A literary beacon plants its flags on Wrightsville Avenue
By Virginia Holman
This past spring, I received an invitation to the grand opening of Athenian House, the new home of Athenian Press and Workshops. When I looked closely at the invitation, I felt a bit of anxiety. It looked like it was an organization for women writers, LGBTQ writers, femme-identified writers, writers of color, and gender-nonconforming writers. I only knew one person who would be there, and I wasn’t sure if this event and this place were really for me or someone like me. Would I be welcome as a straight white woman writer? Then I figured that I must be welcome; after all, I was invited. So on a cold and blustery March day, my husband and I went to the festive opening event.
As it turned out, we had a great time, and we couldn’t have felt more at home. Athenian Press and Workshops hosts events that welcome all people, and although that sounds simple on the face of it, it’s actually a pretty big deal. Fortunately, Athenian’s co-founders, former Oxford University Press editor Lori Wilson and playwright and poet Khalisa Rae, author of Real Girls Have Real Problems, are passionate and ambitious. Along with Alicia Thacker, their programming director, they know that the feelings I experienced in a very real but small way — that is, wondering if I would be accepted for who I am, wondering if I would be welcomed and valued as I am — is an experience that many people of color, LGBTQ people, and gender-nonconforming people endure almost every day. Sometimes, they may have cause to fear for their safety. As for me, once at Athenian House, I found that I was just as welcome as anyone else, and vice versa. The experience gave me a tiny bit of insight into the lives of people who find they must constantly gauge whether or not they will be accepted just as they are — in their families, at work, when they meet new people, and when they go to a new place.
That, in all its brilliant simplicity, is the driving mission of Athenian Press and Workshops. Athenian aims to create a welcoming safe space on the page, at spoken word events, and in their outreach campaigns to ensure that those who have been traditionally marginalized are both supported and well represented.
Athenian knows that in order to fully realize their mission, visibility and outreach are key. So outside their current offices on Wrightsville Avenue, they have hung a lot of flags as a sign of welcome to people who might not otherwise hear about and discover Athenian. The flags include two rainbow or pride flags — the traditional rainbow flag and one that includes a brown and black stripe — a trans flag, and a Black Lives Matter flag. “We want passersby to know that they are welcome here and the flags are a form of outreach,” Thacker says. They’ve been an effective one. “Sometimes people pull into the parking lot and come through the doors just to check out the space,” she continues, “because they know they will be welcome, and they want to know what we’re doing.”
Thacker always tells people that “Athenian House is a safe space where people who enter know they can come in no matter what their expression is, what type of art they create, what they wear, how they feel, or what their experiences are. We tell them that they are coming into a place where all of that is accepted, all of that is honored and treasured here, without the fear of judgment, and without the fear of not being accepted.”
Rae echoes this, and points out that there is a huge effort to represent “those who have been silenced and othered” throughout the house — in the art, in the books in the bookstore and resource center, in the conversations that can be had, as well as with event speakers, open mics, and literary workshops.
Athenian prides itself on its popular and well-attended monthly literary readings, trivia nights and curated “Femme Speak Out” events, which introduce compelling new literary voices, musicians and performers to the Wilmington arts scene. Athenian is also hard at work behind the scenes in Wilmington. Rae and Thacker both have ample experience in the nonprofit sector, and they’ve been partnering with nonprofits like LINC (a program that helps released prisoners re-enter the general population) and the Domestic Violence Shelter to provide writing as healing workshops to those in need. In addition, they’ve begun talks with public and private schools to increase access to creative writing instruction. And if that isn’t enough, Athenian Press offers writers searching for thoughtful writing evaluation, editorial guidance and book design, including skilled one-on-one guidance. Their commitment has the backing of LuLu Press, a publisher in the Raleigh-Durham area, who will work with Athenian to help them publish their first books.
Athenian knows that its mission is one that’s new to Wilmington, and that its victories are ones that aren’t often immediately quantifiable. That’s because Athenian changes lives, one life at a time, over time. Wilson mentions a recent experience that touched her: “Someone said that we are the only place where people use the correct pronouns that they choose. At Athenian, when we talk about gender variance, we talk about how important it is to respect people’s chosen pronouns. In this case, the person was assigned female at birth but is gender- nonconforming and prefers the pronouns they and their instead of she.” Rae says it’s important for people to “ask me for my pronouns.” It sounds a little awkward at first, but when you pause to think about how bewildering and upsetting it would feel if you were routinely assumed to be someone you were not, and called by the wrong pronoun, it makes perfect sense. It’s the sort of common courtesy that one might someday find in a guide to good manners. Until then, we’re lucky to have Athenian in town, inviting us to stop by, talk, and learn from one another.
Author Virginia Holman lives and writes in Carolina Beach.