Junot Diaz, an alum of the Cornell University MFA program, on MFA vs. POC: “Lately I’ve been reading about MFA vs NYC. But for many of us it’s MFA vs POC.” He continues,
I didn’t have a great workshop experience. Not at all. In fact by the start of my second year I was like: get me the fuck out of here.
So what was the problem?
Oh just the standard problem of MFA programs.
That shit was too white.
Some of you understand completely. And some of you ask: Too white … how?
Too white as in Cornell had almost no POC—no people of color—in it. Too white as in the MFA had no faculty of color in the fiction program—like none—and neither the faculty nor the administration saw that lack of color as a big problem. (At least the students are diverse, they told us.) Too white as in my workshop reproduced exactly the dominant culture’s blind spots and assumptions around race and racism (and sexism and heteronormativity, etc). In my workshop there was an almost lunatical belief that race was no longer a major social force (it’s class!). In my workshop we never explored our racial identities or how they impacted our writing—at all. Never got any kind of instruction in that area—at all. Shit, in my workshop we never talked about race except on the rare occasion someone wanted to argue that “race discussions” were exactly the discussion a serious writer should not be having.
. . . . .
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.
Oh, yes: too white indeed. 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.
Read the whole thing. It’s really interesting to consider the fact that all of the really big MFA programs for writers are in very rural, white places: Syracuse? Iowa??? (But of course, we could say the same about many great places to earn a humanities M.A. or Ph.D. too, like Madison, Wisconsin and Ann Arbor, Michigan.)
Diaz writes that what saved his graduate career was his immersion in Latin@ activism on the campus writ large, and laments that he and his fellow students of color didn’t come together to support one another. It’s a really thoughtful consideration of his graduate career–how he made it work for him, and his regrets now in retrospect.
Some of the comments about the absence of faculty leadership he’s seen and heard about at current MFA programs: ouch:
It’s been twenty years since my workshop days and yet from what I gather a lot of shit remains more or less the same. I’ve worked in two MFA programs and visited at least 30 others and the signs are all there. The lack of diversity of the faculty. Many of the students’ lack of awareness of the lens of race, the vast silence on these matters in many workshop. I can’t tell you how often students of color seek me out during my visits or approach me after readings in order to share with me the racist nonsense they’re facing in their programs, from both their peers and their professors. In the last 17 years I must have had at least three hundred of these conversations,minimum. I remember one young MFA’r describing how a fellow writer (white) went through his story and erased all the ‘big’ words because, said the peer, that’s not the way ‘Spanish’ people talk. This white peer, of course, had never lived in Latin America or Spain or in any US Latino community—he just knew. The workshop professor never corrected or even questioned said peer either. Just let the idiocy ride. 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. And when she tried to bring up the issue in class, tried to suggest readings that might illuminate the madness, her peers shut her down, saying Our workshop is about writing, not political correctness. As always race was the student of color’s problem, not the white class’s. Many of the writers I’ve talked to often finish up by telling me they’re considering quitting their programs. Of course I tell them not to. If you can, please hang in there. We need your work. Desperately.
9 thoughts on “Junot Diaz on MFA vs. POC”
Two dear friends of mine–a married couple–are writers and English professors. The last time I hung out with them drinking, they were ranting and raving about how the entire “workshop” system is intellectually bankrupt, and that all it does is reward emotionally stunted people for shitting on each other using florid language.
Not exactly OT, but my running mate and fellow editor at Crossed Genres, Daniel Jose Older, wrote an excellent essay recently on the (lack of) representation for writers / characters of color in the SF/F world. It was published in a couple of places, but is available online here:
“Running mate” in that we’ve both been published by CG and edit there — I don’t actually hang out with him much!
Also, I forgot to mention what a great writer he is. He’s a great writer. Read his books!
Well, I doubt Daniel Jose Older or Junot Diaz would help this ethnic white woman get her sci-fi novels published. As an egghead teen, I disdained sci-fi because it was full of Anglo MEN, with the occasional woman fetching coffee or providing sex for the hero.
