Poets & Writers

Return to the MFA

I REMEMBER a story I last workshopped in my MFA program. It’s a story about Soma, a call-center agent in India who has to ignore daily encounters with American racism. In my story’s climax she has to empathize with a white woman accusing Indians of being lazy and stealing American jobs; it’s the only way for Soma to retain her job and ensure her family’s survival.

In workshop we followed the classic “Iowa model” of feedback through which each of my peers would comment on my story while I’d stay quiet and listen. My peers talked about the good or poor execution of craft in the story—sentences, style, use of details, and so forth—but no one commented directly on the story’s climactic moment or mentioned the word racism even though it was at the heart of my story. A white male peer sighed and said he had nothing to offer me as feedback; he couldn’t relate to my brown protagonist who goes through too much. Another peer nodded, a white woman. Soon thereafter one of the two workshop leaders stopped the peer discussion and reminded the group of its racial majority before steering it toward a more helpful conversation. It didn’t escape me then that the white man speaking up about race in my workshop was a Jewish writer married to a Black woman.

This isn’t yet another story about how rough I had it in my MFA program as a brown immigrant woman. It is, instead, a story about a greater reality of MFA programs that begs for a reevaluation.

IN RECENT years the U.S. literary world has established what a traditional MFA—seen as a white nat ional ist, Judeo-Christ ian, hetero-patriarchal space in its aesthetic ideology—does to Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC); women; LGBTQIA+ or immigrant writers; or those with disabilities. My experience, à propos, wasn’t much of an exception. Besides, contemporary American writers, mostly of color, have talked at length about this: Junot Díaz, David Mura, Joy Castro, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Matthew Salesses, to maintain whiteness as the workshop’s unspoken norm. “The insistence that white supremacy doesn’t continue to be our dominant frame takes work,” she said. “The belief that white lives are not political lives with political privilege and protections takes work. The failure to push back against systems that subjugate others takes work. The constant unwillingness or inability to retain diverse faculty takes work.”

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