How Can We Make the MFA Workshop More Hospitable to Writers of Color?
Sabina Murray and Ocean Vuong on Silencing, Compassion, and Pedagogy
The dynamic in a writing workshop reflects the larger political movements in literature, while engaging the voices that shape the direction of future writing. Because of this, Creative Writing Programs find themselves on the vanguard of developing discords and are tackling problems that have to be confronted on the level of ideas, rather than in an academic mode, that is more concerned with fixing problems. In addition, POC students in workshop settings can be confronting their own set of difficulties, and these are necessary to address in an intellectually vigorous manner. Ocean Vuong, much-lauded poet, important voice in contemporary letters, and recent addition to the MFA faculty at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and Sabina Murray, award-winning fiction writer, screenwriter, and essayist, who has been teaching at UMass for over a decade, put their heads together to try to identify the problems in a broad sense, and to see what positive direction the MFA workshop could take to make the environment more hospitable to POC writers.
Sabina Murray: The creative writing workshop has been rather eloquently described as a hostile environment for POC writers. Viet Thanh Nguyen had this to say in the NYT’s Book Review: “We, the barbarians at the gate, the descendants of Caliban, the ones who have no choice but to speak in the language we have—we come bearing the experiences and ideas the workshop suppresses.”
And Junot Diaz coined the term “POC vs MFA,” creating an accepted phenomenon as he titled his essay on the subject in this catchy manner. Viet and Junot draw on their own experiences to come to these conclusions. Ocean, what were your experiences in an MFA? And what are your conclusions? Viet and Junot choose not to teach in MFA programs, and here you (we!) are. What are your thoughts on this?
Ocean Vuong: The difficulty POCs face in the MFA echoes, to my mind, the long-term tensions between people of color and large institutions as a whole. These institutions, in their genesis, were not made with brown and queer bodies in mind—and so often fail to tend to marginalized voices with the care, attention, and awareness they deserve. But things are changing. And as a teacher of color in an MFA program, I see this as an opportunity to radicalize the definition of the workshop itself into something more suitable for the myriad voices we have in our literary culture. For me, this begins with re-thinking the workshop, not as a place where correction is progress, but where recognition is the foundation of discovery. When we observe the workshop as merely a place where things must be fixed, we begin at a prescriptive stance—which can be quite detrimental to POC writers. These writers often enter the page with lexicons, vernaculars, syntax, and/or styles unfamiliar to a white patriarchal tradition, and in this prescriptive gaze, their work is often mis-read, perhaps being labeled as “wrong” or “weak” or worse, “incomprehensible.” This type of violence occurs both on the faculty and peer level, which is why fostering and establishing a culture of recognition right away in the workshop is so important.
“The difficulty POCs face in the MFA echoes the long-term tensions between people of color and large institutions as a whole.”
Ultimately, being a POC faculty in a traditionally white space is a way to recast the workshop as a place not where work is necessarily “repaired” but rather, the thinking on creativity is healed. The task for me is to turn the workshop, in its essential operation, into a healshop. Because when we begin by recognizing the silencing all writers—but especially POC—endure in a dominant and often anti-intellectual culture, we realize that to be in an MFA is to have survived into that very space. And to do good work, we must honor and respect that surviving.
You have taught much longer than I have. How was it like for you, as a Filipino native, navigating the MFA as a teacher?
SM: Being Filipino is its own thing. When people think of POC in a workshop setting, they are not usually thinking of Asians, nor Southeast Asians, and not Filipinos. Perhaps some of this comes from Filipinos being both more American—because the Philippines was a colony of the United States—or even less American—because the Philippines was a colony of the United States—which traditionally puts Filipinos in a subservient position. This unequal relationship is exacerbated by the number of domestic workers who come from the Philippines and, much of the time, define how Filipinos are seen outside their homeland. And being of mixed-race, I’m racially ambiguous and don’t really physically announce myself as a POC, even though having a Filipino mother has certainly put awareness of racism front and center for me since my earliest memories.
Not only do I come from a misunderstood culture, I often have to fight to be recognized within this defining structure. This has made me sensitive to the various undercurrents that happen in a workshop, where emotions run high. So when you speak of surviving into a space, and that space being the workshop, that resonates with me. I’ve taught for nearly 20 years, and in that time, I have had to change my approaches to creating a space that is interesting and inviting to previously silenced groups. For example, until recently, I had a real mistrust of speculative fiction. There is some vestigial notion of privileging literary writing . . . but really, what is that? There is good writing represented in all genres and I have to recognize that speculative fiction is often where revolutionary voices realize their ideas in art; revolution grows in reaction to suppression, and suppression is often the origin and default setting of many POCs. The workshop as healshop needs to equalize the validity of literary voices.
Just last week, I was visiting a class in Asian American Fiction and again the question came up: is writing Asian subject matter alienating to the majority of readers? And, of course, the response is, why can people all over the world read Victor Hugo—a Frenchman writing in the 19th Century—and not feel alienated? And my feeling, on a larger level, is that reading is the process of slowly having alienation disassembled word by word. As a Filipino, as a POC, and even as a woman, I have learned that the most insidious power structures are often invisible, and not what you think them to be.
So given that, how does resistance to soft violence look in a workshop setting? How can we, as teachers, increase the parameters of the comprehensible?
OV: I appreciate how you’re bringing invisibility into focus when speaking of marginalized bodies. What you said about not “physically announcing as POC” is so important. How does one navigate these spaces while straddling multiple lives, histories, and the ways we are seen and mis-seen? This question speaks to a notion of hidden otherness that might not always be immediately considered when we think of POCs. I grew up with a Hapa mother and, although she identifies as Vietnamese, is often mistaken for white or Latino. In these cases she needs to speak (out) in order to claim her space and sense of self. In this sense, perhaps the most vital mode for a teacher is allow a student to announce themselves, in whatever way they deem comfortable, both in the sense of identity but also in the sense of aesthetics, goals, ambitions, fears, hopes, etc.
“How does one navigate these spaces while straddling multiple lives, histories, and the ways we are seen and mis-seen?”
This is where, I think, the traditional workshop so often fails marginalized students (and, to an extent, white students as well): where the writer workshopped is often not allowed to speak. This carries with it a dated principle steeped, I feel, in a Western obsession with judgement, both in the social and Christian connotations—where the writer is suddenly stripped of her voice—and must listen to her faults. This format enacts, consciously or not, a kind of auction of the work, which can be unbearable.
You spoke of adapting and expanding your pedagogy throughout your 20 years of teaching. What are some of the challenges you’ve faced teaching as a mixed-race teacher? Do you think some of the difficulties in the workshops come from an unwillingness to change, adapt, and perhaps interrogate seemingly fixed methodologies?
SM: The basic set up for a workshop can seem punitive, and I find your assigning of western cultural modes really interesting. So often the writer is sitting silently at the table, like the bloodied ghost of Banquo, as their work is discussed. I do invite the writer to speak, although I always remind workshop members that having people discuss points of confusion only functions if the writer isn’t helpfully filling in all the blanks. And there are writers who believe that rebutting all criticism is the purpose of responding, which can make everyone else at the table feel somewhat purposeless. But beyond that particular format issue, the structure of workshop needs to be fluid.
The workshop is always shape-shifting, and cultural mores are sucked into its being. One challenge given complexity by my being a mixed-race teacher (although I’m sure this is tough for everyone) is wondering how to handle discussions around cultural appropriation and racial representation. It is mostly accepted that there is something off with art that does not reflect a realistic level of diversity, yet we are also dealing with heightened sensitivity around who gets to write about whom; for example, can white writers represent black characters without engaging in a form of exploitation? And my teacher’s confusion is to wonder how one writes anything remotely resonant with reality without writing characters who come from a number of experiences and backgrounds that we, as writers, can’t possibly intrinsically know. And what creates legitimacy?
Discussions can become so essentialist. White people can write about white people. Asians can write about Asians. A certain amount of intersectionality can give you a free pass to writing about someone else’s experience . . . I understand where it comes from, and I know that exploitation and marginalization and silencing are real. But it’s hard to be an effective instructor—helping people as they move to creating art—with all these factors at play. Ocean, what are your thoughts on cultural representation in art? How can we can be sensitive to these issues around appropriation and authenticity, while not resorting to a culture of silencing, both in the creation of work, and in its discussion?
“It is mostly accepted that there is something off with art that does not reflect a realistic level of diversity, yet we are also dealing with heightened sensitivity around who gets to write about whom.”
OV: These questions are so vital—and I think the complications they offer our thinking are actually necessary for critical and creative engagement. They make us, and therefore our art, stronger. And I think we, as teachers, are responsible for making these interrogations on race and representation the foundation of our pedagogy: to give permission to discuss issues of race, but also create a space where people get to make mistakes and then learn from them. I think that’s one of the most effective functions of the classroom itself—to be a site for both error and illumination at once, grounded in compassion.
Similar to racial and gender dynamics, issues of appropriation and representation are tied to power, which change in intensity depending on the writer and their subject. Although a writer should never be denied their desire to imagine other worlds and experiences far from their origins, the key, for me, is an approach steeped in respect, care and research. So many of the missteps in creative representation occur when the writer has clearly failed to research and explore their subjects beyond reductive and stereotypical connotations. It’s a lazy approach and huge disservice to their own project and themselves. This is where attempts at representation fail in the very way the obsession for “diversity” fails: it creates a check box rather than a doorway in which an identity-based multiplicity can be explored, learned from and ultimately built on. With that said, there are some incredible writers whose work creates space for deeply felt and intricate representations, writers like Alexander Chee, Jake Adam York, Nam Le, ZZ Packer, Joy Williams, Bill Cheng, and the persona works of the late poet, Ai, all of whom cast characters vastly different from their lives with care, diligence and nuanced attention.
This has been such a potent and lovely conversation! Sabina, do you have any final thoughts you’d like to add?
SM: Only to say that many of the problems in society are announced early in MFA programs. Art serves as a sort of amber to preserve cultural moments and is important, difficult and dangerous. The arguments that we have around the areas of language and art serve to reflect greater arguments and upheavals and in that, despite how small and insignificant the creation of novels and poems and innovative writing of any from can seem, is formed with immense power because our writing exists outside of time. When we write a poem in 2018 and it is read sometime in the next century, it will unfold with tremendous truth and potency, as in the same way the work of, say, Sigfried Sassoon unspools with all the mustard, shrapnel, and torn flesh of trench warfare. Because writers have this power, writing has responsibility, but art cannot flourish in silencing of any kind. These difficult moments in culture shifting can only be resolved through open-hearted, articulate discussion.