This Report from the Field is a republication of Erica Mena-Landry’s personal blog post regarding the developing controversy regarding literary figure Ravi Shankar.
[A single-panel comic in which a brain with glasses on lifts up the bottom rope of a boxing ring, in which a heart with boxing gloves and a swollen eye and visible scrapes is lying. Brain says: “It’s not over, Heart. GET. UP.” Heart replies: “I will, just give me like five minutes.” By theAwkwardYeti.com]
This is a post I really didn’t want to have to write. I believe firmly in restorative justice, and the possibility for healing and recovery within a community, despite harm done. But I also believe in transparency and accountability, and that’s why I feel like I owe it to the community of writers and artists who have trusted me with their work and labor to explain what’s happened. It’s a long story, but it’s an important one for me to tell—to not let myself be silenced, and also in the hope that other people will be spared this abusive behavior.
When Ravi Shankar (then Executive Director and Editor, and the only one of four founding editors still involved) asked me to take over as Executive Director and Editor of Drunken Boat in 2015, I was hesitant. This was in part because of his history of fraud and criminal activity, and in part because of my own unpleasant experiences working with him previously as Managing Editor. But I was convinced by his guarantees that I’d have complete editorial and operational autonomy (see emails below), and my own belief in the amazing work done by the editors and contributors to the journal.
In November 2016, following a series of arrests for fraud, further criminal behavior, and public and private allegations of sexual assault and abuse, Ravi was asked to resign from the board.
Two days ago Ravi wrote to me (copying a lawyer) detailing his plans to sell Drunken Boat to a university (see below), and telling me I should take my staff and the infrastructure I built and start anew. (At that point he also shut down access to the Drunken Boat email, so if you have been trying to email anyone at Drunken Boat, their new email addresses are the same as the old ones but @anomalouspress.org.) So that’s what I’m going to do. Ravi is in violation of our contract and the organization’s bylaws, but I would rather use my energy to build something I believe in than fight for something that has always been seriously hindered by his presence (see emails below).
So, over the next few days, the current editorial staff and the journal, now called Anomaly, will move to its new home at www.anomalouspress.org! The archives will be available at www.anomalouspress.org/db, but what was known as Drunken Boat is hereby formally dissolved and will henceforth be Anomaly. As Ravi controls the URL, he might start a new project under the old name.
Anomalous Press, Anomaly, and all of us involved in their operations stand strongly against assault, stalking, abuse, and the unacknowledged theft of labor and art from anyone, but especially from people of color, women, and trans people. Anomalous Press remains committed to our readers, authors, community, and to one another. We especially remain committed to actively seeking out and promoting the work of marginalized and underrepresented artists, including especially people of color, women, queer, disabled, and gender-nonconforming artists.
My involvement with Drunken Boat actually begins at the end of 2013 when I applied to be the new Managing Editor. I spoke on the phone with Ravi Shankar, the editor, who enthusiastically hired me for this unpaid position. When I started, I found myself in the middle of a massive disaster. The journal was behind schedule, had no financial records or an operating budget, had regularly been “forgetting” to publish work that had been accepted, had no board, and communication among the staff was almost nonexistent. Three managing editors had joined and left within the previous year. It took me about 100 hours over the winter of 2013-2014 to get the late issue, DB18, out, and after that I built a new infrastructure, including a new website. In spring of 2014, I resigned my position at Drunken Boat after finishing the new website, hiring, and training my replacements. I left to become Managing Director of the American Literary Translators Association.
It was around this time that Ravi, still the Editor of Drunken Boat, a director on the board, and the Executive Director organization, started getting public attention for some alarming behavior. Friends still working at the journal brought to my attention reports of Ravi’s history of arrests and convictions in Connecticut starting in 2011 and continuing through 2015 (for credit card fraud, identity theft, and other things, “including two DUIs, operating with a suspended license, reckless driving over 85 mph, interfering with police, giving police false statements in a credit card fraud scheme and violating his probation.” (Source. Source. Source. Source. Source). I wish I had seen then that this was a clear pattern of behavior that was not isolated from his involvement in Drunken Boat.
