by MATTHEW SALESSES
In the past year, my first in a prestigious Ph.D. program in creative writing and literature, I have often felt conspicuous as a writer of color. I have felt a responsibility to speak up when race is discussed, but I have also resented this responsibility. Lately, I have found myself burying my head. It bothers me to no end that the pressure is beating me, and yet it is.
“Here is a not uncommon experience. Writer Emily X.R. Pan was told by the white writers in her workshop that the racism in her story could never happen — though every incident had happened to her.”
Like many writers of color, I read Junot Diaz’s “MFA vs. POC” on the New Yorkerblog, and identified with his anger and sadness at the loss of voices of color to the “white straight male” default of the writing workshop — a group of writers gathering to critique one another’s work. I have had “good” and “bad” workshop experiences, but for me whenever race comes up, it feels, somehow, traumatic. While most issues in workshop are presented as universal to story, race can come off as a burden personal to writers of color.
The Burden Of Craft
Here is a not uncommon experience. Writer Emily X.R. Pan was told by the white writers in her workshop that the racism in her story could never happen — though every incident had happened to her.
A writer might object that “it happened in real life” is a poor argument for why something should be depicted in fiction. On a craft level, the story should make it seem possible to ride one’s bike 100 miles overnight or help deliver a baby on an airplane. But that is an argument for particular story context: introducing a character who often rides his bike long distances, for example.
A critique of race and racism is more often a case of the class questioning what happens because of the context of their lives. It is a critique that wears the pretense of craft, but what it is really doing is saying that a common experience needs to be treated as particular and unusual. As particular and unusual as the bike or baby example.
A similar but different criticism occurs when a writer is told that her portrayal of minority characters isn’t different enough. A woman in my program has been told that her stories need to be more ethnic, that readers should be able to smell the food.
Writer Jackson Bliss describes an experience when a Pakistani writer spoke up in defense of a Desi character Bliss had written, and “the workshop rejected his comments and then spoke over him. Think about that for a second,” Bliss writes, “a group of mostly white writers telling a hapa writer and a Pakistani writer what was culturally authentic and culturally permissible … about nonwhite people.”
What happens when the workshop pits a person of color’s lived experience against a white perspective of how that experience should read on the page? For a writer of color, the defense of one’s work can quickly become a defense of the self.
Matthew Salesses (@salesses) has written about adoption, race and family for the New York Times Motherlode blog, The Good Men Project, The Rumpus, Hyphen Magazine, and elsewhere. His most recent book is a novel, I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying.