I launched this contest to promote healing through sharing our stories and insights growing up in our racist, homophobic, xenophobic, America.
And yet, catharsis eluded us.
No Kumbaya moment. No self-congratulatory victory lap, now that all entries have been posted. Discord meandered into the playground, the term our beloved Peggy Dobbs once gave to our website. We have never had a more contentious contest. David Foster Wallace, paraphrasing one of his own mentors: “Good writing should disturb the comfortable, and comfort the disturbed.”
The website A Word with You Press, with embarrassingly few exceptions, does not even reach the disturbed, those most marginalized among us. Our demographics, as far as I can tell, includes few people of color, though perhaps a number proportionate to the society at large of those for whom gender is not an either/or proposition.
Though The Drinking Fountain may have failed to comfort the disturbed, it certainly disturbed the comfortable. Many in our tribe circled the wagons when their work or the work of others for whom they have developed affection over the years was aggressively, even brutally scrutinized. Shock without the awe. Historically A Word with You Press has been a fusillade-free zone, so I can understand the dismay of those who entered the playground for a turn on the swing set and felt ambushed.
So what happened? A gadfly, in the form of Sarah Akhtar.
I fielded several requests to either rein her in or even ban her from the site, or at least assert myself as referee. I made it clear that I would not intervene or come to anyone’s defense, and just provide the blackboard for either your art or graffiti. But I asked for it—literally. The contest is about dialog, not monologue. Sarah defies complacency, and it is complacency, among other dietary choices, upon which racism gorges itself. It does not matter if Ms Akhtar is right or wrong, and, quite honestly, I agree with almost all of her comments. What she lacks in diplomacy (some say good manners) she makes up for in authenticity. I found lots of room to disagree with her (I thought Miryam Meier’s final entry, for example, was poignant, sincere, and heart-felt, and I was sorry to see it degenerate into a recriminating political debate).
Ms Akhtar’s style is not mine, but certainly, as writers, advocates of free speech and free expression, we should tolerate and even encourage not only alternative points of view but alternative methods of delivery on our site. That does not discount, however, my personal disappoint that there was not a prevailing comity. Many inspired entries for The Drinking Fountain are from neither victims (pc: survivors) nor perpetrators, but good people who are horrified, incensed by what we have done to ourselves, and I am grateful to everyone who offered an entry and had something to say.
I will announce the five semifinalists Saturday morning left-side-of-the-pond time and provide a new prompt for them, and I will take that opportunity to propose solutions as we move forward.