We Build It Ourselves
Poets & Writers Magazine|September - October 2021
A roundtable on race, power, and the writing workshop
By Namrata Poddar

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.

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.

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.

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 Scholarin-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.

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