On May 5, 2015, in the middle of the period of his multiple arrests in Connecticut for increasingly harmful behavior (culminating in an attempt to steal money from a Home Depot by “returning” stolen items, (source)), Ravi wrote and asked if I would consider taking over the organization as Editor and Executive Director. This seemed to indicate an understanding of accountability for his actions, and an intent to protect the organization built by so many hundreds of writers, so I responded saying that I was tempted, and asking for information about the job description, time commitment, and responsibilities.
On May 28, 2015 I wrote again to Ravi considering a possible relationship between ALTA and Drunken Boat. Ravi responded, saying “I have been thinking closely about our conversation and analyzing my own intentions here and I think I boiled down the number one priority for me, which is to pass on the editorial mantle to someone who could keep DB alive and thriving. That’s all I care about really and am glad to be in the background doing more development work to make that happen” (emphasis added). He also admits to writing a “disconsolate and very likely unkind email” about the woman who had replaced me as Managing Editor, which caused her to quit. I respond with a tentative plan for starting a transition of the staff and journal.
On June 3 he wrote again, asking me to “log in to the ME and AME inboxes and delete any messages [he] wrote that would prove jarring to someone new coming in.” I refused to do so. I see now that this was another indication of his irresponsible behavior, and his unwillingness to address the consequences of his harmful actions, instead trying to deny or erase them. He responded to the terms I’d laid out over the phone for the circumstances under which I’m willing to take over Drunken Boat. He wrote:
“As for your other proposal, I have been thinking about it long and hard, and as I said at root my only impulse is an altruistic one, to see DB thrive and reach the heights I long ago envisioned. I am fine with giving up all editorial control to you as Executive Director. Also, if you are willing to spearhead a fundraising campaign to fund the ME position and cover the Operating Expenses, you would have carte blanche to do so. I also think your suggestion to trim down the staff to a group of committed, dependable individuals makes a lot of sense and you have autonomy to build a core team around you.
As for my role, I envision being President of the Board, as discussed and concerned primarily with fund raising and development. I think I can actually talk more persuasively about the journal if I’m not running it. I know we have a couple of committed Board members but will try to get a group of 5 or 7. I think the Executive Director position should have a renewable 3 year term and we would have periodic Board meetings.
The few rights I will insist upon is the ability to suggest work to be considered for publication (final choice will rest with you) and folks to be CEs for folios…”
Ravi wrote to me again in an email dated July 2, 2015, reiterating the terms we’d negotiated on the phone for me taking over as Executive Director: I would have complete editorial control and he would assume the “long-term debt.” Note: I first learned about this debt when I was attempting to create an operating budget in 2014, and saw that there was a recurring monthly payment to a credit card of about $350 coming out of the DB operating expenses. I asked Ravi for details and he said it was servicing an old debt for Drunken Boat. I repeatedly asked for more information, to help try to consolidate or pay off the debt, but was never once been provided with any documentation about the debt, where it came from, who issued it, whose name it was taken out in, what the payment terms are, or even what it was taken for. Not even the original or current outstanding amount. Given Ravi’s history of fraud, I was unwilling to assume responsibility for Drunken Boat if this mysterious debt was attached to it. He agreed, in writing, that he would be personally responsible for the debt.
In the next email, dated August 14, 2015, Ravi apologized for not being in touch. The news of his latest arrests had just come to my attention. He wrote: “I do want to talk DB with you soon though, but in the meantime, if it’s ok with you, with the publication of DB#22, I’d like to pass the stewardship of the journal exclusively onto you. I still will plan to work on development and cultivating the board, but as far as running the journal goes, I’d like to give you carte blanche to make sure we continue to be awesome (emphasis added).”
I replied: “I’m worried that given recent news raising money might be more of a challenge with you officially tied to the financial stewardship of the organization, which is really the role of the board. So I think if we can talk about this in the next couple of days that would be really valuable in terms of me knowing whether or not I’ll actually be able to commit to making the journal a sustainable part of my long-term plans…”
He replied: “I will sadly cede the role of president of the Board to someone else, perhaps of our mutual choosing, though I will want to remain a Board member. I also can take the role on the Masthead of Founding Editor and recede behind the scenes while you run the ship. As we agreed, you’ll have full editorial control and final say in what goes in the journal. You’ll also have autonomy to pick the staff keeping in mind of our mandates for diversity and range. I will retain only the power of suggesting work and it will be up to the genre editor to decide whether to include it, but I will do that less and less frequently as time goes on; the one power I would like to retain though is the ability to plan one folio a year” (emphasis added).
