult to make folks see that this is not an isolated incident in a small scene. Those of us who live this experience? We already know that. We know that being abused and harassed, having our bodies and our identities consistently appropriated, is pretty much just what you can expect to happen when you leave the house in the morning. It’s hard to make people who have not had that experience understand that “Alt Lit” is a recent, pronounced example of the entire history of Western literary tradition, which in turn reflects behaviors and norms reinforced by the patriarchy. How do we get them to notice? I wish I had the answer to that, but I absolutely think step one is speaking. Shouting. Screaming. Making a goddamn fuss.

I’m also at this wonderful point in my life where my “give a fuck” meter has been tipped so far past maximum threshold that I could care less about dudebros policing my tone. I am done talking about these issues “nicely.” I am done holding my tongue in MFA workshops and tiptoeing around misogynist faculty members. I am just done. For me, the answer right now is sometimes anger. It’s being confrontational and not letting shit slide just because maybe the person doesn’t know better or maybe he’s just too old to get it or he means well or he’s trying.

SC: People outside of literature should care because the core issues—institutionalized forms of oppression, rape culture, etc—exist outside of alt lit. Alt lit isn’t special in any way. And one of the only blessings (don’t use the word blessing—it is not a blessing—it is a way to build from the destruction) I see in having been involved with Gregory Sherl is that he was known by some as alt lit but also had his foot in almost every literary scene (big press, small press, indie press, corporate press) and so I’ve seen the whole issue as one of the ways we can link the conversations between the alt lit scene and the bigger literary scene. Sherl is included in some of the alt lit discussions (and publications) but also he’s published by Algonquin Books and is now featured in Oprah Magazine, which is another reason I have been pushing the discussion as much as I have, hoping to shed some light on how systematic oppression is a problem everywhere.

I’ll also add that we get people to notice by continuing to tell our own stories. To fucking scream our own stories, if we have to. Because we have to. I feel pretty certain in saying that I’m mostly here because I heard the stories of others, and I know my stories have helped others open up their own stories.

DD: People should only care about “alt lit” as far as recognizing it as a textbook example of rape culture under kyriarchy, and that’s exactly why it’s relevant to people outside of literature. Canonical publishing—a facet of literature which permeated “alt lit,” as it does all literary communities—is literary, but informed by and reflective of social mores. Canon came into existence as cis/het/white and male because those were the people in power, i.e. those power dynamics exist and are active in every context. This is much bigger than “alt lit” or even all lit. It’s just a tangible exemplar, rife with dynamics that can be criticized as part of a larger pattern. People don’t notice because this pattern is intentionally sublimated through “norm” and assimilation. I am not sure there is a categorical solution to help people to notice, but I think prioritizing the voices of marginal people in major media is a good start.

SBB: Man, isn’t that always the problem with the hegemony? No one sees it because it is as invisible as the air—and just as important to everyday life, too.

KD: Everyone should care about this because these are the people who are actively creating, participating in the creation of, or have the potential to create our contemporary culture. Alt lit may seem no more than a blip on a relatively limited radar, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t or doesn’t have the potential to influence the larger culture in some way. It’s probably reasonable to say that most alt lit-identified writers will never be household names, but their work still exists; it’s still accessible. Tao Lin may be the atypical alt lit member, but he has been heralded by numerous publications as one of the major writers of the era, has published with a large, mainstream press, and has had his face plastered all over the internet. And guess what? All statutory laws aside, he emotionally abused and exploited a then-16-year-old-girl to get there.

Women, POC, trans people, we have been the backs on which literature has been built for centuries, and the reckoning of alt lit for its abuses and literary crimes against women and trans individuals is a largely isolated instance. I, for one, have never before seen a literary community rise up and say fuck this on such a scale. Sure, alt lit won’t make the literature textbooks, but if its demise is precipitated by a disavowal of cultural creation that comes at the expense of the actual well-being, the actual lives of marginalized people, then yeah, everyone should damn well take notice.

Eunsong Kim: I'm less interested in people "outside the scene" (whatever this may mean) noticing, and more concerned about how the writing community responds. For the most part and from what I understand, the state (the police) has not been brought into this situation. [Note from SBB: some people have attempted to use the law to help them—Sarah Certa and Alexandra Naughton, for two—but as so often happens when victims go to the police, the police could not and/or would not help.] For better or for worse, those affected by rape and gendered violence in alt lit did not get help from the outside. They wrote articles, they posted on social media, they told their friends, they told US—those who have a vested interest in contemporary writing, its community and ethics. Now that we know, what are we going to do next? Is this the time for restorative justice that’s beyond lip service, that’s strategic and ongoing? How will we create and maintain safe (not civil, safe) spaces?

One thing that I think the writing establishment can do is actively  push back against male centered, misogynistic “poetics.” Publishing and reading series can stop exceptionalizing the banal yet violent political dreams of cis male poetry. Male identified poets must understand that they are not exceptional—they are actually so overwhelming filled with the master’s narrative it’s actually quite underwhelming. Writing poetry is not exceptional. Having desires and then privileging them to the detriment of another is not exceptional. Poetry circles are not exceptional and will be filled with the same rape culture dynamics of our current world unless we use our energy to fight for a different space.



Have something to say? Email comments, questions, responses, and links to relevant articles and literature elsewhere to: rapeculture.and.altlit [at] gmail [dot] com. For background and the original call for submissions, see here. To read all the responses in the series, click here 

Contributors

Sarah B. Boyle is a poet, activist, mother and high school teacherHer work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Menacing Hedge, Sugar Mule, Cheat River Review,and elsewhere. She has an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. 

Sarah Certa was born in Germany in 1987. She is the author of the chapbooks RED PAPER HEART (2013) and JULIET (I) (2014). Her first full-length poetry collection, Nothing To Do With Me, is due out from University of Hell Press spring 2015. Find more online at sarahcerta.tumblr.com.

Jos Charles is the founding-editor of THEM – a trans literary journal.  They have poetry published (and/or have publications forthcoming) with BLOOM, Denver Quarterly, The Feminist Wire, EOAGH, Metazen, boosthouse’s THE YOLO PAGES, as well as variously online.

Kat Dixon is the author of the full-length poetry collections TEMPORARY YES (2012) and BLACK RACKET OCEAN (2014), the novella HERE/OTHER (2014), and four chapbooks. She lives in Seoul and online at www.isthiskatdixon.com.

D. Dragonetti is an angel boy, creator of Post-Alt, and co-founder of Empath Lit. He has written for SalonFanzine, and published a chapbook of poetry, Tangier (2012). Find him online @aliteralwerther on Twitter and @angelboyangelboy on Tumblr.

Kia Groom is founding editor of Quaint Magazine and an MFA candidate at the University of New Orleans, where she teaches freshman composition and works as associate poetry editor for Bayou Magazine. Her work appears in Westerly, Going Down Swinging, and Curbside Splendor, and she tweets @whodreamedit.

Eunsong Kim is​ writer and educator residing in ​southern California​. Her ​poetry and writings on contemporary culture have appeared or will be forthcoming in Minnesota Review, Interim, Coconut Magazine, Iowa Review, Seattle Review, Tinfish, Denver Quarterly ,​ AAWW's The Margins​, The New Inquiry, Model View Culture ​​amongst others. She tweets occasionally @clepsydras.

Alexandra Naughton is the boss at Be About It press and zine and co-founder of empathlit. She wrote a book called I Will Always Be Your Whore and writes things for different things and for herself.