Saturday, August 29, 2015

the demons of exhaustion: kate gale and white sloppiness

1. first, a bit about MEEEE

I’m starting this post a little after 5 am; I’ve already been up for an hour with Dash, who is teething or mildly hungry or maybe just needs to pontificate. His new thing is closing his eyes and waving his arms while shouting, “Ah blah blah wah!” I think he may be doing an impression of me.

My point is I know a thing or two about being a tired white person. The past week included mind-numbingly boring yet crazy-making home repairs that resulted in me doing three solid hours of dusting; lots of emotional work stress on AK’s end; and an all-clear cancer check (woo!) that was front-loaded with a ton of anxiety and a margarita and a Klonopin and an emergency mini session with one of Homeboy’s therapists. (“I think I need a quick dose of some of that trauma-informed therapy I’m always writing grants about,” I emailed Theresa.)

By yesterday afternoon I felt like I could happily sleep six hours, wake up, eat cereal and go back to sleep—and repeat this cycle for a week.

2. kate gale is us

By now, those of you who are more in the literary loop than I am have read Kate Gale’s post “AWP Is Us,” which started as a riff on her blog and then ran in the Huffington Post (which really needs to stop passing off blog riffs and press releases as journalistic essays…but that’s another post). To summarize: Kate’s point—I think—was that people are always complaining that AWP is misrepresenting or under-representing them, and they act as if AWP is The Man rather than a membership organization made up of writers, including those doing much of the complaining.

Kate in a great necklace.
I do think that academics have a habit of critiquing their own ivory towers so intensely that they fail to do more than glance at the brambles and villages around the towers.

But Kate’s point was quickly lost by the odd and sloppy satire-type riff that followed, in which she adopted the stance of one of the complainers, using her own identity (half Jewish, “30% gay”) as an example. It was weird. It didn’t make much sense. It touched down in touchy territory and then flitted away. It read like a part of a dialogue I’m only on the margins of, and I think that’s part of the problem. It’s inside-baseball in a world where there are only like six people on the field and a zillion in the dugout and the stands.*

Meh, I'm like 87% gay.
She’s since deleted the post and apologized, and the literary internet has blown up, and writers of color have posted outraged and thoughtful and outraged-and-thoughtful replies. Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo’s blog post on the subject is especially personal and honest, while illuminating the larger issues at play (hint: Kate’s awkward humor is the least of our problems).

3. cheese & crackers

No one really needs me to weigh in on this, but hey, isn’t that what we do as white people? Add our own ah blah blah wah! to the conversation? So here goes.

A couple of months ago, a friend of mine started hosting Cheese & Crackers nights for white people (crackers, get it?) to discuss racial issues. At first I was skeptical—yes, the world desperately needs to talk about and act upon racial injustice. But how could a handful of liberal white queer women talking over wine and snacks possible help anything? Wasn’t the idea just kind of…embarrassing? Cautiously intrigued, I left my Mexican esposa (who likes to be invited to the party, both literally and figuratively) at home with my Mexican baby and went to the first official whites-only event I’d ever been to.**

The cracker blues.
When I asked my friend why she decided not to include people of color in her get-together, she said: “I know myself, and if there were people of color in the room, some small part of me would be trying to show how down I am. I want to be liked. So I want to make a space where that’s not my prevailing intention, and I don’t think any person of color should have to ‘represent’ their race while I sit here trying to work my shit out.”

Good point, I conceded.

The topic of the night was white fragility, another concept I was a little vague on, but when it was reframed as wanting-to-be-down-and-liked, it made all too much sense to me.

I think Kate Gale wants to be down and liked.***

4. having it all

I’ve known Kate for about a dozen years, and I count her as a casual friend. Ironically or not, Red Hen Press (which she co-founded and runs with her husband Mark Cull) probably has one of the more diverse rosters of authors out there. I’ve always been inspired by how much she does: In addition to running a press, she teaches, travels, raises kids (now grown), sits on panels, runs marathons, and writes and writes. She blogs almost every day. Or maybe every single day. I don’t know because I don’t even read as much as she writes.

I’ve also always been a little suspicious of the breadth of her endeavors. Maybe this is my envy talking, but for once I don’t think so. Can you really do all of that without a lot of cutting corners and/or semi-invisible help? Like so many arts organizations and nonprofits in general, Red Hen is largely powered by unpaid interns. And I think Kate would be the first to admit that she often writes her blog on planes or while watching movies in hotel rooms. I.e., she writes off-the-cuff and when she’s exhausted.

