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:

Are MFA programs too white? Junot Díaz reflects on his experience:
— The New Yorker (@NewYorker) May 4, 2014

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."

Playing the Referral Game + Junot Diaz Comparisons

Yesterday, TC Boyle admitted to me in his office that he made all of us in workshop read Junot Diaz (+ 3 other authors from Doubletakes), in part because he wanted the class to see some of the stylistic similarities between Brief Wondrous Life + yours truly.

--You know, I called that, I said. I actually told someone that I wondered whether you had us read Junot Diaz because it was similar in some ways to my own writing.
--No, it's true, he said.
--But I didn't wanna be egocentric, so I dismissed it as stylistic coincidence.
--No, you were right.

Fuck, how flattering is that shit?


Last year back when were just getting acquainted in our roles as writer-mentor, I asked TC Boyle one day in his office--because I'm ambitious like that--if he would give me a referral to four agents I was particularly in love with (Nicole Aragi, who I send a query letter to pretty much every year, Mary Evans + Eric Simonoff, both of whom have never responded to me, + Georges Borchardt, Tom's own agent). His response was fair: Let's work together in workshop in the fall + then I'll be happy to. Well, I never forget a promise, especially one involving my own writing career. So after we talked about the last two chapters I'd recently workshopped from The Ninjas of My Greater Self (my second novel), I asked him again + he was good to his word. It's an easier sell now I think because he has a much better idea of my aesthetic. And also, because he was especially impressed with the first chapter I submitted to workshop, "Girls: A Four-Movement Symphony by the Beastie Boys," the good thing is that he won't have to lie about my skillz. I could be wrong, but I don't think Tom goes out on a limb for his students unless:

1. He thinks they're talented
2. They initiate it themselves

So, I think it's a good sign he was still willing to give me a referral, but it's just a small step, one that promises nothing but opens up a new, dreamy--and very unlikely--possibility. But now, the real work begins. Getting a referral doesn't necessarily mean shit in this industry unless:

1. The agent has room in her/his client list, and most importantly:
2. They love the shit out of your novel. And just as importantly:
3. They know they can sell it

And of course, even in the best case scenario that all 4 agents ask to take a look at BLANK or Love + Porn--which won't happen--it's still very possible that I'm exactly where I was before I asked him.

And yet, yet, what other choice do I have? I have to risk the possibility of rejection in order to get my writing out there + create a readership. I have to do it for me + I have to do it for my art. I don't know another way except to keep pushing. Eventually, something breaks down, right? Eventually, someone pushes through. Why not me? Why not me? I ask you.

Nicole Aragi is a Virtual Conspiracy

There are a lot of incredible literary agents out there, and none of them have a more incredible client list than Nicole Aragi. For those of you that don't know her opus--and it is an opus--let me count the ways this former bookstore owner has changed the literary landscape for the better. Here are her clients:

Rabih Alameddine, Monica Ali, Andrea Ashworth, Dennis Bock, Charles Burns, Pang-Mei Chang, Dan Clowes, Edwidge Danticat, Alain de Botton, Junot Díaz, Nathan Englander, Nuruddin Farah, Jonathan Safran Foer, David Francis, Maureen Gibbon, Paul Griner, Daniel Hecht, Aleksandar Hemon, Mia Kirshner, lê thi diem thúy, Amin Maalouf, David Masiel, Jane McCafferty, Tova Mirvis, Julie Otsuka, Victor Pelevin, Scott Phillips, Michael Rips, Joe Sacco, June Spence, Manil Suri, Hannah Tinti, Brady Udall, Chris Ware and Colson Whitehead.

Yo, wait a second: do you read that? Junot Diaz? Edwidge Danticat? Hannah Tinti? Alexsandar Hermon? Jonathan Safran Foer? Colson Whitehead? Seriously? Nicole Aragi is so good she's virtually a conspiracy.

Anyway, about once every year, I send Nicole Aragi's assistant a query letter, sort of like sending out Christmas cards for the holidays. It's sort of an annual tradition of mine. This time, maybe because my query letter sounded so fucking desperate (but honest, I have to say), Nicole Aragi's assistant was kind enough to write back. Here's what she wrote, a completely legit reply. After doing some research, it turns out that a million aspiring writers have received the same response before. So, I'm not special, but at least Nicole Aragi's assistant was courteous, punctual and honest. I can live with that. For now, anyway. . .

Here's what she wrote:

Dear Jackson,

Thank you for your interest in our agency. Sadly, however, Nicole Aragi has a full client list and is not taking on new work at the moment.

