Wednesday, May 13, 2015

(Un)Muting Minority Writers

AWP 2015 tackles the issue of diversity in the creative writing classroom with panels on pedagogy, classroom politics, and the need for multitudinous perspectives. ♦
Last month, I traveled from Ohio to Minneapolis to attend the annual AWP Conference, the convention of university creative writers and writing programs. As a first-time attendee, I wasn’t entirely sure of what to expect. Would the 12,000 plus writers overwhelm me? Would I find an intimidating group of established writers? Would I be able to find other writers who looked like me? All my questions were soon answered after I made it to the Minneapolis Convention Center. What I found was an unfathomably large book fair, a ton of welcoming writers, some emerging like myself, some inspiring veterans, and a few literary legends. Yet, most important of all, I found a number of people who looked like me. After looking through the conference schedule I was pleased to find several panels highlighting issues that diverse writers face. During my time at the conference I was able to attend panels discussing diversity in creative writing, and the problems and expectations attached, unfairly, to writers of color.
   I’ve seen the problem myself in some writing workshops I’ve been a part of, where I’ve often been one of the only, if not the lone, minority in the group. When I write a story in which race isn’t mentioned, or where the characters could conceivably belong to any race, my peers will comment on the plot, the style of my prose, or the function of the dialogue, but never on whether the content itself is interesting enough to be read. Yet, in contrast, when my stories definitively feature black characters, there is often a critique by one (or a few) of my peers along the lines of, “I just don’t know if your characters are relatable to the ‘American’ experience’” or “I like that it features black characters, but why would a white person want to read it without any major white characters?” And I think to myself, “No one says they won’t read your story because it doesn’t feature minorities.”
   Minority writers often find themselves being bundled together in groups and expected to comment on large segments of the population. To speak to a singular “minority experience” for any minority group is not realistic, since every human experience is different. Unfortunately for writers, if a story does find a way to speak to a minority experience, it might not find a larger readership because it deals with a minority perspective. Thus, one of the biggest problems for the creative writing classroom is figuring out how to address issues of diversity in such a way that all writers in the room are heard, all voices are considered on their own terms, and all work is given the attention and reading it deserves.
   These problems were at the heart of one of the panels I attended at AWP titled “Striving for Balance between Language and Prejudice in Teaching Writing,” facilitated by fiction writer and essayist Christine Hyung-Oak Lee. When asked about such issues of diversity in the classroom, one panelist, the award-winning Cuban-American fiction writer and college professor Jennine Capo Crucet, said that it is important to remember that minority writers can’t be expected to speak for any group as a whole, that one person does not have all the answers, though that’s an expectation many minority writers face that their white counterparts do not.
   “[We must] recognize that an individual member of a particular ethnic, racial or religious group does not represent that entire group,” Crucet said, and we ought to “refrain from asking, both directly and indirectly, any individual, including yourself, to speak on behalf of an entire culture… it’s impossible to do.” At a panel called “Preparing Students of Color for the MFA: Advice, Reflections, and Methodologies”, Undocumented poet Marcelo Hernandez Castillo noted that some of the problem stems from the fact that, as Americans, we sometimes think about race as only relating to minority experiences, forgetting that “even if you’re white, whiteness is a race.” Instead of thinking of white as racial designation, it is simply considered “the norm or the default” race in literature, and that, “if race isn’t mentioned, it’s always automatically assumed to be white.”
   Crucet also noted how whiteness is considered to be the default setting in literature, pointing out how often “no race is named until a person of color shows up in the story.” This assumption negatively affects not just how we write, but also how we read; we’ve been conditioned to separate the minority experience from the white experience, forgetting that all minority experiences are American experiences, and far more similar than many of us would like to admit. But when minority writers feel marginalized, we may stop writing about our differences and, in doing so, lock away that part of ourselves that makes up so much of who we are, and because of that our writing suffers.
