Roxane Gay, Aimee Bender, and More on Assault and Harassment in the Literary World
11 Women Writers in Response to Bonnie Nadzam’s Essay, "Experts in the Field"
“It seems radical resistance may be as simple as noticing the truth.”
BONNIE NADZAM: In the past few weeks since Tin House published my essay “Experts in the Field,” I have received so many messages and emails, heard so many stories, and absorbed so many names—so far, all of men in perceived positions of power: editors, publishers, writers, teachers. I’ve received these messages from the United States and beyond. One woman told me there is an entire support group in her country based around the same celebrated poet and editor of a respected press. The women in the group are all terrified of him. “How did you find each other?” I asked her. That was my first desperate question. What to do with all of these names? All of these stories? What to do with all of the hurt, the disrupted lives, the silenced voices and fury?
While it is fascinating (and ironic) that such predators are able to function through perpetuating a belief in their unique expertise, my primary concern here is not the men to whom my essay refers, nor to the many names now spinning in the back of my head. No doubt there will always be outliers in every group, at every level, who will abuse and seek to gain power at the expense of others’ well-being. What has my attention is the act of breaking silence, and what, if anything, doing so means for one’s personal life—and for the broader literary community. I’m more interested in the process of the rest of us waking up, in a collective period of realizing that none of us has been (or should be, or can go on) holding such experiences silently, alone, in turning up the lights and beginning to identify what exactly we’re working with.
We each have a function and role in this culture, whether we acknowledge and are aware of and embrace it or not. Maybe you’re an excellent teacher and upright human being who would never exploit a student. Or you’re someone with strong opinions about all of this, with some cultural capital and an ability to articulate what we all need to hear, but it all feels too uncomfortable. Maybe you’ve had an exploitative experience with a mentor in a position of power and now have a life and job and partner and children and don’t dare breathe a word of what came before. Maybe you run a writing retreat or conference and are yourself an activist, even a feminist, yet you repeatedly hire a teacher who is a known predator because it brings income and awareness to your endeavor, which is after all a worthwhile one. Whatever your role or roles, at least be aware of your platform and responsibility.
A former teacher and I were discussing these things last week—how the hierarchies of power in the creative writing world resemble the hierarchies of power in Washington. Sure, you might say. That’s people, you might say. That’s the way of the world. Even were this true and not a product of our own particular cultural paradigm, so insidiously pervasive it’s sometimes nearly impossible to see, that doesn’t mean it must be so. Can’t people do better than mimic the worst of the power structures in which they are immersed? What if the answer is no?
I’m not talking about the entire community suddenly embracing full loving kindness for everyone. The cultivation and practice of such virtues is deeply personal and oddly incredibly vexed. Rather, aren’t we interested, at the very least, in freedom of expression? We say we are. What kind of culture are we fostering? And who decides? Why? These are such simple questions. And in the past few weeks, I’ve talked with leaders and teachers who are doing their utmost to investigate these questions and to work, teach, and make art with integrity and dignity. I have appreciated hearing from them and discussing these matters; in the current environment, it seems radical resistance may be as simple as noticing the truth.
I am deeply grateful to the women named below and for their contributions here—for the time, attention, and courage it takes to help open up a space of such awareness.
“When we keep these men’s secrets, we allow their predatory behavior to thrive.”
ROXANE GAY: When I read “Experts in the Field,” I thought of all the stories I’ve heard about men in the literary community over the years—the men (both married and not) who proposition women at book parties and readings and conferences, who offer “mentorship” by way of seduction, who commit a range of sexual assaults and who are rarely named publicly because everyone is, understandably, too scared of the repercussions to their careers and their personal lives and their peace of mind. It’s not that bad, they say. It happened a long time ago, they say. He was drunk, they say. One of these men is the publisher of a well-regarded imprint. Another is a poet. Another is a magazine editor. Another is a small press writer. And another. And another. It’s time to start naming these men. I’d name names, but these aren’t my stories. It’s not my place. That’s what I tell myself while also knowing that when we keep these men’s secrets, we allow their predatory behavior to thrive. They won’t stop until they are held accountable.
“Writers who lord power in disturbing ways over other writers set up a similar bind. Don’t mistreat a writer and then tell her not to tell anyone.”
