Report From the Field: Getting Along Shouldn’t Be an Ambition
This summer, I attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference as a workstudy student, meaning I received a tuition scholarship in exchange for serving as a waiter in the dining room during the ten-day conference. When I try to explain the workstudy program to non-writer friends who’ve never heard of Bread Loaf, the most common reaction is confusion. “What? Why?” they ask. “You served the food? To the rest of the people at the conference?”
Most of my writer and poet friends, though, have at least a passing familiarity with Bread Loaf and its waiter scholarship. There is something about the mythos of Bread Loaf, how “competitive” it is to get in, how staggering the odds. In fact, the conference director informed the 26 of us waiters this summer that over 600 writers had applied for a spot. Those writers who attend the conference without financial aid pay a tuition of $3170.
To me, a writer who’s only beginning to publish her fiction in literary journals, this felt bigger than simply getting to attend a writers’ conference for free. When I got the Bread Loaf acceptance email, I felt like I was leveling up.
Before arriving, my biggest worry was the possibility of embarrassing myself by screwing up a food order or spilling coffee on someone. Besides that, though, I was simply looking forward to nerding out with fellow writers about books, and to getting feedback on the short story I’d put up to be workshopped. I figured that I’d be tired from being on my feet for hours—something I’d had experience with previously, working in retail—but I still felt fairly confident that I’d be able to handle the work.
Writing is a lonely business, requiring long hours of solitude. Conferences are a way to find and build community. I’d attended other writers’ conferences before, and they’re always intense, overwhelming affairs, especially for someone introverted, as I am. Still, something extraordinary happens every time writers get together. I leave with new reading recommendations, new ideas and approaches to my own work, and best of all, new friends. I expected generally the same at Bread Loaf.
Reflecting on it now, months after I’ve come back to my “normal” life, I did leave Bread Loaf with all of the above. But in the days immediately following the conference’s end, I returned home consumed by unspeakable anger, which then turned into a persistent and stifling melancholy. These feelings arose from witnessing countless (I was going to write “too many,” but isn’t even one time “too many”?) instances of anti-black racism and sexual harassment while I was there, and by the culture of hazing that permeates the waiter program, all in the name of “tradition.”
In those ten days: I felt invisible—in the manner that people who serve us our food and clean up after us exist in the periphery of our visions, just outside of our table conversations and our attentions—and simultaneously I felt hypervisible, as if under constant surveillance, my every move observed and judged. By whom? I didn’t know. The conference director? The members of the conference staff, who were previous waiter scholarship recipients themselves? The two head waiters who trained us? One of them had early on impressed upon the group that we were “waiters first,” that it was wholly reasonable for our dining room duties to cut into our participation in the conference as writers. Any of these people (or none of them—who knew?) held the power to invite a select number of the waiters back to the conference next summer. And so, an absurd conflation occurs, of one’s successful performance as a waiter, and the vestigial possibility of literary career advancement.
Claudia Rankine, in Citizen, describes the paradigmatic tension of invisibility/hypervisibility as a manner of understanding how racist language works. She writes: “Language that feels hurtful is intended to exploit all the ways that you are present. Your alertness, your openness, and your desire to engage actually demand your presence, your looking up, your talking back, and, as insane as it is, saying please.” The position of a waiter at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, as I experienced it, created a totalizing identity/non-identity in which my vulnerabilities as an emerging writer were exploited. In the first few days, I consciously curbed any negative feelings I had about the demands of the waiter job which caused me to miss parts of the conference, because of direct scheduling conflicts or because I was so tired, and skipping that craft seminar meant catching an hour-long nap to recover. A silent voice in my head told me: This is an unbelievable opportunity. This is what leveling up feels like, and no one said it would be easy. More than anything else, this voice said: Be grateful.
As the days wore on, this invisibility/hypervisibility took on another layer, as racism and sexual harassment intersected in the dining room and elsewhere at the conference. Women waiters commiserated in the kitchen about certain male conference attendees whose stares lingered too long on our bodies, who put their hands on us to get our attention, called us “Baby” or “Sweetheart.” The worst stories I heard from the black writers: a white faculty member curiously touching a black student’s braids; a waiter who was asked by a white dining room guest to bring her a cup of coffee “hot and black like you”; multiple times when one black writer is mistakenly called by another black writer’s name; a black woman’s head wrap assumed to be part of a zany costume on the night when the waiters don silly hats and feather boas during dinner.
One morning, I learned that one of the waiters, a queer white poet, had decided to leave the campus, withdrawing from Bread Loaf altogether. Another poet and I had sat with him on the porch the previous night, sipping whiskey, while he pondered aloud what we were all doing there. “Why stay?” he asked. “Is it just for the sake of group suffering? Because we feel like we can’t forsake the group?”
“It’s ‘tradition,’” answered the other poet, a black man. “That’s what they keep saying, right?” He shook his head. “You know what I’m going to say next time I hear that? Well, shit. Slavery was a ‘tradition.’”
One of these traditions included coming up with a nickname for one of our fellow waiters, to be revealed at the waiters’ reading event when each of us introduces the next reader in the line-up. The person who I was supposed to introduce, and present with a nickname, happened to be this black poet. I’d approached him after learning about this “tradition,” and told him I wasn’t doing it. He got me, immediately.