We wish you the best of luck in securing another agent


L. S.

And my reply:

Dear L.S.,

Thanks for responding so quickly. I appreciate that.

Okay, no problem. I understand. If and when Nicole does decide to take on new work later on, I hope you'll keep my query letter on file, just in case.

Enjoy June in The City.

Peace, Blessings,


My First Letter to Junot Diaz

Fresh + awake from traveling through W. Europe + Morooco, I decided to write Junot Diaz. Here's the letter I sent him:

Dear Junot,

I know you're a busy man these days after the Pulitzer madness and everything, but I'm writing you because I'm stubborn like that + I'd appreciate your help. I'll work my ass for any kind of help by the way, so I'm not looking for a hand-out or a chippie from you, just whatever you feel is deserved. But here's my deal, and I hope you'll just take it as one emerging fiction writer reaching out to an established one, and nothing more.

I've got my MFA from a pretty good program + I'll be starting my PhD in literature + creative writing at USC in the Fall, so institutionally I'm getting some support, don't get me wrong. But it's the important little things I really need your help with. For one, I have a 460-page novel called BLANK that I think rocks the joint. Like all works of literary fiction, there are holes in it, moments of self-indulgence, hang-ups + other shit. I'm not gonna lie. But in a couple ways, it reminds me a bit of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (strong, contradictory, complex characters, multiple narratives, multicultural, moments of lyrcism, all that) and that's why I'm asking you + not just any fiction star for some guidance. But the thing is Junot, this novel is superambitious + despite all of its flaws + virtues, it's using voices (chinese-american, senegalese-american, moroccan-french, indian-american) + exploring subjects (parkour, culture jamming, porn piracy, emotional voids, nymphomania) that agents aren't willing to touch, at least from an unkown fiction writer with a name that sounds like a fake-ass nom de plume. I've received lots of praise for this novel, for the ambition + beauty of BLANK, but it's usually the same shit: Jackson, you need someone who is going to passionately defend your novel, and I'm not that person. . .

I know all of this sounds wack, like I'm whining about not getting a break. But, that's not it man. I've gotten more than 500 rejections (and a few acceptances too) in the past five years from both journals + agents, I've sent partials to almost every agent whose client list shows stylistic similarities to my own, and I've been writing seriously since I was an undergrad (and I'm 35 now). I mean, I'm doing my homework, revising my stories all the time, tweaking my novel + definitely putting in my time for sure. This shit is my life Junot, and I've had so many people tell me, or stop me from writing since I was young, but I have to write. That's why I'm on this earth: to write, to create + affect. At the same time, I feel like at some point, every writer with talent, conviction + a different voice, who can't (or won't) write the typical workshop novel with all of its emotional paralysis, white despair + Freudian histography inevitably needs help from someone with power, especially when he's writing something new, audacious, unapologetic, at least before there's a market or a readership for what he does. . .That's just where I am at right now.

So, maybe if you're feeling compassionate/impatient with me, you've already jumped to the how, and asked yourself how the hell you can help me. Well, in a million ways. I'll just list some things, and if you feel like doing any of them, I'll be eternally grateful. If not, I'll be disappointed because of the person you seem to be to me, but I'll get over my shit eventually + just take it as another bump on the road to my own career. Truthfully, I get it: why would you help me? You don't owe me shit, you don't know me at all + maybe I come off as a whiny, fiction poser who wants people to eat his food for him. But part of me feels like you have a soft spot for the hardworking underdog. Well, here he is Junot. So here's a few things that could help me out. Am I asking too much? Hell yeah. But I've got to try anyway. This is my life man. . .

SOME WAYS YOU CAN HELP (in descending order of time commitment)

1. Maybe this summer, when you had a weekend free, you could read BLANK + tell me if I'm fucked in the head.

2. If you're not up to that (+ I guess I don't blame you since you have no idea whether that would be worth your time), then, maybe you could just read a few chapters + if you felt like there was promise there, tell Nicole Aragi what's up. Trying to contact her directly is like trying to break into a federal maximum security prison with a shoespoon.

3. If you don't like any of those ideas, you could let me send you some short stories for the BR. I've already sent the Boston Review 8 short stories, all of them rejected. And to be honest, I thought the last three stories might be up your alley, but I'm not sure that they even made it to your desk. Almost all of my writing is character-based, but I don't know if your fiction readers like my stuff or not. So far it doesn't seem like it. . .

