Growing Up Means Knowing What We Must Do to What the World Has Done to Us
by Amira Pierce
The first major idea I had about identity and art struck me when I was living briefly in Cairo, Egypt, in 2005, working at an art gallery that showed local and international artists. As it goes with sharing art and being human, sometimes we said not-so-nice things about some of the artists and their art. A common complaint was that an Egyptian artist was selling out his or her Egyptian-ness, that the art wasn’t really good but only liked for its appropriation of ethnic indicators, its deliberate exotification. Self-orientalization, I called it, summoning forth Edward Said and flipping him back on the self and never asking the self-orientalizers what they thought. I was clever enough to figure it out on my own.
Having left a full-time job in New York for a part-time one in a dazzlingly foreign place, I was able to really write for the first time since graduating college two years before, and I was writing about Egypt, writing about my experience there, about the people and the strange things I saw. Was I orientalizing, I wondered? The worry never went away, but I’m thankful it didn’t stop me. I wrote down all I could.
I kept writing about Egypt when I moved to back to the States, and my writing about Egypt became about my experience as a Lebanese-American there. I started writing more about Lebanon, about always remembering I was not completely Lebanese or completely American, about traveling and being uncomfortable about the idea of home. Now the worry changed: was I like the Egyptian artists, self-orientalizing? I went back to school, got an MA in literature and writing and MFA in creative writing. The worry morphed and grew. And participating in writing workshops made it so.
I like the phenomenon of writing workshops in theory, but there’s something about their constrictions that tugs at my memory. One problematic rule–that has been part of most workshops that I’ve been in and is now in the one I run in my expository writing classes–is that the writer whose work is being talked about is not allowed to talk during the commenting period, at least not until the very end, to ask questions. This way, I tell my students, writers learn to listen to what others have to say about their work without offering an immediate reaction, which is most often just an ego-defense. It takes time to process all those comments, and we best do it without thinking about what we want to say back to it.
The silent rule seems like a good lesson in patience and humility, I’ve thought for a while. But then I came across Junot Díaz’s introduction to The New Anthology as published online in the New Yorker last week, and I remembered that sometimes the silent rule really sucked. It sucked when people said things that were idiotic about things they didn’t know about and I knew and actually cared about and I wasn’t supposed to open my mouth and I didn’t. And it was worse when they went on and on, as people sometimes do.
In Díaz’s piece, the lauded Dominican-American story-writer remembers back to his own MFA experience, twenty years ago now. He recalls how quickly and how much he hated his workshops at Cornell because they were “too white.” In the two decades since Díaz was in school, the creative writing industry has swelled in its strange spot in academia, drawing students in droves. (An illustration of that to me is always the AWP conference that’s held each year. I didn’t go to the one in Seattle this year but went to Boston and something crazy like 13,000 people were there.) Despite all the growth, Junot Díaz is right when he says, “It’s been twenty years since my workshop days and yet from what I gather a lot of shit remains more or less the same.”
My workshops that only ended a few years ago now were very white. I was part of the whiteness. However we identified, most of us there were complicit in what Díaz describes as he explains what he noticed about the way his workshops dealt with race:
“Race was the unfortunate condition of nonwhite people that had nothing to do with white people and as such was not a natural part of the Universal of Literature, and anyone that tried to introduce racial consciousness to the Great (White) Universal of Literature would be seen as politicizing the Pure Art and betraying the (White) Universal (no race) ideal of True Literature.”
Ouch. I know. That stings, but you MFA kids have to admit it’s true–no? My workshops were not at all diverse, racially, but efforts were made to acknowledge the way race and ethnic identity works in creative writing. Some of us wrote about people of other races, also about people from and in other places, far away. I kept going with my writing on the Middle East, worrying about my characters all the way. Were they too racialized–or ethnicized or whatever!? Did they do justice to their real-life counterparts? I talked about these questions with my teachers and with my fellow students, but answers were not at the ready. Why did I care so much anyway? People seemed to like my stories, and I liked them too, when I wasn’t busy worrying.
I could get by for a while telling myself the orientalizing business was all in my head, and then inevitably it would come: I’d be sitting in workshop, listening to people talk about my writing, saying insightful and constructive things, and then someone would say something that had nothing to do with the life of the story, something ludicrous, out of left field and racialized about how surprised they were that Arabs would be this way, about how one of the characters should act, about what food he should eat, what scarf she should wear. Only thing is I didn’t think it was ludicrous then, nobody did, or none of us said anything, least of all, silent me.
