It has been almost seven years since Junot Díaz criticized MFA programs for their mistreatment of writers of color in a viral piece in the New Yorker, “MFA vs. POC.” Since then, not much has changed. MFA programs across the country continue to consist of mostly white faculty teaching workshops that continue to operate on mostly the same model of silencing the writer in favor of hearing from the author’s peers.
Although faculties need to become more diverse, the easiest and most immediate change, a change that is long overdue, is to workshop pedagogy itself. The creative writing workshop has remained largely the same for eighty years or more, and it was never designed to encourage writing from Americans of color. The workshop’s mistreatment of difference stems from the very foundation of what the workshop is and does.
The creative writing workshop, with its silenced-author model (sometimes known as the “gag rule”), was popularized by the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which was the first MFA program in the United States and remains, arguably, the most influential. Much of that influence can and has been credited to the poet Paul Engle, who directed the Writers’ Workshop in its Cold War years from 1941 to 1965. Engle raised an impressive amount of money from some of the most powerful people and organizations in the country, including the Rockefeller Foundation, the State Department, and the CIA.
Scholar Eric Bennett chronicles Engle’s directorship in his 2015 book, Workshops of Empire: Stegner, Engle, and American Creative Writing During the Cold War (University of Iowa Press, 2015). Bennett links Engle’s fund-raising efforts to the standardization of “craft.” In order to satisfy both its Cold War funders and the academy, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop prioritized style and form over ideas and content and facilitated “the creation of an ideologically informed canon [of dead white men] on ostensibly apolitical grounds.” Engle, who himself was accused of Communist sympathies, promised that the workshop would spread American ideology.
In fact, the “gag rule” model of workshop bears an unmistakable resemblance to one of Joseph McCarthy’s Un-American Activities Committee hearings. A group of the writer’s peers, under the leadership of a published writer, reads the author’s manuscript and then takes turns listing merits and faults (while the author sits silently in defense), until the published writer offers his final judgment.
This workshop model persists because creative writing pedagogy is mostly a matter of what Kelly Ritter and Stephanie Vanderslice, in 2007 called “lore,” not theory or data. Instructors of creative writing generally do not receive training; rather, they teach the workshop as they experienced it as students.
Like a hearing, the workshop operates by rooting out and criticizing deviance to a standardized norm (“craft”). The author then takes home the marked-up manuscript and makes changes to return the manuscript to the norm. Indeed the goal of most creative writers in MFA programs is to escape workshop unscathed—to be told unanimously that the manuscript has nothing wrong with it.
What this goal makes clear enough is that the workshop was not intended to encourage difference. What should also be clear is that the norm of craft is, in fact, the norm of whiteness, maleness, ableness, straightness, etc. Pulitzer Prize–winner Viet Thanh Nguyen puts it this way in theNew York Times:
As an institution, the workshop reproduces its ideology, which pretends that “Show, don’t tell” is universal when it is, in fact, the expression of a particular population, the white majority, typically at least middle-class and often, but not exclusively, male. The identity behind the workshop’s origins is invisible. Like all privileges, this identity is unmarked until it is thrown into relief against that which is marked, visible and outspoken, which is to say me and others like me.
Difference—diversity—should be the workshop’s greatest asset. A workshop in which everyone thinks the same and is trying to reach the same norm is, by its nature, unnecessary. The author would have no need of her peers if they were all of the same opinion. A conversation without difference is not a conversation, but a mob.
I happen to live in the same city where Paul Engle was born and teach at the same small liberal arts college where he did his undergraduate degree, Coe College. I have taught creative writing in Coe’s Paul Engle room—though in my workshop, the author speaks and questions rule over criticisms. Coe is currently committed to addressing long-standing systemic inequity. Partly as a result of the Black Lives Matter Movement, universities across the country have made similar commitments to diversity and inclusion.
Those commitments, if they are to be meaningful, must address an institution’s core values. The basic change needed is to stop seeing diversity as a threat to the norm and to start seeing the norm as a threat to diversity. The creative writing workshop is a microcosm of the institution—though it has typically silenced its least privileged voices, its true potential is in the very voices you can’t hear on the page. It is time for the workshop to let the actual, diverse voices in the room lead.
