By Sarah Robbins
In 2018, Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement helped to bring the vast abuse of power in every industry to the public eye—the literary community being no exception. On March 5thof 2018, after numerous failed attempts at receiving justice through institutional channels, Elissa Washuta (Cowlitz) and two other women, Jeanine Walker and Erika Wurth (Apache/Chickasaw/Cherokee), went public with their stories of being assaulted by Sherman Alexie (Spokane-Coeur d’Alene) on NPR. That week, we were discussing Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian in my YA literature course. I felt sick but I didn’t bring it up. We consume art made by bad men all of the time in university literature courses. I am not condoning this, just stating it is as a true fact. We justify it because there is a level of separation—these men are usually long dead. This felt different. Alexie was still out there, still capable of causing harm. A sample of those recently accused of sexual assault and harassment included esteemed academic and professor of literature at New York University, Avital Ronell, New York Times best-selling authors Junot Diaz and Alexie, as well as lesser-known yet influential members of the literary community, such as poet Joseph Massey. With the depravity of once-beloved writers on full display, the question of how we as readers interact with them and their work is urgent.
Whether or not to separate the art from the artist is often debated as though an abstract idea, yet, any decision produces tangible repercussions. Many discussions fail to consider that different responses may be warranted when focusing on the work of living artists, who use the power and platforms gained from their artistic success to cause harm. Upon discovering that authors we support are predatory, we have a decision to make on how we will interact with them as readers.
In Sherman Alexie’s case, he is a multiple bestselling author and influential person in the world of publishing, especially for Native American writers. He holds the ability to start and possibly end careers. All of the women assaulted by Alexie were young writers with budding careers, hoping to collaborate with Alexie professionally. All three women had unwanted and forced sexual interactions with Alexie. A conversation Washuta had with Alexie, the first time that they met while out to dinner with a group, reveals the driving force behind sexual assault. She said, “Sherman told me that he could have sex with me if he wanted to.”
Alexie’s flippant tone and blatant statement positioning Washuta as an object reveals the underlying force of all sexual assault and abuse—power.
In the Chicago Tribune, Heidi Stevens begs the question, “What if the art was, in effect, a weapon?” Alexie’s position of power which allows him to abuse, like that of the other authors previously mentioned, is gained through his writing and the intertwined nature of economic, social and cultural capital. The monetary value gained from selling books is accompanied by the social status of the individual who can leverage this in institutional settings. Alexie’s certainty that he can have sex with whoever he pleases without consideration of their consent is a direct result of his cultural, economic and social safety net. Although only three women were willing to go on the record with NPR, ten women spoke to them in total, and all of them agreed, “Alexie had traded on his literary celebrity to lure them into uncomfortable sexual situations.”
The way books deeply touch and shape us cause many readers to resist taking any action against abusive authors. Our connections to books are personal, and criticism against our favorite authors can feel like criticism against our own selves.A panel at the 2019 Association of Writers and Writing Professionals (AWP) conference, “#saferLIT: Fighting Sexual Misconduct in the Literary World,” led by Elissa Washuta and Jen Benka, among others, they endeavored to discuss the prevention of further assaults in the literary community. Washuta explained that she is not concerned with how peoplefeelabout the writing of abusers—feelings can be worked out privately. She explained that what matters is how readers choices intersect with the public sphere. One can decide privately what to do with an abuser’s books already at home on bookshelves, what matters is whether or not one chooses to financially support the author after the abuse is revealed. Continuing to support these authors not only poses a threat to the safety of past victims, but also clears a path for new victims to be harmed.
Upon discovering that authors we support are predatory, we have a decision to make on how we will interact with them as readers. To my question of how readers should respond, Benka, the President and Executive Director of the Academy of American Poets, offered this advice: “Make choices about where you spend your time and money.”
Many argue that the artistic loss to the literary community would be too monumental if we started holding authors accountable for their actions. At another AWP panel, “What Now? When Good Writers Act Awful,” during the Q&A session, an audience member suggested that the Native American community could not afford to lose Alexie because the representation in his books is vital for Native American youth. The underlying implication of this statement is that the literary community cannot afford to lose Alexie because there is only one good Native American writer—which simply is not true.
If we can only name one writer of a certain ethnic or racial group, it is because we have failed to read broadly, not for lack of their existence. We have been consuming our art lazily. Audre Lorde called failure to read diversely one of the “endless ways in which we rob ourselves of ourselves and each other.”Consider, instead, Elissa Washuta’s sharp memoir of young adulthood My Body is a Book of Rules,and her recent essay on the appropriation of witchcraft, “White Witchery,” or Tommy Pico’s (Kumeyaay) epic poem in the form of long text message, IRL, excerpted at Lit Hub. “What now?” panelist Erika Sanchez, author of I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, suggested that there are so many underrepresented authors being overshadowed, that readers should use the discovery of sexual assault as an opportunity to read new voices instead of mourning the loss of those who continue to cause harm.
Readers are allocators of power. Choosing to contribute to the capital of an abuser through purchasing their books, attending their events, and interacting with them on social media, only rewards their bad behaviour and increases their leverage to harm others. How we choose to interact with these authors is an important aspect of bringing justice to survivors, but it also sets an example for victims who watch in silence.
According to The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), 99.5 % of perpetrators will not face consequences at the hands of the criminal justice system, and it estimated that only 23% of assaults are reported at all. We cannot rely on the criminal justice system to hold people like Alexie, Diaz, Massey, and Ronell accountable. Washuta made it clear that she had tried to find justice at the institutional level, and reaping no results, she brought her story to NPRwith hopes that public response would propel justice forward. When people who have been abused come to the public as their last resort, we cannot afford to turn away from them. How we choose to react to their stories shows the 77% of people who are silent about their assault whether or not they can trust us.
In February of 2018, Alexie issued a statement in response to the accusations, in which he apologized vaguely for causing harm while simultaneously shirking responsibility, writing that he has “no recollection” of many of the accused actions. No positions were given up, no retributions paid, nor has his activity in the literary realm halted in anyway. As of May of 2019, Washuta stated that she had recently been threatened by Alexie via email. In response to the question of what satisfactory justice would look like, “#saferLIT” panelist Deborah Paredez responded that she hopes simply for “acknowledgement [of harm] and relinquishment of power.” The literary community is open-minded to the conversation of eventual restoration of abusers, but not without some kind of justice and sincere remorse accompanied by a fundamental change in behaviour. Restoration is not out of the question, but we are still far away from being able to discuss it.
On the topic her life-long love of The Cosby Showafter the outing of Bill Cosby’s repeated assaults, New York Timesbestselling author and cultural critic, Roxane Gay wrote in Marie Claire:
It is not difficult to dismiss the work of predators and angry men because agonizing over a predator’s legacy would mean there is some price I am willing to let victims pay for the sake of good art, when the truth is no half hour of television is so excellent that anyone’s suffering is recompense… I remember all the silence, decades and decades of enforced silence, intimidation, and manipulation, that enabled bad men to flourish. When I do that, it’s quite easy for me to think nothing of the supposedly great art of bad men.
Gay’s sentiment can be extended to any field of art, not just television. If we choose to continue consuming art of those who commit sexually assault, we need to ask ourselves what about this book, or this author is worth more than the safety and well-being of those harmed.
 Lorde, Audre. “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action.” In Sister Outsider, 44. New York, NY: Crossing Press, 1984.
Sarah Robbins is a student of literature at Missouri Southern State University. She runs a fashion blog at beretmerry.com and is a firm believer in giving a damn.