We Build It Ourselves: A Roundtable on Race, Power, and the Writing Workshop

by
Namrata Poddar
8.18.21

Since the rise of European empires, BIPOC writers around the world have created a strong legacy of literary works that resist a Euro-American aesthetic of “good” storytelling. In more recent history, with the institutionalization of writing in the United States, or the MFA—one of the country’s fastest growing graduate degrees, a key incubator of winners of the most prestigious literary awards, and, slowly but surely, a global pedagogical export—American literary culture has developed its distinctive trademark, full of silent assumptions and legitimizing power toward what constitutes good storytelling. 

From left: Namrata Poddar, Felicia Rose Chavez, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and Matthew Salesses. (Credit: Nguyen: Bebe Jacobs; Salesses: Grace Salesses)

I spoke with three writers—Felicia Rose Chavez, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and Matthew Salesses—who have been very vocal about how this literary scene has stifled historically oppressed writers, especially via the writing workshop, and of ways to decolonize art-making. Chavez and Salesses recently published books on the subject, The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop: How to Decolonize the Creative Classroom (Haymarket Books, 2021) and Craft in the Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing and Workshopping (Catapult, 2021), respectively, and Nguyen has critiqued the workshop in pieces such as his 2017 op-ed for the New York Times, “Viet Thanh Nguyen Reveals How Writers’ Workshops Can Be Hostile.” Through his Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, The Sympathizer (Grove Press, 2015), and its 2021 sequel, The Committed, both anticolonial fiction about American and French empires, Nguyen also circles back to that BIPOC legacy of storytelling that proactively questions what one is taught within a traditional American writing workshop.

Felicia Rose Chavez is an award-winning educator with an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Iowa. She is author of The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop: How to Decolonize the Creative Classroom (Haymarket Books, 2021) and coeditor of The BreakBeat Poets Volume 4: LatiNEXT (Haymarket Books, 2020). Originally from Albuquerque, New Mexico, she currently serves as the Creativity and Innovation Scholar-in-Residence at Colorado College. For more information about The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop, and to access and add to a multi-genre compilation of contemporary writers of color, visit www.antiracistworkshop.com.

Viet Thanh Nguyen was born in Vietnam and raised in the United States. He is the author of The Committed (Grove Press, 2021), which continues the story of The Sympathizer (Grove Press, 2015), which was awarded the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction alongside seven other prizes. He is the editor of the anthology The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives (Abrams, 2018), and also the author of the story collection The Refugees (Grove Press, 2017) and the nonfiction book Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (Harvard University Press, 2016). He is the Aerol Arnold Professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California.

Matthew Salesses was adopted from Korea. He is the author of, among other titles, the PEN/Faulkner finalist Disappear Doppelgänger Disappear (Little A, 2020), the best-sellers Craft in the Real World (Catapult, 2021) and The Hundred-Year Flood (Little A, 2015), and two forthcoming books from Little, Brown. He is an assistant professor of creative writing in the MFA/PhD program at Oklahoma State University.

 

