Sreedhevi Iyer: “MFAoC?”
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.
When it was my turn:
“What does this name mean?”
“What is veshti?”
“Why must they do this all the time? Is it a custom?”
“I don’t understand why she can’t just go back.”
“What’s the Shwedagon?”
“So what really happened – I mean, historically?”
This is in the age of Google.
I could not allow myself to refuse explanation. It was too risky a stand, when I badly needed any kind of helpful feedback as a novice writer. There were too many of them, including the mentor, on the same page, and only one of me, on a whole other chapter. So of course it was me, not them. That I had to explicate cultural background to the point of sounding didactic was my fault. I had no permission to say otherwise.
I joined City University Hong Kong’s MFA, headed by Xu Xi, in 2010. Students came from Beijing, Mumbai, Manila, Stockholm, Jakarta, Byron Bay. They were expats, migrants, hybrids, returnees—which all meant different things. There were Hong Kong-born students who’d lived most of their lives in the United States. There were British students living for years in Hong Kong who spoke fluent Cantonese.
Staff members were also similarly diverse—from Chinese-Canadians and Indians to Thai-Americans and Singaporeans.
The effect in the program was electrifying. I was not the odd one out by virtue of everyone else being so already.
I lost my self-consciousness. I said what I wanted. I agreed with some, disagreed with others—I experimented because finally I could. I wrote a short story from the point of view of a village. I wrote a satire on MFA programs. I wrote in hyperbolic prose about asylum seekers in Australia. I did whatever I wanted without excuse.
Eric Bennett, in writing the essay How Iowa Flattened Literature, mentions the four ways—although they are three, really—in which he learnt to write fiction in his MFA. First, to compress and simplify like Carver. Second, to be loquacious and charismatically chatty, like Cheever. Third, to write magical realism. However, the attempt at the fourth—in Bennett’s words, “a novel of ideas, a novel of systems…stories of full-throttle experience” was considered weird, experimental, falling outside community norms.
I wonder where the writers of color would be if they did not belong to any of the above categories, not even the fourth. What if incorporating an aesthetic natural to a writer of color falls outside these norms as well? Raja Rao wrote Kanthapura in 1938, in the form of an Indian oral tale. Chinua Achebe incorporated Igbo oral culture into Things Fall Apart in 1958—and had to explicitly reference it in the text. Eileen Chang gave up on writing The Spyring in the 1950s, and years later in 1977, she published it in Chinese as Lust, Caution. How obedient would these works have been, if Rao, Achebe, and Chang had been part of a ‘too white’ MFA program?
Diversity generates permission. It is not given from a place of privilege, nor taken as an act of rebellion. Instead, it grows and ferments with a pedagogy aware of having been historically formed. It is more concerned with enabling a safe space for the budding writer to express literary taboos on the pathway to originality. When permission informs the choice of staff, students, reading lists, classroom exercises, and workshop methods, the natural outcome might just be the liberation we all seek.