Matthew Salesses is the author of the best-sellers Craft in the Real World and The Hundred-Year Flood, and the PEN/Faulkner–longlisted novel Disappear Doppelgänger Disappear, among others. He was adopted from Korea.Thumbnail: Grace Salesses
I’ve taught creative writing at the college and university level for seven years. I’ve taught all-ages poetry, creative writing, and performance workshops with nonprofits and community centers for the past thirteen years. I’ve experienced trauma during my undergrad and graduate writing workshops, when I was asked to translate myself and cultural backgrounds as a Filipinx woman and first-generation college student, and to clarify my experiences with sexual abuse and more. I was asked to perform whiteness through “imitating” white poets. I was also asked to perform my brownness and “foreign exoticness” to a white audience. I’ve been in “dead author” workshops (also known as the traditional workshop) for my entire education. Through this model, the writer is silent while the professor, or a classmate, clumsy or emboldened by the professor’s lack of guidance, begins to eviscerate the work. Everyone else then joins in.
Today I teach my classes and workshops with a very different approach. We begin with creating community guidelines (notice how I wrote “we”—I offer but don’t dictate) on how to interact with one another, the texts we’re reading, and one another’s work. We check-in at the start of each class—everyone says their name then shares a highlight of the week. Folks actually start to care about, or at the very least are interested in, one another. We also talk about how to handle involuntary racism and discrimination in our work. I’m a supporter of “calling in”—or addressing harmful behavior by first talking it through in an open, respectful fashion that does not call out or shame people—as a method and sometimes the whole class feels comfortable enough to do this as a collective conversation.
Regarding workshop I share my own experiences. I tell them how much I hated workshop for the reasons I listed earlier. I ask them about their own experiences, and we unpack them. No surprise—they, too, have experienced trauma, racism, sexism, transphobia, and more. We read “Viet Thanh Nguyen Reveals How Writers’ Workshops Can Be Hostile,” a short, accessible, and informative history on writing workshops from a Vietnamese refugee writer’s point of view published in the New York Times in 2017. We unpack the “invisible origins” of the writing workshop—Nguyen cites Eric Bennett’s book Workshops of Empire: Stegner, Engle, and American Creative Writing During the Cold War (University of Iowa Press, 2015) in tracing it to a midcentury American fear of Communism—and how it’s marked by whiteness. We talk about how today’s writing workshop format was informed by this fear and a move toward individualism and individual art-making. We talk about how the “gruff” (read: toxic, masculine) style of communicating feedback to students was informed by the militaristic settings familiar to World War II veterans, who were the predominant workshop attendees during this time.
Then I ask my students, “So, what kind of workshop do you want?” I tell them that a workshop is a form like any other—a TV show, a film, a poem. It can have varied yet specific uses, depending on the writer and the piece. For example, do you have a rough draft of a poem or story that you feel uncertain about? Maybe you want to be inspired by other works similar to your draft. In the Gift Method of workshop, students bring in art, poems, films, and other media that speak to the craft and content of the workshop poem or story. Students share why their “gift” reminds them of the piece. Or maybe the student has a poem or story in response to queer feminist theory. The student can assign an article alongside their piece. The workshop then discusses the workshop text alongside this article, foregrounding queer feminist theory.
Students brainstorm other workshop formats depending on what they need, and of course this varies depending on the piece. Here are some of these format titles (if you want descriptions, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Workshop Formats”): the Oprah Method, the Mix-Up, In the Dark, and the Exquisite Corpse. In my classroom each writing workshop format changes from student to student, depending on personal preferences. I tell them a format might fail, but we’ll all learn something from it.
The writing workshop and the creative writing classroom suffer from a lack of imagination. They suffer from cyclical trauma, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and classism. It’s our job, alongside our students, to change this.