Namrata Poddar: All of you have compared U.S. workshops in creative writing to a form of colonization, a “literary imperialism” [Salesses] that’s spreading abroad, a primer in “how power propagates and conceals itself” [Nguyen]. With a fixation on elements of “craft” like “show, don’t tell,” style, point of view, conflict, and an “apolitical writing” that camouflages a politics of white masculinity—more specifically, cis, straight, able, upper or middle class, Western, Judeo-Christian—you’ve reiterated how most U.S. workshops perpetuate a “politics of domination” meant to “dehumanize, pacify, assimilate, and control people of color” [Chavez]. Other writers have also talked or written about craft and a white imperial politics of American writing workshops for a while now; these include Junot Díaz, Claudia Rankine, David Mura, Bich Minh Nguyen, Gish Jen, Joy Castro, and, um, me. Since you teach creative writing as well, do you see a change in the way writing is taught in the United States including MFA programs? Or is change restricted to the role BIPOC gatekeepers play within these overwhelmingly white literary spaces? As important, what does change look like for you as we talk now, in 2021?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I actually don’t teach “creative writing,” also a term that I do not like, since the “creative” seems redundant or overexplaining, and aren’t we as writers supposed to avoid the unnecessary and too explicit? My reluctance to lead writing workshops stems from my distrust of that form of pedagogy—see Flannery O’Connor, Iowa graduate, on the workshop as “composed in equal parts of ignorance, flattery, and spite”—and my belief that perhaps writing can be taught otherwise. I do supervise writers at the undergraduate and graduate level when it comes to theses and dissertations, whether that is poetry, fiction, or nonfiction. When it comes to writing I prefer a pedagogy that is one-on-one, since writing is by nature so idiosyncratic and individual. If writers want to think about shared problems, challenges, and techniques, there are plenty of books and essays that talk about them, as you point out. If “BIPOC gatekeepers” exist, and I suppose they do, then they are also part of the problem if they think of their function as opening a gate. The conventional literary world, from professionalized creative writing to the publishing industry, functions through a series of gates, and we have to live in the world as it is, but we should also be thinking about the world as it could be. A world without gates and gatekeepers. So while we need BIPOC faculty and role models, hopefully they are not just pragmatic and accepting of a system of professional and aesthetic exclusion and narrowness, but are interested in knocking down gates and eroding genre conventions, including the conventions of the genre of literary fiction. Change today does include the books by Felicia and Matt and David Mura that bring attention to how the writing workshop operates, but change also comes from outside the “overwhelmingly white literary spaces.” I think of small presses and community arts organizations and online writing, including Kaya Press and the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network and its blog, diacritics.org, all of which I am involved with or helped start, in reaction to the norms of whiteness in mainstream publishing and literature. We have to make our own change, collectively, as well as imagine how we, individually, as writers can challenge conventional aesthetics. 

Matthew Salesses: I can’t say what’s happening within other MFA programs, but I can say that there probably wouldn’t have been a need for Craft in the Real World if change was happening at the pace it should be. I wouldn’t have had to write it, I mean. Everything Viet is saying seems right to me. I’ve been trying to do the thing that I can do, to contribute the thing that I can contribute, which is write and teach writing and write about writing and teaching writing. I do teach workshops, though, and I think it’s pedagogically useful if we challenge how power usually operates in a workshop. I think the problem is this idea of leading. The workshop can potentially be a real place of possibility, an imaginative opportunity, if the writer isn’t being led.

Felicia Rose Chavez: Change is coming. I believe that. It’s a matter of confessing to and pushing past fear. I facilitate these anti-racist pedagogy workshops with MFA faculty across the country, and we talk about what scares us. Because no matter our desire to avoid replicating harm, change is risk. It necessitates that we name how we reinforce individual, institutional, and internalized racism in each and every one of our classrooms. We all play gatekeeper in one way or another. I tell teachers the same thing I tell myself: “Break the silence. You are contributing to the conversation for the love of your students. Speak up when you need to speak up. Do it to be free of the fear of what will happen when you release the truth.” To reorient from passive to active behavior—to be actively anti-racist—we have to exercise risk. What if my (white) department chair doesn’t approve of an anti-racist pedagogy? What if my (white) students don’t accommodate an anti-racist pedagogy? Enough with holding ourselves accountable to white supremacy! Academia breeds it, normalizes it—hierarchy, authority, ego, control—whiteness as neutral and objective. But Adrienne Marie Brown teaches us that art is not neutral, that it either upholds or disrupts the status quo, advancing or regressing justice. It’s up to all of us, not just our faculty of color, to pry our fingers off the gates of literacy. Instead, let’s take risks for the sake of progress, exposing art’s roots of race, power, privilege. Let’s say it aloud: “I teach an anti-racist workshop.” Let’s talk openly with our students about our pedagogical choices—a reorientation from authority over our students to ally to our students, from speaking at them to listening to them, from valuing a high-stakes final product to nurturing a healthy working process. Let’s involve them in our course content creation and then step back and access together: How might we adapt, moving forward? In doing so, we model real learning in real time: uncertainty, experimentation, growth, and change. 

Poddar: I agree with all you have shared here on the system and ways of getting past it. To linger a bit on this notion of gatekeeping, though, the heads of Big Five publishing houses—now Big Four—are white, as are 85 percent of the people who acquire and edit books in U.S. publishing. After twenty years of working toward decolonizing literature in my writing and teaching, and practicing the same within my forthcoming debut novel, I remember the challenges in finding a home for my book in the United States, the countless “encouraging rejections” alongside nominations for literary awards. I feel very lucky to have found a home for my fiction with an indie press run by Asian American editors, although like many smaller presses, the advance I was offered here is nominal. I share this as it’s too familiar a story for many fresh-off-the-MFA debut writers from marginalized communities. My question then: How do you teach BIPOC to practice a nonwhite craft of writing and equip them to publish within a market that’s decisively white, without students giving away their labor of years for free?  

