12 May 2014

In Defense of Junot Diaz's Critique of MFA Programs

By this point, most of us have already read part or all of Junot Diaz's critique of MFA programs in the New Yorker as being oversaturated with white faculty and white writers.  If somehow you've been hiding in a capsule hotel with a nasty case of Malaria so you haven't been able to catch up on the world, you can check it out here:


Anyway, Junot Diaz doesn't need me to defend him in any way, but I do have a few things to add to this discourse concerning the role (and also the constraints) of race in workshop.  Here are my thoughts:

1.  Most of the pissed-off comments on the New Yorker website are by white educated readers, which proves the very point Junot Diaz was making about our cultural inability to tolerate, moreover, accept race as both a construct and also a cultural and literary reality for writers of color.  In fact, the response of most of the posters mirrors the response of many writers I knew in my own MFA workshops concerning race, who either saw race as an ideological and thematic obsession for writers of color that made their writing polemical somehow (because writing about being white is never polemical), an impediment to some imaginary "pure" prose school that was supposed to focus on the universality of human beings and not their particularities, or a direct challenge to literary realism that has been dominated by white, upper-class, heteronormative, East Coast writers for so long now that the"white" narrative has become a synonym for "neutral," "standard" and "uncontroversial."  In fact, whiteness is still part of the literary default settings:  if an author doesn't specify the race of a character, most readers still assume s/he's white unless there's a stereotypical race marker.

2.  One thing most commenters failed to understand about MFA programs is that they don't share the same theoretical training or theory-obsessed culture as the English PhD programs that MFA programs are usually part of.  For example, critical PhD students rarely enroll in MFA workshops because of enrollment caps in workshops and many MFA students avoid literary theory classes whenever possible.  What this means is, it's very possible (and also very normal for MFA students) to avoid any and all conversations intersecting with minority discourse, postcolonialism, queer theory, marxist theory at all.  The point is, most MFA programs are dead spaces for the examination of racial discourse and the analysis of non-white cultural/racial narratives.  In fact, in most MFA programs not located in Oakland, California, race becomes a venereal disease that no one wants to talk about.  They don't even wanna touch it.

3.  As a hapa who reads white but is actually part Asian (Japanese) and part white (French and British), I'm actually on both sides of this dynamic.  And I have to say that I mostly agree with Junot.  I encountered a shitload of resistance when I wrote about non-white characters during my MFA years in part because of the assumptions that other writers made about my own race (which filtered what they believed I was allowed to write about and what I wasn't).  I remember in one piece I submitted to workshop, I had a desi character who I was very fond of.  For a draft, I found her to be smart, independent, complex, and intriguing.  But the workshop completely rejected her characterization, not because they found her to be an Indian stereotype (for this would assume familiarity with Indian culture), but because they didn't understand why I had an Indian character in my manuscript at all.  One white student even suggested that I put an Indian character to spice up my chapter.  That's a verbatim quote, by the way.  And when even one of my Pakistani writer friends (another desi!) in workshop vouched for both the cultural authenticity and also the uniqueness of her character, the workshop rejected his comments and then spoke over him.  Think about that for a second:  a group of mostly white writers telling a hapa writer and a Pakistani writer what was culturally authentic and culturally permissible in workshop about non-white people.  The reality is that having mostly white writers and mostly white faculty can create a hostile MFA atmosphere in which people either deny that race exists at all (either in the world or on the page), they treat race as if it were some cultural crusade to punish white people or they assume that race in fiction and in workshop is always an act of tokenism, shallowness, political correctness, white guilt or even more paradoxically, of racism.  Even worse, many white writers and faculty treat race, the issue of race and racism and racial constructions like a didactic exercise that writers bring into workshop in order to teach the workshop something, as opposed to simply being a reflection of non-white reality.  There must be a reason why there are non-white characters in this short story, they say inside their minds.

4.  Of course, writers in workshop should call out racist, hackneyed or shallow characterizations of characters of whatever race, but this shouldn't create a culture of fear or intolerance in which either people are too afraid to talk about race and racism or deal with race or racism in their own writing, or where writers are denying the cultural vocabulary of writers of color (or characters of color).  And yet, I saw this shit all the time in my MFA where white writers were the most intolerant to the topic and the examination of alternative racial realities in writing.  And the thing is, there were more than a few writers of color in my MFA (desi, Asian American, Latino), but none of them ever contributed to the discussion of race in class whatsoever.  In fact, most ran away from the topic at all, maybe because they didn't want to get dragged into the cesspool of race, derail the workshop flow or maybe they didn't share any "radical" views about race at all.  Or maybe they believed that art was about people, not race, and so they sympathized with the subtle white persecution of race in workshop.  Either way, and this is precisely where I partially disagree with Junot Diaz, even the inclusion of more writers of color in workshop doesn't necessarily dismantle the structure of white supremacy that operates silently sometimes inside workshop.  Especially if those writers of color have been trained (brainwashed) to believe that literary merit, not the translation of literary merit through the lens of class, race, gender, etc., etc., should be the sole criterion of workshop analysis.

