Craig Santos Perez
At the 2014 annual conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP), I attended the plenary session for writing program directors. The main topic of the plenary was “hallmarks of success.” During the discussion, I recommended that AWP add faculty and student diversity as a hallmark. I was one of the few program directors of color in the room.
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.
What should a writing curriculum for minority and indigenous look like? In my opinion, an understanding of various strategies and techniques of writing culture is crucial, with a focus on indigenous, minority, and “Global South” literatures. Additionally, the aesthetics and theories of multilingual writing and translation should be emphasized. Next, political and social justice writing, a proud tradition inherited by writers of color, should be prominent. Lastly, the poetics and praxis of orality, performance, and spoken word should be prominent.
Writing programs should also incentivize community, civic, and environmental engagement through literature and creative writing. Writers of color should be visible and integral parts of our communities in order to inspire, empower, educate, and entertain our peoples.
I am proud to share that we are building such a program at the University of Hawaiʻi, at Mānoa. Our Creative Writing Program is situated within an English Department that offers an MA and PhD in English with a creative writing emphasis (we are currently proposing to add an MFA degree to our offerings). Our students are required to take courses in the other concentrations in our English department, including Cultural Studies, Composition and Rhetoric, and Literary Studies.
The graduate courses offered in our department include courses in Indigenous, Hawaiian, Pacific, Asian American, African American, and Post-Colonial literatures. We also offer courses in translation and translation theory because many of our students are multilingual. Additionally, we teach courses that focus on the craft, techniques, forms, and structures of creative writing.
This year we have also inaugurated a Community-Engaged Literary Initiative, which aims to foster engagement by organizing literary events in the community and providing scholarships to students who are interested in such work. Our students are already contributing as writers to the issues of climate change, youth empowerment, incarceration, food sustainability, labor rights, immigrant rights, and indigenous rights.
Another aspect of our program that makes us unique: the majority of our creative writing faculty and graduate students are writers of color. Another rarity: I, as an indigenous writer, am currently the Director of the program.
Our program is far from perfect, and we have a lot of work ahead of us if we are to accomplish our goals. However, I believe we are heading in the right direction by creating a writing program that addresses the needs of all writers.