Black presence at major writing conference tiny but important
The Association of Writers and Writing Programs’ (AWP) Annual Conference and Bookfair, which boasts of being “the largest literary conference in North America” on its website, was held at the Minneapolis Convention Center from April 8-11. The AWP says that more than 12,000 “writers, teachers, students, editors, and publishers” attend this event. This writer was there, and I believe that claim — this conference was overwhelmingly huge, both in terms of attendance and the number of panels, readings and other events.
So, at this huge writing conference, with a wall-to-wall schedule that had no lunch break, I went searching for African American participants.
There were at least nine African-descent “featured readers” at the conference, including Roxane Gay, the bisexual scholar who’s been red hot for the last year thanks to her novel An Untamed State and especially her New York Times bestseller essay collection Bad Feminist.
Gay was probably the most famous writer at the conference, so I made sure to be in line for her book signing at the Bookfair, an exhibition hall full of publishers, journals, college writing programs and others hawking their wares.
Lucky for me, Gay’s major publisher was giving away copies of Bad Feminist to people in line for her to sign. When it was my turn to get a book signed, Gay graciously let me take a photo and was happy to learn about the MSR.
I managed to make it to two panel sessions early in the conference that each had one Black writer as panelist. “Zero to One: First Books and What We Wish We’d Know” featured Ayshia Stephenson, who just published a poetry collection entitled black hands of a morning calm about her experiences as a expatriate living in South Korea.
“Short Fiction — Writing It, Acquiring It, Selling It” had LaShonda K. Barnett on its panel, a writer whose work I know through reading a lot of lesbian publications such as Does Your Mama Know?, the first book published by RedBone Press, founded in 1997 as a venue for works by and about Black lesbians/gays/bisexuals/transgenders/queers and questioning people (LGBTQ).
The Bookfair was where I discovered an important Black presence at the AWP conference — African American book and journal publishers and editors. To my joy, the first of these I found was RedBone Press. The founder of the press herself, Lisa Moore, was at the table proudly selling her work. I already owned two of her books, and I made sure to buy a third.
Lisa Moore was one of the panelists at “Queer/Feminist/of Color Presses on the Imperative to Publish,” a session that also featured three Latino/a publishers: T. Jackie Cuevas of Evelyn Street Press, Sara A. Ramírez of Third Woman Press and Lorenzo Herrera y Lozano of Kórima Press.
Herrera y Lozano, who founded his publishing company to “confront the Chicano/Chicana [literary] canon with queer voices,” praised Moore as a pioneer of queer people of color publishing. Moore simply but powerfully responded, “I publish books to change people’s lives.”
Other African American publishers at the Bookfair included two local ones. Matter of Africa America Time Corp., based in Minneapolis, publishes “The Adventures of Papa Lemon’s Little Wanderers” children’s book series. Publisher and author of the book series Lehman Riley and his co-publisher partner Paul Dixon were at the Papa Lemon table selling their books with big smiles and sunny attitudes.
Dara Beevas, also of Minneapolis, is co-owner of Wise Ink Creative Publishing, which provides a variety of writing, editing and publishing services. Beevas and I are both alumni of the Givens Foundation Black Writers’ Retreat program, so we greeted each other with warm hugs and reminiscing when I got to her company’s table.
Willow Books, the Detroit-based literary imprint of Aquarius Press, is headed by a woman of color and specializes in publishing primarily African-descent authors. Two of these authors, Kelly Norman Ellis and April Gibson, were selling their poetry collections among other books from the publisher.
Minerva Rising is an independent journal that publishes creative writing and photography by women. Co-founder and Editor-in-Chief Kim Brown represented the journal at their Bookfair table. The online journal Vinyl’s poetry editor, Phillip B. Williams, was also at the Bookfair.
Next to Wise Ink’s table was Obsidian: Literature in the African Diaspora, a journal based at Illinois State University. As a 40-year-old Black literary journal, Obsidian had its own well-deserved panel session at the conference.
Obsidian Editor Duriel E. Harris, her editorial assistant Jonah Mixon-Webster, editors emeriti Afaa Michael Weaver and Sheila Smith-McKoy, and advisory editor Kwame Dawes discussed Obsidian’s long history at four universities and its continuing struggle to survive and thrive as one of the “three sisters” of veteran Black literary journals; the other two are Callaloo and African American Review.
Dawes is also editor-in-chief of the University of Nebraska’s Prairie Schooner, and he talked about the opportunities he has as one of the few Black editors of a mainstream literary journal and the importance of having people of African descent in positions like his. “People win [literary] awards because of people on the [award] panel,” he gave as an example. If you are a writer of African descent and you won a journal or literary organization’s competition, he insists it’s because “there’s probably a Black person on the panel.”
The AWP Conference and Bookfair was a microcosm of the overwhelmingly White world of writing, editing and publishing. The small yet persistent presence of people of African descent and other people of color in this world, especially those who edit and publish, opens doors of access for all writers and readers.
Stephani Maari Booker welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.
See more photos from the event below: