Crowd of people shot from behind so that only the tops of heads are visable

First Person

That One Last Conference of the Before Times

Every year, 12,000 writers attend the AWP writers conference. Last year, it was one of the few conferences that chose not to cancel—and this writer went. A year later, does she regret it?

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Something definitely ended in March 2020.

I’m not sure what that something is.

Every year, during the first week of March, I join 12,000 other writers and head to the Associated Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference, held in different American cities each year. That year, it would be held in San Antonio, Texas. For many, it’s the only time that writers—with their lanyarded name badges and overstuffed bags filled with the manuscripts, a phonebook-thick AWP program, and hopes of meeting prospective agents—can discuss writing or pedagogy with others who won’t laugh at them. But last year, as 2019 flipped to 2020, and talk about a highly contagious virus was getting more frequent, there was a gnawing question about whether our annual passage to AWP would happen at all.

Trump was shrugging off the coming pandemic, falsely claiming that COVID-19 was no worse than the flu and would go away by spring, while we learned that not only had he dismantled various pandemic warning systems, silenced scientists who delivered news he didn’t want to hear, politicized the virus and mask-wearing, but he allowed the national stockpile of PPE to languish and withheld them from states who didn’t vote for him.

As the point of no return (of deposits and plane tickets) approached, AWP goers like myself were furiously surveying others about their plans, since the conference organizers hadn’t indicated they were canceling. My DMs were filled with messages that read:

Are you going to go? 

They’re quarantining a bunch of people in San Antonio.

You’re just being paranoid—they are in a military facility.

San Antonio is a true hot spot.

Should I go?

Throughout this pandemic, the minute the present becomes past, I’ve been categorizing activities and situations as smart, dumb, meticulously prophylactic, necessary, lucky—depending on whether or not the outcome was good.

By late February, when people typically started to show pictures of all the outfits they planned to wear to the conference, COVID stories in the news were starting to edge out the more outrageous Trump stories, like his putting kids in cages and withholding FEMA funds from California where the wildfires were raging. Scores of people in China were getting sick, as well as in Italy, Spain, and the U.K. The first confirmed U.S. case had been found on January 20.

My friends say I am a good person to have around in an apocalypse because I am a bit of a prepper, always armed with a stash of N95 for when I visit my sister on the West Coast—the only masks that can filter out lung-damaging smoke particulates from the California wildfires. Soon, these masks would be rarer than the spotted owl.

In Korea, where I have family and where I lived for a year, people wear masks all the time. In cold and flu season, people politely wear them to keep their aerosols to themselves. During “yellow dust” season, these high-quality N95-esque masks protect the lungs. In my Manhattan neighborhood near Columbia University, where there are a lot of students from Asia, you see people wearing masks on and off during the winter. That year was no different. However, I noticed every time I masked, I was instantly perceived as an avatar of the virus, a material thing onto whom people could focus their unspoken anxieties. It was especially evident when I was out at the farmers market with my husband, who is white. I watched him pass white women shoppers, his mask eliciting no reaction from them; however, they would dramatically leap back when they saw me, yelling at me for being too close, spilling their bags of arugula.

Last year, I was determined to go to the conference, for a number of reasons. For one, I was eager to attend the book launch of my friend Deborah Paredez, who hails from San Antonio. And because it coincided with a festival that my spouse, Karl, a history professor, had been invited to participate in, located in a tiny nearby Texas town, Victoria, that was honoring the subject of his most recent book, The Strange Career of William Ellis, about a man who was born a slave in 1864 and eluded Jim Crow restrictions by posing as a Mexican industrialist. A whole festival basically dedicated to his book! We planned that I would go to AWP first and attend my panels, and then we’d head to Victoria for my husband’s event. The scheduling involved a careful balancing act because our son is disabled, and we needed to minimize the amount of time we were away from him—we were able to use an emergency respite service so that he would be cared for by professionals when we absolutely couldn’t be with him. Karl had even arranged for some of William Ellis’s living descendants, including his great-niece Fanny Moore Johnson-Griffin and her nephew Robert Adan “Chip” Williams, to come to present and celebrate alongside him.

But a week before departure, all this careful scheduling would be moot. A cluster of infections originating at a nursing home in Washington state portended a national spread. It seemed almost certain that AWP would cancel, as others were doing. After all, China had been battered by the virus. We saw footage of Italy’s ICUs overflowing with sick people. All over the world we were starting to witness footage of people dying in hallways, medical personnel flipping patients on their stomachs in an effort to help them to breathe, morgues overwhelmed with dead bodies and more on the way.

On February 26, Trump announced that, “We’re testing everyone that we need to test. And we’re finding very little problem. Very little problem,” and insisting “This is a flu. This is like a flu.” Though hard to imagine now, just a little over a year ago, the CDC was vigorously advising us not to wear masks, saying it was unhelpful for prevention and might even give you COVID.

The arguments to call it off became fiercer. There might have been few diagnosed cases at the time, but other countries’ experience suggested there would be many more if we didn’t act fast.

The U.S.’s narrative had become a semi-solid plasma of quasi-scientific pronouncements that the disease only threatened the elderly. However Fanny, an octogenarian, was determined to go to the festival in Texas—so Chip would accompany her.

Ultimately, the AWP did not call off the conference—not even after another huge Texas-based conference, South By Southwest, did so. Not even when AWP-bound writers were bailing in droves. In fact, AWP’s co-director quit the organization over its decision to hold the conference. Still, though many of my colleagues opted out, I decided to press on. I had five appointments slated for my first 18 hours in San Antonio, including sharing a ride from the airport with my friend, the novelist Monique Truong. One by one, each of my dates politely broke our plans. My dinner date, Nana-Ama Danquah, had even made it to San Antonio before me, but increasingly worried about COVID, had flown back almost immediately.

For me, there had already been a pall cast over the 2020 AWP, because the previous year, my best friend and AWP bunkmate, Katherine Min, had died. Which was what made my husband’s joining me this time feel like a propitious gift, a jump-start to my Katherine-less AWP. Without Katherine to splurge with me, I decided to book the most basic room. But because the place was like a ghost town, the receptionist happily put me in a beautiful room overlooking San Antonio’s famous River Walk, which, unlike the hotel, was chockablock with tourists, as if there weren’t a pandemic imminently threatening to consume us.

I stuck to my plans. I got together with my friend Deborah, and her old school friend, book publicist Nicole Dewey, who happens to live near me in New York City—they whisked me away from the touristy side of town to a tiny, rundown cluttered shack for delicious breakfast tacos. We were the only diners there. In fact, everywhere I went was sparsely attended, not least of all the convention center, where I went to see a panel on “The Relevance of History of Fiction,” with a suddenly-truncated lineup of luminaries, Rebecca Makkai, Amy Brill, and Dolen Perkins-Valdez. Panels at AWP are by competitive selection, and an event like theirs would typically see people sitting on the floor along the sides. This time, the room was less than half-filled. It was easy to socially distance. Many writers attend AWP to network, less so for the panels. I like to do both. That night, after attending my friend’s incredibly moving book launch, I went out for drinks at the hotel bar with someone I’d gotten to know through social media. We waited and waited for our Uber, wondering whether it had stood us up, not realizing our ride had arrived: a Texas-size pickup truck with two back cabs so large it could only pull into a parking lot down the street.

In a normal conference, the bar is packed ten people deep, the noise at jet-engine roar. Though it wasn’t nearly as crowded, it was full, with more writers joining (you can always tell by the lanyards). When it became so noisy that we had to huddle to be heard, I decided to go. Karl and Fanny and Chip were flying in that night, and when I learned that my last panel was canceled due to attrition, I realized it was time to leave the conference.

The following morning, the four of us drove to Victoria—in a closed car, with people who had recently traveled. Of course, saying this now, I realize how incredibly reckless this sounds. During that hazy, what I am calling not-quite-COVID-week, there was discernible judgement from some AWP cancellers, citing “safety of my family is most important.” However, that’s how I operate, too. I also know that creating what you think is the safest space still does not guarantee safety. During the Obama administration, a doctor returning from Guinea had traversed my city— my very neighborhood—with not-yet-symptomatic Ebola. It caused a similar panic. Despite the anxieties over the Ebola-infected man taking the subway and roaming two of the densest New York City neighborhoods, the highly contagious infection stayed local to the doctor (who was hospitalized but recovered) and never took hold in the larger population. So if Ebola did not become a problem, how were we supposed to assess COVID? We did not know anyone yet who was sick, much less died, and because of the lack of leadership—no mandate, no set of rules to abide, no mass testing of the sort already going on in Asian countries, we were wading in uncharted waters—and might not know if it was too deep until after we were in over our heads.

But because Trump left the virus uncontrolled and he had actually discouraged testing, no one actually knew what was happening. And so it was into this unknown future that I decided to proceed.