Thankfully, those experiences did nag at me and I was able to talk about them with the couple “diverse” friends I had there–two women, one who was South Asian and one who was half-Lebanese, like me!–who had similar experiences in other workshops. “They just don’t get it,” we said, over glasses of cheap wine. “This isn’t about curry or hummus or saris or headscarves. This is about who we are, what has meaning for us, what we’ve seen, what we know. This isn’t about selling ourselves but about giving significance to some of the images we’ve carried with us our whole lives.” Those women saved me more than once.
Maybe you are thinking we were overreacting, that Díaz is overreacting too. It’s hard to admit, but I might think so if I wasn’t the one writing this essay. Anyway, I hope you can quiet that voice and let these ideas in.
During the last year of my graduate program, I stopped hanging out so much with my friends and grew close to a man from the city I lived in then. He was a smart man with a job that had him working outside, not his dream job but a good job, and he knew that. He spent his free time reading, going out with friends, or taking me on adventures.
As our relationship developed, I shared the short stories I had been writing in school with him, and he said he liked them. He had good advice about the main characters and how real they felt. His reactions were helpful to my revisions. And he was proud of me when I got recognized for my work and proud of me each time he heard me read my work, so proud he glowed, and he made me glow. Then, one day, after reading he had read my third or fourth story, he said he liked my stories but also he didn’t understand why in all my stories the “white guy” turned out to be “bad” and why there was always some component of Arab-ness. He said these fixations seemed perhaps limiting, that I was creating my own stereotypes. This was around the time he would joke with me about being a “brown girl” which he would then say of course I wasn’t, but it seemed like I wanted to be, and why would I want to be? I can honestly say I’ve blocked out the details of what came next. Maybe he told me he was only kidding, and I mutely softened, sated, and then we talked about something else.
I am not a person of color but I went through a phase–after I left the man and the graduate school town–when I was calling myself that, or a writer of color at least. There was something empowering in finding this way to label myself, but, since my skin is pale and everyone says I have “European features,” after a while it felt all wrong. And when I thought about it, and as I considered the experiences of my sisters of color, I realized a part of the reason why this was true: the world can treat a woman who looks like me profoundly differently from a woman who looks like them, and, most often, that difference works out in my favor. It’s hard for me to know what they feel like, but it’s important to me that–by knowing them and their stories–I try.
When the man from the graduate school town reached out to me after a long period of no contact, he told me in his email that he had recently heard Junot Díaz speak about race, masculinity, and fiction-writing, and at that moment he realized how the things he said to me about my identity might have been hurtful. He realized things about the world he grew up in and how that world stayed with him (even though he’d run from it) and carried itself into our relationship. He was sorry, he said. It felt too late for an apology from him to offer me much more than a muted sense of relief.
It is also too late for me to talk back in my graduate school writing workshops but it’s not too late for me to teach my students thoughtful ways to talk back in theirs. Because it is only by conscientious modeling and practice that we can make legitimate space for folks who claim “other” identities in our white institutions. We need to train our ears to be smart and our mouths to be both smart and careful. And it’s not easy–but what’s the fun in things that are easy?
I see a bright and varied future for our growing field, but we are only going to get there by more efforts of inclusion, by being worried about our preconceptions but not letting that worry stop us from talking about them and getting past them–both on the page and at the workshop table. It is about listening, sure, but a conscientious sort of listening that only works when you also respond to what you have heard.
Again and again in his essay, Díaz reminds us he was “young” when he first approached workshop–which is to say, he didn’t know any better when he hoped to be treated as his complete self. “I guess I assumed that a graduate program full of artists dedicated to seeing beyond the world’s masks would be better on the race front–” he writes “–that despite all my previous experience with white-majority institutions the workshop would be an exception.”
There was no exception, there is no exception, unless we make one. Díaz’s fiction is testament to that, and so is his involvement with the Voices of our Nation Workshop (where the work from the anthology that the New Yorker essay is an introduction for comes from) and this piece in Salon last Friday about his teaching practices. (Curiously, Salon’s Prachi Gupta writes about Díaz in the tone of an expose, something like: wow, the New Yorker published this Díaz guy explaining how he’s been forever pissed about white people ruining workshops and so to see if he can put his money where his mouth is, we tracked down his syllabi, and…well, we wanted to find out all white people were on it, but maybe he’s actually for real because here is what we actually found…)
Most notable in Gupta’s article were the quoted portions of Díaz’s syllabus, my favorite bit a stated mission to help students understand that, “[i]f race or gender (or any other important social force) are not part of your interpretive logic — if they’re not part of what you consider the real — then you’re leaving out most of what has made our world our world.” That’s the kind of teaching I hope for us and all our children and the kind of truth-telling that murders my worry of self-orientalism, that keeps me going as I write different versions of the story of what my characters have done to the world and what the world has done to us.