Given the current political climate, the Winter Institute that just ended in Minneapolis was like none other. With demonstrations going on simultaneously at cities around the country, booksellers felt a sense of urgency, not witnessed in previous years, about their role in changing times. For many, Roxane Gay’s opening keynote, which called on booksellers to stop talking about diversity and do something and to step up their role in providing sanctuary, set the tone for one of the most political and energizing bookseller gatherings in recent memory. Below is the full text of her talk.
When I received the invitation to speak at Winter Institute, I knew, even before I got the details, that I would be asked to talk about diversity in some form or fashion. This is the state of most industries, and particularly contemporary publishing. People of color are not asked about our areas of expertise as if the only thing we are allowed to be experts on is our marginalization. We are asked about how white people can do better and feel better about diversity or the lack thereof. We are asked to offer “good” white people who “mean well,” absolution from the ills of racism.
The word diversity has as of late become so overused as to be meaningless. In a 2015 article for The New York Times Magazine, Anna Holmes wrote about the dilution of the word diversity, attributing its loss of meaning to “a combination of overuse, imprecision, inertia, and self-serving intentions.”
The word diversity is, in its most imprecise uses, a placeholder for issues of inclusion, recruitment, retention and representation. Diversity is a problem, seemingly without solutions. We talk about it and talk about it and talk about it and nothing much ever seems to change. And here we are today, talking about diversity yet again.
I am so very tired of talking about diversity.
Publishing has a diversity problem. This problem extends to absolutely every area of the industry. I mean, look at this room, where I can literally count the number of people of color among some 700 booksellers. There are not enough writers of color being published. When our books are published, we fight, even more than white writers, for publicity and reviews. People of color are underrepresented editorially, in book marketing, publicity, and as literary agents. People of color are underrepresented in bookselling. On and on it goes.
And, of course, it’s not as if there are no people of color who are eminently capable of participating in publishing. We are many but somehow, publishing can’t seem to find us unless we do the work of three or four writers and catch a few lucky breaks. This inability for publishing to find people of color is one of the great unsolved mysteries of our time, I suppose.
Instead of problem-solving, we count as a means of highlighting just how underrepresented people of color are, in all area of publishing, and how very little changes. People of color offer testimony about their experiences in publishing and are dismissed, more often than not. Or, the few of us who do manage to break through are touted as examples of progress while we are still the exceptions and not the rule. And then, the writers who come up after us are told that there’s no room for them. I can’t tell you how many black women have written me to tell me that their essay collection was rejected by an editor because, “Publishing already has a Roxane Gay.” Those of us that break through are, to some, interchangeable tokens, trotted out as examples of progress when, in fact, that progress is mostly an illusion.
When our stories are heard, they are generally forgotten until of course, there is a hand-wringing article to be written or there is a panel to be convened or there is a conference to be gathered. Then, people of color, myself included, are invited to talk to and teach white people about things that are, largely pretty easy to figure out. We are asked for solutions to problems we had no hand in creating. Though we are writers, we are asked to become experts on diversity which is, in fact, a specialized field of its own. More often than not, we are asked to provide this labor without compensation. We are asked to provide this labor while neglecting our own creative work for some ephemeral greater white good. Let me tell you-- it’s a pretty bitter pill to swallow.
Last year, I decided I was done sitting on panels about diversity. I am done having the same conversations over and over while very little changes. People don’t really want to hear about diversity and inclusion. They don’t want to do what it takes—the investment of actual money, for a sustained period of time, to change the make-up of this industry. Instead, most people seem to want to feel better about themselves by making a few symbolic gestures and letting those symbolic gestures be enough because hey, at least they tried—a panel discussion here, a fellowship there, change, nowhere to be found. Herein lies the inertia, the self-serving intentions.
First and foremost, I am a writer. I’ve been writing since I was four years old. Back then, I would draw pictures of villages on napkins and then write stories about the people in those villages. I loved how I could make up anything I wanted. There were no limits or rules beyond the borders of my imagination. My parents saw me writing these little stories and got me my first typewriter and that’s when my love of writing really exploded.
I was also a reader and it was reading that allowed the borders of my imagination to expand. It was reading that stoked my ambition to write bigger and better stories. The first bookstore I visited was the Little Professor Bookstore in Omaha, Nebraska where I grew up. My mom, who is a voracious reader in her own right, wanted to supplement the education my brothers and I were receiving in school (a very Haitian mother thing to do) so she took us to the Little Professor for textbooks with which to further our education and storybooks for us to read.
