Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
Just finished this piece by Junot Díaz in the New Yorker, re how lousy MFA workshops are for people of color (POC). This is a whole new reason to question their relevance! As an insulated white guy in a white neighborhood in a white town, I never even gave a whiff of a thought to that angle. For shame.
Díaz describes his experience twenty years ago in the Cornell MFA program, and, not unlike the experience of Eric Bennett at Iowa, he got a whole lot of what not to do with his talent. If he and his few POC cohorts suggested readings that were more pinned to their lives, they were accused of political correctness. “Shit,” writes Díaz, “in my workshop we never talked about race except on the rare occasion someone wanted to argue that ‘race discussions’ were exactly the discussion a serious writer should not be having.”
Honestly. All this “serious writer” stuff. More like indoctrination.
My beef has always been that MFA programs can’t help but crank out homogeneity because by definition they represent a set of standards — “serious” being one of the key words. “Literary” another. Díaz adds “white.” It’s hard to argue against that.
He might bristle at the idea that MFA programs are also geared toward people of a certain socioeconomic classification (not to say class), since the ability to pay for them is definitely a factor. Taking two years off from employment — and sure, sometimes there are grants and financial aid and stipends — is a luxury for most people of any color. Demographically, it will be whites who are able to do the perpetual student thing more often than POC. And when it comes to what you’ll do with that degree when you’re finished? POC have much more to lose, you’d have to admit. Two years and tens of thousands of dollars, and all I got was this Cornell T-shirt?
In my own experience, and I’ve mentioned this before, money was the main reason I didn’t pursue an MFA. I was already working. At 23, I already had bills to pay (that’s how it was back then, youngsters!), and figuring out a way to go to school some more and manage everything else seemed impossible. Plus there’s a level of confusion when you’re that age. As Díaz says:
“Part of it was a worrying sense I had that I was going to need a lot more sophistication if I was ever going to be any good at writing. And part of it was I didn’t know I had other options.”
He wound up not only doing well in his writing career but also establishing a program for POC — The Voices of Our Nation Workshop, fourteen years on the scene now. It’s a kind of deliverance, a way to make up for the crap he and his colleagues had to put up with, and it’s an avenue for young POC to explore their own experience and identity through writing.
His experience at Cornell turned into something good. Frustration is an efficient fuel.