A Reflection on ALA2017: Marginalized Voices

Why are so many men afraid of women’s voices? Maybe it’s not a conscious fear, or intentional silencing of voices, but it exists. For sure.

I attended an all women’s college for my BA in English (Russell Sage College) so I often take for granted when women’s voices are not silenced or spoken over. Perhaps I was spoiled by my all-women education, because I am always shocked when men privilege their own voices over women’s, and even more so when they don’t even seem to realize that they are doing it.

At this year’s American Literature Association conference, I chaired a panel on the shifting genre of science-fiction. I am not a science-fiction person; I swapped panels with someone else from my association as our schedules changed. The way the panel shook out, we had two women scholars (pretty anomalous) presenting on marginalized science fiction writers of color–Chang-rae Lee, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Junot Díaz. The presentations went well, and I can give you a run down from what I remember and from my notes if you’d like (shoot an email to andrea.laurencell@gmail.com and I’d be happy to share).  I was proud of the panel that I ultimately put together.

During the Q&A session I finally looked at the audience and realized that other than the three of us women at the front, the room was full of older white men, and a female postmodern scholar with whom I’d grown familiar, and whom I knew was familiar with being in male-dominated academic settings. Still, I refused to allow myself to jump to the conclusions that my mind was trying to make me jump to.  Surely they had the titles of the presentations, and surely they knew that this was not the typical science fiction panel.

Sigh.

The Q&A started out fairly standard, but the panel at the front soon grew unusually silent. The men in the audience started answering their own questions.  They asked questions that were not, in fact, questions, but comments that affirmed their own intelligence. As much as I tried to redirect conversation back to the front of the room, where the questions arguably should have been directed, I failed. Though I wanted to assert that we were there to hear about the research of the two very capable women at the front of the room, I also didn’t want to overcorrect and alienate the men in the audience (though I now realize that perhaps that wouldn’t have even been possible).  Even as I tried to wrap up and ask the presenters one final question, a man in the audience tried to overtake their answers and bring the topic around to gaming, not relevant to the type of science fiction in their presentations, and the presenters were left without the final word.

The woman postmodern scholar in the audience came up and told the women how much she enjoyed their presentations and how infuriated she was for them.  When I spoke to some men in the audience, they were excited and impressed by the robust discussion that followed the presentations. So I guess it’s all about perspective. Or maybe lack of perspective, in this case.

So what does this have to do with David Foster Wallace, this group, and this page?  I also attended (and presented in one of) the IDFWS (International David Foster Wallace Society) panels at the ALA. The audience, while still dominated by men, was more diverse in terms of gender and age.  I did not make more observation beyond that initial simple one because I was the first to present and decided to ignore the audience.  In the Wallace presentations, I did not feel that any voices were valued over others. Most of us in the room all felt that Mary Holland’s voice was valued over our own, but have a conversation with her and she’ll try to convince you otherwise.

The panels were balanced in terms of presenters’ academic experience and genders. The audience members, while still predominantly male, did not assert their self-importance in the way that the sci-fi audience members did. At no point did the audience dominate discussion. Of course, it’s always great when a presentation facilitates discussion rather than the formal Q&A, but never did the DFW panels ignore the presenters, nor the women, in the room.

The work of David Foster Wallace and the community that surrounds it (and other writers like him–though they’re not my concern here) are often criticized for being overwhelmingly male and white, and it is very male and white. To attempt to say otherwise would just be disingenuous.  But, at least based on what I saw at the ALA, the Wallace community does not silence women’s voices; it is not afraid to hear what women have to say. The Wallace community is currently looking for diverse voices to hear what we have to say about Wallace and his work.  Is there a feminism to Wallace? Is there any diversity to be found in Wallace? Can scholars and/or readers of color contribute to Wallace scholarship? I believe the answer to these questions is yes, and the Wallace community, in this forum and at events like the ALA and the upcoming DFW17 conference are evidence of that.

The panel that I chaired was disappointing in terms of seeing that there is still a mass silencing of women and marginalized voices–though it may be unintentional.  Even so, that does not make it any less sinister.  The subconscious silencing of women or other traditionally marginalized people shows that some men (or otherwise un-marginalized people) do not realize the privilege afforded to them. They do not realize the ease with which they speak over and silence the marginalized. Why is it so easy to land into “us” and “them” categories without even realizing it?

I’m proud to be part of a community that is actively aware of its current lack of diversity and sees it as a detriment.  I believe that the IDFWS’s consciousness of the dominance of white-maleness in the community is an asset to the group and to Wallace studies in general. While the American science fiction community is certainly larger than the Wallace community, it would certainly benefit from such self-awareness. Though I suppose it is only appropriate for a Wallace community to engage in some level of self-awareness.

The IDFWS Diversity Team will hold a roundtable conversation on how to increase diversity at DFW18. If you have any suggestions, questions, or comments, please feel free to contact us: diversity@dfwsociety.org.

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