Junot Díaz’s April 2014 New Yorker piece “MFA vs. POC” sums up the failings of American Creative Writing Programs simply: “too white.” Which is to say, not enough faculty of color, little to no space for the experiences of people of color, and an abiding belief that race is not the province of Literature. There are more MFA and Creative Writing PhD Programs today than ever before—and more writers of color entering them. How widely and uniformly Diaz’s critique obtains is an open question. But what should an “MFAoC,” or a fine arts education for writers of color, whether inside or outside the academy, look like? What would (or does) a creative writing education attuned to racial and social justice entail?
“I started my MFA in the fall of 2005. Like Junot Díaz recounts in “MFA vs. POC,” I, too, went in blind and young. I, too, had applied and boarded a plane to New York “with about the same amount of foresight that my parents brought to their immigration—which from my perspective seemed to be none.” I showed up to my first night of workshop with Philip Levine in a new pair of shoes that gave me blisters and a headache. Still, probably like my parents, I was over the moon. The first poem I brought in was a prose poem about being able to leave for the first time the California desertscape, and the guy who sat next to me at the oval table wrote, “I believe there can be poetry in prose, but no prose in poetry,” at the top of the page. Wrote nothing else. I remember this…”
“To imagine what an arts education for people of color could or should look like takes so much work of erasing a lot of what my arts education was for me, but also revisiting the moments that in some ways were the most painful: the times when I got what I wanted, when someone—sometimes a person of color, sometimes not—read the work through my racialized, gendered, classed body and let that information, the context of my physical form and personal politics, inform their reading in a way that substantiated what was on the page. When my mixed race body wasn’t seen as an unwelcome form of narrative in an otherwise experimental situation…”
“Permission. So much of my time was wasted seeking it. Perhaps it is a marker of upbringing, perhaps an expectation of a social role as a woman of color. To appear grateful and toe the literary line, at least in public.
‘Too white’ is not a term I could even bring up in Australia. Not something I could say to my creative writing workshop there, as they pored through the pages of my novel. I did as I was told. I gave feedback on their work, spoke of character, plot, psychic distance, metaphors, analogies. I slid myself into the expected rhetoric of these sessions, discussing the author’s work with the presumption that the subject matter was always valid…”
” ‘Tell me, Nina, have you experienced any racism before, really?’
Over the expanse of two Staples-variety folding tables, I looked up at the professor, a blue-eyed white man, and saw in his open, waiting face that he really did want an answer.
This was the third workshop of my first semester in my MFA program. I had been workshopping a series of essays that were, generally, explorations of various aspects of my identity. I reflected on my experiences as a South Asian American woman, as a Jersey girl, and as a married woman, with an eye especially toward what it means to be in an interracial marriage…”
“I’m talking about a renewal inside the black community where the idea of an MFA program has to compete with alarming dropout rates and the prison pipeline problem. The history of HBCUs makes the reality of black literary artists a little bit different. As the first Elder of Cave Canem I would like to suggest all the retreats for people of color exchange faculty among themselves and invite white literary artists who teach to give guest presentations and be guest faculty. I know a few white poets of some standing who are just waiting to be invited…”
“As the United States continues to undergo radical demographic shifts, it is no wonder the debate over MFA programs and their handling—or lack thereof—of “otherness” (both in terms of the discourse propagated by writers around the workshop table and among the professoriate) is on many a mind. I appreciate the honesty and candor writer Junot Díaz expresses as he lambasts creative writing programs (and, by default, the academy) for fostering a culture that gives privilege to whiteness. And though it’s true that writing programs must disavow themselves of this hierarchical notion and both recognize and allow the dissident voices of color and sexuality to claim their spaces at the table, the same can also be said about New York publishing and its oftentimes parochial view of race and identity…”
“What would the rankings of writing programs look like if we measured cultural diversity? How many programs actually value cultural diversity?
Many writers of color with graduate degrees in creative writing, including myself, have critiqued the lack of diversity in writing programs, as well as the lack of an appropriate curriculum for writers of color. To address this issue, writers of color have established workshops that are designed for and taught by writers of color, such as Kundiman, Cave Canem, Canto Mundo, and Vona/Voices. Here in Hawaiʻi we have discussed plans to start a similar workshop for Pacific Islanders…”
“Let’s talk about race. This is not an easy subject, especially for writers in America, where race is the thing to deny you care about as you desperately try to climb the writerly ladder of fame. Let’s talk about desperation, which all MFA (and beyond) writers have, even the cockiest, most talented, and most successful ones who have just been signed by a top agent or major publisher, or sold an option for film rights (which means by the time you’re twenty-nine you’re already yesterday’s news). Just focus on your writing, we MFA faculty tell our students, write whatever you want, the market be damned. It’s not about being a fill-in-the-blank, race-gender-whatever writer, but about being a good writer, an excellent writer. You can be Asian and write like Baldwin, or White and write like Malcolm X, or Black and write like Hijuelos, or Latino and write like Fitzgerald. Yes, yes, yes, the chorus sighs, it’s all about the work…”
“I was glad when Junot Díaz broke the lid open on that issue, not because I thought we would be anywhere near a solution, but because I knew we would be closer to a conversation. And indeed, many folks chimed in with testimonies about dealing with the indignities and injustices of being the only writer of color in their workshops. I attended two MFA programs from 1992 to 1997, and I didn’t have to point out how “lily white” my cohort was because many of my fellow students called it out as a shortcoming. At the time I didn’t think I could do anything about it, let alone protest, but I was grateful that someone other than me voiced the glaring absence of diversity. I was lucky I had instructors and classmates who were well-read, and this made all the difference. I didn’t have to explain too many of the cultural references and contexts in my work…”
“I think the desire to avoid talking and writing about race in some MFA programs stems from a fear of the practical and the rude. Race is a sweaty, uncouth thing—a little too obvious—I mean, we all know racism is bad, right? Duh? What could one possibly say about race besides that? And doesn’t the desire to write and publish about this stuff come from some place of weird white liberal guilt anyways, even when the writers and publishers of it are people of color (somehow, paradoxically, especially then)?
All these arguments are used to stop a beginning writer from trying to write about race. Sometimes they are explicitly stated to her, sometimes they are implicitly alluded to, and sometimes she tells them to herself. I know that I did…”