Wednesday, August 11, 2010

VIDA: Women in Literary Arts

I've joined this exciting new group as part of the children's literature committee, invited by children's author Laurel Snyder. Being a woman writer is complex no matter what genre one is writing and I'm glad that a group has formed to address those issues.

This is an e-mail from the co-founder of the organization, Cate Marvin:

Dear Friend,

It’s quite strange to realize it was only a year ago I sat hunkered down in my sweaty apartment writing an email that seemed to blast right out of my head.

If you received this missive, you’ll know I’d spent the evening folding a LOT of laundry – an endless chore made worse by the fact I was not only folding my laundry, but also that of my 8 month old daughter (any parent will attest that the act of sorting a mountain of brightly patterned shirts, socks and pajamas is in itself a certain hell). After projecting myself into the mindset of the narrator of Tillie Olsen’s seminal short story “I Stand Here Ironing,” I allowed myself a couple glasses of wine. This, I believe, was a key factor in my committing the most grievous of email sins.

For not only did I send my email to numerous people— worse, I concluded my missive with a most lamentable statement: “Feel free to forward this to anyone and everyone you think might be interested.”

This email, titled: “As I Stood Folding Laundry: Women’s Writing Now,” was spurred by my disgruntlement over the fact an AWP proposal I’d submitted--addressing a rhetorical means of dissent in contemporary American women’s poetry--had been rejected. In my email I worried aloud about whether this panel had been dismissed because of its distinctly feminist overtones, while also noting certain trends I’d observed in the literary world: specifically how male literary achievements are so often deemed more important than those of women with regard to publication, criticism, reviews, awards, etc.

While this disparity had long seemed obvious to me, I’d never before had the nerve to speak to it openly.

My email went on to describe my fantasy of creating an association that would serve to unite women writers, across genres, aesthetics, ethnicities and generations. Indeed, in the simple act of conceiving such an organization’s potential, I got so fired up that evening it seemed to me perfectly reasonable that I send my thoughts to every female writer I knew.

The following morning my in-box was full.

In less than twelve hours, I’d already received numerous replies—some from female poets I considered so awe-inspiringly important I was stunned to see their names appear on my computer’s screen; others from women writers I’d never met, who wrote compelling accounts of their own frustrations, each one expressing a desire to create a national forum for the very issues my email had addressed.

I was awed by the response. But I was also afraid. Because I recognized that I’d unwittingly taken on a responsibility to remain true to all that I’d written only the night before. I realized I would not only need to acknowledge the immediate support with which my proposal had been received, but that I must also embrace it.

I discovered that it was due to the poet Erin Belieu’s initiative that my email reached the astonishing number of people it did. It was she who sent my email to some forty established female poets, who then sent it on to the female writers they knew. It was due to Erin’s initial enthusiasm that my email went, as they say, viral, ending up on blogs, listservs and in newspapers throughout the country.

So it only seemed fair to turn to the culprit who had so thoroughly disseminated my thoughts. I didn’t in fact know Erin Belieu well personally, but I knew she had a reputation for gumption and guts, something this fantasy organization was going to need to get off the ground.

One short phone call later and I now had a co-director. It was that day that Erin and I co-founded the organization that began as WILLA, and has now transformed into a different name--VIDA: Women in Literary Arts.

[To create a more distinct identity and preempt possible legal issues, WILLA 
is now VIDA. We are confident that we've already begun to grow into our new 
name and feel that "VIDA" better reflects the vitality of our organization.]

So I write to you a year later from a poorly air-conditioned room while suffering the advances of a particularly persistent mosquito. I still have laundry that needs sorting. However, I can say that my life as a female writer been not only been invigorated, but deeply altered, in the best sense of the word, by the email I almost regretted sending a year ago.

VIDA’s had a great first year. A few of many highlights include our mention in the New York Times for calling out Publisher’s Weekly “Top Ten Best Books of 2009,” and their egregiously “female-free” list. VIDA also hosted a number of readings and conversations, including our AWP Evening of Burlesque, Roller Derby And Literature, which turned out to be just as thought provoking and fun as we’d wanted our debut to be. We’ve recently been asked by AWP to be a sponsor of next year’s conference in Washington DC and are busily scheming to make our follow up just as memorable.

There are many more things under way for VIDA this year: we have a spiffy new website and blog ( with articles and features you’ll want to check out as well as a new Facebook page where you can find out about VIDA events and join the thousands of people there who’ve entered into our conversation. We’re also moving along in planning a national conference for those who want to support and know more about literature written by women. It’s heavy-lifting, but we’re devoted to making this enormous and financially complicated project happen. More information will be coming about this soon.

Thank you for reading this. I hope that you will once again: “Feel free to forward this to anyone and everyone you think might be interested.”

Your friend,


Cate Marvin, Associate Professor
Department of English
College of Staten Island, CUNY

Co-Director, VIDA: Women in Literary Arts
Co-Director, VIDA: Women in Literary Arts

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