This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

May-June 2015


Nashwa Kahn@nashwakay

MJ_KhanFrom our education system to our literary community, why is CanLit so white? Nashwa Khan challenges the default narrative

JUNOT DÍAZ UNLEASHED A BOMBSHELL on the writing world when he published his essay “MFA vs. PoC” in the New Yorker last spring. The Dominican American author is a creative writing professor, a fiction editor for the Boston Review, and has won numerous awards for his writing—most notably the Pulitzer Prize for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. His New Yorker piece was about his own experiences as a racialized man in an MFA program he completed in 1995 at Cornell. Díaz’s take resonated with many who had lived through being racialized in the Ivory Tower, but it also unsettled some readers, predominantly white ones, who seemed shocked and outraged. Their reaction didn’t surprise me. Historically, academia at its foundation was built for white men, and not much has been done to rework the initial framework of how institutions are built—even if today’s student body is much more diverse.

I read hundreds of online comments. I read pieces analyzing Díaz’s essay. I read as much as I could digest. A lot of it made me cringe. Online comments seem to bring out people’s worst prejudices and even readers of the venerable New Yorker seemed no different. Commenters said people of colour were “not grateful;” they were told to “go back home.” Others praised his work. People wrote response pieces, both negative and positive.

Díaz’s essay was published at a time when I was at a crossroads with my own education. Reading it, I thought he was describing a racist experience, but one at a wealthy school that may have been less diverse. Plus, if he could, in the end, find like-minded people and support as a racialized man, I figured I could too. I was inspired to take the leap, and signed up for a creative writing program.

As a racialized Muslim woman, I grew up without my stories. I grew up reading about kids who weren’t like me, teenagers who weren’t like me, and now adults who aren’t me. I thought Díaz’s experience was anchored so long ago that mine would be better and I could foster his experience to build my own journey.

I found a program that had the flexibility and diversity I wanted. Díaz’s piece became a way for me to baptize myself in the world of creative writing courses, to learn how I could avoid the whiteness of the writing world. I told myself I would learn from his mistakes; he wrote that he slipped up because he was young. I was determined not to: I checked faculty, campus culture, and communities. I purposely chose faculty for my first set of classes who were queer or racialized, here in Toronto, the city Drake keeps trying to make happen, a city proud of its multiculturalism and cracksmoking ex-mayor.

I decided to do a certificate program, not a full MFA. I wanted to dip my toes in this world, not dive in unprepared. I wanted to avoid all the negatives situations Díaz recounted—things like workshops that were “too white” and a body of literature that similarly lacked diversity. I took all of the precautionary measures and, at first, it seemed to pay off.

On my first day, I was thrilled to walk into a classroom where a man of color was the instructor and the class was roughly 50 percent white and 50 percent people of color. I thought I had done my due diligence to find something close to a utopia in writing. I would soon learn, however, that I had walked into another sort of baptism, this one by fire. As much as I thought I had prepared for an MFA vs POC environment I called “Creative Writing vs. POC”, I should have expected, and have now amended it to, “Creative Writing vs. MOC vs. WOC:” Creative writing versus men of colour versus women of colour.

I’VE NOW READ DÍAZ’S PIECE at least a dozen times in full; I often pull up paragraphs that resonate with me most. I have a few sentences memorized. Tears well in my eyes every time I read it, but now they well in my eyes for Athena, the woman of color in his MFA program, the one who was gifted, but had enough, and left. Athena is not entirely fleshed out in his piece but Díaz does reminisce that the whiteness of the program exhausted her, and I feel that. About 20 years after Díaz and Athena felt the casual racism and microaggressions of being racialized while writing, I feel that.

To date in my life I have largely been “the other” but have not felt as hurt by microaggressions elsewhere as I have by those in the writing world. The writing world has made me feel more othered than any other space. Writing can expel so much.

Writing to expel shame.

Writing to cope.

Writing to tell stories.

Writing to riot.

Writing to right.

What writing cannot expel, however, is the anguish I leave the classroom with every time we workshop pieces. This kind of anguish is something hard to articulate. What I can identify is that my own experience is very different than the men of color with whom I write, and even more alien from my white classmates. Perhaps being a racialized female is an archipelago of an experience on its own. Perhaps it’s this belief that racialized people are their own category, and my female embodiment is one too distant for men to relate.

Every writing class I relive trauma.

