In May, seven months after a list of alleged sexual harassers in Indian academia caused a stir, one of the editors of a poetry anthology in the making stepped aside after a debate that followed an accusation of sexual misconduct against him.
The turmoil around the The Red Hen Book of Contemporary Indian Writing anthology and its editor Ravi Shankar is a reminder that conversations about the necessity of tackling issues of sexual harassment, gender imbalances and power dynamics in the literary world have been under way even before the second wave of #MeToo allegations of sexual misconduct and sexual assault against media, film, music, comedy, and advertising professionals.
The debate about the Red Hen anthology followed a similar discussion that had led several contributors to withdraw from another anthology of modern English poetry by younger poets to be published by the Sahitya Akademi.
“The impact of conversations on social media, especially about the #MeToo movement, may not translate with the same urgency to the real world, especially to the literary world where most of us spend a large part of our day alone,” said poet Sridala Swami, a contributor to the Red Hen anthology. “I don’t think as a community we’ve covered ourselves in glory: many have remained silent when they should have been vocal.”
She added: “For the future, I hope the poetry community will learn to talk to each other more openly about sexual harassment and intimidation. We belong to no single institution that can arbitrate complaints and yet we must find a way to support each other with generosity.”
The row about the Red Hen anthology has its roots in a post by American poet Annie Finch on her website in October 2016, in which she accused Shankar, a professor of poetry in the US, of misconduct.
Titled “Literary Sexual Abuse: Things I’ve Been Ashamed to Share About Being a Writer Until Now”, the post described an incident that allegedly took place on February 27, 2007, in a hotel lobby at a writers’ conference when she stopped to talk casually to Shankar, whom she said barely knew at the time: “As we said goodbye, he grabbed me with very strong arms and suddenly shoved his tongue briefly and hard into my mouth, then walked away, leaving me in a state of violation and robbed energy that I still experience as I remember it.”
Shankar wrote a lengthy response to Finch’s allegations, saying he had no recollection of the episode from “over a decade ago” and that his first reaction was “one of complete outrage” as a “staunch feminist, a brother of two sisters, the father of two girls, and a lover and champion of women”.
According to Finch, Shankar requested that she carry his response in its entirety on her blog, which she did. Stating that he came from a “physically affectionate” culture, Shankar wrote, “...There’s still a part of me that’s still totally nonplussed and incredulous that I would ever try to French kiss someone I barely knew in the middle of a teeming hotel...However I can’t say for certain that what she said happened didn’t happen, and for that I apologise to Annie. It’s so far out of the realm of how I perceive myself that I’m deeply dismayed and shocked, and I just wish Annie had said something to me earlier, though I understand how difficult it is to do so.”
Though Shankar apologised in his statement, Finch later alleged that he created three different false names to disagree with Finch’s claims on her original post and claimed that the IP addresses of those responses backed her claims. Finch claimed Shankar had emailed her shortly after his response on her blog drew criticism, demanding that she take it down, but she did not delete it.
Finch’s post resurfaced in 2017 when Erica Mena-Landry, then Editor and Executive Director of Drunken Boat, a literary journal co-founded by Shankar, wrote a public post alleging mismanagement in the running of the journal. She also addressed the sexual misconduct allegations against Shankar and wrote:
“I reached out to Annie [Finch] to talk about how we could support her, and she put me in touch with two other women who felt (and still feel) unsafe coming forward about Ravi’s behaviour toward them, but who were willing to share the details of their experiences with me privately. Let me only say that these women’s descriptions of abusive behaviour were...deeply upsetting.”
In an email on May 9, responding to Scroll.in’s request for comment, Shankar stated that he disagreed with the use of the term “sexual misconduct” because “it does a disservice to those who have actually dealt with real sexual violence in their lives”. He said that Finch, whom he referred to as “a self-described witch” with ulterior motives, was the only person to have come forward with an allegation against him. “This allegedly happened over a decade ago and I have no recollection of this, nor is it in keeping with my life or personal history,” Shankar said. “In most other cases of the #metoo movement, the testimony of one woman has elicited a number of other women to come forward. I think it’s important to note that in my case, no one else came forward.”
