AWP Part Six: Escape


Olvera street
Olvera Street, finally


Saturday was the last day of the conference,  and we had a plan:  

  1. Our friend Ariel’s panel. 
  2. One other panel.
  3. Try again to get to Olvera street. Don’t get lost and don’t trust Google. 

After that, I’d be flying home in the evening. Michelle was staying for several extremely fabulous-sounding rock-and-roll events. 

We got up early, looked through the schedule. 

“What happened to the keynote?” we wondered. Didn’t a conference usually have a keynote? It wasn’t in our chart of panels, but we found it in the giant schedule: Thursday night at 8pm. Claudia Rankine, author of Citizen: An American Lyric, the prose-poem discussion of racism that won a zillion awards and was at the top of every must-read list for 2014. Claudia Rankine who had famously departed from her planned reading at an AWP conference a few years earlier to instead read a scathing critique of a racist poem (I only learned that part later when I googled “What happened at Claudia Rankine’s AWP keynote?”). Basically, it was guaranteed to be an awesome, or at the very least, interesting talk. 

But we’d missed it. 

“What were we even doing Thursday night?” we asked each other. It was hard to remember, because every day at AWP feels like about four days. 

Whatever we’d been doing, it was too late, because the keynote had happened without us and there was no going back. So we ate the last of the instant oatmeal and apples we’d brought for breakfasts in the hotel, checked out of the hotel (Michelle would be staying with friends for the last night) and went to Ariel’s 9am panel. 

It was about motherhood and writing. I never would have gone to this panel if it weren’t for the people on it. I’m not a mother, I don’t intend on being a mother. I do know some things about mothers. I have a mother, and a lot of my friends are mothers. Also, two of the people who have been most supportive of my writing are the creators of the magazines Hip Mama and Rad Dad, so I read a lot about mothers and fathers. AWP had at least two panels about mothers and no panels about fathers, incidentally. Anyway, I went to the mother panel. 

It was good! It had to be good, though, so it wasn’t too surprising. Our friend the amazing Ariel Gore was on it, and Michelle Tea, and they have nothing to say that’s not interesting. Ariel talked about parenting and writing and how she couldn’t separate the two because she’d been a writer and a parent her entire adult life, which kind of blew my mind. 

When Michelle Tea talked, I though about how much I loved her book Rent Girl and how I lent it to somebody who then claimed I never lent it to him and how I wish I had it right now so she could sign it. Also Kate Schatz was on the panel. She wrote the book Rad Women A-Z, which is an very cool illustrated list of 26 radical women. She talked about how some people were mad that she included Kate Bornstein in the book because Kate Bornstein is trans and  identifies neither female nor male. Then I thought about how insanely awesome Kate Bornstein is and how could anyone possibly want to exclude Kate Bornstein from anything? 

I tried to think about what they said about motherhood at least a little. I do remember they said it’s okay to write about your kids, that they’ll forgive you. 

We had time for one last panel before our exciting touristy lunch plans. I had chosen the one I wanted last night, and it sounded so good, Michelle decided to go to it, too. 

It was AMAZING. It was the panel I wish every panel was. I especially wished every boring academic panel at every pointless academic conference of my (research-university) youth had been this panel instead. 

It was on African-American writing and the effect of the white gaze. The panel started with an academic style talk on the historical relationship between black authors and white audiences, whether authors had written for an African American readership or a white one. The other speakers discussed the topic from their perspective as writers and poets, reading parts of their work that reflected the issues they were discussing. It was so, so cool. 

There were questions from the audience, mostly good, answered well, and then the weirdest audience question I’d ever seen. A light-skinned African-American man in a sweater-vest raised his hand and asked about black people who wanted to be white. In a voice that sounded like every impression of a white man Dave Chappelle ever did, he explained that he just so happened to be writing a novel on this very subject: a black man who wished to be white, who lived in the white neighborhood, drove the BMW, played golf. I’m sure you know the type, said the black guy who sounded like Dave Chappelle pretending to be a white guy. He told us the plot of his book, the title, was just about to tell us the URL where we could buy it, just in case we were interested, when a woman in front of me and Michelle turned towards him and said, “Sir, what is your question?” 

“Yes, sure,” he said. His question was something like, “So has anyone on the panel ever heard of that kind of thing?” 

No one on the panel had heard of that kind of thing, but one lady very politely acknowledged that it would be a very sad state of affairs to want to be someone other than yourself. 

The man gave her a Dave Chapelle thank you and sat down, and then the awesome panel was over. 

Now was our time to escape! We hadn’t made it to Olvera street yesterday, so now we would do it the right way: call a cab. But we didn’t even have to call a cab, because Ariel’s daughter lives in Los Angeles, so she picked us up and took us all there.

Olvera street was incredible, like Disney Tijuana. Cobblestone streets packed with vendor carts, tons of skull jewelry and tooled leather and embroidered peasant dresses. Some really good-looking churros. Michelle said it was just how she remembered from childhood, when she used to visit, the historic oldest neighborhood in Los Angeles. We got a giant tex-Mex meal, a bunch of margaritas for people who like margaritas (not me), ate until we were really, really full. I had fish tacos, and my plate had enough food for two meals, but it was ninety degrees out and I wasn’t going to be dragging leftover tacos all over LA so I had to eat them all. 

Then we went in a candle store that kind of made me think of Haight Street, bought a scarf and bracelets for our friend Lisbeth who had been hoping to come to the conference but couldn’t at the last minute, and headed back to the car. 

I had to catch an evening flight, so I went back to the hotel, where my suitcase was waiting. I sat in the lobby, drank tea and worked, tried to find a place where the excessively polite hotel staff wouldn’t ask me every five minutes if I wanted some water or a food menu. I closed my eyes, listened to the fountains that gushed through all parts of the lobby (this was the lake district of the city-with-a-city, or perhaps the water park), pretended to work until it was time to go.

I waited outside the hotel for an hour for my scheduled shuttle, called the shuttle company three times, got hung up on twice. Finally I jumped in a cab to LAX, and me and my ten novel synopsises were on our way home. I’ll probably never go back, so that was it: AWP. A good story–trepidation, heartache, betrayal, redemption. The end. 

<Part 6





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