4. You could kick it with me at a bar for hour in Chicago this summer, or LA in the fall onward + just talk shop with me. It means a lot to me to be able to talk fiction with someone who knows what's up + it would be inspiring. I could learn a lot from you, your life, your dedication. Not only that, but it would make me feel like the big guns in the literary world aren't too big for their fame, and that some day, with the same love, dedication + stubborness, I'll make it too. That might stupid, but that's way important to me.

All right, that's it. This is a long, fucking message, and I'm like half-sorry. But it's all real + honest Junot. I'm just telling you where I'm at + hoping that you some part of this email resonates with you, even for a second. Like I said, you don't owe me shit, but I'd genuinely appreciate your help anyway + I hope you'll do the right thing cuz it matters to me. And I think it matters to you.

Con Amistad + Agradecimiento,

--Jackson Bliss


And here's his response:

thank you for your email but im entirely focused on my own work right now and
can barely get to do that given my teaching obligations, my community
obligations, my editing obligations, and my attempt to keep a social life

this is about the 97th email of this kind ive received in just these last two
months. good luck. it is not an easy road.


And my reply:


it's cool. i know you're crazy busy + I kinda figured you'd say this. but shit, i had to try, even against all odds because there's just too much at stake. i get it though: you can't help everyone. maybe you're not even supposed to.

when i've weighed up to my class, our paths will cross I hope someday. in the meantime, i'll keep fighting.

with respect,

peace, blessings,


1,001 Nights, Junot Diaz + Asobi Seksu

Tonight has been just like 1,001 nights. my frame narrative subsumes all these little minnie narratives until i've forgotten what the frame narrative was. it was like this:

I was fucking around online, and thought i'd go to the website of this japanese singer i really like--遊びセクス--when i thought, hm, i should compare the shipping costs of having this cd sent overseas from asia with the costs of having it sen via amazon, so then, i'm on the amazon website, and before you know it, i'm looking at new ds lite videogames, rpg, yoshi's island, final fantasy 3 reviews that i've already read before, and then somehow i ended up looking up anime dvd's, which led retroactively to manga, and before i knew it, i found my way back to music, and there was asobi seksu's eponymously named album, and sure enough, it was cheaper. well, i was about to buy that, and then the amazon add said, spend, i dunno, 18 more dollars Jackson, and shipping is free. well, i thought, that's not alot, so then i took a peak at other cd's, and i found feist's new album that comes out 1 may, and i thought, okay, i wanted this anyway, and i fucking luv her shit, so i'll just buy this and that should do it, but because amazon is selling it so cheap, i was short by like 2 dollars for free shipping, so then, i ended up back where i started, video games, anime, lit magazines, manga, and then, after looking up legal drug, i realized, i really want to order issue # 2 of that one manga, what was it called? i couldn't remember so i plopped down in front of my vent, near my other manga, freebies from my hachette internship and japanese books, and before i knew it, i forgot ALL ABOUT THE WHOLE POINT OF SITTING THERE, and i ended up reading two short stories by Junot Diaz i'd never touched before, "edison, new jersey" and "boyfriend," and it was only when i was flossing in the bathroom, that i realized, oh shit, that manga's called "eternal sabbath," so then once i was finished, i came back to my computer, my order in waiting, was still, well, waiting, to be ordered, and then i found a 2nd issue of eternal sabbath, and FINALLY placed my goddamn order. that has got to be the most complicated things i've ever done online, besides try to send a complete stranger porn in saudi arabia.

There's not doubt in my mind that Scheherazade would have been proud of me.

Chuck Wachtel Gives Me Some Props for The Amnesia of Junebugs

Yo, I'm so happy. i want these words framed and put above my bed. this is what chuck wachtel, the associate professor of fiction at NYU who judged this year's sparks prize entry wrote about my submission:

Selecting this submissions as the first prize winner was easy. i was quickly engaged in the fast-paced cinematic prose, the humor, the vigorous motion of the plot. the narrator tells the story in a scatter-shot through controlled voice that at times brought junot diaz's stories to mind, at times, the earlier novels of lois-ann yamanaka. there is a surprising emotional accuracy, thus a genuine pathos: the work of this young author is already possessed of a genuine fictional beauty.

Every time i'm sad, discouraged, uninspired, self-destructive, professionally lost, creatively mercurial or just feeling like shit, i'm gonna re-read that quote and remember that for one moment, someone saw my writing exactly as i was trying to write it: cinematically, beautifully, with bursts of controlled intensity reminiscent of junot diaz. for one single second, i felt like a shorty that just met a man who understood her perfectly. if it's possible to be in love with the critical remarks of a stranger, then surely i am. in a continous flash flood of rejections, jeers and insults, it's good to have these little islands to gather strength from.