In his New York Times piece, Nguyen writes that “the ‘workshop’ invokes the nobility of craftsmanship, physical (not intellectual) labor—and masculinity.” We need new metaphors. In the workshops I’ve facilitated, I’ve witnessed students create tremendous joy as they center themselves and their stories in the curriculum. The workshop is no longer a “workshop” but a greenhouse, a director’s cut and commentary version of a favorite film, or a boba tea shop. Over the years students have agreed upon a wide variety of new models, but the following guiding principles recur in our classroom conversations—community, accountability, rigor, and joy. The workshop is no longer an instructor-centered space where individualism and scarcity models of “genius” and publishing reign. The workshop no longer serves an invisible history of whiteness, a history made invisible because of whiteness. The workshop space becomes a community, an extension of students’ lived realities, rather than just another institutional space where they are asked to check themselves at the door. I admit that this tension persists as I teach workshops at a university, but the power of the academy is one more thing to make visible, to question, and to resist. Here, in this reimagined workshop space, students create literary magazines centering BIPOC trans and queer writers. Here students break bread and make fun and call in or out. Here students already know that they are writers and poets. We listen to one another with authenticity and verve.
When developing classes and curricula, I consider the following questions.* But before we get to them: If you’re a white educator, or an educator with privilege, stop. Have you read books on whiteness and your own role in it—even or especially if you’re a non-Black POC? Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor (Sourcebooks, 2020) by Layla F. Saad and How to Be an Antiracist (One World, 2019) by Ibram X. Kendi are great starts. (Remember, this is a start. Read the bibliographies in those books and keep going.)
1. Have you read “A Talk to Teachers” by James Baldwin? If not, read it.
2. Are you reading widely? How often do you read white writers versus Black writers and other POC writers? And are you reading a wide range of work by Black writers and writers of color, e.g., speculative fiction, poetry, nature memoirs, science and food writing? Are all of the books you read about Black people and people of color centered around violence and trauma?
3. What is your own writing’s relationship with white supremacy? Anti-Blackness? Anti-racism? Queerness? Intersectionality? Are forms of white supremacy, misogyny, anti-queerness, and/or anti-disability perpetuated in your work? (Read, read, and read to learn about your own biases. Do the work. Journal it out, if you need to. Please don’t burden your colleagues of color with this.)
4. What is your own relationship with the writing workshop or the creative writing classroom? What trauma did you experience as a result of this exchange? What privilege did you experience? How have writing workshops failed you? How have you benefited from them (like one-on-one mentorship with a professor, a publishing deal, an exclusive workshop for a small subset of students)? Which privileges allowed you to reap these benefits?
5. In the past, when students have come to you with troubles in the workshop, how did you deal with the situation? Did it lead to a safer workshop environment? Do students feel safe coming to you with issues in the first place?
6. What kind of emotional labor do you expect students to perform? Do you ask students to explain their ancestry and history to the class?
7. What does an ideal writing workshop look like to you? A robust conversation or a quiet creative exchange? Other possibilities?
8. Consider your own learning and teaching style. Which students will succeed from this? Which students will be left out and how can you reach them?
The following are pedagogical questions* to ask yourself about the work of leading your own anti-racist creative writing class. I also recommend reading Dena Simmons’s “How to Be an Anti-Racist Educator,” which includes more valuable questions to consider, and checking out Neil Aitken and Dao Strom’s De-Canon project (), which showcases work by writers of color and information and essays on how to navigate the creative writing classroom.
1. Have you and your students set up community guidelines for class discussions? Workshops?
2. Which guidelines have you and your students set for student participation and your participation? Do you set the tone for discussions and workshops, or do students?
3. Which guidelines have you and your students set for instances of racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination in the classroom and in student work?
4. Which texts are you teaching?
5. Whose work is considered “in the canon” or universal in your genre? Why? (Are you having this conversation with your students?)
6. Are marginalized writers—Black, Indigenous, and people of color—on your syllabus and reading list? Remember “inclusive” or “diverse” doesn’t mean anti-racist. How can you, as an educator, highlight craft and context in these conversations?
7. If you are teaching the work of writers of color, are you just teaching “voice” and content, or are you also teaching craft (or how these writers challenge craft)?