I. I litmus tested Díaz’s mistakes, and failed.

I’ve realized that what I deduced from Díaz and others’ writing about classes being “too white” in numbers did not account for situations where the numbers may be in people of colour’s favour, but whiteness as a system and standard would dominate. White literature would be the default, white stories the skeleton of every piece, and white voices, even if outnumbered, would be the loudest even with a man of colour running sessions.

II. Minorities as a majority does not hold.

Hari Kondabolu’s skit “2042 and the White Minority,” about the census calculation that 2042 will be the year white people will be a minority in America, should be a primer for white people. When you really do the math in my workshops it doesn’t play out the way white women often thought it did when they mumbled things like “wow, so diverse.” But as Kandabalou makes light of in his skit, there is one big problem: as people of color, we aren’t all the same. This presumption of the white minority is heavily rooted in the belief that racialized people are a homogenous and united front.

Looking at the composition of certain classes, faculty, and program promotional material, both printed and on the web, you would think I found the utopia so many writers of color search for, including myself.

You would think people of color flourished and thrived as they wrote their vulnerabilities, shared their hearts on paper. You would think. When you look at my most diverse class, the composition is 50:50.

On days when one of their Ashley squad is missing, the white women will not let us forget how they are suddenly a “minority.” I don’t know whether our educational system hindered their basic math skills or if they just love surface level analysis, but in actuality women of color are still the “minority” on these days, and every other day in class. This particular class is comprised of 50 percent white women, versus five percent black women (i.e. one black women) and five percent non-black women of color (i.e. me). The rest is 40 percent men of color.

Bodies like mine and stories like mine remain foreign, uncomfortable, and on the margins. My stories become abstract even to the men of color who many classmates presume must relate to me. So when a white peer remarked during a workshopping of my piece, “well, you’re no longer a minority” and the class cackled, I still question their math.

III. Men of color don’t often support women of color in the same ways; #solidarityisforwhitewomen is real in the realm of writing.

White women in writing seem to have an easier time attacking women of color. This could be because of any variety of factors, but I want to say that it is a combination of intimidation and conditioning to believe that men are usually correct. I am still testing out my theory, but after conducting a few social experiments—such as using very WASP names in my writing or removing factors that potentially identify race, gender, and sexual orientation—my writing remains viewed as “foreign.” Maybe seeing me in the flesh is what constantly makes people fixate on what I can and cannot write. I am still conducting

I say “white” but what I mean is women immersed in the very simplistic and classic ways literature is taught, those who uphold white feminism and let it seep into their writing and workshopping of pieces. I mean white women who would let myself and the other woman of color in my class know how to write about our bodies and existence, question our use of words from our mother tongues, and surveillance our truths. These white women were often cosigned by the silence of men of color I adamantly defended or agreed with in workshop sessions. These men were not part of my supposed “people of color majority.”

I still don’t know Maybe I feel bitter. But at the same time I understand that some have folded their bodies to fit into boxes that appease our white peers during
the workshops. I found their silence to be more comforting than their vocal approval with white women who said things like, “Why did you use that foreign word there?”

What I can say is having people of color does not equate to solidarity.

IV. Díaz was right in saying, “that shit was too white” about 1995 and I concur in 2015.

Díaz discusses how Athena and another friend often reflected on the shit their peers said to them. Feeling isolated, I kept a list that moved from a Post-It, to a sheet of paper, to pages in my notebook.

I try to slyly add to the chicken scratch list as people speak.

“Wow, since I was born here it’s fascinating for me to listen to your story.”

“You know I moved from England when I was six; I am an immigrant too!”

“I’m not racist but…” (Multiply this times infinity.)

“The names used in the story are really difficult, why can’t you pick …” (Insert any number of Anglo-Saxon names.)

“Oh, so, obviously English is not your first language.”

“Well this is obviously grossly exaggerated: Kids aren’t racist.” (Said during a memoir writing workshop.)

“I am a woman so I face oppression too.” (As if I am not a woman—very Patricia Arquette circa 2015 Oscars, if you ask me.)

The list that started as a page at the back of my notebook has now filled margins of my notes. It is blossoming like weeds throughout my pieces; a page can no longer contain the comments that my white and male peers will never face. These comments have also made me fold myself into a smaller version of myself, whittle down my stories to make them more palatable for a white liberal gaze.

Sometimes I want to scream, “Did you even read the words I wrote?” Tangential topics arise that are heavily laden with subtext. In fiction writing, if I wrote about any kind of conflict and the character had a name that seemed foreign or exotic, the same women would lament “this is cultural” and even once, a slip, “Is this from your experiences with your father?” Tropes saturated my existence—if only they believed my memoir writing the same way they believed my fiction.

