Guest post
Comments 6

“Otherness” in MFA programs

Much has been made of the lack of people of color (POC) enrolled in master of fine arts programs. Last year, best-selling writer of color, Junot Diaz, made the rounds on a variety of news outlets to discuss the lack of diversity in many MFA programs.

Diaz was expressing a real concern and frustration for the lack of diversity in both the student body and the faculty at many of the MFA programs around the country. As his message got louder and spread across the media last summer, other writers echoed his sentiments and shared their stories about workshop experiences (NPR  dubbed the experience “writing while other”). For many writers who identify themselves as “other,” they see this problem as an extension of the publishing world as well, where agents and publishers are not interested in fiction projects that are written by or feature people of color. The excuse is often given that no one buys those books. The standard reply from a person of color, “How would you know? Have you tried?”

Obviously, books exists that are written by, for and about people of color, but there can always be more, or else the #WeNeedDiversity social media campaign would never have been necessary.

But back to the topic at hand, the MFA experience. Fortunately for me as a person of color, I didn’t experience any of the things that Diaz and other writers felt at many of the highly regarded MFA programs they attended. When I began searching for an MFA program, I didn’t consider what schools had a more inclusive or “diverse” student body, I wanted MFA programs that focused on genre (or popular) fiction. I wanted to write what I loved to read, not what some literary snob thinks I should be writing (no offense, friends). Turns out such an MFA program that focuses on popular fiction is very rare.

I’m not trying to promote my school or anything, but I believe that a focus on popular fiction was the key to unlocking this diversity equation. You throw a bunch of students totally in love with popular fiction into a room and you’ll find that the diversity is there automatically. Perhaps it’s because we don’t spend a lot of time trying to be somebody we’re not (I will never be the next Ursula LeGuin or Octavia Butler), we just write what we love to read: popular fiction. Throughout my two and a half years in Seton Hill University’s Writing Popular Fiction program, every incoming class was made up of students from various races, economic backgrounds and sexuality. The admittance of writing geeks who made questionable cosplay costume choices was more like a side effect.  Don’t get me wrong, we love our literary fiction as well (I worship Philip Roth), but we love our popular fiction just as much.

Yes, talking about diversity makes us uncomfortable, but it sometimes is necessary. There is a whole generation of writers waiting to be born and we absolutely must pave the way for them to express themselves too.

So the next time you’re in a writing workshop and criticize a story because you don’t understand what happens in the “hood” or you don’t get why a male on male sex scene needs to be there, just focus on the grammar instead. Or you might want to include questions in the comments section of the submission that asks the writer, politely, what they meant.

Learn more about this ongoing discussion about diversity in MFA programs in the writing community:

Diaz, Junot. “MFA vs POC.” New Yorker.

Neary, Lynn. In Elite MFA programs, the challenge of writing while “other.” NPR Code Switch.

Image: Takuya Goro

=========

Gina N. Anderson is a young adult sci-fi/fantasy writer who grew up in South Carolina and Miami, Florida. After graduating from The George Washington University, she taught English in Nara, Japan, for two years where she wrote a short story series, The Adventures of Bianca Sukiyama. After returning to the States, she became a contractor for international organizations before she decided to take the plunge into studying creative writing.  She received her MFA in Writing popular fiction from Seton Hill University in 2015 and BA in international affairs from The George Washington University. She is married and has a dog named Jack.

If you’re interested in contributing a guest post to The MFA Years, visit our submissions page.

Advertisements
This entry was posted in: Guest post

by

G.N. Anderson is a young adult sci-fi/fantasy writer who grew up in South Carolina and Miami, Florida. After graduating from The George Washington University, she taught English in Nara, Japan for two years where she wrote a short story series, The Adventures of Bianca Sukiyama. She received her MFA in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University and BA in International Affairs from The George Washington University. She is married and has a dog named Jack. Her books include the trilogy Worlds Apart, Biochord and The Adventures of Bianca Sukiyama. You can find Gina on Twitter (@giabianca), Tumblr (http://gnanderson.tumblr.com/) and Facebook: (https://www.facebook.com/ginanicoleanderson )

6 Comments

  1. Vivian D. says

    Thanks for this piece Gina. It’s so hard to be vocal about the issues writers of color face without experiencing some guilt-ridden, de-centering backlash from people who are uncomfortable address the race elephant in the room. Cheers!

    Like

  2. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences and for commenting on Diaz’s much-needed article! What you describe re: being a popular fiction writer in a sea of literary-fiction worship is similar to what I’m anxious I may be coming up against as [a person who has been classified for some years now as] a speculative poet entering an MFA program that’s deeply entrenched in the literary-poetry establishment. It’s a program I’m overjoyed to have gotten into, but I do wonder what my cohort will make of the company I keep. Don’t get me wrong, I’m going to stand my ground; you do so inspiringly, and so should we all.

    Like

    • A.J.,

      Thanks for reading my post. Yes, please go boldly into that program and strut your poet/writer stuff. If you don’t feel like it’s a good fit, then you might need to do a bit of soul searching before you decide what to do next. I think a lot of the writers featured in the NPR story who didn’t fit that mold, stuck it out in their programs and probably used the name recognition of the school to their advantage. Let me know if you get stuck.

      Gina

      Like

  3. Renee says

    Thank you for this article Gina! I am going to apply for MFA’s this fall and am somewhat nervous about what the experience will be like as a queer black female. I would love to get in contact with you in the future about your writing and your experience in the MFA world.

    Like

    • Hi Renee, don’t be nervous. Do your research on all of the MFA programs that you’re interested in. I found the Poets & Writers database to be pretty good (http://www.pw.org/mfa), but there are many more out there. Why not call some faculty members at schools you’re researching and ask some deeper questions about the demographics and/or atmosphere there?
      Please feel free to follow me on Twitter: (@giabianca). I also have my own blog too: http://ginananderson.com/. Best of luck and let us know how it goes.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s