I agreed to these terms in an email dated August 27, 2015, and we began planning the transition. I was appointed to the position of Executive Director and Editor by the Drunken Boat board on 10/18/2015, with no job description or term limit specified. In the same meeting, the board voted to replace Ravi as President because of the concerns about his arrests.
At this point, I start drafting an expanded mission statement, and a call for new staff. The mission statement I drafted reads:
Drunken Boat is an international journal of literature and the arts. We provide a platform for works of art that challenge conventions of form and format, of voice and genre.
Drunken Boat is committed to actively seeking out and promoting the work of marginalized and underrepresented artists, including especially people of color, women, queer, differently abled, and gender nonconforming artists. We recognize that, as Kazim Ali wrote brilliantly to Aimee Nezhukumatathil: “The notion of an unbiased concept “literary merit” is an inherently and inescapably racist principle. An institution that relies on it is by definition a white supremacist institution.” Drunken Boat recognizes that aesthetics are not neutral, and that difference tends to be marginalized.
Drunken Boat is committed to encouraging experimentation in the arts.
On December 3, 2015, Ravi wrote to me saying:
“Also just wanted to say that I really like the mission statement but also, as I’m sure you know, just remind you that part of what has made DB so successful is that we’ve always had one foot in the experimental fringes and at least one toe in the mainstream, which I hope we continue. Of course the editorial decisions are yours, but I don’t want us to become too marginalized nor too wrapped up in identity politics not to continue to publish the best literature irrespective of genre or aesthetic sensibility. Also, I think, to make a bad analogy, that our talented writers of color or queer writers would actually feel more empowered by being published alongside a Jonathan Franzen than being ghettoized with only other writers with similar interests to them. Anyway you get my drift but since we have always resisted categorization and hewing to any one narrow path, and been very successful that way, I’d like us to consider continuing on a similar trajectory. Of course I’m glad to provide a forum for those voices being ignored in the mainstream but it shakes the mainstream up even more to have those voices next to the ones they might celebrate…and also helps us with publicity, promotion, readership, etc. Anyway, this all might be obvious to you but just wanted to make a mention of it.”
The only thing I could ever say about Jonathan Franzen is to quote the brilliant Rebecca Solnit from her LitHub article 80 Books No Woman Should Ever Read: “Also, I understand that there is a writer named Jonathan Franzen, but I have not read him, except for his recurrent attacks on Jennifer Weiner in interviews.”
Franzen is the epitome of the kind of writer I would never publish. Jonathan Franzen, who said in an interview he had considered adopting an Iraqi orphan in order to, and I’m quoting, “figure out young people”. The Jonathan Franzen, who undermines the work of environmental and conservation groupslike the Audubon Society for no good reason just to be a dick. Franzen, who worried that being selected by Oprah would mean that not enough men would read his book and so refused (but is totally down with Chipotle’s endorsement??!!). Who then went on to write a book “about feminism” with the least complex and plausible women possible. Who represents everything about white male privilege that I work towards undoing with every project I undertake. Mainstream has nothing to do with it, he’s an offensive person with mediocre work and I’m not willing to even consider compromising my ethics to try to capitalize on his undeserved fame. My vision for Drunken Boat, and really for any project I’m invested in, is not to try to sneak a piece of the white-establishment pie, but to undermine the very premise of the system. I think the best way to do that is to actively seek out marginalized and disenfranchised voices, and change the possibilities for conversation in and about art and culture. I clearly feel very strongly about this, and doing uncompensated labor requires that level of commitment from me. But if that’s a problem, we should maybe talk a little more about that.
I would quote from his response to me, but I think it’s actually pretty revealing throughout, so I’m just going to put it below. But note especially how anything outside the white male POV gets denigrated as “a tyranny of identity politics.” And note that he’s in favor of “making diversity a part of our mission statement” only as something that helps us “grow our audience, and to arrive at that financial level where we can be eligible for a [sic] NEA grant…” This from someone who wrote (and not wrongly) mere days later in December 2015 of his multiple arrests, convictions, and jail time served that: “1) Justice is not color-blind: The most striking anecdotal fact of the five jail stints I did between May 2013 and July 2014 is that most of the faces around me were black or brown, Hispanic or African American. There were a smattering of white inmates and I was one of very few Asians. The disparity was glaring.”
