Return to the MFA: A Call for Systemic Change in the Literary Arts

by
Namrata Poddar
8.12.20

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.