So, I recently came across the following article about diversity the MFA world, written by the graduate of an MFA program just down the road from me.
I thought about my own program, which, if y’all haven’t realized, I liked a lot. And I'm always going to gush about it. It's what I do. I get attached. Man, imagine if I had gone to Texas A&M? Every single piece of clothing I own would be maroon. Anyway, one of the things I liked the most was the diversity of the faculty and the students sin my cohort. Here's a snapshot of the current staff: Rosa Alcala, Daniel Chacon, Jose de Pierola, Sasha Pimentel, Luis Arturo Ramos, Benjamin Alire Saenz, Lex Williford, Andrea Cote-Botero, Jeff Sirkin, and Tim Z. Hernandez.
Now, when people see people like me push for diversity, it’s not that we want to talk JUST about this or that author.
Although you can very easily create a curriculum out of just Latino poets or just African-American poets.
But here's a selection of the authors we studied in my fiction and poetry workshops: John Milton, Salman Rushdie, TS Eliot, Federico Garcia Lorca, Edward Hirsch, Derek Walcott, Homer, Toni Morrison, Amy Hempel, Walt Whitman, CD Wright, Frank O’Hara, Julio Cortazar, Flannery O’Connor, Jorge Luis Borges, Emmanuel Swedenborg, Sharon Olds, Arthur Sze, Mark Strand, Natasha Trethaway, Corinne Cregg Hales.
That’s a pretty good mix. Even if I really didn’t like Sharon Olds or Theo Walcott. (Come at me bro)
When I read articles like Ms. Garcia’s, or Junot Diaz’s, I have this instinct to immediately come to the defense of my MFA, the money spent on it, and the barrels of whiskey and coffee consumed in the three years I was a student.
I mean, why not?
But then I have to stop and consider that my program is an aberration when it comes to MFA. That I didn’t get to experience the exclusion, the anti-me thing that Garcia went through. Quite the opposite, actually, and I can sum it up in one particular story involving professor Sasha Pimentel. The thing about Sasha is that on the outside she’s a five-foot-and-change, thin little Filipina who likes to smile.
But she is FEROCIOUS when it comes to poetry, approaching it with the same wild-eyed and excited, highly-contagious demeanor that the sixth-grade girls in my elementary approached Backstreet Boys and NSync. During workshops, Sasha would savage our poems down to their component atoms and make us put them back together in order to learn about the nuance of the art. And she wasn’t rude about it, she was just direct, stern, and able to put the fear of God in you if you didn’t believe in yourself or if you didn’t want to learn from the class.
So, picture me, thinking I had this pretty badass poem ready to go. So awesome, I even added a little word in Spanish to add to the flair. Italicized.
When it was my turn for it to be reviewed by Sasha, who speaks Spanish as well as any Latino I know. All she said was:
“What are you doing?”
And looked straight into the monitor, peering with her black eyes right into my soul.
“Uh…what do you mean?”
“Why are you italicizing this word?”
“Well, because, I mean, it’s in Spanish…”
“I’m writing in English and I—“
“I mean, I should…”
“No. It doesn’t matter that it’s another language, this is your poem. Your language.”
Damn. So I haven’t italicized anything since, even in my spoken word poetry, even in my fiction. I’m going to write in Spanish and code-switch if I have to because that’s my first language, and I am the poet, the writer, the one who is communicating.
That was my experience, and I am saddened and angered by the fact that this is the minority.
I don’t know Garcia, but when she says “I no longer feel I need to italicize my Spanish, justify my history, or pander to white readers who have so often seen me as an affirmative action case who shouldn’t be seen or heard” I understand exactly what she means. She’s learning something that I learned in my very first MFA class months after she’s graduated. That ain’t right. It's as insulting as when people approach me and go, "wow, you talk white!"
And what happened when she thought to complain? The run-around.
One guy in the comments of the article called her out, “Well, you should have been there last year or the year before because there was this other guy! And even still, she has it SO much better than all these other programs!”