Shankar dismissed the allegations by Erica Mena-Landry that two other women had shared details of sexual misconduct as professional rivalry. “In the aftermath of Annie’s essay, this woman [Erica] attempted to use this allegation of an unwanted kiss as the impetus to force me off the Board of the magazine that I personally founded and financed since 1999,” he said. “When that didn’t work, she took to smearing my name and reputation, even though I had backed her and given her a job that she hadn’t really earned.”
Shankar began work on the poetry anthology with a co-editor – poet Sampurna Chattarji – for Red Hen, a literary press in the US in 2016. On March 22, 2018, Chattarji took the decision to step down from the Red Hen anthology as well – unable to ignore the allegation against Shankar any longer.
“While previously it might have been possible to continue giving Ravi [Shankar] the benefit of the doubt,” Chattarji told Scroll.in, “the changed scenario in February made it clear to me that continuing as Ravi’s co-editor would be both untenable and unconscionable. The two situations before me were analogous and demanded that my response to both should be morally consistent.”
Chattarji said that after she stepped down, 24 contributors withdrew their work from the Red Hen anthology, including poets Sridala Swami, Sharanya Manivannan, Mani Rao and Priya Sarukkai Chabria.
The withdrawal by Chattarji and multiple contributors prompted the publishers to reconsider Shankar’s association with the project and on April 14, 2018, Shankar wrote to the contributors letting them know that Red Hen Press had “in light of these community concerns rescinded their offer to publish the book.” However, three weeks later, on May 7, 2018, Shankar wrote once again to the contributors to let them know that Red Hen had done their due diligence and that the anthology was back on. The anthology’s new co-editor, alongside Shankar, would be the poet and novelist, Anjum Hasan.
Between May 8 and May 12, Scroll.in exchanged emails with Shankar, Red Hen, Sampurna Chattarji, Anjum Hasan, ten contributors who had withdrawn their work (six of whom declined to comment), and three writers who were invited to contribute to the anthology but refused for their responses to this story. All three declined to comment.
On May 12, the decision was once again reversed and the managing editor of Red Hen, Kate Gale, and Shankar emailed Scroll.in to say that he was not going to be an editor on the anthology. Sampurna Chattarji was re-invited to edit alongside Anjum Hasan, and she accepted. Hasan explained her decision to come on board to Scroll.in: “I did want to come in as an editor when asked because the anthology seems like a very worthwhile project. I don’t believe an isolated incident of possible misconduct brings into question Ravi’s credentials as a poet and editor. But I had reservations about Ravi’s handling of Annie Finch’s allegation. I put my questions to him following which he told me he’s withdrawing as editor.”
The anthology had by this point been cancelled once, revived once with Shankar and Hasan at the helm, and finally Shankar had stepped down, with Hasan and Chatterjee finally co-editing it. On June 2, all the contributors were informed of the editorial change, and 23 of the 24 writers who had withdrawn rejoined the anthology.
Poet and novelist Priya Sarukkai Chabria, who worked with Shankar as co-translator for Andal: The Autobiography of a Goddess, said her original decision to withdraw had been extremely difficult. But has a clear take on the matter. “Editors accused of sexual misconduct should be asked to step down until their names are cleared instead of contributors and co-editors pulling out (thus losing an opportunity to showcase their work) to lodge their protest,” she said. “That’s skewered justice.”
According to Annie Finch, writers have a responsibility to call out abuse. “[It is] our obligation to the moral standards of the art, to the human integrity of the perpetrators themselves, to the literary community, to other writers who are potential victims, and perhaps most importantly, to the truth of our own voices,” she said. It’s why she could not remain silent, to be “cut off from my own tongue, from the deepest source of my literary identity”.