I’m wondering what it’s like to have a pie thrown in my face.
A friend and ally recently reached out to me to let me know she was contacting a writing conference I’m scheduled to attend in June because she has concerns for my safety.
She included screenshots of tweets in her email to me, as well as a copy of the email she sent the writing conference’s administration. From what I can see, the person threatening to throw a pie in my face appears, from their Twitter profile, to be (probably) a white (probably cis) man. He’s boasting about his commitment to throwing a pie in my face, in response to a tweet by a (prominent) white woman writer who is lamenting how quiet the literary world drama is, currently. (A side point, but an important one nonetheless: I find it fascinating that a white woman writer with a significant social media platform laments the lack of drama in the literary world. She must not realize it’s just a matter of time before she too is threatened and shamed for having a voice. Or maybe she has experienced this and has forgotten what it’s like. I wouldn’t know because I don’t follow her.)
What I take away from this exchange, and the larger frame with which I’ve come to look at the reaction in the aftermath of my essay “Adventures in Publishing Outside the Gates: On Literary Gatekeeping” (Gay Magazine, January 2020) is this: some writers, in particular, white women writers, are threatened by my words.
When I published this essay, I most definitely expected a response. What I read, and what was aimed at me, went beyond my expectations, both positively and negatively.
For those without direct experience or those who have not been paying attention on social media—because honestly, there are many examples of this on any given day on social media—I want to offer: what typically happens when a woman of color calls out racism in a given industry or field?
She is told she is “envious.”
She is talked about. She is not spoken to directly by a countless number of people in her sphere (in my case, Twitter), but is talked about. Even by people who, in the past, used to speak directly to her.
She is not believed.
People—in this case predominantly white women with very few exceptions—will try to diminish her integrity in a number of ways, including publicly asking organizations to disinvite her, and encouraging other acts of shunning.
People will question her character in order to undercut her experience—what we commonly refer to as gaslighting.
These are just a few examples of what I’ve experienced—file under negatively—since the essay was published.
I’ve also received a lot of supportive emails, encouragement, and notes of thanks for saying what other writers—primarily writers of color, both inside and outside the gates of traditional publishing—feel they are not in a position to say publicly.
This is not the first time in my life I’ve been scapegoated. It’s quite amazing to watch, when I can separate myself from it. When someone tells the truth about their experience, that action of resistance often does create discomfort. In writing about how the publishing industry typically functions using my book and another book to make my points, my hope was to shine a spotlight on this dysfunction with concrete examples. I watched as my arguments were consistently decentered and distorted, spinning out into full blown tirades and threads in which people pushed their own agendas, completely missing the points I made, in some cases willfully. In other words, the people with the most discomfort attempted to shut me down using a dangerous mix of whataboutism, defensive posturing, and a big dose of white fragility.
This experience has illuminated something for me: that my ongoing ambivalence about “the literary community” is justified. Hearing from people privately that they are hurt and angry about how I’ve been treated since the essay appeared has been useful, helpful, supportive—but I need for these very people to talk to the perpetrators of threats and other harm in this “community.” I do in fact need interventions from allies, whether that is you, Reader, having a private, offline conversation with people you’re friendly with or just acquainted with. So far, people have felt perfectly safe shunning and badmouthing me publicly, primarily because I don’t happen to have the power or social capital that would make them fear any consequences. This, too, has been an interesting takeaway: that my position in the “literary community”—where I’ve been, either locally or nationally, for the last twenty years or so—can be muted, blocked, or otherwise sullied, by the loud voices of a few (mostly white) people.
In writing and sharing the narrative of my experience, those who distorted or twisted my narrative were, in essence, trying to make me not the protagonist of the story, but rather an antagonist. To date, there have been numerous articles and opinions written about my essay but I have been approached by a total of four journalists for comment, with one not even following through. I see this as another method by which I am shown that I do not have the power or social capital to make me a protagonist even in dominant media’s eyes. This has allowed people to engage with distortions of my essay, twisting the narrative to become one in which they could assert either a moral high ground or a topic for academics.