8. Are narratives by writers of color you teach centered only on trauma? If so, why?
9. Are narratives by writers of color you teach already in the canon? Are you teaching contemporary writers as well?
10. Are students of color expected to “show, not tell” in their work?
11. Are students of color asked to translate easily Googled cultural artifacts? Are these students expected to give an entire history of their cultural backgrounds?
12. Which protocols do you have set in place in your syllabus or in community guidelines to avoid placing this emotional labor on students?
13. What is the environment of your writing workshop? Is it hostile toward marginalized writers as Viet Thanh Nguyen argues in his article “Viet Thanh Nguyen Reveals How Writers’ Workshops Can Be Hostile”?
14. Does your writing workshop take on a “dead author” format? Why? Whose voices are silenced here? Whose are amplified?
15. Do you have accessible office hours in person and online? Do students of color feel comfortable talking to you? If not, examine why.
*If you use these questions in public, please cite me.
Rachelle Cruz is the author of the poetry collection God’s Will for Monsters, winner of an American Book Award and the 2016 regional winner of the Hillary Gravendyk Prize. She also wrote and edited Experiencing Comics: An Introduction to Reading, Discussing, and Creating Comics. (Cognella Academic Publishing, 2018). She lives in southern California.
I remember a story I last workshopped in my MFA program. It’s a story about Soma, a call-center agent in India who has to ignore daily encounters with American racism. In my story’s climax she has to empathize with a white woman accusing Indians of being lazy and stealing American jobs; it’s the only way for Soma to retain her job and ensure her family’s survival.
In workshop we followed the classic “Iowa model” of feedback through which each of my peers would comment on my story while I’d stay quiet and listen. My peers talked about the good or poor execution of craft in the story—sentences, style, use of details, and so forth—but no one commented directly on the story’s climactic moment or mentioned the word racism even though it was at the heart of my story. A white male peer sighed and said he had nothing to offer me as feedback; he couldn’t relate to my brown protagonist who goes through too much. Another peer nodded, a white woman. Soon thereafter one of the two workshop leaders stopped the peer discussion and reminded the group of its racial majority before steering it toward a more helpful conversation. It didn’t escape me then that the white man speaking up about race in my workshop was a Jewish writer married to a Black woman.
This isn’t yet another story about how rough I had it in my MFA program as a brown immigrant woman. It is, instead, a story about a greater reality of MFA programs that begs for a reevaluation.
In recent years the U.S. literary world has established what a traditional MFA—seen as a white nationalist, Judeo-Christian, hetero-patriarchal space in its aesthetic ideology—does to Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC); women; LGBTQIA+ or immigrant writers; or those with disabilities. My experience, à propos, wasn’t much of an exception. Besides, contemporary American writers, mostly of color, have talked at length about this: Junot Díaz, David Mura, Joy Castro, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Matthew Salesses, and Bich Minh Nguyen, to name a few. In her incisive keynote at the 2016 AWP Annual Conference & Book Fair, poet Claudia Rankine reiterated how creative writing programs, with their white majority faculty and students, work to maintain whiteness as the workshop’s unspoken norm. “The insistence that white supremacy doesn’t continue to be our dominant frame takes work,” she said. “The belief that white lives are not political lives with political privilege and protections takes work. The failure to push back against systems that subjugate others takes work. The constant unwillingness or inability to retain diverse faculty takes work.”
I chose to pursue creative writing after a doctoral and postdoctoral tenure in transnational literature as a non-Christian, non-passing brown woman who grew up in a “Third World” country that, thanks to a white colonial rule, went from being one of the world’s most prosperous economies to a poster child for global poverty, a country now flexing its own imperialist agenda in South Asia: India. On this personal and professional path, I learned something about power in a world of “high art,” including literature. By the time I became a U.S. citizen, I also learned the education that gave me a language to talk about systemic oppression was delivered in institutions built by Black labor on stolen Indigenous land. So before I talk more about the MFA, race, and power, I acknowledge my own privilege within the system—my cishet, able-bodied privilege; my educational privilege; the privilege of my lighter skin and brown ancestry that wasn’t subject to the same degree of white brutality as Black and Indigenous communities who survived a history of slavery, mass genocide, or forced displacement, and its aftermath in the United States. I acknowledge the privilege of my current citizenship in one of the world’s richest countries, too, an imperial power known in recent history to bomb people of my skin color elsewhere on the planet.