   Whiting Award recipient Alexander Chee, a Korean-American writer, spoke directly to this issue of how we see ourselves versus those constraints the minority writer has placed on his or herself: “I don’t think of myself as having a diverse life. I think of myself as having a life, and other people who don’t have that might see that as diverse.” In the same panel, award winning Irish-African-American novelist Mat Johnson added, “if it’s avoidance [of students writing about their own experiences], it’s going to sink the whole thing, because they’re not giving all themselves.”
Photo Credit: Kristen Arnett | Twitter: @Kristen_Arnett
   “I don’t want to have [writers] put in a situation where they begin self-censoring,” Chee added, “trying to create these sorts of utopian stories where no one is racist, sexist or homophobic.”
  Fellow panelist Danielle Evans, an African-American, agreed: “We write as though all racists or sexists are people who exist apart from us . . . when in fact they are all around us ... If we want to address these problems, we have to shine a light on them, not sweep them under the rug . . . I’m interested in people writing racist characters or sexist characters . . . not always having it from the position of the victim, because I think otherwise we erase that sort of pervasiveness.”
   What Chee and Evans would call “self-censoring” was described by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo in the MFA panel as a form of White Fragility, wherein “we as writers of color are always catering to make white people comfortable in speaking about race, in speaking about diversity, in speaking about anything that will benefit us.” Writers of color shouldn’t feel the need to capitulate or play it safe to keep white people from feeling awkward. Instead we should show them why they shouldn’t feel that way by telling our stories. This includes not only approaching certain diverse subjects in our work, but also embracing diverse modes of storytelling, as Filipino-American poet Patrick Rosal argued in the same panel with Castillo. Rosal suggested that white readers should “open [their] mind to other possibilities of language, just open [their] mind to the possibility that everybody in your room brings in modes of speech and storytelling that can transform the way that we think about language.” Rosal has it right — if we transform how we think about language, we’ll be amazed at what we find. The lack of diversity in writing seems to come from close-mindedness, but when minority writers are unmuted, then every voice is heard. The writing community has a communication problem, but if we take the time to listen to each other, we’ll realize we all have something to say. The issue is, that I see this reluctance to have diverse conversations not just writing, but all throughout our nation.
   Just recently, while I was at work, a white man asked me, “What is it with the black position? How can black people say black lives matter, when black men are constantly killing each other?” To me that was an offensive question, but instead of getting upset I recognized that he was asking from a point of ignorance, so I attempted to educate him. I started off by telling him, “There is no such thing as a black position. We are an incredibly diverse group and our individual beliefs confirm that.” The gentleman commented back by saying, “But there is a black position.” To change his thought process, I then asked him, “Well is there a white position?” He thought for a moment, but couldn’t respond. Next I asked, “If you can’t view the race you claim in generalities, then how can you view another race in such a way?” He conceded. To answer the crux of his question I told him, “I’ve never killed another black man, so there is no hypocrisy when I say black lives matter. Besides, I didn’t ask you why white men shoot up schools and movie theaters. The most important thing to always consider is that human beings lost their lives, not what color they are.” I continued by telling him there are people that do bad things belonging to every demographic, “There are atrocities committed by people from every group and throughout history some white people have had their own part to play in terrible acts of violence.” He then told me he didn’t mean to be offensive. The problem is neither the intent, nor the interpretation, but instead the lack of communication. As writers, we are the first key to solving our nation’s communication problem.
   By attending the 2015 AWP Conference, I came away more informed about issues minorities face in creative writing. The esteemed panelists shared some of their experiences as students, and as professors, and let us in on strategies they use as writers and professors to embolden minority literature. I also left AWP excited that there were plenty of people who looked like me, and others who’ve had similar experiences as I’ve had, that love language and literature like I do. Seeing that I’m not alone has me more ready than ever to write a story, a true American story, about minority characters, as a black man, and not feel a need to make anyone comfortable. But as I really reflected on my AWP experience, the most important thing I took away was that as writers, we can help start the conversation our country desperately needs to hear.
  • About the Author
    Vernon Williams is a 6’5 black male writer from Ohio. What else do you need to know?

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