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“I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background” —Zora Neal Hurston
My MFA experience wasn’t how I imagined it. In some ways it was everything I dreamt of since undergrad, the freedom to let my characters stretch themselves wide without tucking them behind the notes of the other classes I was supposed to focus on. The space to be immersed in storytelling. The language to finally acknowledge myself as a writer. But I didn’t live in that comfort for long, because what my program quickly taught me was that every space I entered had its limitations, ones that they built for writers like me, ones that they had no interest in deconstructing.
When I entered the program as a young adult writer, I received pushback about my narratives by my white professors. In a meeting with one of my workshop professors, we debriefed my workshop story about a Black boy writing letters to his deceased mother who he’s never met. During that meeting, my professor questioned my YA voice.
He said to me: “This reads as a more coming-of-age narrative rather than a young adult one.”
I had that same conversation with him that next year when discussing my story about the toxic dynamic between a Black queer boy who falls in love with his white best friend. When my professor brings up how one of my colleagues stated that my story would deeply resonate with young adult readers, he questioned my YA voice a second time.
He said to me: “Well, I think your nonlinear storytelling might be too advanced for young readers.”
When I had my first meeting with my thesis advisor, she gifted me a collection of coming-of-age stories that featured prominent writers who were mostly white and rest comfortably in the space of the literary canon.
She looked at me, with concern in her eyes, and said: “I just don’t want you to limit yourself by writing YA stories.”
But each time they sat me down and questioned my young adult voice, I only heard them say:
“Write like me!”
Each time they say me down and questioned my young adult voice, I only heard them say:
“Write white like me!”
Writing for Pedagogy was a class that all GTAs had to take by the spring term of their first year. It was a class dedicated to implement race and feminism into our classes and find ways to cope with the challenges that come with it, especially teaching at a PWI. My professor, who’s a woman of color, shared her experiences talking about race and feminism with her students and the backlash she received because of it. We read articles about other POC scholars’ experience with the same violence. My professor taught us how to dismantle the white fragility our students may give us, told us how that type of ignorance lingers in academia. Even though I didn’t plan to teach after that next year—since I had accepted my graduate assistant position—I still faced whiteness attempting to silence discussions on race and intersectional feminism. However, the individual who perpetuated this violence was a faculty member rather than a student.
She was a part of the fiction faculty, the one who funded the program from the ground up alongside her husband. She took me and the rest of my graduating fiction cohort out to lunch before the term ended. Since she was on sabbatical that year, she wanted to get to know us better as a fiction cohort before we had her as our fourth and final workshop professor the last term before we graduated. We shared drinks and laughs and talked about our writing. Then came the uncomfortable question, the absurd and uncanny caucasity all wrapped up in one curious smile. She asked us about our pedagogy class and wanted to know how we were talking about race. She expressed her concerns about hearing how our pedagogy professor was criticizing the racist undertones of the history of the third person POV and wanted to clarify if it was true or not. We all shook our heads confusingly and explained to her the class objectives, that creative writing wasn’t even a part of the curriculum. She said she wanted to know in case she (a professor who taught and writes in third person narration) had to update her syllabus, even though that following year was her last year teaching at the university. With a sigh of relief, she laughed off her violence, her policing of a POC scholar’s teaching, and mistook it for “gossip”. She wasn’t aware that she tried to use us as her fact checker, that she tried to prey on our vulnerability and lessen power as graduate students in order to get us to talk. But I saw right through her words, the way she attempted to whitewash our pedagogy professor’s syllabus, how she tried to scrub away at her teaching until she only saw her whiteness being reflected back at her.
During the time I took a poetry workshop, I was introduced to one of the course readings for the class titled Fanny Says by Nikole Brown, which was about the poet retelling stories of her racist grandmother in order to claim her “wokeness”. My friend, who’s a Black poet, messaged me about the book’s blatant racism, how Brown carved out space for her grandmother’s racist rhetoric to live in the pages of her poetry. We sent an email to our professor explaining why the book was hurtful to us. She replied by saying it was art, that she was curious to hear our response to the book and urged us not to shy away from “tough conversations”. But we only saw nigger repeated eleven times. We could only see Fanny threatening that she would have to kill any nigger the speaker brought in her home. Our professor cc’d the program director in her reply to our email as if we were the troubled ones, as if our Black pain needed extra hands in order to be tamed, as if using our voice was a threat to the program. It ended with an apology, a gift of her white tears we had no interest in receiving. And when she said she was sorry I could only hear the echoes of the damages that was already done to my Black body:
“Write like me!”
“Write white like me!”
—from a Black writer who attended an MFA program in Oregon
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