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."

Man in a Red Suit: Another Chat with TC Boyle

I had to stop by TC Boyle’s office today to pick up a recommendation he wrote for me (actually, he offered to write it before I could ask him) for the Princeton in Ishikawa program I’m applying to this coming summer to study Japanese. It was as good of a pretext as any to chat with him. So, we kicked it for a little while + just talked. He was wearing an Irish beret that made him look like a beat poet.

—Ça va? I asked.
—Ça va. He said.

Here are some of the highlights of our chat:

1. Perhaps the biggest deal for me: I told TCB that I had finally got one of my stories accepted in a literary journal he’s been published in.

—Oh, the Mississippi Review? He asked.
—No, I said, pausing for effect, Fiction.

—Oh, wow. Then you’ve arrived. That’s a great journal.

When TC Boyle tells you you’ve arrived as a fiction writer, you have to take that moment + stuff it down your throat + swallow it whole. It may never come again.

2. One of my favorite lines from Tom this month was the following. He said: We need to get published from time to time to be reminded of our greatness. It helps us through the tough times. Then I said: Well, I think you get reminded a little more than I do. Try all the fucking time, man.

3. For reasons that totally come from my own insecurity (which comes from a fear of obscurity), I sort of love the way that TC Boyle talks about my publishing future like it’s inevitable. It’s really encouraging, I guess. He says things like: Jackson, when you publish a collection of short stories, you’ll start to read reviews where one critic likes these stories but not those stories. And then another critic will hate the same stories the other critic loved and loved the stories that the first critic hated. And you won’t know what to think. Anyway, if he’s right—and statistics suggest TC Boyle knows what he’s talking about when he talks about writing—I will gladly take on that sort of ambivalent critical perception of my own writing. That ambivalence will be a privilege.

4. I told TCB something that is old news in this blog but something I’ve never told him myself. I explained how I’m just sick of the team-playing fiction writers who want to write things that are thematically safe, technically competent and basically inoffensive and apolitical, but that don’t matter in a deeper cultural sense. I’m sick of these writers, many of them with tenure (something I want very badly, as ironic/hypocritical as that is) that become domesticated by academia and department meetings. They’re just a little too comfortable in their day job, they stop suffering, their aspirations + critiques become very bourgeois + very local, many of these people, competent writers with competent novels who have learned to be likeable, all-around good guys + masters of workshop reality.

—Where do you find these guys? Tom asked.
—At AWP, I said.
—I don’t go, he said.
—I guess what I’m saying, I said, is that I want writers to take on big issues and I want them to take huge risks. I want the writing to matter. I want it to last. I don’t want the writers to worry about whether people like them or not. I want writers to write things that have significance, that make a statement about our culture, that provoke discussion.

TCB nodded a little bit. For a second, I think he was feeling me.

5. Tom confessed to me that he was a bit weary (or at least exhausted) of his insane schedule of writing, touring + teaching. I told him that some of us came to USC just to work with him. He said he knows + he likes that his teaching gig forces him out of his Frank Lloyd Wright house. Plus, he enjoys talking with smart people about writing, something he’s passionate about.

6. TCB admitted that he almost never reads reviews of his work, especially negative criticism. He said some critics really can’t stand that he’s having the time of his life writing.

Besides, he said: —Why read the bad stuff when there’s so much positive stuff out there? When you’re TC Boyle, you can say that + get away with it. But for many of us, we don’t get reviews + the bad shit might be the only stuff we can get.

7. After a pause in our conversation, I said:

—Nice NPR interview, referring to his recent interview with Tom Ashbrook.
—Which one? He asked.
That’s when you know you’ve made it, when you have too many NPR interviews to keep track of.
—And you didn't even see me in my red suit, he said.

As it turns out, TC Boyle has been wearing a red suit to his readings on his book tour for The Women. It's not a Frank Lloyd Wright cape, but it'll do I guess.