Why We Must Talk Without You.
BaRbRa’s smile was bright, her voice clear, although it stuttered and came through intermittently, tears streamed down her face but she read on. The poem was called, The First Time In P.I. and what was in her body and what was in the poem were coming from different places. I wanted to point right at her stomach, quivering as she continued, and say, “Write that.” Which we, I and the rest of the workshop, did ultimately. We talked about what we loved, about the images that drew us, about the idea of mythology of homeland having so much sheen and turning out so gritty. When we reached the part of the discussion where we engaged in some ideas about the writing, the word “explain” did not come up, or the thought of exclusion or audience didn’t rule our commentary—the writer’s hopes for the poem did. The question always came down to, What did you want this to do?
We’re sitting in a workshop for writers-of-color (VONA/Voices) in a class called Political Content in Story, Memoir and Poem. Among the eleven students, some of whom were born in the US; others came to the this country, were Iranian-American, African-American, Filipina-American, Chinese/mix-American, Arab-American, a West Indian/British/something in American, Ghanaian-American and Me, the Arab-American faculty member, also one of the co-founders of VONA(www.voicesatvona.org) . We were, just coincidentally, all women, and what we were doing here was talking about writing. And about being writers. And about being of color.
We can imagine, and sometimes we talk about, what responses this poem might get in a different workshop—the use of Tagalog might be questioned, the idea of exclusion by using local names of towns might be repeated, who the audience is, insiders or outsiders, might be asked of the writer. Those questions, which often arise, when writers-of-color are reviewed in mainstream workshops, are barriers to our writing being truly examined, to our intentions for our writing being honored and for us to be on a path to publication and professionalism equal to our counterparts whose material is not so “coded, cryptic, inside, exclusionary, “ etc.
Never mind that when I read the literature of English departments across the country, I need to know what Westminster Abbey is, but a reader must have a map showing Mindanao, or they feel excluded; that A dialogue between Sir Henry Wootton and Mr. Donne (John Donne) should be more familiar to me than Booker T. and W.E.B. (Dudley Randall);
that the references in Yeats…
Solider Aristotle played the taws
Upon the bottom of a king of kings;
World-famous golden-thighed Pythagoras
Fingered upon a fiddle-stick or strings
What a star sang and careless Muses heard:
Old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird. (Among School Children)—
should speak more clearly to me than Kazim Ali’s:
Telling the famous Story of the Blanket in which the Prophet covers
himself with a Yemeni blanket for his afternoon rest. Joined under
the blanket first by his son-in-law Ali, then each of his grandchildren
Hassan and Hussain and finally by his daughter Bibi Fatima. (Home)
We have spent our lives in the foreignness of a culture ruled by a Euro-centric/Judeo-Christian catalogue that starts our study of literature with the Greek epics, years after some of our ancestors had recited and written and drew poetry, plays and stories. The expectations to know Biblical allusions, streets in Paris, churches in England had been set by the narrowest view of literature available in English. The smattering of writers of color in the house of the English Literature major often keeps us in the in-law unit.
So how able are peer workshops, of which writers-of-color make up less that five percent, to review work that includes references outside the experience, language outside the vocabulary, forms different from the central forms without making the work an anthropological specimen? The notion of “inside” and “outside” results from the myopic lens of the standards. The expectations of writers of color in terms of style, theme, language and scope are also depressingly generalized and so often our work which doesn’t resemble a familiar trope is dismissed an inauthentic.
This perspective is not new, the problem is not new, I was the only person of color in my MFA program, my friends were also, and so are many of my students, even today. And even when there are numbers, few know how to proceed in the discussion, including the faculty—it’s just not in the script.
Left to our own devices and our own conversation in the VONA/Voices workshop, it’s a revolution. The heart of the writing is seen through the skin of the culture and we put our hands on its pulse and offer a diagnosis. We ask questions of each other, about things we don’t understand, not to singularize the experience, but to get closer to it; to help the writer get her word out in a way that honors her and brings the reader to the work.
The discussion is in the writing and outside of it. We know that some decisions we make, like including our own languages without a glossary is political and unpopular. We know that some stories will not be understood by the publishing world as appealing or relevant. We know that their hunger for the “harem” story, the ghost mothers, the images of lotuses and mangoes, are the comfort zone, but smack of pandering to us. We know that because we are still so few that representation is inevitable and that some things we write may hurt our family or community or culture and that is difficult to do in a new hyper-racialized world.
We cannot have these discussions with “you” in the room, as sensitive and understanding as you are. Remember your women’s studies class back then and a guy walked in and….
Here’s an irony or maybe it’s proof: the writers in the class took notes, which they called Quotables. It was kind of thrilling to receive them, because I speak off the cuff a lot, inspired by what’s going on in the room and sometimes surprise myself with my wisdom. In addition, they kept notes on what each other said as well and yes, they are brilliant. When I look at the accumulation of “quotables,” most of them are things I would say in any workshop, not just the VONA/Voices one:
Making the experience more specific makes it more universal
What is the entry point? Where does the character enter emotionally and physically?
Line Breaks in Poetry--They not only create rhythm but it particularizes the language
And of course, notes that are particular to writers of color:
Diminish the polarities that the west use to pit us against one other
We’re not humanizing each other; we’re creating characters that live among us
Don’t write to defend yourself, be in the experience, the experience will make it political
You don’t have to be the bridge either
Be allowed to have conflicted feelings about your homeland
(Thanks to Clare R)
When we peruse the themes of our writing—it’s not “Life in Ghana,” or “Visiting the Homeland.” They are complicated stories of relationships with identity, growing up, finding home, revisiting mythologies, falling in love and revolution, mastering the self, facing history and survival, and other journeys of life. But ultimately, everything we write is also about the relationship with power. As we take agency to thrust our voice into the world, we are giving our words legs, to mingle with others and push against those who rule. Whether we do it nostalgically, fiercely or with self-irony, the will to be present is strong and because it must be, defiant.
Workshop participants often thank us for creating the safe space—what that means for writers-of-color is loaded with a legacy of the fight from the margins. It’s safe to be ourselves, it’s safe to be of color, it’s safe not to speak the master’s language or to speak it, it’s safe to create forms, it’s safe not to go the MFA route or compete with it; it’s safe to have ideologies unquestioned, it’s safe to go deep in the maps, off roads and down trails; it’s safe not to be exoticized. We are in our writers’ pajamas hanging out on the couch; we aren’t being watched, literally and physically. (Yes, we do act differently around “you.”)
So yeah, you’re not invited. We need to have these discussions alone because every writer needs a community, a roundtable, a literary salon, peeps, somebodies who they don’t suspect of not getting it. My goal every year in this workshop is to create the unshakeable belief in every writer that she belongs to writing ecosystem and away from the workshop, a part of something larger. The same feeling other writers have when they sit with hope for their work and guidance to make it great.
Causes Elmaz Abinader Supports