Nguyen: I think we can teach BIPOC—and white—students to recognize aesthetic norms that are dictated or heavily influenced by whiteness and to try and write differently. That’s within our power as individual teachers. But I’m not sure how to answer the second part of your question about surviving as a writer. The options seem to range from limited to bad—become a creative writing teacher or find a paying job with writing as yet another job—but I’m wondering if there was ever a time when things were different for writers who were not wealthy or privileged. The burden is worse for BIPOC writers in a white publishing world, of course. For this reason I don’t see the problems you indicate as being much different from other pressing problems, from discriminatory police violence to prisons overcrowded with people of color and the poor to a faulty education system that is deeply unequal. Short-term solutions to any of these problems are actually not solutions, since these problems exist in a web of inequality produced from centuries of racial, class, and gendered exploitation and division. Unless we as a society can address systemic inequity, we can’t solve local inequity, including the inequity of how writers and artists are treated. This is why, for me, writing and everything around it is inherently political in practice, and often political in aesthetic, whether that is an acceptable, implicit politics that doesn’t announce itself as politics—and accepts the unequal world as it is—or an explicit politics that will be demeaned by those who believe that art should not be political because they benefit from the implicit politics of an unequal world. I equip myself for the situation you describe by making my writing as political as I can and by imagining myself as a writer within a genealogy of literary, cultural, and political struggle, including Asian American writers and the Asian American movement, Black writers and Black efforts for emancipation and liberation, and decolonizing thinkers, writers, artists, activists, and revolutionaries all across the world. Thinking of myself in relation to this genealogy and network, thinking of my writing as existing not only in a white-defined literary world, but in a world outside of the text, a world struggling for justice and freedom, empowers me and lets me know that I am not alone and that I am not defined by white people invested in their own whiteness. Instead, I stand in relation to all kinds of people who see the relation between art and politics and the importance of solidarity to overcome the false divisions designed to drive us apart and weaken our efforts to decolonize. 

Salesses: I agree that the first part is what we’ve been working toward in craft essays and books—how to recognize where the “craft” we are taught comes from and whom it serves, where the money comes from, and then how to reorient toward speaking to and within a literary history and tradition that actually serves us and our stories and our audiences—and I also agree that the second part is a systemic issue. Equipping students to actually get their work published within this system—it’s about equipping students to do work in the real world to resist the system and take it down. I guess that’s what Viet already said. I think the way this often gets spun, though, is to make it about our feelings. Like: We should get used to rejection, toughen up, have thicker skin, etc. We do have to deal with our feelings, of course, but I think we can do more to give our students some practical help to deal with the system itself, like connecting them with BIPOC agents and editors, reminding them that it takes only one agent, one editor, and teaching them that audience is specific and that they don’t need to write for everyone. 

Chavez: White hegemony aims to erase, capitalism aims to exploit, and yet we exist, still we thrive. Richard Jean So points to the dominance of white narcissism in the publishing industry, the pervasive racial inequality that’s staunchly anti-Black. And so we build it ourselves, just like we’ve always done. I start by teaching my students to listen to themselves. In my book I give it a name: a pedagogy of deep listening. I might coin the outcome as confidence. To start, students tune inward to confront their psychological and emotional relationships to writing, naming fear, perfectionism, competition, jealousy, and a belief in their own worthlessness as everyday barriers to creativity. We speak these unspeakable things aloud. Too often writers feel alone in their private suffering. Together we affirm that our inner critic is nothing more than fear. Name it and move on. Students tune inward again, this time to summon their mentors as guide. Allow them to love what they love, honor that genealogy that Viet speaks of, invite it into the classroom, legitimize it. In my workshop students craft sculptural “family trees,” tributes to their artistic lineage. I ask, “How might you extend the moves of your mentors?” Finally, students tune inward to write artist statements, tracking their writing process, articulating craft-based questions to guide discussion of their work, and communicating a vision for future drafts. In listening to themselves again and again, students cultivate artistic intuition. They grow into their own ideal reader. They write to please themselves. They workshop so as to witness themselves what needs fixing. When a peer, a professor, an agent, or an editor questions their moves on the page, I want them to be so emboldened as to own their words. No, you cannot use me, tokenize me, reject and destroy me. No, you cannot supersede control and manipulate my voice on the page to sound like you. No, thank you, this partnership is unhealthy. “Tune inward and listen to yourselves, trust yourselves,” I tell my students, so that they might go on to serve as their own authority. It’s a long game, but our publishing allies are out there, they’re growing day by day, just look to Roxane Gay’s imprint. In the meantime: Write for you, your mentors, your ancestors.

