WHAT THE HELL

Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Junot Díaz vents about MFA programs: turns out they’re very blanca

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Junot Díaz, via his Amazon author page

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.

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9 comments on “Junot Díaz vents about MFA programs: turns out they’re very blanca

  1. Charles Yallowitz
    May 5, 2014

    Interesting story and I agree about the homogeneity. When I started college, I planned on going for a MFA down the road. Yet, I found that I was the lone fantasy author and stuck out like a gangrene thumb. So I didn’t really have the urge to go higher than a BA because I felt like my genre wasn’t geared toward the higher levels. Very strange how that mentality can sink in.

    • Kevin Brennan
      May 5, 2014

      Funny you should mention that. I just read a piece in the NYT last week about a chick-lit author’s experience in an MFA program. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/author/karin-gillespie/

      The irony she points out is that every time a big shot agent was invited to speak to the class, he/she would emphasize genre-oriented elements like plot and pacing over literary techniques. Go figure…

      • Charles Yallowitz
        May 5, 2014

        I like the part where the agent pressures the professor. Never understood why there can’t be acceptance of both sides. There are readers for everything out there.

  2. 1WriteWay
    May 12, 2014

    I read the same Gillespie article and thought it was great. Actually, I first thought she was going to be like Weiner and just whine about not being “accepted.” But she was spot-on with the “dissing” that genre writers get. (Crap, can’t we just write???) I was definitely rooting for her at the end. Diaz was on The Colbert Report some time ago, touting an open university that he and some other writers started in 2011, called Freedom University. Colbert gave him a college sweatshirt that had the university initials on it: F U. You can see it here at about 6:10: http://thecolbertreport.cc.com/videos/bwz16t/junot-diaz

    • Kevin Brennan
      May 12, 2014

      Love that clip! Thanks!

      I’m a firm believer in the notion that “genre” books can be well-written and use literary conventions. I’m hoping my next book does that!

      • 1WriteWay
        May 12, 2014

        Me too 🙂

      • 1WriteWay
        May 12, 2014

        I wrote “Me too :)” too fast … I don’t hope that your next book will be well-written. I KNOW it will be. I’m just hoping it will be successful 🙂

      • Kevin Brennan
        May 12, 2014

        Shucks, I knew what ya meant!

      • 1WriteWay
        May 12, 2014

        🙂

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This entry was posted on May 5, 2014 by in Writing and tagged , , .
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