Ryan Boudinot’s anthology Seattle: City of Literature: Reflections from a Community of Writers was just released by Sasquatch Books and heralded in a Seattle Met review with this subheading: “The new anthology is a comprehensive snapshot of Seattle’s community of writers, past and present.”
If “comprehensive” means Seattle’s community of mostly white writers, then I suppose the descriptor is accurate. Boudinot in his preface calls the collection “a representative sampling,” which again can only be true if the community from which he is sampling is overwhelmingly white. But writers of color do exist, and the problem is that they are barely represented in the anthology.
The book opens with an essay by Cowlitz tribe member Elissa Washuta on the oral tradition practiced by Vi Hilbert, noted elder of the Upper Skagit tribe. It’s a fitting place to start. But the rest of the book pretty much renders writers of color invisible.
Perhaps Roberto Ascalon or Peter Bacho could have been invited to contribute a piece about the Filipino writer Carlos Bulosan, who is buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery on Queen Anne Hill. Bulosan is best known for his semi-autobiographical America is in the Heart, which describes the brutal living and working conditions of Filipino immigrants in America. The book became integral to the Filipino American identity movement in the 1970s.
What about illustrious African-American playwright August Wilson, who lived in Seattle from 1990 until his death in 2005 as the subject of an essay, rather than a passing mention in the preface? What about Seattle playwright Cheryl West as a contributor or subject?
The eminent science fiction writer Octavia Butler lived in the area from 1999 until her death in 2006. Might the award-winning Nisi Shawl have been invited to write about Butler?
The list of possible authors and subjects is long. One needn’t search long and hard for candidates. There’s poet and visual artist Alan Lau, recipient of a Cultural Ambassador award from the mayor in 2014 for his more than 30 years of involvement in and support of the arts. It would have been a lovely thing to read an essay about Lau by Jane Wong or Michelle Peñaloza or another one of the exciting, young Asian American poets in Seattle today. What fun it would be to know more about the book of poems he published with Oregon poets Lawson Inada and Garrett Hongo called The Buddha Bandits Down Highway 99.
And what about the late Kim-An Lieberman and the gorgeous work she produced before her life was cut short?
It seems that Boudinot’s anthology was submitted as part of the city’s official bid to become a UNESCO City of Literature. A successful bid would make Seattle only the third U.S. city to join the Creative Cities Network. One of the primary goals of the Network is “to improve access to and participation in cultural life as well as the enjoyment of goods and services, notably for marginalized or vulnerable groups and individuals.” People of color account for 33 percent of Seattle’s population, according to 2010 census figures. How much enjoyment will this often marginalized group receive from an anthology in which nearly 90 percent of its writers are white?
Another aim of the Creative Cities Network is “social inclusion and enhanced influence of culture in the world.” How is social inclusion reflected in an anthology that excludes writers of color? What kind of influence on world culture will Seattle have when it ignores a segment of its writing community?
One of the endorsers of the UNESCO bid is the city of Seattle, which has a race and social justice initiative “to eliminate racial disparities and achieve racial equity in Seattle.” Why shouldn’t this initiative apply to efforts such as the anthology?
And what was the publisher’s input? I suggest that Sasquatch try again, that the Seattle Met reviewer reconsider his use of “comprehensive,” and that the Seattle City of Literature Board hope the UNESCO folks don’t wonder about the intended readership for the anthology. Just white readers? Or also the readers of color who will not see themselves represented? In the end, the failure to acknowledge the existence and work of writers of color fails all readers.
This letter was originally published in the Seattle Review of Books on October 1, 2015.