-To read more about my thoughts about the construction of race in writing, workshop politics for writers of color, and the importance/impossibility of writing non-white cultural narratives, you can go here.

-Additionally, to read more about the ongoing problematic of teaching creative writing workshop as an instructor of color, and also the no-win situation of being a writer of color inside a creative writing workshop, check out Matt Salesses smart piece in NPR, "When Defending Your Writing Means Defending Yourself."

4 comments:

  1. Came here via the Salesses piece. This is an excellent essay (as was the Diaz). My only note would be that the comment section at the New Yorker is inexplicably unmoderated, and has a lot of commenters who are A) politically *very* right wing, B) angry, and C) not New Yorker subscribers or regular readers--*any* mention of race or racial tension fills them with rage (you see them commenting a lot on political pieces as well,

    I hate to think this might be whitesplaining--this is not about your excellent piece, more about the New Yorker's very poor decision-making around online comments. There are obviously a lot of white people in MFA programs who were also made uncomfortable by Diaz's essay, and should have considered it more. Just that there's a huge subset of New Yorker online commenters who take any mention of race as an excuse to scream and get frothy who are not representative of people in MFA workshops.

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    1. Hey Greg,

      Good hearing from you and thanks for your POV. No offense taken, by the way. The truth is, you're probably much more familiar with the New Yorker commenters than I am, seeing as I don't read it nearly as often as I used to now that my subscription has expired. And even when I do, I preferred the hard copy version. What's interesting for me about TNY posting JD's article on race is how the New Yorker is a site of class elitism and also class warfare. It's like a battle for cultural signification between what the glossy means to its educated, predominantly white readership who tends to be socially liberal, more culturally sensitive and also more culturally open-minded than the average American, and what it means to conservative white elites, who share none of the cultural politics or sympathy for the cultural politics of TNY, but recognize its cultural importance as a calling card for educate white elitism in general. Maybe this split is reflected in the comments people leave online, or maybe conservative white online readers just look for opportunities to attack the liberal blood flow of the New Yorker, I'm not really sure which it is. But you're probably right about the disparity between readers of the magazine and commenters on the website. Reminds me of the difference between people who read/listen to NPR and people who respond to NPR posts on Facebook, many of whom, don't even read the (entire) article. Thanks again.

      Peace, Blessings,

      -j1b

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  2. I came here via the NPR piece as well. A great essay! It seems they got rid of the comments on the Diaz piece altogether, which is interesting...either that or I'm stupid and unable to find them.

    I was a creative writing minor, and then major (but only to graduate earlier than my original major would allow; the amount of writing classes didn't change, only the amount of lit classes - more as a major, obviously) in college, and my experiences were what kept me from going on to get an MFA. Instead, I figured creative writing wasn't totally for me and I should buck up and get a real job Master's, which I did. And now I'm unhappy, because I'd rather be creative. I was lucky enough to have a white TA once who spoke up so that I wouldn't be the only one objecting to the two people in the same class who wrote about "going on safari" and set their stories in South Africa, where you don't really go if you want to go on safari, and had black savages instead of, you know, a bunch of white folks of Dutch heritage, in addition to the wrong languages and tons of other horrible stuff. So that was great - the TA part, not the horrible stories.

    But I still remember all the other comments on my stories in those classes that made me feel unwelcome, bored, and creatively stifled - "What does this mean?" scribbled next to the line when the character is annoyed that the hair she painstakingly straightened is curling back up because she's sweating, just for one example of being culturally clueless and taking it as a problem the writer needed to fix rather than the reader.

    I digress, but just wanted to say this was great, so thank you for writing it! I just wish more of the right people would listen.

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    1. Yeah, I agree with you. I wish more people would listen to this too. Dave Mura and I have talked about this: we've toyed with the idea of setting up a tumblr page, or even possibly creating a Handbook for Writers (of Color) that help teachers + writers of color and non-writers of color to deal with the issue of race, racism, racial constructions and the crisis/burden/rabbithole of racial representations in creative writing workshops. So far, we haven't done anything concrete, but in the future, I do think workshops (and hopefully readers) will start having this conversation more and more often as WS instructors realize they can't avoid it + writers realize they can't speak over people with different cultural and racial experiences. It's gonna take time, though, because I think writers are used to having the mic all the time and they don't like giving it up, even if they should. Keep talking about this + thanks for dropping by. I appreciate it.

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