Behind the open letter asking the AWP Conference to require masks.
When we first put the petition up, I wasn’t sure anyone would sign it.
An irrational fear, I told myself. After all, I was one of 29 co-signers that included Alexander Chee, Maggie Smith, Kelly Link, Khadijah Queen, Sarah Schulman, Jeff VanderMeer, Porochista Khakpour, and Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore—writers renowned not only for their work but for the communities they foster. If they felt it was important to take a public stand asking the Association of Writers and Writing Programs to require masking at their annual conference, surely a few others would too?
But my inbox was full of invitations to mask-free events and parties that formerly cautious friends seemed happy to attend. In spite of continued high rates of national infection, an average of 3,000 Covid deaths per week, and an estimated 23 million people suffering from Long Covid, millions of whom are too ill to work, the Biden administration had recently announced it would end Covid emergency measures. My chronically ill friends, increasingly unable to protect themselves, were feeling real despair.
So it was a surprise when the signatures began to roll in—a hundred, then five hundred, then more. As I write this, over a thousand people have signed. There were many names I knew and admired—Celeste Ng, Danez Smith, Jamia Wilson, Franny Choi. But it was the comments from people I didn’t know that made my heart ache. One signer wrote that they had been attending the conference for 30 years and that masks would allow them to return safely. Another wrote, “I’m attending, and as someone whose father died of Covid I would appreciate the relief of a mask requirement for all.” I began getting messages from higher-risk friends who were grateful for the evidence that someone—anyone—still cared.
The AWP conference is a professional necessity for MFA faculty, job seekers, students, graduates, and small presses—13,000 people attended in 2019. But it is also a temporary manifestation of that illusory, contested, vital thing, “the literary community.” When our government has abandoned us to an invisible, ongoing pandemic, what are we owed by our institutions and communities? What do we owe it to ourselves to demand?
Covid safety is a disability rights issue. In 2018 AWP faced major criticism of its disability accommodations, a confrontation that resulted in the current list of services on their website, but their record on Covid safety is, to say the least, mixed. In March 2020, a week away from national lockdowns, the board pushed ahead with the conference in spite of sharp protests from fellow board members, mass cancellations, a state of emergency in San Antonio triggered by Covid cases, and the resignation, in protest, of their own conference director. After a virtual conference in 2021, and a hybrid conference with a mask mandate in 2022, AWP has now dropped all Covid safety under the pretense of “following local guidance.”
The day after our petition went up, AWP posted an update on their website stating they would “continue to strongly encourage masking,” but so far they have not changed their policies.
AWP’s statements sound like legal boilerplate, but there are no legal constraints preventing them from implementing safety measures. In fact, several petition signers pointed out that SakuraCon, an anime convention that will take place in the same convention center in April, has a strict Covid safety policy.
AWP is not a local conference. It brings together people from across the country and overseas, and any spread of Covid at the 2023 conference will travel throughout Seattle and back with the participants, exposing students, friends, family members, colleagues, and others who did not choose to attend.
The brutality of AWP’s Covid policy can be seen most clearly in their liability waiver, which states the conference attendee “acknowledges the highly contagious nature of Covid-19” and “voluntarily assumes the risk of exposure or infection,” giving up the right to sue in case of “injury, illness, disability, and/or death.” Elsewhere, AWP states attendees will not receive a full refund if they become ill with Covid, a policy that punishes low income attendees and encourages attendance while sick.
Our open letter asks AWP asks to turn away from this legalistic language toward a simple act of care, and challenges the idea that it’s too late to demand better from our institutions. We hope it will inspire others to ask more of their communities, too.