Every week, they would explain how they did not understand my writing because they were “born here” and every week I would tell my white peers how I too was “born here,” on stolen land. I realized soon enough that they did not want to understand my writing. They couldn’t even humour reading my pieces: about immigrant parents crossing oceans and breaking their backs while being exploited by cheap labour for the American Dream.

They would not give me space to write about discovering myself as diaspora when I went to Morocco as a teenager. There was no space for my stories. This shit is still too white.

V. Memoir as fiction and fiction as memoir.

I discovered quickly that memoir writing classes should have beencalled something along the lines of “memoir; fiction for women of color, though.” No amount of reading on the MFA/workshop/writing retreat life would have prepared me for how much my truth would be interrogated along with the other woman of color in my program (who is actually the most educated person in the class, at least in the formal sense people seem to respect).

My stories had traces of flirty racism, racist iterations of sexism, and the pain of growing up racialized. That list in my notebook grew tenfold in memoir sessions. White women would use my workshop time to reflect on how my “gross exaggeration” made them cry. Once, the sole black woman in my memoir class wrote about herself, explicitly giving her character her name. A white peer asked why this white character was in Barbados. As if she did not realize it was memoir and the author right in front of her was a black woman. When I brought up how the default is white and that creates blind spots during workshopping and how egregious it was to suppose women of color wrote their memoir characters as white, the white women, joined by men of color, were up in arms.

Instead of letting me or other women of color receive feedback that was constructive, to requite the feedback they received, feedback I paid for, I got to hear about how they cried, how they “understood,” and how women of color memoirs made them “sad.” I wrote about my insecurities around women who looked like them as a child. I still cannot grasp how they “understood.”

I started to water down my writing like cheap coffee. I limited my memoir scenes to retellings of the awkward situations that not eating pepperoni caused me as a kid because if these women thrived off stories of drunk prom queens deserving to win, I could try writing about the tiny things in my life, close myself off from sharing anything more meaningful, more real.

VI. Social experiments don’t work on white people.

As much as I would remove markers of anything that was not white, straight, or middle class in my writing, my time in workshops became very specific. Regardless of how WASPY I made my pieces, white women still fixated on how I made them cry. They lamented that I was exotic and mysterious, despite having removed identifying markers from my writing. My body, the body I am trapped in, will never be able to write literature without having 21 questions unfold. My peers would say “I disagree with your memoir, but I learn so much from you.” Beyond the abhorrent notion that people can disagree with others’ memoirs, this labour I provided, vulnerability, and the display of my heart, only resulted in trauma for me and debating points, along with amusement, for them.

Once, I wrote a poem about the repetition of hearing the questions: Where are you from? What are you? Where are you really from? Where are your parents from? Three white women approached me after class to let me know these questions stem from genuine curiosity. They had good intentions, they told me; they weren’t racists. This all happened after a dedicated class discussion to my reverse racism. Throughout the term, this particular group kept relaying to me that they, too, were oppressed: they were oppressed by the yoga moms, the rich, the men—the list goes on, letting me know all I had was my identity oppression, whereas they had so much more.

VII. Pedagogy.

In the first five months of class, I read more white cis hetrosexual authors than I have in my entire life. Many don’t seem very special to me, but they are held to some kind of imaginary gold standard. Even in Canadian high schools, most of the literature taught is white, American, and male, as Michael LaPointe argues in his 2013 Literary Review of Canada essay “What’s Happened to CanLit?” The piece highlights truths that speak volumes. At the time, seven out of every 10 students in Toronto, for instance, were non-white. Of those surveyed, two-thirds expressed that learning about their own race would be more desirable. As well, unsurprisingly, half of the students surveyed believed that if that were the case, they’d do better in school. But whiteness will follow them into post-secondary education.

If we are what we read, will my writing become nuanced in the classic expectations of straight, white male writing?

I’ve read James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Paul Muldoon, Ted Kooser, Theodore Roethke, and Raymond Carver, all white men I’ve chased with the works of white women, such as Alice Munro, Amy Hempel, Eudora Welty, and more. This survey of whiteness is predominantly non-Canadian. Yet, it serves as Canadian literature, which I’d argue has morphed into ubiquity with white Anglo-Saxon protestant default writing.

