The Kentucky Women Writers Conference is the longest running literary festival of women in the nation. An annual event launched by the University of Kentucky in 1979, it has become a premier destination for the celebration of women’s arts and letters.
Twenty-five years ago, a group of women from all over the state started to put together what would be, for the area, the first gathering of women writers.
I remember the first meeting I attended, in a tall office building set in the middle of the green University of Kentucky campus. Women writers came together who would become well known: Alice Walker, Toni Cade Bamberra, and many others. We were all at the beginning of something big—we knew it, rejoiced in it, and wondered how time would define, or change, our original dream.
Over the decades, the Conference has gone through perilous times. At one point, the University withdrew its funding, and it looked as though the end was near. But individuals, and The Kentucky Foundation for Women, came forward to prevent that from happening; after a while, the University restored its funding, and now the Conference rests firmly on a not-for-profit it controls as well as on money from UK.
From the beginning, the Conference focused on women who are left out, particularly African-American women; at the Gypsy poetry slam on Saturday night, the beautiful boiling rage of four black women poets made me long to see my white sisters blossom with righteous anger. Perhaps it will happen, one day, when we are a little less genteel, for all suffering is at some point equal and demands that cleansing outburst.
In my two-day workshop, we travelled toward using points of view, in writing short fiction, that seem, at first, alien, even impossible: to dare to write with the voice of an Afghan whose brother, a reporter, was murdered by a G.I. (one woman said it should only be called killing), or the even more mysterious voice of a Japanese governor accused of sending false emails demanding the reopening of his local nuclear plant. Both news stories were published last week in The New York Times.
I gave these assignments because our great challenge is to move beyond autobiography, disguised or not, to enter imaginative realms where our disappointments don’t color the tone of our writing, and the inevitable limits of our experience don’t crippled our reach; above all, to stop writing about depression.
This is, thank God, less of a problem now than it was when we started. The modern Women’s Movement was barely fledged, and many women had learned, early, to be frightened.
Over the weekend, there were many workshops and many writers giving readings, and the ferment and good feeling which provide the flavor and seasoning for this conference.
When it was my turn to read, with Kim Dana Kupperman (I Just Lately Started Buying Wings, Graywolf Press), I chose a black, funny, difficult story called “Benjamin” from my new collection, Mending: New and Selected Stories (Sarabande Books).
I chose this story because it is my most powerful example of writing from an alien point of view: Benjamin is a 91-year-old painter, very successful, and a real son of a bitch. In Los Angeles for the dedication of “the painting of his prime,” an enormous portrait of a long-ago lover (he admits he wanted the painting more than he wanted her), he manages to get himself into the familiar kind of trouble, with the familiar outcome: his exertions in bed almost bring on a heart attack.
When a woman in my audience asked me, a little bewildered, where the idea for the story came from, I told her in all seriousness that Benjamin told me his objectionable tale. After my first day of writing, I asked him, aloud, to stay with me until the story was finished, but then TO GO AWAY.
I added that this kind of visitation is not a recipe for writing short fiction.
As I was leaving the Conference, I realized that we are now, in 2011, seeing the fruit of two and a half decades of ceaseless endeavor and inspiration: Natasha, committed to running a theatre in Lexington that just produced the enormously accomplished playwright, Naomi Wallace’s, “One Flea Spare”; Katerina, who has created not only an interview program on the university station but a publishing company—she does all the work herself—that produces beautiful poetry chapbooks for $5; Julie, Normandi, and Bobbi, who run the conference in the midst of many other commitments; and all those women, from near and far, who came up to me to thank me for being a part of starting what is now in full bloom.
Seeing the confidence with which a woman was striding alone down a Lexington street, I realized that in spite of many on-going obstacles, we are getting where we need to go.
For more information, visit the Kentucky Women Writers Conference website.