I can’t pronounce on all SF/F, but the authors I read do a pretty good job of having strong women characters and a variety of racial-ethnic characters. (Even Slavic characters who are more than futuristic versions of garage mechanics.) I doubt Older or Diaz would consider them perfect (I don’t), but they are an improvement over what I first read in the ’60s and ’70s.
That said, I fully credit the idiocy described above. Which is why I was never tempted to pursue an academic literary path. (I read, I experience, I write, I can’t help it.) Knew I wasn’t the Ann Arbor type.
I’ll have to check out Older’s work. Always looking for a new (to me) good sci-fi author.
Earlier today I participated in my university’s pre-graduation ceremony for first nation (not the exact word here, but close enough) students. The university has excellent support and advocacy in place and hearing each student talk about what it meant to graduate and thank those who needed to be thanked (it’s a long event–family get to reply) certainly illustrated the importance of community. It strikes me that the academic programs with the largest first nation cohorts here also have active student groups for peer support and advocacy. And students in those programs have allies on up the ranks who give them the space and encouragement to advocate for themselves.
I understand what Diaz is saying, I think, when he regrets not growing such support as a student. But I also think that’s a pretty big ask of the younger self. He needed allies on the faculty.
Exactly, truffula–it’s the faculty support issue (& lack thereof Diaz reports) that I wanted to highlight.
sister of ye–read Diaz’s whole article; he’s clear about the gender & sexuality issues embedded in the current structure of MFA programs. In fact, he writes about his one classmate, a woman, who simply dropped out & vanished as a writer; I wish he had speculated about the role that gender might have played in her alienation, but as truffula suggests, it’s not really up to students to figure this out and do all of this labor.
Sister of Ye — both Older and I are editors at Crossed Genres, which is known for publishing fiction by and about under-represented writers and characters. That’s not just writers and characters of color, it’s also writers and characters who are women, and LGBTQ writers and characters, and writers and characters who are not from North America, and so on.
So yes! Older (who just finished editing our Music edition) would have helped an ethnic white women into publication, if she had been writing excellent fiction. I’m not even ethnic, just white and writing SF and a woman, and Crossed Genres published my first novel (and later made me an editor). Now I have published at multiple venues, and am a member of SFWA; and Older has a three book contract with a major publisher, with his first novel coming out soon.
This is a track that many of our writers have followed. We publish one new writer every month. You should check us out.
As a tiny-time writer (meaning even smaller than smalltime), I’ve been part of writers’ groups for decades. Sounds like my experience is a microcosm of the big leagues.
Yes, the main factor is who the gatekeepers are. What’s needed is people who can feel for others, whatever their identity, but it does look like the only way that’s ever going to happen is if the gatekeepers are drawn from sufficiently different groups.
That said, in my experience race was far from the most oh-we’re-not-talking-about-that subject. Maybe that’s only because there were always POCs in my groups. And class? As far as I could see, stories about poor white trash were a staple, even though nobody in any of my groups was even close to “low class.” (A lot of academics, so plenty of us were poor, but nobody ever wrote about that, which I found interesting.)
The bigotry that couldn’t speak its name was sexism and misogyny. I’d try every once in a while, gently, to discuss it when egregious cases came up. There was either blank incomprehension of why there was even a problem (what do you mean, rape shouldn’t be used as a titillating entertainment hook?) or an absolute we’re-talking-about-writing-end-of-discussion-next!. The nonwhites in my groups were all women. It made no difference. Denial that extends right down to the targets of the bigotry made me feel even more hopeless.
Faculty diversity is the key here, not simply because of the tone faculty set but because of the graduate cohort they attract. If you put Junot Diaz himself on an MFA faculty, there will be less racist nonsense, partly because Diaz won’t brook it but mostly because the students will be people who applied to the program to work with Diaz.
I went to a more diverse MFA program, partly anchored by faculty of color, and so I saw much less racist nonsense than Diaz describes (which is not to say none). But that program had a critical mass of non-white students, some of whom are now among its prominent successes. That said, everything Diaz describes rings true.
As far as the workshop model itself: it’s like improv theater. It’s not really a system. And how well or badly it goes depends largely on who’s doing it.