“We Might Start a Revolution”: POC Voices in MFA Writing Programs

by Erika Turner, Contributing Editor

From Junot Diaz’s MFA vs. POC in 2014 to Jenny Zhang’s seering rebuttal to the yellowface scandal in this year’s Best American Poetry, there’s been robust conversation about the lack of diversity in and accessibility to both the literary world and the academic programs that promise a ticket through its pearly gates.

On a panel pre-gaming this year’s 10th annual Brooklyn Book Festival, Korean-American writer and Iowa Writer’s Workshop graduate Alexander Chee claimed that the proliferation of MFA programs these days meant a “democratization” of literature. Wondering if these programs had received the memo, The Offing reached out to a few current students and alumni of creative writing MFA programs to learn about their experiences as people of color in a largely white industry.

“When you think of art, you don’t think of people of color; you think of…white guys writing books,” said Rana Zoe Mungin, a recent graduate of the MFA program at University of Massachusetts Amherst and a current adjunct professor. Mungin explained that, during her workshops as a student of fiction, her mostly white peers had a hard time understanding her perspective as a black woman. The experience made her feel like “No one wants me here; no one understands what I’m doing. No one will direct me to someone who understands what I’m doing.”

When asked about his experiences, recent Sarah Lawrence graduate Quincy Scott Jones shared similar sentiments.  “It’s lonely being a token.” As a black man with experience in academia however, Jones said he wasn’t surprised. He expected alienation — maybe even hostility. After all, the lack of diversity in MFA programs mirrored higher education at large. However, he was pleased with many of his professors, whom he felt tried hard to include writers of color and LGBTQ writers on their syllabi.

Unfortunately, he felt that many of his peers weren’t ready for that level of inclusivity: “There were many times where [they] would offer a few compliments [on my work] and say, in the most gracious way possible, that they were unaware of the issues the work attempt (sic) to discuss. I often felt this was their way of — perhaps subconsciously — rehanging a curtain of invisibility on the realities of people of color.”

“I remember having to fight for my word choices, because my style is very colloquial,” said Vanesa Evers, a fellow Sarah Lawrence student who graduated in 2013. “My classmates constantly asked why didn’t I use more difficult words. My argument was that I wanted to bring people to my work, not force them to have to build a bridge just to get on my level.” Despite these challenges, Evers said she felt relatively comfortable in her program as a black woman, and joined the undergraduate student group for people of color as a source of community.

Both Ryan Strong, a black 2014 Sarah Lawrence graduate, and Sejal Shah, a 2002 graduate of UMass Amherst who is of South Asian descent, echoed the importance of actively searching for supportive networks. “I’m sure my experience would not have been as positive if I did not have an ally,” Ryan said.

Shah also emphasized self-care as a priority: “Hope for the best,” she said, “but don’t expect others to be looking out for you.”

Following similar instincts, Morgan Jerkins, a current student of the Bennington Writing Seminars, reached out to Junot Diaz via e-mail for his guidance; he responded in less than a day. Despite needing support from fellow writers of color, Jerkins found her classmates to be “warm” and said her program fostered a very safe workshop environment. Though she began her program with the aim of keeping her head down and proving herself through her work — a sentiment shared among many other interviewees — Jerkins said she eventually realized she needed to speak up more. “Now I know that I have a duty to…leave my mark through my words, both in and out of the workshop.”

Despite the setbacks and isolation as people of color, all students interviewed were happy about their decision to develop their skills as writers and deepen their literary knowledge through the pursuit of an MFA overall. They just wished that the program took the time to better improve specific resources for students of color. For example, several students shared that the concept of diversity for many programs was expanded to include geographic and socio-economic breadth, but not racial or cultural diversity.

According to Mungin, programs that are truly invested in their students’ success must also be invested in their emotional health, which is deeply tied to what they do and do not internalize regarding their identity. Instead of presenting themselves as equal colleagues, Mungin suggested that professors treat their students as “baby writers” in need of mentorship. She wished more professors would shut down culturally uninformed critiques, due to the danger they could do not only to the writing and creative process of students of color, but to their mental health.

When asked what advice she’d give to professors and administrators of MFA programs, Mungin said, “Make sure you value us. …Your students of color have worked twice as hard to get to where your white students are. Appreciate the work it took for them to get there.”

Image via Surian Soosay/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)