In Victoria, we met the caretaker of the property where William Ellis was born as an enslaved person. It’s a working cattle ranch now, but it seemed mystical, almost holy somehow to be treading on the same ground William Ellis had walked. At a bend in the river, where overflow from rain causes the riverbed to burp up layers of rock, forming a kind of beach, I grabbed a dun-colored rock that looked almost intentionally faceted, strangely spear-shaped, and stuck it in my pocket. There was something so unique and totemic about it, I wondered if it would bring me luck.

The academic organizers of the event were ecstatic to meet Karl, Chip, and Fanny. The university’s single conference room—which held about 100 people—was packed. Afterward, the organizers took us to a nice restaurant, all of us aglow from the well-attended event. As we said our good-byes, a young female professor appeared to come out of nowhere and grabbed me in a hug that felt like a tackle. It set off a mild panic within me, and I realized COVID had been weighing on my mind more than I’d given it credit.

On the return flight, travelers were whispering and giggling, pointing a few rows ahead of me, poking fun at a woman in the middle seat wearing a garbage bag, goggles, a shower cap, and a surgical mask, unhurriedly wiping all of the surfaces around her with rubbing alcohol. Little did I know this would become the norm, if we boarded a flight at all.

Because mere days later, the sirens started—and didn’t stop wailing for months. Our son came home from school and never went back. I had a writer’s residency set up that canceled hours before I was supposed to leave. I divvied up my aqua-blue medical N95s—now suddenly at crisis-level scarcity—to share among my son and our elderly friends who had the most dire health conditions. The Department of Education still wanted me to come in for an in-person meeting on March 13, our special needs parent-advocate got them to allow a conference call; that day, we called in, only to find our Department of Education rep had suddenly “called in sick.” I wonder if she’d saved her own life. By the end of March, with 25 DOE employees dead from COVID, the union was calling for more tracking and an investigation.

Two weeks after our return, we breathed a sigh of relief that Chip and Fanny managed to stay healthy. All of us had.

It was strange how bad it got and how quickly. One of our son’s aides who lives in public housing lost her in-laws. Karl’s Spanish tutor described the constant parade of body bags leaving his Harlem building, which also overlooked a fleet of refrigerated morgue trucks. Those first few weeks, we didn’t even leave the apartment to go outside. Without any kind of contact tracing on a city level or by our employer, my colleagues and I emailed among ourselves, tallying up who was sick: an admin in our poorly ventilated university office. The prof whose office was a few doors down from Karl. One of Karl’s students with whom he’d interacted recently.

We masked up to take out the garbage. Our apartment building was deathly quiet, but everyone was home. If anyone in the building had COVID, there was no way to know. At 7 p.m., we’d stop whatever we were doing to bang on pots and pans to thank essential health workers, but also to signal to our neighbors, and maybe ourselves, that we are still here, still alive.

In the months that followed, I found the regret I felt over doing something so foolish—traveling! to a conference!—has cured into something else. And I mean cured as in aged and changed: I am not only glad I went, I also suspect that going to AWP might have kept me and my family out of a hotspot. Because COVID testing in New York City was slow to start; when it finally got going in late March, it revealed positivity rates as high as 70 percent. That meant if you met a random person in NYC—my students, my friends, my colleagues with whom I had long chats in a small, airless room—the chances were greater than not that they were infected with COVID. The surge in Texas would come much later.

No one can say with certainty whether I’d made a foolhardy choice. My family and our friends miraculously returned with our health intact. And, as it happened, the trip was prosperous, emotionally and spiritually. It allowed me to heal a year after losing a dear friend and AWP companion, and forge new bonds under strange circumstances. I’d gotten to see my husband’s hard work celebrated, too. And then I showed the rock I’d pulled from the riverbed to an anthropologist friend at Barnard who told me that I’d likely found a paleolithic tool called an atlatl, a spear that sits in the cup of a second shaft—similar to the plastic ball-throwers one would see at the dog park. I keep this ancient rock near me.

Perhaps, as Buddhists know, focus on outcome is misguided because outcome is illusory. Things come and they go, and it’s our duty to do the best we can in the moment. In a few months’ time, I may see a different facet of something I’d missed. Or, maybe something I’d seen, done, experienced may become a different memory altogether. Maybe my beautiful atlatl will be less a magic totem, an extended arm reaching all the way from the Stone Age, and merely abide as a reminder that indeed this pandemic year, everything changed and is still changing.

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