By the beginning of 2016, I’d spent countless unpaid hours, and had fully re-staffed the journal. We were in production for the last issue under the former editorial staff (DB23), and starting editorial curation for our first issue as a new team (DB24). I was applying for grants, working towards paying our contributors, and eventually hoping to establish nominal compensation for the editors. In February of 2016, I was teaching at Harvard, and by May, I had left my job as Executive Director of ALTA and accepted a visiting lecturer position at Brown for the fall. I was invited to serve on the board of Frequency Writers, a phenomenal non-profit writing community in Providence, and had already started building relationships with the folks at AS220, with whom I did an incredible arts-management residency called Practice / Practice in March of 2016. I was so excited to bring Drunken Boat, and Anomalous Press, to Providence.
In March 2016 the new Drunken Boat board was constituted by Ravi, though not in accordance with the by-laws. Rather, it was done by invitation of Ravi, with no election held, because there was no board to hold an election, Ravi having held the only consistent board position for years. The new board got started on their responsibilities, including setting a job description for the Executive Director, outlining the formal agreement between Anomalous Press (my chapbook press and journal) and Drunken Boat, updating bylaws, fine-tuning the mission statement, as well as starting to consider fundraising. But then things hit a bump. The first meeting of the new board was scheduled for June, and on the agenda for board approval was a job description and performance review for the Executive Director, an updated bylaws, a formalized agreement between my Anomalous Press and Drunken Boat, and a formalized set of board member commitments. The meeting never took place. Shortly after the meeting had been scheduled to happen, the new president of the board resigned. In September, a meeting of the board did take place with the new president, which I attended, but there was no formal action taken on any of the June agenda items.
In October, poet and professor Annie Finch publicly named Ravi as one of the people who has sexually assaulted her during her time in the poetry community. This was part of a still-ongoing conversation about sexism and sexual assault in the poetry community, in which many women and femme people have been coming forward about their experiences of misogyny, harassment, and assault at conferences, readings, in classrooms, at job interviews, etc. This has been made possible in large part thanks to the work of VIDA and organizations that support women and femme people in the writing community. I reached out to Annie to talk about how we could support her, and she put me in touch with two other women who felt (and still feel) unsafe coming forward about Ravi’s behavior toward them, but who were willing to share the details of their experiences with me privately. Let me only say that these women’s descriptions of abusive behavior were extremely similar, consistent with Ravi’s arrest record, and deeply upsetting.
The public fallout from Annie’s post included Ravi “apologizing” and demanding that Annie publish his “apology” on her blog, then subsequently demanding she take it down after he received criticism for it, and Ravi thereafter created a number of sock-puppet accounts to harass her on her blog. The sock puppet trick was revealed as something he’s done frequently. For example, in November 2016, Ravi emailed me and the Drunken Boat board pretending to be other people with (clearly) fake email addresses trying to get in touch with him when his email access was down due to a hacking attempt. In October of 2016, he made up a fake identity as student “Natasha Dontrelle” at Central Connecticut State University (his former employer) and sent the administration and local Rhode Island press an email accusing his old department of racism. (No such student ever existed.)
On November 1, 2016, the Drunken Boat board unanimously asked Ravi to resign by email (see DB minutes 11.1.16_Redacted for this email, and Ravi’s responses). Ravi refused unless there was an “offer to buy me out… Else, the DB Board should be disbanded and Erica released from her duties as Executive Director.” In a second email, he suggested that he will step down for one year and rejoin the board on 1/1/2018. In a third email, on 11/3/2016, he suggested that he be paid an annual percentage of Drunken Boat’s gross operating revenues in perpetuity to step down. Considering that he was able to extort money in exchange for resigning from Central Connecticut State University following his arrests, this demanding money from Drunken Boat was clearly part of his pattern of behavior.
In Ravi’s responses, he clearly considers Drunken Boat to be his sole property—despite being one of four founding editors, one of hundreds of people who devoted uncompensated time and labor, as well as financial support to the organization, and despite Drunken Boat being legally incorporated as a non-profit corporation and not a sole proprietorship. The president of the Drunken Boat board called the Secretary of State for NY (where Drunken Boat was incorporated) to find out what the board’s options and liabilities were.
