by Catherine Chambers
“That's what is always fascinating about racism - how it is allowed, if not encouraged, to flourish freely in public spaces, the way racism and bigotry are so often unquestioned.” – Roxane Gay
Like any self-respecting literary type, I do a great deal of my work in coffee shops. It gets me out of the house, shakes up my scenery, and I can stay steadily caffeinated until whatever I’m working on is finished. On a recent trip home to Texas, I was working in one such establishment when an elderly man asked me what I was working on, typing away like that.
I love this part of conversations. I love telling people about Duende’s mission, about the act of handing a literary microphone to those who may not normally get one, about the hard work of the volunteer editing staff to diversify the literary landscape. If you saw me or any other Duende staff member at AWP, you can attest to how excited we are about the work we are doing. It never occurred to me that someone might not be excited about the prospect of diversity.
When I explained Duende’s mission to this man, an older white man whom we will call Bob, he frowned at me. “So you wouldn’t publish my writing,” he said curtly.
“Not necessarily,” I said, still feeling good-natured. In the past, Duende has published some amazing work from cisgendered straight white males. “We publish quality work, always, but we are working towards diversifying indie lit. There are lots of other places you could have your work published. For some people, like incarcerated writers or undergraduates, it might be much harder."
It was as if Bob didn't hear me. “So if I was a dyke,” he barreled on, now having exited my good graces, “And I sent in a shit poem, you’d publish it.”
I took a deep breath. “That’s not what I said.”
“You’re discriminating me,” he said, louder now, pointing a finger at me from the armchair where he sat.
“Excuse me?” I asked, my heart rate picking up. I have self-diagnosed white knight syndrome combined with a temper, but I was trying to maintain my calm. Maybe he just didn’t understand. Hadn’t he seen the VIDA count?! Did he really think that he, as a white male, was being harmed by my publication choosing to address the work of underrepresented writers?
“Sweetheart, you’re very pretty, but you’re a bigot and a racist,” Bob informed me.
I realized this man couldn’t be reasoned with, so I simply shut my laptop and packed up my bag without another word to him. I stormed out to choruses of, Oh sweetheart, don’t be like that, and I was only kidding. I made it to my car before I burst into tears.
I am a bi-racial female with skin privilege, so people sometimes raise an eyebrow when I tell them how important diversifying the literary world is to me. I am also a woman of small stature with big eyes and long hair. Men, especially older men, will write off my opinions, especially if they are strong. I am constantly called sweetheart, beautiful, darlin’, by men I don’t know.
You know what? I am over it. Like the people we are trying to give a voice with Duende, I am often unheard even though I am smart and I work hard. The world has cut me breaks, and it has not cut me breaks. So, Bob, you will not be getting one from me. What I will be doing is spreading our message no matter what you think, and continuing to work hard alongside a talented staff of editors to make Issue 3 a megaphone for writers from all over the world, writers of color, LGBTQ writers, student writers, incarcerated writers, and anyone else who gets as angry as I do that the world cuts men like Bob a break.