AIMEE BENDER: Every line in Bonnie’s essay carries the weight of years of processing behind it; you can just feel it. In response, I keep thinking of the story of Bluebeard. I’ve been thinking about it lately in various contexts, and it comes up here for me again. The mind-fuck of Bluebeard, the worst misogynist of all, is that he gives his new wife a set of keys, and tells her she can use them to go anywhere in the castle except, as he dangles it: this key. So, he gives her the means, and then tells her not to use it. It is her great strength that walks her to the forbidden room of bloody bodies, which exposes his dark side, and eventually, after many trials, she is able to escape.
Writers who lord power in disturbing ways over other writers set up a similar bind. Don’t mistreat a writer and then tell her not to tell anyone. I mean, don’t do that to anyone, but in particular, doing it to a writer—a writer/student, especially—is a lot like Bluebeard dangling that key. Open, don’t open. Tell, don’t tell. If the writer listens, and keeps the secret to herself, she is cutting herself down at the very core of her being. Because writers write. Writers tell. Writers live lives, and then try to communicate something real about these lives. Open the doors—that’s what this essay is doing and calling for, in the spirit of connection and communication and community and truth. There are no particular obligations to door-opening, and there are many, many types of doors. Open them in whatever way works for you.
“How many times did older male mentors take advantage of my interest in their work, their advice, their expertise?”
POROCHISTA KHAKPOUR: When I first heard of Bonnie’s experiences at our Center for Fiction event last fall—and then later read her essay—I found myself gasping, feeling like my heart was going to explode. I rarely have such an intense response to a piece of writing, or anything really that isn’t illness. I did though, not because I was shocked—I did so because this experience very much exists in my body too. How many times did older male mentors take advantage of my interest in their work, their advice, their expertise? Not to mention male colleagues.
I’m someone who has grown up around men and done a lot of time in mostly male environments and usually I think I can survive it. But I’ve been raped, assaulted, harassed, cyberharassed, stalked, and manipulated by too many men in the field. I think I’ve almost accepted it as normal. But it’s only through advising my own students and helping my own friends through such experiences that I can remember that this is not acceptable, that I deserved better and so does every woman. As hard as it is, we need to share these stories and we need to put them out there. If not for ourselves, for the women who inherit all this from us. We need to love ourselves and have the imagination to love those who might find themselves in our roles one day. I want to make a promise to remain devoted to protecting women.
“As an American woman, I have freedom to speak, and yet, the people who tell me how to tell my stories? Everyone.”
ASPEN MATIS: In too many cases in the creative writing community, men are afforded the position and opportunity to tell their students, particularly those from traditionally marginalized groups, how to tell stories—and also which stories are worth the telling, publishing, selling, and so forth. There is much more we might say about the kind of shaming, silence-enforcing and exploitative abuse involved in such a breach of trust in a field of humanities presumably devoted to the freedom of expression.
And of course, the literary “world” is not special in regard to sexism and exploitation. This is an all-world problem. As an American woman, I have freedom to speak, and yet, the people who tell me how to tell my stories? Everyone. (Only difference from the creative writing classroom is, in most cases, the concern isn’t writing them down or publishing them, rather, they become the internalized narratives in our own minds). A trail crew I once worked on, as one example, was just as bad as any academic place; that hazing was just as physical as in the literary culture, and still not called wrong, at worst not even recognized by some for the abuse that it was. And we know well that the state of dignity in other human circles is worse still. In work (of all sorts), telling the truth can mean getting shunned, fired or even killed. Exploitation and rape and manipulation always matter, are always “big.” But the fact that stories in writing programs are recorded doesn’t make them more important than all others, which are mostly only lived.
I encourage writers to notice that we all tell stories, and act by them. The place we stand in our lives is in large part the product of the story that we tell ourselves about ourselves. And we have the power to revise these stories; we can find our words loosed from and thereby loosing us from the imposing grip of the past’s injustice and/or “wrongness.” Our inner voices still work. Our language can empower our bodies, and as writers we have a wonderful advantage if we use it.
“The stories come out slowly at first but with an increasing pressure that floods the room.”