Translation: How dare you complain?
First off, it’s kind of problematic that people aren’t allowed to feel hurt. I’ve encountered that when I see people who are mortified by the existence of the Black Lives Matter movement. “Well, you know, in Morocco, the life expectancy is like 17! They shouldn’t be complaining, spoiled brats.”
Y’know what, I don’t live in Chicago’s south side but it doesn’t mean I can’t complain about something that goes bad in my life.
And let’s assume, just for argument’s sake, that this guy was right. Why wasn’t it addressed early on? If I’m the first person she goes to, here’s what I do: I go, “Shit, you’re right, I have noticed that, too. But, something to keep in mind is that [POC] was here last semester, and currently [Other POC] is here. But I understand your concerns, maybe we should discuss it with the other faculty as well.” Boom, a conversation.
This idea that we’re out of line when we complain is nothing new. We had a situation last year when Kate Gale, editor of Red Hen Press (and AWP member) outright mocked (in a very tone-deaf post) someone voicing a concern in what I assume was a private conversation. She apologized a few days later after considerable backlash. I'm hoping that everyone involved learned something from that.
But still, I’m afraid that is the default setting.
How dare you complain?
One of the things that people bring up is that, well, maybe the demographic figures aren't there!
A rough look at the current faculty in MFA programs in the state that have a Creative Writing focus.
63 professors in 6 MFA in creative writing programs (UT, UTRGV, UTEP, Houston, Houston-Victoria, Texas State)
42 men, 21 women
13 Latino or Hispanic
4 Non-white, Non-Hispanic minorities
The population of Texas is split right down the middle between men and women.
The population of Texas is 56% minority (38% Latino/Hispanic an 18% other URM)
Random fun fact, y'all want to know which is the most diverse MFA program in Texas? The one in UH-Victoria. Granted, it's two women (Latina and Indian) and one dude.
Random not as fun fact, how come the Aggies haven't stepped up to the plate for this, either? The UT system has 3 schools with an MFA program, UH has two. Y'all just got a law school, wouldn't take too much to use some of the money being saved up to build a Johnny Football statue to create your own Creative Writing MFA.
I'll note that I didn't include programs at Tech, SMU, UNT, or Baylor, who offer either only a small concentration as part of an M.A. in English. (If I'm wrong, people from these schools, please let me know and I will amend the graph above)
So let's talk solutions.
It's something that goes beyond getting just hiring more Latino and URM faculty for these programs. That's a step, yes, but it's not the only step. There's also the thought of curricula, and that shouldn't be too hard. I mean, take a look at this one that a simple Google search found, an NYU course taught by Ghanaian-born Mohammed Naseehu for one of his fiction classes. As creative writers and poets we have the luxury of being...well, creative, with our curricula.
But there's also things we can tackle before a student even thinks about getting an MFA. They are not going to get to that point if they are not supported in creative endeavors as part of their undergrad. They are not going to get to -that- point if their arts programs in the schools are slashed. I'm sure some of the $60 mill spent on Eagle Stadium in Denton could have been used for that. Programs like Writers in the Schools, Barrio Writers and MECA in Houston are EXCELLENT, but they shouldn't be alone, nor should they struggle for funding.
I get it, STEM programs are important. Absolutely, and we should encourage URMs to go into these. But, not everyone's cut out to be an engineer or a doctor. I know, because the GRE math scared me so much that the LSAT looked to be more accessible. But I was encouraged to write creatively and use that writing to further my own careers (that pay my bills) because if I'm a starving artist I can't get Whataburger. I didn't have programs like WITS around, but I was lucky to have a strong support system in and outside of school that helped me believe in myself.
The arts are important, and so are the arts of the communities we represent, whether it's in high school or in the loftiest of MFA programs.
I can (very begrudgingly) accept that genre fiction isn't academic because people in stuffy offices don't like jetpacks and wizards.
But don't give me this "magical realism" / "chicano realism" isn't academic nonsense.