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. The need, then, for programs that encourage diversity in voice and experience becomes crucial if we are to begin to dismantle the predominant white wheelhouses of academia and publishing. But does the solution rest solely in the cultivation of spaces for writers of color?
I have spaces in both the traditional MFA program and in workshops for writers of color. Both have taught me much and inspired me. Both inform my work and my pedagogical approaches. Yet both have challenged and frustrated me. Both, I felt, worked in their own way to silence and discourage me. At one, a very New York, very “cerebral writer,” as one critic called this person, once led my workshop. When it came to my writing, this individual made no qualms about not “getting” what I was doing and laughed at my story and poked fun of me. At another, our facilitator was a writer who “could sneeze on a napkin, and The New Yorker would publish it,” someone once said. During my workshop, this facilitator didn’t hide an utter hatred of my story. I was raked over the coals. It was the workshop equivalent of a public thrashing. This person ranted and got violent at times, and I remember thinking, What did I do to deserve this? After these experiences, I felt confused, disoriented, and disappointed in myself. The stodgy, hierarchical MFA program doesn’t quite get me, I thought. The space specifically created for writers of color doesn’t get me either. Where do I go? I was a nomad—uprooted, dispossessed. But perhaps worst of all, I felt completely disempowered.
I teach in a traditional MFA program, at a school whose student body is very diverse. Yet my graduate students of color have recounted stories of workshop experiences where, once the specter of race is touched upon, the discussion is promptly curtailed or shut down entirely. “Don’t these professors get that my work is all about race?” one student confided in me. “So why are they so willing to cave and end class when a white student says my piece makes them ‘uncomfortable’?”
I’m not entirely sure I know what an MFA for writers of color should look like or how it should operate. But I think that such a program, if it is to be successful in its attempt to give rise to a generation of racially mixed perspectives, should recognize that it is operating within a system that was established to keep said perspectives out. Understanding its subversive position, then, gives rise to a culture of political activism that filters down into the very DNA of its structure so that everything and everyone who participates becomes an active and willing agent of change. A program for writers of color should showcase faculty whose ethnic, gender, and sexual backgrounds reflect the lived demographics and experiences of the populace it serves. Said faculty must understand, also, that they bear a greater responsibility not just as writers of color but also as practicing artists of color who must navigate the often-tense position of being both a nurturing mentor to his/her pupils and a stern disciplinarian when it comes to the work. A program for writers of color should, no, must, examine the larger publishing world’s often simplistic notions of race which are stubbornly beholden to anachronistic or unyielding depictions of “otherness” in content, style, and portrayal—notions that are very “East Coast,” and very geographic. Mexican-Americans, for example, remain as far away from the publishing world as any group could get. Thus, when my first novel was published, I got compared to Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Laura Esquivel even though my book had nothing to do with magical realism. And though many writers of color have met with great success, such structures have a tendency to deify someone as the voice of “Insert Ethnic Minority Here.” This runs the risk of drowning out other equally valid and potent voices that can speak different truths about the experiences of pan-ethnicity in the United States. These are the uncomfortable conversations writers of color must enter into when they step foot inside an MFA program or when they publish. We must recognize the academy’s willingness to embrace diversity but also its low tolerance for incivility. We must recognize that the book machine gives a certain minority writer the mic, the permission to speak for the rest who must remain quiet while these experts extol and pontificate from a position of privilege handed to them by the very systems they’re now critiquing.