I pause here to affirm strands of my intersectional identity—vast, complex, and ever-evolving as anyone else’s—and privilege because it is through a denial of one’s racial identity and position within the system, denial often practiced in favor of an allegedly universal humanity, that systems of oppression perpetuate their status quo; this includes a reign of white supremacy in the literary arts. A disclosure of one’s identity and privilege within white or non-Black communities of color seem to me even more important in this current historic moment, in our ongoing national and global conversations on race, since they’re rekindled—yet again—at the expense of countless Black lives. Lastly, a term like BIPOC—an important revision to POC—stands for a majority of our planet and encompasses a multitude of histories, contexts, traumas, as well as hierarchies within and across each ethno-racial subgroup. I’ll be using BIPOC hereafter in a broad way, yet I do so aware that any use of the acronym as a facile, monolithic opposition to white reenacts a history of erasure toward communities of color that a “woke” literati is trying to redress.
It is time to rethink the MFA because the U.S. literary world seems to be on the precipice of change once again—in theory if not in practice. In June the Black Lives Matter movement spread across the United States to protest a long-standing history of racialized violence and police brutality against Black Americans, including the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tony McDade, and Rayshard Brooks, to name a few in a very long list. The protests soon spread across the globe to reckon with other forms of systemic oppression in other historical contexts—colorism, casteism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, or heteronormativity as they often intersect with racism; the social inequalities within a global landscape were further exacerbated and unmasked by COVID-19. As if to catch up with a national and global movement of resistance, the U.S. literary world professed reawakening to its white supremacist realities. Arts and cultural organizations, colleges and universities, literary magazines, and publishing houses sent out statements of solidarity with Black Americans, pledging to fight racism and systemic oppression at large. On June 3, 2020, the Association of Writers & Writing Programs stated its intent “to amplify Black voices” and its mission “to champion diversity” in the field of creative writing. In the next few days the president and board chair of the Poetry Foundation both resigned after writers criticized the organization for its measly response to Black Lives Matter protests. Less than a week later, more than half of the National Book Critics Circle’s twenty-four board members, which included six people of color, resigned over internal conflicts about racism, privacy concerns, and political correctness. If a fiercely defended ideal of literature as the realm of “the personal” became “political” for a white liberal world in November 2016, the same coterie seemed to march toward wokeness in June 2020, talking art and social justice with a fervor it used for years to divorce the two.
I return to the MFA within this scene because it’s a key incubator for current citizens of the U.S. literary world, including winners of several prestigious awards. The MFA is the degree writers use as their calling card for the publishing world; it’s what gatekeepers like editors and agents often consider when reading a piece of writing from the slush pile; it’s what you need to get a teaching job in the academy; it’s what can give you time to work on your craft and book. Elif Batuman echoes the degree’s status in her controversial essay “Get a Real Degree,” published in 2010 in the London Review of Books, calling the MFA “the single most determining influence on postwar American literary production.” Richard Jean So and Andrew Piper further show how the degree is a big business. They reported in 2016 for the Atlantic that there are more than 350 graduate creative writing programs in the United States, which together bring in more than $200 million a year in revenue. In his 2017 New York Times piece “Viet Thanh Nguyen Reveals How Writers’ Workshops Can Be Hostile,” Pulitzer Prize winner Viet Thanh Nguyen further stated how the U.S. writing workshop—the MFA’s key component—is a form of empire spreading globally to legitimize “good” storytelling, “an object lesson in how power propagates and conceals itself.”
In short, the MFA is so interlocked with how many contemporary writers publish and earn a living in the United States and who gatekeepers herald as the next rising star that it needs to be put on the spot if the literary world is serious about examining and redistributing institutional power.