I loved going to the Little Professor because I knew I was always going to find something new for my imagination to devour. Every weekend, my mom also took us to the library where I took it as something of a personal challenge when I learned that I could borrow all the books I wanted. My parents didn’t monitor my reading, so I read well beyond what was age-appropriate. The borders of my imagination continued to expand in thrilling ways.
As I got older and received a weekly allowance, books were all I spent my money on. We lived in the suburbs so when I aged out of The Little Professor, the bookstores I had access to were B. Dalton and Waldenbooks in the mall. I loved how many books there were in these stores, the smell of them, how even though I had to buy a book if I wanted to take it home with me, I could sit in the store and read while my mom shopped in other stores. It was at these stores that I bought The Girls of Canby Hall and The Babysitters Club and The Boxcar Children and Sweet Valley High. Clearly, I loved taking in my fiction episodically.
As I grew older, I continued to frequent bookstores—both independent and the bigger stores like Borders, Barnes & Noble, Books a Million. I continued to be charmed by booksellers who were always so patient when I was younger and then as I grew up, helpful and interested in showing me, by introducing me to all manner of books, that there need not be any borders to my imagination, at all.
Throughout my life books have been my best friends. In bookstores and with books I have been able to forget the cruelties of the world. I have been able to shield myself when I needed safety. I have been able to find solace and joy. I have been able to find sanctuary—a consecrated place, a place of refuge and protection.
I have been thinking a lot about sanctuary lately during this rising age of American disgrace. I have been thinking about how I have long believed that to write as a woman and to write as a black woman is political and that words are my sanctuary and more than ever, I need refuge.
On Tuesday, November 8th, 2016, Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. I spent the evening watching election returns and with each passing hour, the hope of Hillary Clinton as our first woman president faded a little more. But I still held on to hope because that was much easier than facing reality. I do not think of myself as an idealist but I did not allow myself to believe Trump could be elected. I didn’t even think he could garner the Republican nomination. For some foolish reason, I believed that there were enough people, across the country, who believed in social progress and the greater good, to overcome those who, for whatever reason, believed in Trump’s harmful rhetoric.
I was stunned. I was ashamed of being so stunned, so unprepared to face this American reality.
The morning after the election, my mother called and I ignored my phone. I knew she was calling to check in on me. I knew she was worried because we had spoken throughout election night and I was taking it hard. A few minutes later, she texted me, “The sun is shining today and we are alive, still together, and definitely stronger. Wake up.”
I didn’t want to wake up. I still don’t. But.
I had to leave my home on November 9th because life goes on, even when we don’t want it to. I had to run errands. That evening, I had a comic book signing at Von’s, the local bookstore in West Lafayette. Because I live in Indiana, a state that voted for Trump enthusiastically, I knew there was little sanctuary to be found. It was hard to leave my home.
I went about my day. There were media interviews, even though I had no idea what to say, no way of making sense of the incomprehensible. What do we do next? I was asked and what I wanted to say was, “I have no fucking idea.” I couldn’t because you’re not allowed to curse on the radio.
While I was running errands, the sun was indeed shining. The air was crisp, a perfect fall day. Other people were also out and about, living their lives. At my gym, everyone bantered as they usually do. The woman who works at the dry cleaner smiled and wished me a good day, as she usually does and I wished her a good day back as I usually do. Life was going on, or at least it seemed that way. I kept wanting to scream, “Don’t you know what’s going on?” And at the same time, I looked at each and every person and thought, “You probably voted for Donald Trump. How could you? Do you have any idea what you have done?”
All that day, I thought about language and how careless we had gotten with language throughout the election. The phrase, “love trumps hate,” was particularly loathsome because that is, in fact, rarely the case and in saying that over and over, people were literally centering Trump. The election results proved that love does not trump hate, not at all. As catchy as it sounds, I am not a nasty woman because there is no reclamation in how Trump sees women. Pantsuits are a charming, fashionable rallying outfit but they will not get us to the promised land.
I also hated the phrase, “They go low, we go high,” and how people parrot these words with no understanding of the world and how it really works. Too many people were and are invested in the idea of purity and infallibility. They did not seem to realize there can be no purity in fighting everything Donald Trump represents. There is no high road with a man who appointed a man like Bannon as the White House chief strategist and who is cavalier about sexual assault and who is hell bent on building a wall along this country’s Southern border and who has signed an executive order to, essentially, ban Muslims from coming to this country.
