This year’s Association of Writers and Writing Programs annual conference—held in Washington, D.C., at the Washington Convention Center and the Washington Marriott Marquis from February 8 to 11—was, unsurprisingly, a highly politicized event. There were protests, vigils, and marches, in addition to the usual panels about writing, literary publishing, and academics.
The book fair and main conference events began Thursday, February 9, though the snow that pummeled the Northeast caused delays for some participants and attendees. AWP director of conferences Christian Teresi said, however, that the effects of the snow were minimal.
Friday was the day that the first of several major protests took place during the conference. The Friday protest began with a march from the conference hotel to the Capitol building, where a rally planned by the poet D.A. Powell and the organization Write Our Democracy took place. At the Capitol, a number of speakers addressed the crowd, including Powell, who said, “This is a time when we need to be visible and make our voices heard with our legislators.” From there, some protestors went into the Capitol to meet with their elected representatives, a political action that had been in the works for weeks through a Facebook group called Writers Resist Trump. A spontaneous demonstration occurred on Friday morning, when attendees linked arms in a human chain around the convention center.
At the close of the meeting on Saturday night, the Washington, D.C.–based organization Split This Rock held a candlelight vigil in front of the White House. Split This Rock’s executive director, Sarah Browning, told the assembled crowd of more than 1,000 people, “This is a freedom of speech issue, a freedom of expression issue, this is a writers’ issue.”
With the Trump administration believed to be looking to cut funding for the National Endowment for the Arts—which provides funding to scores of publishers and writers attending the conference—a social media campaign, #ThankYouNEA, drew lots of support. The campaign was brought to the conference by Copper Canyon publicity director Kelly Forsythe, who took photographs of publishers and conference participants holding a whiteboard that featured messages for the NEA and shared them on Twitter.
The keynote speech on Thursday by Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, was a conference highlight, drawing a crowd of roughly 1,500 people. The author decried the censorship of artists in her native Iran and warned against looming tyranny in the U.S. under President Trump. A Friday-evening reading and conversation between writers Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Ta-Nehisi Coates, moderated by literary activist E. Ethelbert Miller, drew a crowd twice as large as the previous night’s.
This unprecedented political activity is unsurprising when 12,000 writers and educators—that’s AWP’s official count—descended on the U.S. Capitol less than a month into the tenure of a president who has attacked the media, enacted a controversial immigration restriction, and threatened the NEA.