Poddar: I love how you’re all pointing here, in different ways, to knowing one’s lineage and reader as key elements of craft. Although knowing this well is one of the biggest challenges, too, I think, especially for writers who come from a legacy of white colonial rule—meaning, for about 90 percent of the planet that was colonized by Europe by the early 1900s—that brutally erased and supplanted native languages and cultures with white ones. Add to it writers who come from multiple histories of imperial rule (white and nonwhite), hetero-patriarchy, caste hegemony, and other reasons we’ve mentioned above, and we have lineages that can get even more fragmented and paradoxical when not erased. So I’m curious what this journey of discovery was like for you. From your earliest efforts to write for an audience to your work today, when did you know your lineage and your reader?

Nguyen: I have multiple lineages, and I don’t think that’s problematic. I grew up immersed in the Anglo-American canon as found in the public library and my Catholic school education, and I loved the classics of English and American literature, even if, in retrospect, I can identify how much of these traditions could also be classified under what Edward Said called “culture and imperialism.” Being steeped in these classics gave me a rich sense of the English language and a sense of Anglo-American and Western European literary history that was deepened by my time doing a PhD in English at UC Berkeley. That was a conservative program that had heavy historical requirements from Beowulf onward through Chaucer and Shakespeare and the Romantics and the Victorians and the American Renaissance and so forth. It wasn’t always fun to read the works in this tradition, but I’m glad I did, because it is my tradition, too, even as it is a tradition that resists me and rejects me. I believe that writing is fighting, like Ishmael Reed said, and the deeper and wider in literary traditions a writer is versed, the more equipped the writer is for such a task. I wrote The Sympathizer with an eye toward how that novel could be situated in relation to this canonical tradition. But I also write with other lineages. The so-called genres of detective, crime, and spy writing. And most important, the writings of U.S. peoples of color and the decolonizing writers from around the world, as well as the philosophers and theorists of these writings and of colonized experiences. Encountering Black, Asian American, and decolonizing and theoretical writing at Berkeley was especially crucial in making me understand what was lacking in the Western tradition and that my task was not to fill in that gap—not to claim a space for representation and inclusion—but to demonstrate how that tradition was built on power and, when it came to people like me, exploitation and conquest. All of this animates The Sympathizer and its sequel, The Committed. I believe it’s possible and necessary to borrow and steal from dominant culture—which borrowed and stole from the peoples it conquered—and to speak from the perspective of one’s own community at the same time. Finally, not just to speak from that perspective, but to speak first and foremost to...who? For me, my first reader is me. But the second reader or readers are people like me. People to whom I do not need to translate. Everyone else can listen in.

Chavez: When I was a little girl, I had this diary that I sealed in a ziplock bag and buried underground. I’d dig it up when I wrote, then bury it again in hot New Mexico dirt when I was done. Stories were in the air all around me—family members talking and talking over afternoon coffee at the kitchen counter, rancheros blasting from the garage—and yet I had this terror of sharing my own words. Reading was no relief. The page was white space: Publishers, authors, characters, even the teachers who pointed me to my beloved texts, were all white. I remember one of those white teachers recommended me to a summer writing camp when I was in seventh grade. I worked on this nonfiction project for weeks, only to be told that my characters’ grammar was incorrect, that “no one sounds like this, it’ll never get published.” Too many years later, I found Sandra Cisneros and Ana Castillo and June Jordan and Cherrie Moraga and Toni Cade Bambara and bell hooks and Rosario Castellanos and Octavia Butler and Gloria Anzaldúa and Donna Kate Rushin. Their writing spoke to my writing, said it was okay to sound like me. And the students at Young Chicago Authors, too, where I served as teaching artist in the early 2000s, exposed me to stories in the air, not secret and suffocated underground, but spoken word, vibrating with the language of home. Hip-hop, essentially. When I wrote my own book, I knew I had to step up, speak up, lean into the swag of my people. I consider The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop a memoir. It reflects on myself as writer and student and looks toward the future as writer and teacher: What sounds do our words make when we’re allowed to love what we love, and how do we extend that same love to ourselves? 

