This weekend I joined a group of other writers–some of them fellow WVU MFA students, but most of them simply writers from around the country–at the West Virginia Writers’ Workshop. It’s always a wonderful (and humbling) experience to get to see so much talent in one place, and it’s a real honor to participate in the work of other people as part of the workshop process.
That said, it is not always easy.
A well-meaning, myopic woman gave us an essay about a simple trip to the local courthouse that became an Odyssey into parts of town she rarely visits. A wrong turn leads her into an economically depressed area, where she sees an unconscious woman tossed from a car into the road but–seeing the woman eventually rise and stumble into the neighborhood–does not call 911 or offer any assistance. She asks directions from the Hispanic folk who live in this part of town and is a little put out that “no one speaks English any more.” She finally makes it to the courthouse, and she recounts for us a long anecdote shared by another woman waiting for her hearing… and, in order to catch the “flavor” of this woman, she writes in a very Joel Chandler Harris sort of high dialect, all “axe” for ask and “dem” for them. The anecdote eventually winds its way around to why the woman is in the courthouse; by the end of the essay, she is going to jail for a few years. All of this, the author wants us to know, is very funny.
Only, of course, it’s not funny.
This woman is not a bigot, although there can be no doubt at all that she is a racist. (We tried to explain the difference, but I think by that point she’d gone past listening.) There wasn’t any malice in her writing, only a world-view so myopic that it is impossible to imagine her functioning in the day-to-day world.
We tried, as a group, to be respectful without giving up the point. She felt attacked, that was clear. We were surprised when she continued to show up for the workshop, but she did, and I suppose that was brave.
But the young black woman who was also a participant, the one who said that this was the one piece she didn’t have time to read and so did not want to comment, did not return for the final session. Maybe she had other things to do. Or maybe she could see that, any minute, this woman was going to turn to her and say, “You don’t think I’m racist, do you?” and just didn’t want to be put in the position of mouth-piece. Either way, it was a damned shame. We never got to review her piece, and it was a good piece, too. One that we could have talked about for a long time, and that had a strong voice and a story to tell that had truths in it. One that I hope she’ll tell again to people who will be better ready to listen to it.