ERIN COUGHLIN HOLLOWELL: If you gather a handful of women together and one of them speaks of abuse at the hands of mentor, boss, or partner, it is like opening a tap. The stories come out slowly at first but with an increasing pressure that floods the room. Most women have at least one of these stories. I think of the time I came home from eleventh grade and told my father that a teacher had made an inappropriate sexual remark to me as I made up an exam in his office. “You must have given him cause to think you wanted that,” my father responded. So when I read “Experts in the Field,” I felt that same freezing of helplessness, anger, and shame. I felt as if my internal organs were writhing into a ball of snakes; much as I felt watching the second presidential debate. Bonnie writes, “What I wish is not to be silenced.” It is imperative that she is not. It is imperative that all of us are silent no more.
“Sexual assault is sexual assault. In my experience if it is at the hands of someone you admire, it’s worse.”
ELISSA SCHAPELL: Women writers, above all, are expected to understand and, if not tolerate, then excuse the bad behavior of male writers and editors. When these men, who trace their privilege to being the sons of Mailer, Updike, and Hemingway, behave inappropriately (for example, make sexual comments about your body in public, offer to get your colleague fired if you take off your clothes, kiss you, put a hand on your ass…) the culture accepts that they are just performing their vocation and their gender. Indeed, if the man is considered to be famous or a genius the woman, regardless of her stature, should count herself lucky—lucky!
Lucky? Hardly. Harassment is harassment. Sexual assault is sexual assault. In my experience if it is at the hands of someone you admire, it’s worse. For years I avoided social functions and literary gatherings if I was reasonably sure my harasser, someone who had enormous power to hurt my career, would be there. Beyond the breach in trust and regardless of the truth, female writers who do hook up or engage in relationships with these male writers can’t win. Either they are seen as a dumb in love schoolgirl or a mercenary out to advance her own career. If she does become as famous as the male writer, or more so, there will always be those who suggest she got there on her back. Who cares how many female MFA students must be sacrificed to fire the great man’s creativity, it’s worth it.
“The party in power says, Hey, you’re talented and I’d really like to open this door for you. Let’s get to work making you into something I can own.”
RAMONA AUSUBEL: I teach in a program with a high proportion of writers of color and I hear from them that they are often asked to give their entire culture over to the reader, to sell their background as a commodity, to be more X or less Y for profit and product. It’s part of the same problem that might make it possible for a male writer to take advantage of a female student, whether it’s physically or by strongly directing her work—the party in power says, Hey, you’re talented and I’d really like to open this door for you. Let’s get to work making you into something I can own. It’s difficult because mentors do open doors and they should, and teachers must offer their honest eyes and writers must revise their stories and we are all full of innocent mistakes. I want to commit and recommit to being a teacher who listens hard and invests fully but keeps my own hands off the doorknobs—those are opened by the writer’s work, whatever she wants that to be.
“I kept my MFA professors and visiting male writers at arm’s length, where they couldn’t disappoint me as so many men had before them.”
KRISTI COULTER: “Experts in the Field” first made me grateful for my own male MFA teachers, who were kind and non-predatory. Then it hit me that in some ways their decency didn’t matter, because my own behavior was still warped by the system that protects and rewards the bad guys. When I entered grad school at 22, I’d already been through several teacher/mentor relationships that suddenly took on sexual overtones. I’m not sure I thought it was possible for a man to engage with my work unless he also wanted to sleep with me. So I kept my MFA professors and visiting male writers at arm’s length, where they couldn’t disappoint me as so many men had before them. And in doing so, I missed out on relationships and connections that my male classmates took for granted.
I’d be bolder now, two decades on. But at the time, walling myself off seemed like the safest option. And I wasn’t wrong. Stories abounded, like the one about the Pulitzer Prize winner who spent a whole dinner trying to get in a classmate’s pants. A former visiting professor was still the stuff of legend for, in the words of one woman, “trying to fuck everyone.” Years later, that man had a regular NPR slot and every time I heard his voice I thought, “The guy who tried to fuck everyone is telling America what books to read.”
And that’s what pierced me most about Bonnie’s essay: that the men who harmed her now travel the world teaching people how a story should be told, or what even counts as a story. A man hurting a woman, even putting her in a closet, is depressingly old news. But treating a woman like that and then telling her not to write about it? Nope. You don’t get to both seed and kill the story in one fell swoop, guys. In Bonnie’s words, it’s time for women to “turn on small lights that can never be turned off again.” It’s time to talk.