White descriptions rooted in very colonial normative reality remain the default in writing programs today. This is witnessed in what we deem as “American Literature” and who is let into that elite group. The ahistorical erasure of methods of teaching writing in all forms is witnessed in what works we do close readings of and those we reference as authors to which we should aspire. I have navigated classrooms for most of my life and I want to reiterate that this is about white classrooms and not necessarily white people.

I say white classrooms to emphasize that it isn’t about the bodies occupying the room, the way we often think it is. Rather, it’s all taught to us within the pages of the syllabi and novels we treasure in these courses; the way we teach who to respect; the stories that are viewed as true; this the deep-seeded white normalcy.

It it is time to reevaluate the changing landscape of writers and adjust course curricula. Until then, the current set-up provides the ammo that weans out and exhausts women of color in these spaces. Until then, the framework for what is considered “respected literature” and what is not will remain the same. Until then, we will continue to see novels written by talented people of color used to fill diversity quotas, instead of just integrated as compelling works. Until then, we will we witness “diversity” writing integrated through the gaze of white authors. We will elevate novels like Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. Until then, this is all that we will give racialized people: our stories retold through other mediums, selectively placed into marginalized classes.

VIII. Future.

I am weak and vulnerable; I feel too much, maybe. I like to think it could be a “me” problem but often realize it isn’t when I go online or to events. I find peers who look like me and I find a twisted comfort in finding out they have gone through similar experiences. I find ways to cope by ranting with them, listening to them, constantly being in solidarity with them. I’ve met people through the internet, which I always thought I would never do, just to find solace. I actively look for racialized writers forums and events now. Prior to being in this program I would go to any event, not wanting to be read as divisive. Now I know part of my survival is finding people like me in this struggle.

Will I finish any formal writing program?

Truthfully, I am not sure. There are days I feel great about a piece I’ve read or written that is creative non-fiction and get told I should be “realistic” about having a racialized person in fantasy, science fiction, or performing daily activities in a way that isn’t palatable to my workshop. I guess the same way dragons are more realistic than a man of color as a knight in medieval times.

Athena is only a tiny piece of Díaz’s essay, but to me she is everything. I’ve heard many racialized women feel the isolation, expressing similar sentiments that their alone is so alone that leaving any given writing program seems like the most appealing option. A future in writing looks bleak when this white default thrives in literature, a default that erases my being.

What real and dignified future is there for writers of color who make it?

Díaz has multiple awards to his name including, beyond the Pulitzer, a MacArthur Genius Grant. Yet, as an esteemed author honored by white dominated spaces, he still faces racism to serve as a punch line, even as a guest of honor. When Peter Sagal interviewed Díaz in October 2013 at the Chicago Humanities Festival, for instance, he riddled his introduction and questions with microaggressions and racial stereotypes. This exchange during the introduction made my skin crawl:

SAGAL: Welcome to this evening’s presentation of two bald guys from New Jersey. This is actually true. You’re from Perth Amboy, right?… And I’m from a town called Berkeley Heights …

DÍAZ: Yeah, I delivered three pool tables there.

SAGAL: What I like to imagine, well—We weren’t there quite the same time, and we never had a pool table, but I love the idea like a truck pulls up and in walks these Dominican guys—

DÍAZ: Nah, it was me and an African-American dude.

SAGAL: OK. And deliver to this, you know, suburban house where there’s this Jewish kid that’s going to Harvard and it’s like freeze it—Which of these is going to win a MacArthur Genius grant? [Points at Díaz.]

Similarly, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie can author a New York Times’ 10 Best Books of 2013 but still be referred to as “Beyonce’s favorite feminist,” instead of as a talented author who has won numerous accolades.

In this system that has manifested, it may be that I could thrive— or I could perish a slow and painful demise within it, along with many other women of colour, along with Athena. Let me return to an earlier question: If everything we write is an extension of ourselves, what do women of color have in these workshop spaces? How can we flourish in male- and white-dominant spaces? Will I succumb to stories that are not my own, narratives of lives I cannot relate to?

I believe that writing, as an art, does not necessarily imitate life; it grows from it, roots itself in truth and blossoms with stories. But the roots cannot break through and take to the soil, they cannot sprawl and have their storied seeds planted when a system only values certain stories. I am a racialized woman writing in 2015. If I get rooted as a rare token writer, I may yet flower. Or, I will wilt at the margins of pages, my stories untold, my words unwritten. I know only that every workshop I walk into is like a battle, and my mental struggle in these spaces will determine my fate.

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