The blog’s raw, clever, loving-my-full-crazy-life tone is part of what I’ve always enjoyed about it; it’s what I like about her poetry too, although her poetry is much more distilled and thought-out. Poetry is the opposite of blog. As such, that particular blog post was a window into how many white people act when they let their guard down. They admit—just-between-us-white-folks-and-the-internet?—that they’re tired of the tiredness of people of color. Even if they don’t think they are.

Of course, when a white person gets tired and sloppy and slips up, the cost is hurt feelings and some internet yelling. When a person of color gets tired and sloppy and slips up, the cost is occasionally but too often life.

Spend five minutes around Kate and you will know that her daughter is gay and kinda militant about it; I think she’s been out since she was a young teenager. Kate shares this information like any proud mama, but I’ve always been uncomfortable with how quickly she volunteers it. Was she trying to ingratiate herself by showing how un-homophobic she was? She always gave off a bi vibe herself (30%!); was she flirting? No, that wasn’t it either. I think she just wanted to be part of an us, while also perhaps enjoying the perks of other identities.

She once told me a story about traveling to South America to bring home her nanny’s relatives, who were in some kind of danger. Kate Gale has always struck me as the kind of person who has a nanny, feels a little weird about having a nanny and will genuinely put her neck on the line for said nanny, but will then make sure you know about it.

What she isn’t: a textbook racist, uncaring, all talk.

What she also isn’t: someone who can be content doing just one or two things, a good listener.

5. the only bravery

How we act when we’re tired and stressed says a lot. Once, in the midst of a tearful phone call with my friend Amy—when she was pregnant with her twins and I had just been the subject of another birthmom disappearing act—I confessed, “I’m a really good winner. I can be so kind and generous when I don’t feel threatened. But right now I’m not the winner.”

In this moment, I feel like a winner. I have my family and my health; I’ve fought incredibly hard for both, but I also know that a huge, humbling part of my current good life is out of my control.

This past Tuesday night, I didn’t feel like a winner. I felt a little like I imagine Xochitl felt when she thought, upon realizing that the press that had accepted her work wasn’t going to serve her or her community well, I can’t have nice things. Because I had one nice thing (family), I was superstitious that I couldn’t have another (health).

This is what comes up when you Google-image-search "family health." I love it when we all watch Dad and Sis play pat-a-cake for hours!
I pulled into Dash’s daycare after work with teary red eyes. My Babadook was so fucking huge, just a terrible tank I was drowning in. I stepped into the heat and walked a hallway of waist-high cubbies with names written on cards: Ixchelle, Micah, Mia, Juliette, a half dozen Owens.

It hit me—all over again and also sort of for the first time—that I was trying to raise a baby and have a mental health crisis at the same time. Who the fuck did I think I was? I knew I had to choose my baby, and yet I also desperately wanted to be a baby, to just curl up in a fetal position and not have to witness other people living their nice lives while I proceeded to die of cancer.

Fr. Greg says kindness is the only bravery there is.

On Tuesday night that meant chatting with Dash’s daycare teachers and hugging him and feeding him and getting the both of us to Villa Sombrero and handing him and the keys to AK before my margarita-and-half-a-Klonopin cocktail kicked in. It was the only way I could be kind to both of us. It meant joining AK for a margarita rather than hounding her to parrot reassuring cancer statistics back at me.

I won’t pathologize Kate too much, but I know she has her demons, and I suspect they fuel her best actions—the true and good work she does to make sure that queer writers, writers of color and otherwise outsider writers are heard. She probably knows what it’s like not to be heard. But I bet those same demons mix dangerously with her privilege at times, and she gets too busy trying to have it all to recognize that the kinder, braver thing to do would be to pause and listen.

Xochitl in a great dress.
By walking away from Red Hen’s offer to publish her book, Xochitl is being brave by being kind to herself and to her community. It might not feel like an act of self-care in the moment, but every time a writer refuses to say “how high” when a publisher says “jump,” it serves us all.

*What? I don’t know how many people are on a baseball field. DON’T MAKE ME UNDERSTAND SPORTS.

**I say “first official” because, well, I did spend the first eighteen years of my life in Manhattan Beach.

***Isn’t that part of why I’m posting this post? To think things through, yes, but also because I want to distance myself from Kate on some level and therefore ingratiate myself to the writers of color I know and respect. Because it’s all about me, right?

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