I quit an academic path in literary criticism for a long-deferred dream of creative writing once I could afford the choice; unlike MFAs most PhD programs offer their students full funding. Although my PhD gave me a rigorous training in reading power within the world of stories—a skill I owe first to my Black woman mentor—I chose an MFA because I wanted to break up with academic English and write for a broader audience. I was eager to learn what a traditional MFA is best known to sell—craft, even though I knew it’s a tradition rooted in Eurocentrism, like most of “canonical” literature and literary criticism. When it comes to craft I remain indebted to my MFA mentors for making me a better writer, including the rare privilege I had to work with a superb brown woman writer, a visiting faculty member. My MFA mentors attuned me better to language; they shared valuable insights on scene-building and story structure, steered me toward reading intuitively and trusting the organic unfolding of a story—foundational lessons on any writer’s path. Most of all it’s my MFA community across the racial spectrum who cheered me on the path of becoming a writer when my brown American family with a working-class background belittled my creative aspirations, perceiving the latter as lazy or pretentious life choices.
My intention here isn’t to dismiss the lessons on craft I learned throughout my MFA from which I undeniably grew. But I share the experience of workshopping my story about Soma now—as the U.S. literati continues to confront the intersection of art and power—because what struck me wasn’t the palpable discomfort a conversation on race generates within white institutional spaces, something I knew well from my long tenure in the Western academy. What struck me about that workshop moment in one of our country’s most elite writing programs was the degree of silence on racism even when it was at the core of my story. As we talked about the execution of craft in my story, I don’t remember craft-based questions specifically on the story’s climax coming up in my workshop’s peer discussion. Was my depiction of the scene convincing when Soma deals with her racist client? Was the point of view effective? What about dialogue between characters in that charged encounter? When I processed my experience while thinking through story revisions, the chasm separating two siblings of the literary arts became clear to me, or rather, the bitterly divorced couple of most English departments in the American academy—“literature” versus “creative writing.”
An ideological split in an American literary world struck me because, as shared earlier, I came to the MFA after a long tenure in studying and teaching contemporary multiethnic literature in which my mentors and peers—across the racial spectrum—could have a fruitful conversation on systemic oppression that included racism and xenophobia within a world of stories. Moreover, at UCLA, where I was teaching while pursuing my MFA, my undergraduate students across the racial spectrum seemed more adept at talking about a story’s relationship to social justice than most of my white MFA community ranging in age from twenties to eighties.
My point here isn’t to idealize literature programs over MFA programs, as if critical thinking and creative writing are mutually exclusive endeavors, except that they do seem mutually exclusive in U.S. workshop culture. Neither is my point to gloss over the daily encounters with institutional racism I experienced as a literature student or faculty member of color. White allyship, however genuine, isn’t free of white privilege or white fragility, and this includes a “woke” world of arts and humanities in the U.S. academy, something scholars of color constantly write about and must navigate. That said, the stark silence over race that I encountered in my workshop has a lot to do with the workshop’s history itself, I believe, in addition to its ethno-racial demography.
Viet Thanh Nguyen cites Eric Bennett’s Workshops of Empire: Stegner, Engle, and American Creative Writing During the Cold War (University of Iowa Press, 2015) to remind us how the traditional U.S. writing workshop originates from the country’s midcentury fear of Communism, a historic moment that promoted creative writing “as a defense of the individual and his humanistic expression.” This freedom of self-expression is perpetuated in most MFAs through a fetishization of craft, often associated with a toolbox of skills, with, as Nguyen says, “physical (not intellectual) labor—and masculinity.” Here individual freedom of expression is defended at the detriment of collective responsibility; it’s defended in order to dismiss politics in general and the so-called “identity politics” of BIPOC in particular. Elif Batuman argues that, due to a pedestalization of craft, the MFA is trapped in time and emblematic of a writing culture “produced in a knowledge vacuum” where the “right” use of adverbs, adjectives, and individual perspectives are considered way more important to a writer’s formation than an understanding of their relationship to the world and history.