Language matters and sometimes, like the word diversity, it becomes an empty container for whatever people want to fill it with. Go high. Trump hate. Be nasty. Wear a pantsuit. I don’t begrudge people finding comfort or solidarity in these words and ideas, but goddamn. We needed to do better then and we need to do better now. We need to get uncomfortable and that means moving beyond tidy words that make us feel like the world is a better, more unified and inclusive place than it is.
I am a black bisexual woman. I am Haitian American. I am a Libra. I grew up middle-class and then upper middle class. I am fat. My identity is political because so much of who I am is part of the public discourse, subject to legislation, subject to discrimination and disadvantage. Clearly, this is not the entirety of my life and who I am. Don’t get me wrong—I’ve got it pretty good. In fact, the work I do, it isn’t for me, really. It’s for the people who don’t have the privileges I do, who need someone to stand and speak and fight for them, with them. I am trying, with my writing and activism, to offer sanctuary.
Which brings me back to books and bookstores, such consecrated places. The day after the election I was in a bookstore, surrounded by people who love books and who were as distraught about the election as I was. I was surrounded by strangers who were not quite strangers because we shared a love of reading. To feel like part of a community, even for an hour on that dark day, offered some measure of comfort and a smaller but much- needed measure of hope. Together, we found refuge.
Bookstores have always been important community spaces but in the coming years, they will be more important, more necessary than ever. Books will be more important than ever as writers use words to hold this new administration accountable, to bear witness, to remember and remind us of history and to document the ways in which history is being repeated.
As such, it is imperative that bookstores, these community spaces, are more inclusive and that booksellers do their part to ensure this inclusivity.
Ten days ago I did a reading at the wonderful Skylight Books in Los Angeles and later that night a Latina woman sent me a message on Facebook. She asked, “Is it amazing or surprising to have a majority of white women in the audience tonight?” And I thought “No, it isn’t amazing,” because there was nothing remarkable about the demographics of that audience. I travel to bookstores all over this country and there are always handfuls of people of color, far more than most writers get no doubt, but a majority of white women and the men they bring along. The majority of the booksellers at these stores are white people and rarely does anyone bring this up.
Publishing has a diversity problem and so do the bookstores that work within the publishing ecosystem. Book people are good people but we are not immune from the ways of the world.
I was asked to talk about this diversity issue, and to suggest solutions but I am just a writer. I don’t have access to secret magical Negro wisdom that white people aren’t privy to. What I do know is that today, tomorrow, and for the foreseeable future, everything we do is political as readers, as writers, as booksellers, as people.
We no longer have time for allies and allyship. We cannot afford to allow ourselves the comfortable distance of allyship. The challenges the underrepresented, marginalized and vulnerable face, have to be challenges we are all willing to take on too. Everything is now political and we have a responsibility to make the political personal. We have to fight for and with each other.
As booksellers, the work ahead of you know is to ensure that your stores are places of refuge for everyone who needs sanctuary.
I’ll give you an example. When I visited the Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee in 2014, for my novel An Untamed State, the owner Daniel told me how he did outreach to local black organizations, and that he often did this when black writers came to his store. Sure enough, several black women were in attendance. I’ve never forgotten that, how Daniel took the initiative to broaden the community welcomed into his store. He did not allow himself comfortable distance. He afforded me the quiet joy of seeing some people who look like me in the audience. He afforded me sanctuary.
I was originally going to offer some advice on how booksellers can diversify their store communities and encourage book buyers to read more diversely. I came up with a list of things like learning from stores like Eso Won Books in Los Angeles or Source Books in Detroit—black-owned bookstores that foster strong black communities of readers. I was going to talk about doing outreach into communities of color and making sure that books by people of color are not just in segregated sections but throughout the store. I was going to discuss the importance of booksellers being vigorous in handselling books by writers of color and finding ways to sell such books not just to readers of color but white readers as well. I was going to talk about the physical spaces of many independent bookstores and how inhospitable they are to people with disabilities, because inclusion is not just about race and ethnicity. The list goes on.
But really, you don’t need me to tell you these things. I am not going to give you the answers you seek or provide absolution or do the work that you are eminently capable of doing. You’re smart, passionate book people. You can forego the distance of needing to be taught what you can learn through trial and error. You can figure out how to be more inclusive in all ways. You can get political. You can get uncomfortable. You can remember that you are not just selling books. You are providing sanctuary. You are the stewards of sacred spaces. Rise to the occasion. Rise.