On November 9th one board member resigned, and on November 12th, the remaining two board members resigned. Following the resignation of the board, Ravi wrote to the now-former board and me (see: Gmail – Dissolution of Drunken Boat_Redacted.PDF):
“I want to thank you all for the care and service you provided to a small magazine created in 1999 that has grown wildly beyond anything I could have ever imagined. Through its many shapes and iterations, it has continued to be a bastion of artistic and literary excellence, of diverse international voices, augmented by the publication of books and the performance of live events. However it is with a heavy heart that I must report that this era has run its course and that Drunken Boat needs to cease operations by Dec. 31st, 2017. Hopefully having a little more than a year will allow for all ongoing projects to be finished and for this closure to happen with a minimum of harm and disruption to the dedicated staff and contributors. In this time, no substantive changes to the incorporation and organizational status shall be made without prior approval and any money on Drunken Boat’s books need to be spent by this date, else be returned to the grantor. No fund-raising or project planning beyond this date will be sanctioned and a transference of all requisite information related to the hosting and maintenance of the site shall be made by this time. Drunken Boat will remain online beyond 2017 but will cease active operations. Thank you again for all your hard work on behalf of the magazine.”
The only conclusion I could draw from this was that Ravi would rather shut down the whole organization than be held accountable for his harmful behavior and simply resign. I checked in with some of the editors on staff, and at AWP, to see if there was enough support for us to try to continue our work, and was incredibly heartened by the response. People at AWP were so excited about the work that our new staff had just put out in DB24, many saying it was the best issue of the journal yet.
So on returning from AWP, I wrote to Ravi and scheduled a meeting to talk about whether there was a future for Drunken Boat. Ravi sent me an email in advance of the meeting laying out what he wanted us to discuss (Drunken Boat Mail – Notes towards a Meeting_Redacted.PDF). At this point, I consulted with a lawyer to find out what my liabilities were, and what our options were for moving forward.
After we talked, I felt optimistic that I was going to be able to save the organization. I recruited a new board, making sure they were fully aware of everything that had happened up to this point, and what would be expected of them in the next year. At this point, I’d invested hundreds of hours of unpaid labor over almost four years into turning an organizational mess into a high-functioning literary community, and I felt deeply indebted to the artists, writers, and editors who had given their labor, time, and their amazing work.
In March right after meeting with Ravi, the Drunken Boat website was hacked. The lawyer I’d consulted also reported that he’d discovered that Ravi had just then filed to trademark the phrase “Drunken Boat” under his individual name on January 24, 2017, after the board had disbanded and after he had declared his intent to dissolve the organization. Our web developer and one of the new board members were able, after four days, to restore access to the site, and start “cleaning up” the archives (issues 1-17 had not been securely protected and were infested with phishing software). The money for this came out of the grant I’d successfully written in 2016. We did our best to ensure that the site was secure. Amazingly, given his past, it didn’t occur to me that the person we needed to secure it from was Ravi himself.
Three days ago, I was alerted by our web hosting company that someone had attempted to change the password on our account. I asked our board member/tech support person to look into it. Everything seemed secure, and we reset the passwords just in case. The next day, I got an email from the hosting company telling me that I had been removed as the primary contact for the domain drunkenboat.com. After many phone calls, we were able to determine that Ravi had made himself the primary contact, which he was able to do because he’d originally set up the hosting with that company in 2013. There was nothing they could do except refund the nearly $800 I’d paid out of our operations account in March for hosting and to secure the site.
I emailed Ravi, who did not respond. I called him twice, and he did not respond. The next day he replied to my first email, the one I wrote before I knew it was him who’d shut down the site (Gmail – Another Hack__Redacted). Note that he copied a lawyer here, the same lawyer that filed the trademark registration paperwork, indicating that, despite being in violation of our contracts and the organization’s bylaws, he intended to sell Drunken Boat to a university (along with the infrastructure I built) without my consent or involvement.
I wrote to the staff, telling them in broad strokes what had happened. They unanimously elected to continue our work together under the auspices of Anomalous Press; we renamed the journal Anomaly.