To me what’s truly dangerous about this ahistorical, apolitical ideology and pedagogy of storytelling is that it exempts white writers from confronting whiteness in any way, including their recent racial history of colonizing 90 percent of the planet’s land surface through the power of white storytelling speaking for the other—an amnesia in favor of a white literary world, an omnipotent memory for BIPOC dealing with the aftermath of this amnesia on a daily basis. It is this battle over amnesia versus memory that reignites, it seems to me, the tired debate on cultural appropriation and freedom of self-expression, dividing the literary world every few months into two implacable teams: white versus BIPOC. Think white writers publishing under an Asian pseudonym to benefit from “diversity,” or donning a sombrero to promote artistic freedom, or calling sensitivity readers “a cottage industry”; think publishers celebrating the rigging of a white author’s best-seller on brown undocumented migration over party decor of barbed wire evoking the U.S.–Mexico border—to reference a few in a long list of recent literary wars.
Thankfully there’s more to our U.S. literary family than the grim picture I paint above. During the midcentury rise of the writing workshop, another history marked a turning point in the reading of literature, here in the United States. The civil rights movement, the decolonization of Asian and African countries, and the student activism of the sixties led to the establishment of area, ethnic, and postcolonial studies, followed soon by LGBTQIA+ and disability studies in the American academy, all of which challenged Eurocentric assumptions in the production and consumption of knowledge, especially in the humanities and the social sciences. These newer disciplines brought an overdue comparative perspective that decentered the able-bodied, straight white male or Western “narrator” who spoke as the unquestioned norm in most forms of Knowledge including Literature (emphasis on capital K and L). Many of my pre-MFA peers and undergraduate students across the racial spectrum learned how to read and understand stories within this interdisciplinary legacy, one that isn’t devoid of Eurocentrism yet offers a necessary shift in point of view—that revered darling of lessons in craft.
In June, when my inbox was inundated with solidarity statements by literary institutions pledging to break the silence on race and systemic oppression, I received another e-mail informing me that Soma’s story was going into print in the Kenyon Review. Staring at my mailbox and recalling my workshop experience, I wondered just how will the administrators, faculty, and students of the traditional MFA hereafter confront their legacy of silence, if not their proactive resistance to questions of race and social justice? This, especially when core—not visiting or adjunct—Black, Indigenous, and other faculty and students of color continue to be an obvious minority in most MFA programs, where chairs or directors, unlike those of literature departments, continue to be overwhelmingly white. What would action toward systemic change in the MFA—beyond statements and diversity committees—actually look like?
Here I could list concrete ways to dethrone white nationalism in the literary arts, as if BIPOC across the world haven’t been sharing this labor since the planet’s decolonization—literal if not figurative—in the mid-twentieth century. Historicize, contextualize, decolonize art, de-provincialize the workshop, embrace interdisciplinarity in teaching. And, of course, in the obvious drill of immediate “solutions” toward structural change, I could recycle the persistent BIPOC plea to add color: color in the student population and the core faculty of MFA programs, none of whom need a PhD to write or teach about a lived experience of marginalization; color in leadership and gatekeeping positions at every level of the literary world, including publishing, literary award juries, editorial mastheads, and academic departments.
The question here isn’t what the “solutions” are for ending structural inequality. Although change requires all of us to actively do our part—in learning, unlearning, and addressing our own blind spots, in taking action every day within our sphere of influence—key questions at the heart of systemic change are those of power: Who holds power in major leadership or gatekeeping positions? Would they be willing to share it in a fair—not tokenist—way? And if they’ve held it for too long, would they consider relinquishing it, or redistributing it in an effective way?
As for the traditional MFA, any revised pedagogical focus on BIPOC or “diverse” points of view will falter yet again if the institution refuses to confront its racial pandemic—a long-standing history of whiteness masquerading as the essence of art, transcendence, humanity, universality, or, the most American of ideals, freedom.
Namrata Poddar writes fiction and nonfiction and serves as interviews editor for Kweli, where she curates the series Race, Power, and Storytelling. Her work has appeared in Longreads, Literary Hub, the Kenyon Review, Transition, Electric Literature, VIDA Review, The Best Asian Short Stories 2019, and elsewhere. She holds a PhD in French Studies from the University of Pennsylvania, an MFA in fiction from Bennington College, and a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship in Transnational Cultures from UCLA. Find her on Twitter, @poddar_namrata, and on Instagram, @writerpoddar.
This content was originally published here.