‘But I Will Write Anyway.’ Teaching the Anti-Racist Writing Workshop
Helen Betya Rubinstein in Conversation with Felicia Rose Chavez
Felicia Rose Chavez’s The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop is written to and for those who teach, but it’s hard to imagine any writer who won’t be inspired by the force of its vision. This is a book that begs its reader to “care for the writerly self,” put “hands and minds in motion,” “submit to mess,” and “start feeling.” In the classrooms we enter through its pages, there is silly-putty on the tables and aromatherapy in the air. Where the culture of white supremacy deadens, Chavez teaches her students and her readers to “come back to the body, back to life.”
Part educational autobiography and part call to action, Chavez’s book draws on her experience in arts workshops across institutions and disciplines. Given the position of creative writing courses at the nexus of an educational system deeply attached to its own whiteness and a publishing industry still overwhelmingly buying and promoting narratives in service of whiteness, the changes Chavez advocates are all the more urgent. Among the project’s offerings is a living document platforming contemporary writers of color, where readers are invited to add their own names or champion writers they love.
Though Chavez and I both graduated from the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program, our conversation over Zoom was the first time we met. Dressed in green velvets for a Christmas tea with her family, she was as warm and visionary in conversation as she is on the page.
Helen Betya Rubinstein: How did this project come into being?
Felicia Rose Chavez: I’ve had conversations with people where we’ve said, “Gosh, I remember in elementary school something just felt wrong”—this play, or this assignment. We all have these anecdotes about an experience that didn’t sit right. And yet we suffocate that voice because the norm tells us we need to comply. We suffocate that voice over and over, until it’s not easy to access It’s hard to convince yourself that the pillars aren’t immovable, that you can deconstruct them and create your own way. And this book is that journey.
At the NonfictioNow Conference in Reykjavik, Iceland [in 2017], I went to deliver a quick speech as part of a panel on diversifying the creative classroom. I was speaking about my past school experiences, specifically in the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa. And I stood up at the podium and just cried and cried. It was one of those ugly cries, where it was difficult to make the words happen, and it was out of the sense of crossing a boundary. A lot of the people I went to school with were in that room. Some of the people who taught me were in that room. And it felt like a betrayal of our camaraderie, of my complicit nature in those three years of graduate school, to access that voice, to speak about racial bias within the program.
Eventually I got through the tears, and I was able to deliver the speech. And I had writers of color reach out to me to talk about their toxic experiences, and white allies who said they want to avoid replicating harm, what can they do. And that led me to believe that this impetus to speak out wasn’t just something that I had to do as a gift to myself. It also allowed other people to speak to their own experiences. It gave me the courage to put down on the page the harm I had experienced, but also how I answered that harm within my own classroom.
Many writers of color are fearful to speak out against their professors or peers who are so privileged with the long history of exercising voice, so privileged with being at the unspoken center of what a story is, that often they’re not even aware of the fact they’re shutting down and silencing their classmates.
The essence of the anti-racist writing workshop is decentering authority and decentering whiteness, and the exercise of voice from those marginalized voices we don’t often get to hear. It’s this pedagogy of deep listening.
In one of my favorite classes I teach, students create the syllabus themselves. They’ll bring in their own “mentors,” which is what I call model texts. Those texts can range from a hip-hop song to anime to a spoken-word poet, and we each draw inspiration from that person’s mentor and create our own work in response. There’s something to putting the student at the very center of the classroom that feels revolutionary—they have the complete authority to lead and to share. They’re already writers, they already know how to do it.
HBR: How do you teach students to listen deeply?
FRC: The key is listening to themselves, first and foremost, and that’s something that we don’t often allow room for in writing classes. We don’t stop and recognize that so much of writing is psychological and deeply emotional.
We can take the time as mentors in the classroom to say, “Hey, I know that I carry a lot when I sit down to write. What do you carry?” We say what we’re afraid of. We write what fears we bring when we sit down to write. We release that onto the page, and share these aloud in an effort toward community. And we dispel this myth that writing is a mystical gift, this genius that some people have and some people don’t.