In some ways, this has all come as a relief; I’m pretty tired of trying to deal with the mess Ravi made (and continues to make). I also know that I’m not the first woman or femme person working with him who he’s treated this way (or much, much worse), and I know that some of those people don’t feel safe speaking publicly about their experiences. In October 2016, multiple former Drunken Boat editors had reached out to me to share their stories of being taken advantage of by Ravi. I honor their experiences, and their privacy. I fully expect that Ravi will retaliate against me for writing this, but to protect my own sense of self, strength, and safety (especially since he now lives in Providence, where I live, and which is a very small community) I will not be silent about my experiences.
One of the things that’s especially hard with this kind of manipulative behavior is that victims (me, in this case, and the other people impacted by Ravi’s behavior) are made to feel as though they brought this on themselves. We should have seen it coming, or we should have been smarter and gotten out sooner, or we must have done something to “deserve” it. Manipulators like Ravi reinforce that socialization and guilt by re-writing the facts to suit a narrative in which they are both the victim and the hero. For me, refusing that narrative by documenting these facts here is an important part of the healing process.
I think it’s especially telling that in the final email (Gmail – Another Hack__Redacted) he details a number of reasons why the board resigned, none of which have to do with the actual documented sequence of events and the letters of resignation from the 2016 board above. It’s not worth my time to go point by point refuting his claims (though I could, because I have documentation regarding each), but I think it’s worth pointing out that he states explicitly: “When Drunken Boat was founded in 1999, it was meant to be apolitical space dedicated to the egalitarian distribution of arts and was also meant to cater to work that is digitally born and manifest. Over the years, the mission has migrated somewhat, but the journal was never meant to be used as a tool in the fight against white supremacy or cisgendered authorship or inequal representation in the literary world” (my emphasis).
But if you’re not fighting against white supremacy, then you are working for it. There is no such thing as an apolitical space in the arts, and certainly not if one is “dedicated to the egalitarian distribution of arts,” since the arts have been historically dominated by straight, cis, able-bodied, white men. Without taking into account the skewed distribution of institutional access to art, no egalitarian approach is possible.
He further wrote: “When I asked you if you would help run the magazine, I told you could have editorial autonomy and that I would take on Drunken Boat’s longterm debt but unfortunately, I was mistaken about my ability to service that debt. It’s simply untenable for me to continue to make those payments, not when I have two children who I have to help clothe and feed, and particularly when I no longer have a say in the editorial direction of the magazine. This is part of why I’ve been pursuing strategic alternatives and will continue to do so. Obviously whatever institution takes on the magazine will have an investment in staffing the journal themselves. If in fact, DB stays independent, the roles of EditorinChief and Executive Director would be held by separate people and obviously that person would not also have a role on the Board as that is clear conflict of interest. The Executive Director would report to the Board, not be on it” (emphasis added).
Here he admits that instead of re-negotiating the contract he agreed to, he’s merely violating it. In our in-person meeting, I said I would be willing to discuss the debt, but would need to be provided all pertinent documentation regarding it. And instead of doing that and continuing negotiations, he’s breaching our contracts. He also says that my role on the board is a conflict of interest, despite the fact that, for the entirety of my time with the journal, he held a seat on the board, as well as being both the Editor and Executive Director. Apparently, it’s only a conflict when it’s not him in those roles.
His attempts at gaslighting, re-writing of the facts—documented by our email correspondence—and categorical refusal to take responsibility for his actions is clearly harmful behavior. I’m fortunate that I have significant community and familial resources, including legal representation, that protect me (to some degree) from the harm and allow me to speak publicly about this behavior. I hope that community healing can begin with this act of witnessing, and I am grateful for the community that supports me through that act.
ERICA MENA-LANDRY is a Puerto Rican poet, translator, and book artist. She holds an MFA in poetry from Brown University, and an MFA in literary translation from the University of Iowa. Her book Featherbone (Ricochet Editions, 2015) won a 2016 Hoffer First Horizons Award. Her translation of the Argentine graphic novel The Eternaut by H.G. Oesterheld and F. Solano Lopez (Fantagraphics, 2015) won a 2016 Eisner Award. She is the editor in chief and executive director of Anomalous Press and teaches at Brown University.
This post originally appeared on Erica Mena-Landry’s personal website, and has been reprinted with permission.