“The abuser controls the story, and that is how such men continue this kind of behavior for decades and across different schools.”
SARAH VAP: When I hear about stories involving abusive and exploitative mentors, I wish that other faculty members had done a better job protecting their students. I know oftentimes many of them are enthralled with, and/or are much younger or more junior than, and/or were intimidated by the predator/abuser in question. I want to think the most of the time, the rest of a faculty group doesn’t know anything, doesn’t suspect anything. I want to think that if the rest of the faculty did suspect, that they don’t silently blame the student. But that’s not how this works. People suspect, and the abuser controls the story, and that is how such men continue this kind of behavior for decades and across different schools. Of course I have also been hit by those bullets, and in life-altering ways. Aren’t so many of us dodging, or being hit by, that bullet all the time? And how long do the bullets get to fly? And how rich, and how protected, and how rewarded is the guy with the gun?
Then multiply that by Trump. My god.
“The talk is often hushed, either by institutional fear of lawsuits and bad publicity, or by individual fear of being wrong.”
SALLY BALL: In the wake of events like those Bonnie describes, there likely follows a long and incomplete process: sorting out rumors, revelations, rage and worry, the snares of secrecy. Maybe there’s a flood of additional allegations. And one looks around the room: had anyone known? Looked away? The talk is often hushed, either by institutional fear of lawsuits and bad publicity, or by individual fear of being wrong, or the fear your interlocutor knows more than you, or is involved, or thinks you are….
The university where I teach, like many others in recent years, has clarified and strengthened its Title IX enforcement, its rules regarding Amorous Relations. In addition to policy, though, I’m struck by the particular combination of freedom and responsibility that tenure provides, enabling and obliging tenured faculty to speak out, even in the presence of powerful interests. About tenure, it’s often presumed that fat cat old boys protect each other from within the privileged cloister of lifelong job security. And sometimes that’s the way the system is abused. What I’ve been thinking about, though, is what we can do, women in the academy, tenured persons, how we create the culture, how we look out for all the members of our community: faculty, staff, students. And how we stand up to someone whose behavior falls on this wide spectrum that includes, say, rudeness in meetings or phone calls, and extends to physical violence.
How does a culture define itself against looking away? Our students are adults; institutional policies guard against abuses of power; and tenure offers us serious influence on the context, tone, and atmosphere in which our students move. We create the climate in which they know where to turn for help, or don’t know; where they perceive certain people to be above the law or free to operate outside the standards others abide by, or where no one is above those laws and standards.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that Title IX provisions can enable, for example, homophobic accusers who want to smear a gay professor. On the left, we are wary of straight white men who fear false accusations: they seem willing to shut down the majority of worthy cases by elevating the subset of malicious ones. But I have friends who’ve been targeted and harmed by powerful white guys (and Title IX helps them) and other friends who’ve been targeted and harmed by biased, angry kids either in the grip of religious anxiety or cruelly feigning such anxiety in order to inflict suffering (Title IX was the banner those kids used too). And here arises the need for education, critical thinking, openness: all threatened in the current national culture of abdication.
“I believe that the brave step of naming these predatory individuals is an important part of ending the destructive dynamic.”
ANNA MARCH: These stories of exploitation and abuse by creative writing mentors are as familiar as they are horrifying. I hate that these events happened, happen, are happening everyday, as a matter of course, in our literary community. I believe that the brave step of naming these predatory individuals is an important part of ending the destructive dynamic. I stand in solidarity with all those who have been manipulated and used by those in positions of power, and who choose to break their silence, and ask everyone in our community to refuse to tolerate such abhorrent acts by naming them and calling them out. It’s up to every one of us to bring about an end to the culture that encourages or even passively allows these acts and to hold one another accountable. We can do it. Will we?
Roxane Gay’s writing appears in Best American Mystery Stories 2014, Best American Short Stories 2012, Best Sex Writing 2012, A Public Space, McSweeney’s, Tin House, Oxford American, American Short Fiction, Virginia Quarterly Review, and many others. She is a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times. She is the author of the books Ayiti, An Untamed State, the New York Times bestselling Bad Feminist, and Difficult Women and Hunger forthcoming in 2017. She is also the author of World of Wakanda for Marvel.