“It might be different if my name was ‘Brian Smith,’” he said. “But I have a complex relationship with my name. Except for family and select childhood friends, no matter how playful or endearing, I don’t like being called something otherwise.”
It might sound melodramatic now, but I was moved to tears by his response. It felt good not to have to explain. All my life, I too have been averse to nicknames.
I was born in Taiwan to people of Chinese ancestry. “Jean” certainly wasn’t the name I was called as a child—it’s the name I took on after my family immigrated to the US, an English word that sounds adjacent to my Chinese name, Chi-Ying, if you said it three times fast. And now, years later, I am “Jean” more often than I am called something, or rather someone else. My English name, part of the fun back then of learning a new language, a new culture, now sometimes feels a part of some unspeakable violence my family endured. A metonymy for how to survive this country as an immigrant, my father becoming “Michael,” my mother a “Grace.”
Though our life experiences and family histories differ, my new poet friend and I both just wanted to be called by the names we arrived with at Bread Loaf, a place where working as a waiter, you can begin to lose yourself, your sense of identity. The forced-upon nicknaming was just one of the traditions which worked to sift us into the fold, so that each of us becomes a part of the myth of Bread Loaf, a self-congratulatory story we are invited to take up and wear with pride.
In his essay “The White-Savior Industrial Complex,” Teju Cole writes: “People of color, women, and gays—who now have greater access to the centers of influence than ever before—are under pressure to be well behaved when talking about their struggles.” What’s underneath Cole’s assessment is that the pressure to “behave” is abetted by the desire to belong, to gain access to those “centers of influence” where power lies. Maybe it’s self-serving, and naive, but I thought that being invited to Bread Loaf on a waiter scholarship meant something about my writing, that I was one step closer, perhaps, toward a real career in writing, and publishing a book.
That evening on the porch, all three of us were tired. Exhausted, in fact. The talking we were doing helped. So did the whiskey. Still, the next morning, one of them left the conference. He drove home to New York.
I’d stayed off social media for the most part since I’d arrived at the conference, but that morning I wrote a Facebook post about the anti-black incidents from the week, because I felt compelled to tell the truth about what I’d been witness to, and how the institutional structure at Bread Loaf—a place where writers are supposed to find community—inadvertently continues to perpetuate racism and sexism.
My post was shared by writers at Bread Loaf and and re-shared by writers who weren’t at the conference, too. Friends emailed, texted, sent me DMs, lending their sympathy and moral support. People replied to my status update: some of them intimated that they’d heard about the rigid, hierarchical structure at Bread Loaf and could imagine its negative effects, especially on writers of color. Yet others, previous Bread Loafers, defended the institution and provided their own fond memories there as evidence of this particular year as an anomaly. More than a few pointed out that the problem wasn’t Bread Loaf, per se, but the institutional white supremacy of our industry as a whole, of which the anti-black racism I’d reported from Bread Loaf was simply another iteration.
In the second week of the conference, Michael Collier, Bread Loaf’s director, called for a meeting with the waiters. I don’t know if some, or all of what we said in that meeting surprised him, but one of the immediate outcomes was the canceling of another Bread Loaf tradition: the waiters performing a musical skit during dinner service on the second to last night to entertain the conference.
I do recognize that the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference is making some effort toward inclusivity and diversity, at least in the most tokenized sense. In 2016, there were people of color, women, and queer writers represented on the faculty and as fellows, and about half of the waiters could be identified as members of one or more of these historically marginalized categories of individuals.
Diversity efforts cannot end here, however; it is a process which requires much more radical reflection, and hopefully, radical action. What historical structures have we inherited and continue to reproduce that no longer serve the vision of the world we want to live in, right now? In what ways does the conference’s rigid hierarchy mimic the hegemony of a patriarchal and white supremacist literary system in which those with the least power are placed in a position of greatest vulnerability, and are left to fend for themselves when microaggressions inevitably occur? And what about the inherent ableism of a workstudy scholarship program which reifies an emerging writer’s literary “promise” through her bodily performance as a waiter? Her induction, through a culture of Bread Loaf “traditions,” into the historical narrative of “Bread Loaf waiters,” which writes her and every other past and future waiter continuously, erasing difference?
Our writer selves cannot give up our human selves. I want to write, and live, in a world where I feel safe, and in fact empowered, to speak up against injustice when I see it. I think of these ending lines in a poem by Claudia Rankine: “Hold up, did you just hear, did you just say, did you just see, did you just do that? Then the voice in your head silently tells you to take your foot off your throat because just getting along shouldn’t be an ambition.” Being accepted into Bread Loaf was not my leveling up. The conference presented the occasion to consider the kind of writer I want to be in the world. I am still learning, all the time, in different circumstances, to take my foot off my throat—and that is a real writer’s leveling up.
JEAN HO is a writer in Los Angeles. She has an MFA in fiction from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and is currently a doctoral candidate in creative writing and literature at the University of Southern California. Her writing has been published at NPR Code Switch, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Apogee Journal, The Offing, and elsewhere. She tweets at @jeanho.