Salesses: Like Felicia, I lived and am living the change from telling stories for the white gaze, engaging with white expectations, including about and to myself, to telling stories that reach beyond or apart from those expectations. Who your reader is, what your lineage is, is about what expectations you’re working with and why. For a long time I was writing toward expectations of what success could mean for me within a white literary landscape—how to write the kind of story that is easily consumable by white readers and how to accept and even prize that consumption as acceptance. Eventually it wasn’t even self-awareness that saved me; it was realizing that my writing was doing nothing in this space. I remember I had written yet another essay explaining the transracial adoptee experience for white people, and my own white adoptive father commented on my Facebook wall that he had read the essay and still didn’t see me as any different from him; he didn’t see my difference, which is to say my life. The essay was literally about recognizing difference as a kind of definition. If my writing couldn’t even do something for the audience of my own parents, then it was doing nothing at all. Readers create meaning. I wanted, and still want, my writing to do something in the real world, and doing something is about doing it within a certain context and for certain people. After that I made a conscious decision to write for adoptees instead.

Poddar: Lastly, all of you have written or edited in more than one form of writing—fiction, nonfiction, poetry. When it comes to innovation or pushing against established conventions within your work, is there a form you prefer over another? Why?  

Nguyen: I love fiction first and foremost because it’s through fiction that I became entranced by the power of the word and saved by it. As a young, lonely refugee with no books in his house, no friends, and parents too busy struggling to survive to spend time with me, I would have died a spiritual death if it hadn’t been for the public library and the world of fiction within it. I tried to write poetry, and I was terrible at it, but I loved poetry at a young age, and I can appreciate everything from Shakespeare and the Romantics to what so many powerful poets are doing today. Natalie Diaz’s Postcolonial Love Poem and Don Mee Choi’s DMZ Colony come to mind. What the poets do with language and form, typography and white space, rhythm and sound, language and the refusal to translate is absolutely crucial to how I write fiction and try to push against conventions there. As for nonfiction, The Sympathizer and The Committed are novels written in the guise of nonfiction, as confessions. That liberated me to do a lot of things that realist novels aren’t supposed to do, like telling and showing at the same time, rather than “show, don’t tell,” a perfectly decent literary tactic that has become a dogmatic mantra of the writing programs that too often justifies aesthetic and ideological conservativeness. Deploying poetry and nonfiction against the normalized constraints of mainstream contemporary American fiction has been absolutely important to me. 

Chavez: I’m of the school that all forms are one form: story. That goes for history, science, politics, and pedagogy as well as poetry, plays, lyrics, and prose. Whether it’s in the classroom or on the page, I draw inspiration from across the storytelling spectrum: queer feminist theory alongside a breakbeat play alongside Susie Yang and Jamila Woods. My students know this well, as the whole point of my course The Inspiration Lab is to shake off our reliance on authority to assign pages. Let’s do it ourselves! Let’s seek out our own inspiration and make the weird hybrid stuff that we want to enjoy. In my own practice I’ve experimented with digital collage, graphic essay, and audio storytelling. I’ve adapted comic books and news stories into nonfiction that reads as fiction, social media threads into experimental podcast scripts. Sure, Robert Frost’s cool and all, but what’s now, what’s new, what’s relevant to me? People of color have long been innovating, taking risks. Our daily survival is an act of imagination, from the way we code-switch to the way we hustle to the way we peace-make. Kiese Laymon is on point when he wonders “what Black writers weren’t writing when we spent so much creative energy begging white folk to change.” I’m dying to know too.

Salesses: It’s exhausting to try to sound smart here. Maybe what our answers speak to is that breaking down expectations is also about expectations of genre, separations between genres, etc. I prefer fiction. I like to read fiction. Fiction is already about resisting official narratives, or at least it is in some cultures. But there’s a lot of nonfiction and poetry like that too. Personally, I like the challenge of making everything up and the reminder that even then the symbols I’m using to build something make-believe already have received meanings of their own. How do you resist even the tools of your own resistance and the things you create with those tools? It’s like trying to make air out of Lego pieces. 

 

Namrata Poddar writes fiction and nonfiction, serves as interviews editor for Kweli, and teaches literature as well as creative writing at UCLA. Her work has appeared in several publications including Literary Hub, Longreads, the Kenyon Review, Electric Literature, and The Best Asian Short Stories. Her debut novel, Border Less, is forthcoming from 7.13 Books. 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.