So: when prominent writers with platforms way larger than mine host public conversations on social media that distort or diminish my essay’s arguments, which devolves into distorting my character or me as a person, I can only imagine that these people suffer from pervasive white fragility, and/or a disturbing white victimhood that turns them into defensive oppressors.
This is your literary community.
“Who and what are you and to which community do you belong?” George Yancy asks white people to ask themselves in his brilliant book Backlash. I imagine this is a question white writers in this “community” could afford to ask themselves more often and with rigor.
People who have reached out to me in support have also mentioned that they were angry on my behalf. They have told me that they’ve viewed me as someone who had done a lot of labor for my writing community, and they express sadness and rage about how I’m being treated. My hope is that these same folks will be having uncomfortable conversations with their peers, publicly and privately. As I said in the essay, I am just one example of how the publishing industry works or, rather, doesn’t work; I would extend that to say I am just one example of how “the literary community”—predominantly white and on social media in this case—deals with those of us pointing out racist dynamics embedded in the very industry we’re either a part of or adjacent to.
I’ve had meaningful conversations in real life with writers who have either been in similar situations as me, and with writers who feel that their eyes are now open to something they previously hadn’t been fully aware of, and who want to help from their positions of privilege and power. I’ve had the pleasure of talking with Sarah Schulman, whose book Ties That Bind has been on my mind a lot lately. Among a number of other crucial sentences in that book, I find myself thinking of this: “Some cruelty comes from privilege and some comes from trauma… When privileged people scapegoat, they do it from repetition, arrogance, habit.” Schulman’s thinking on scapegoating, shunning, and how cruelty becomes normative among those in power has been extraordinarily useful.
Writers of color, queer and otherwise, have reached out to me, making it a point to acknowledge me, and they often share their own stories of having been repeatedly rejected, overlooked, and unacknowledged in what we know is a rigged industry. Still, I remain most mystified by those who jump to the defense of the publishing industry, whether they want to maintain that a few anointed writers deserve seven figure deals because of “merit” (lol), or vehemently jump to the defense of an author with a tremendous publishing machine in her corner, as well as the power and privilege she benefits from because she’s a young white writer.
I do not regret having written my essay. I do not regret having learned who are my true allies and who are not. I do not regret the changes this experience has made me go through as I decide how much or how little I want to respond to the vitriol and willful warping of my original arguments.
I have friends and allies and a community that protects and uplifts me. Materially speaking, I have the backing of my literary agent and the agency she’s part of. I have potentially rewarding and fruitful opportunities because of my essay. When I consider potential pie-throwers, I want to say this: Do not doubt my ability to laugh in the face of your white fragility. I had originally ended this essay with a snarky comment about having a preference for coconut cream pie and removed it because I know that white fragility is, frankly, ultimately, dangerous. Even so, I will add: Do not doubt my self-defense skills.
In the aftermath of my original essay, I’ve been honed to a new sharpness. One outcome has been this realization: my energy is best spent writing. I can channel the fury I feel on my own behalf and on behalf of the countless others who have reached out to me furious about their own experiences and mine. I’ll continue to the do the work I believe I’m here to do.
Wendy C. Ortiz is a psychotherapist in private practice in Los Angeles and the author of Excavation: A Memoir (Future Tense Books, 2014), Hollywood Notebook (Writ Large Press, 2015), and the dreamoir Bruja (CCM). Her work has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, The Rumpus, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the National Book Critics Circle Small Press Spotlight blog, and has appeared in such venues as The New York Times, Joyland, StoryQuarterly, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.
Selected reading list
My Time Among the Whites: Notes on an Unfinished Education by Jennine Capó Crucet
Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong
The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination by Sarah Schulman
Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences by Sarah Schulman
Backlash: What Happens When We Talk Honestly about Racism in America by George Yancy