Some Feminist Observations from the AWP Conference

For those of you who may not know what “AWP” means (and there are more of you than there are those who do know), it’s a yearly gathering of writers known formally as “[The] Associated Writing Programs Conference.” Students, professors, and administrators from MFA programs. Writer, authors, and poets attached to these programs, or not. Publishers and editors and salespersons from myriad imprints and magazines and journals. It’s a glorious circus-cum-zoo of creativity that includes 300+ panels and readings, a bookfair full of tables and booths, and so many parties and cocktail gatherings that last Friday the Marriott Marquis Washington’s lobby bar clocked $22,000, its highest earnings ever. (Writers think, but they also drink.)

The AWP Conference takes place in a different city each year, and this year’s DC appearance meant that I, living in Northern Virginia, could return home each night from the madness (I mean festivities). Thus allowed more rest than the hotel-bound, I was able to make a few notes about the feminist landscape.

— We may laugh at the man-buns, but the man-buns are only fair if women are allowed to sport crewcuts, and sport crewcuts they do. And dreads. And that weird high-shave haircut that we all associate with Nazis. In other words, no matter what your gender, you are allowed to do whatever you want with your hair.

— I met lots of little girls at this year’s gathering, including the delicious toddler-women belonging to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Claire Vaye Watkins, and Miranda Beverly-Whittemore. Little girls are poised to take over the world and will not be putting up with your pastel-pink foolishness. They will save us.

— Here in DC the Keynote Speaker was Azar Nafisi, a woman of color. Next year in Tampa it’s George Saunders, a white man. George, we love you, but we have an imperative. . . What should we do? Should we have dual Keynote speakers? Ideas?

— An agent of my acquaintance told me about some of his favorite titles and clients. All of them were women. All of them were writing on completely different topics and in different genres. This may have been the first conference I’ve ever been to (after 20 years in publishing) where I felt I was talking more about writing by women than by men.

— A friend told me a colleague said “Oh, Bethanne. . . She’s perky. . .” Another friend deadpanned “That means you have big boobs.” Look, we can all say whatever we want in our various cones of silence, but in professional conversations can we all just say something nice or say nothing at all, especially if we’re planning to imply something about secondary sexual characteristics?

— You know who was manning one booth? The First Lady of Iceland. Damn skippy! American-born Eliza Reid is married to Guðni Th. Jóhannesson, and last year he was inaugurated into their country’s highest office. Reid directs the Icelandic Writers Retreat, and was graciously working its AWP presence. That is feminism: To support your spouse and continue your own endeavors.

— I subbed in as moderator for a panel called “Double Bind: Women Writers on Ambition,” based on the upcoming anthology of the same name, edited by Robin Romm and out in April from Norton/Liveright. When Romm realized she was too busy with her five-month-old daughter (The Future Is Female!), she asked her publisher to find someone else. That is feminism: To know your limits.

— The Corporeal Writing Party honoring Lidia Yuknavitch was a real-life lesson in how to shine a light on one person while she reflects that light onto everyone else there. The relatively shy Yuknavitch was available to all, present and lovely. Her upcoming novel, “The Book of Joan,” is a feminist manifesto and one of this year’s must-reads.

— Last Friday evening I went to a swank dinner and caught a glimpse of poet Eileen Miles in the other room. When a friend who knows her suggested we go say hello, I decided to quash my reservations about ambushing a celebrity, and I’m so glad I did. Miles was kind and funny and the epitome of cool. Feminist writers aren’t about remaining aloof and disconnected; they’re all about connecting with the rest of us.

— Saturday meant both bars at the Marriott were full and everyone was relaxed. I sat between my beloved publisher Anna March and my fabulous colleague Maria Dahvana Headley and thought: This is the life. What could be more feminist than that?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *