Cornell University Creative Writing

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What might have been.7Lately I’ve been reading about MFA vs NYC.

But for many of us it’s MFA vs POC.8To fast-foward: in the end I became a published writer and one of the first things I did with that privilege was join some comrades to help found a workshop for writers of color. A kind of Cave Canum, but for all genres and all people of color.

Where our contributions were not an adjunct to Literature but its core.

We’re on our fourteenth year now and the workshop has become a lot of things. We’re a space of learning, of personal growth and yes, at times, of healing. For me it’s an attempt to do over that lousy MFA I had.

In my workshop what was defended was not the writing of people of color but the right of the white writer to write about people of color without considering the critiques of people of color. I could write pages on the unbearable too-whiteness of my workshop—I could write folio, octavo and duodecimo on its terrible whiteness—but you get the idea.

Simply put: I was a person of color in a workshop whose theory of reality did not include my most fundamental experiences as a person of color—that did not in other words include . No wonder me and some of the other Calibans in the program—my Diné buddy, who I’ll call Ichabod, and this Caribbean-American sister, who I’ll call Athena—talked constantly about the workshop’s race problem, about the shit our peers said to us (shit like: Why is there even Spanish in this story? Maybe it was characterlogical—I was just a stubborn fuck.

From what I saw the plurality of students and faculty had been educated exclusively in the tradition of writers like William Gaddis, Francine Prose, or Alice Munro—and not at all in the traditions of Toni Morrison, Cherrie Moraga, Maxine Hong-Kingston, Arundhati Roy, Edwidge Danticat, Alice Walker, or Jamaica Kincaid.

In my workshop the default subject position of reading and writing—of Literature with a capital L—was white, straight and male.

This white peer, of course, had never lived in Latin America or Spain or in any US Latino community—he just knew. (One of our crowning triumphs, something I still take pride in, was that we were able to push through our first fiction faculty of color in the MFA program, Helena Maria Viramontes—how perfect is that? Wrote about her Island and its diaspora, their beauty and agonies with a clarity and sympathy I’ve never seen matched. Instead of pulling together we Calibans had all descended into our own spaces, taking the bus home every chance we got.

The workshop professor never corrected or even questioned said peer either. Another young sister told me that in the entire two years of her workshop the only time people of color showed up in her white peer’s stories was when crime or drugs were somehow involved. If I wrote it in a book no one would believe it—too pat—but that’s exactly what happened. She was also about the only ally I had in my actual workshop and one of the people in workshop who had the greatest impact on how I write today. Early that fall (I think) Athena moved home; and I have never heard from her again.


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