We go on to commit to writing anyway. We each say it aloud: “But I will write anyway.” And we remind ourselves. Someone will say, “But you’ll write anyway” to another person who’s like, “I’m struggling with this and I don’t like it.” They say, “No, no, no. You’ll write anyway.”
HBR: In your book, you do that exercise, too, and name your own fears about writing the book.
FRC: Still very real.
HBR: You call it “Mothering Myself.” And it follows a discussion of mothering, after a colleague of yours said, disdainfully, “It’s not our job to mother students.” You name all these ways that you bring mothering into your practice as an educator.
FRC: So many faculty members of color and queer faculty members are burdened with the extra labor of mentoring students, and that sort of mentorship is something that can be shared among all faculty. I credit an organization called Young Chicago Authors with teaching me to mentor, which is to be present, to be solid. When I think of what it is to mother, often we want to make that word feminine and frail, but as a mother—oh my goodness, I needed to be so transcendent. I needed to be subservient and I needed to be a leader simultaneously. That’s how I want to do it. To team together for a shared love.
Often, we want to impart our love onto our students. “Oh, Milton. Everybody should revere this writer.” That doesn’t always take. But when the passion is there and students are sharing what they’re digging, and you’re sharing what you are, and you’re meeting in the middle, that to me is the essence of apprenticeship. It’s “I want to learn this. Let’s work together.”
HBR: Many of the strategies in your book are bodily and tactile. How do those practices help counter the white-dominated aesthetic that gets perpetuated in so many writing spaces?
FRC: The more we rejoin voice and body, the more we benefit our students. There’s something essential about having a writer read their work aloud in real time. Paralyzed with fear, shaking, because they’re freed up to use dual languages. To say it the way they want to say it, because they aren’t afraid someone will read it wrong.
Suddenly we hear the voice from their home. From themselves. From inside of them. To me, these are means of countering the canon. We’re expanding the notion of what writing looks like. We’re deconstructing this false dichotomy of good and bad, and allowing for story to happen. And reinforcing that each and every one of us has a storytelling legacy that we’re participating in. And that to do so requires courage.
There’s such power in allowing students to write before training them in how to write. Often the model is backward: “Here’s Hemingway, now write something that sounds like Hemingway.” I love the alternative, which is, “Oh, look what you’re doing. What you’re doing is amazing. Have you heard of Sandra Cisneros? She does what you do, and that’s wild, you should check her out!” It’s flipping it. They’re the writer. And you’re enabling them to be the writer and then sharing resources to help enrich their craft.
HBR: How did you adapt your teaching to pandemic times?
FRC: I don’t think I’ve ever run such a student-centered class as I have over Zoom. We were meeting for as much as three hours a day. But we would spend that time working in tandem. Often I’d see the crowns of their heads as they were leaning over. We’d be writing by hand, or they’d be physically constructing something, but we would be doing it in community. Each student would bring a playlist, and they would be sharing music. We would spend a long time checking in with one another, in conversation about how we’re doing.
We’re still sharing food, albeit on screens. We all had waffles and we all had them together. We had a collective celebration at the end, in which they all wrote physical letters to one another. I think that it’s truly possible to achieve that sense of camaraderie. It’s hard, but it’s possible.
HBR: Your pedagogy serves the well-being and liberation of your students. How else does a course like yours extend its reach beyond the classroom?
FRC: We’ve got citizens in our classrooms, and if we want to influence future citizens to exercise voice—to vote—they need to see themselves reinforced as a presence within their own country. As a presence within their own canon. As a presence within their own system of learning.
They don’t see themselves on the page. They don’t see themselves in the faculty. They don’t see themselves speaking within their own workshops. Why would they see the importance of their voice to go forward and vote? They’re certainly not voting for themselves as a candidate, and so to practice an anti-racist writing workshop, regardless of the constitution of your student body, is essential for every one of us.
Those students in those seats will go on to work in publishing. They’ll acquire the manuscripts, they’ll hire the next professors, they’ll produce the plays. There’s no “Well, maybe I’ll start small.” We need to tackle it as a whole, classroom by classroom, in this courageous act of hope that there can be change in the future.
Felicia Rose Chavez’s book, The Anti-Racism Writing Workshop: How to Decolonize the Creative Classroom, is out now from Haymarket Books.