Aimee Bender is the author of five books: The Girl in the Flammable Skirt (1998) which was a NY Times Notable Book, An Invisible Sign of My Own (2000) which was an L.A. Times pick of the year, Willful Creatures (2005) which was nominated by The Believer as one of the best books of the year, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (2010) which won the SCIBA award for best fiction, and an Alex Award, and The Color Master, a NY Times Notable book for 2013. Her short fiction has been published in Granta, GQ, Harper’s, Tin House, McSweeney’s, The Paris Review, and more, as well as heard on PRI’s “This American Life” and “Selected Shorts.” She lives in Los Angeles with her family, and teaches creative writing at USC.
Porochista Khakpour is the author of the critically acclaimed novels Sons and Other Flammable Objects and The Last Illusion and the forthcoming memoir, Sick. She has taught creative writing and literature at universities including Columbia University, Johns Hopkins University, Wesleyan University, and Bard College.
Aspen Matis is the author of the internationally bestselling memoir Girl in the Woods. Called “a powerful read” by O, The Oprah Magazine, the book made The Guardian‘s annual top 50 list. Matis’s writing has been published in The New York Times, Tin House, Psychology Today, Salon, and Marie Claire. She appears frequently on national radio and TV, including CBS, Al Jazeera, HuffPost Live, and NPR. The face of RAINN’s 2015 campaign and a member of PEN America, RAINN’s Speakers Bureau, and HarperCollins’ Speakers Bureau, Matis has become an advocate for trauma survivors. She is donating five percent of Girl in the Woods’ profits to the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network. She is now a student at Columbia University.
Erin Coughlin Hollowell is a poet and writer who lives at the end of the road in Alaska; her first collection Pause, Traveler was published by Red Hen Press and her second collection Every Atom is forthcoming in 2018.
Elissa Schappell is the author of two books of fiction, Use Me, which was runner up for the PEN Hemingway award, and named one of best books of the year by The New York Times Book Review and the Los Angeles Times and Blueprints for Building Better Girls, which was chosen as a best book of the year by The San Francisco Chronicle, The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek and O. Her fiction, essays and non-fiction have appeared in a number of publications including Book Forum, BOMB and SPIN and anthologies such as, The Mrs. Dalloway Reader, Here She Comes Now, and Cooking and Stealing. She is a Contributing Editor at Vanity Fair, former Senior Editor of The Paris Review and a Founding-editor, now Editor-at-Large of Tin House. She teaches in the MFA Fiction Writing Program at Columbia.
Ramona Ausubel is the author of Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty, which was a San Francisco Chronicle and NPR best book of the year, as well as No One is Here Except All of Us, winner of the PEN Center USA Literary Award for Fiction and A Guide to Being Born, a New York Times Notable Book. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Tin House, One Story, Ploughshares and elsewhere. She is a faculty member of the low-residency MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Kristi Coulter’s work has appeared in The Awl, Marie Claire, Vox, Quartz, The Mississippi Review, Salon magazine’s Virgin Fiction anthology, and elsewhere. She received an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Michigan, where she won the Hopwood Award, the Roy Cowden Memorial Fellowship, and the Stephen Farrar Fellowship. She is a former Ragdale Foundation resident and recipient of a grant from the National Foundation For Advancement in the Arts (NFAA). She has a book of essays coming out from Farrar Straus & Giroux in 2018
Sarah Vap is the author of five collections of poetry, including Dummy Fire, winner of the 2006 Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize, selected by Forest Gander. Her second collection, American Spikenard, was the winner of the Iowa Poetry Prize in 2007. In 2016, Viability was selected by Mary Jo Bang as winner of the National Poetry Series. Her work has appeared in American Poetry Review, Denver Quarterly, and Gulf Coast, among other publications. She lives in Venice, California.
Sally Ball is a poet and an associate professor of English at Arizona State University.
Anna March’s work has appeared in a wide variety of publications including The New York Times, New York Magazine, Tin House, VQR, Hip Mama, Bustle, Salon and The Rumpus, where she also has a weekly books column; she is co-founder of Roar: Literature and Revolution by Feminist People, and founder of LITFOLKS, a literary hosting organization in Los Angeles