New Power in Narrative: Diversity at AWP

The 2017 AWP (Association of Writer’s and Writing Programs) conference held in Washington D.C. this February made a big splash following the hectic presidential election, the call for representation in literature higher and more vital than ever. A protest of president Trump’s travel ban targeting Muslims took place right in the middle of the lobby, right in front of the only coffee stand so you couldn’t miss it. Tensions rose as strangers linked arms and chanted and anyone in the room with a working heart could feel the pulse of change within the literary community.

Generally, the AWP groupies, writers and readers alike, share a common blood of left-wing acceptance. Most writers were the kids who don’t fit in at school, and as a result, the literary community flourishes off the diversity of ‘weirdos.’ If that wasn’t enough, we’ve read classics like Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, all the way to modern novels, like Emma Cline’s The Girls, that have given us an abundance of empathy, putting us in the shoes of characters whose stories, otherwise, wouldn’t have been known.

For all the kids who never had a safe space, AWP is it. There’s collective acceptance, support, and in a new way, power.

Ashley Lamb-Sinclair’s “When Narrative Matters More Than Fact,” published in The Atlantic, explains the power of stories, because “Facts mean very little to people caught up in storylines.” In the context of the election, she explains, “For many Americans, Donald Trump is a hero on a journey; for others, he is a villainous stranger who has come to town.”

The literary community, the creators of so many stories, are in an interesting position. We can choose the narratives we create, and form waves of change with them. AWP was buzzing with that power this year.

Despite the traditional, brief sections of cultural awareness, this year’s conference displayed an array of new panels, diversity dominating the conversation. Panels like “The Politics of Queering Characters” and “Amplifying Unheard Voices” showed unity for change like no other. Given the current administration, there was a call to a responsibility of writers and literature. But even more surprising, there was discussion about how diverse literature itself is limited, for even when people create queer characters, they’re either “too queer” or “not queer enough.” This is obviously unfair because gender normative characters don’t have this issue. But the conversation felt encouraging. People are noticing, talking, and figuring out better ways to write non-conforming literature. All eyes are on us and AWP prepared for it.

Having attended many of the panels and readings, my favorite being “Women Writer’s On Writing Violence” (I’m in love with Robin Wassermann’s Girls On Fire), I noticed many sections interweaving. Race and gender. Sexuality and religion. Throughout all of it, there was one question people kept circling. Authors and attendees wanted to know: Where do we go from here?

In times where the NEA’s funding is threatened to be cut, writers must pave the way with narratives that capture people’s hearts.  The way we think philosophically and economically about the literary community will be tested. For me, simply a student who loves writing, reading, and what the literary community stands for, finding the answers is far from easy. But I do know the only choice we have is to move forward. So no matter what happens or who runs the white house, we will continue to provide a safe space, this small bright light, for a chance to grow in tolerance and representation.

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