“I often wonder what I’d do if there weren’t any books in the world.”
― James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room
A few weeks ago I was thinking about how Junot Diaz often comments on the fact he’s almost never asked to speak about craft, and instead always is asked to talk about race, identity, and the immigrant experience. And it’s true — when I think about all the books on writing craft I’ve read or heard about over the years I’m struck by how few POC-authored books on writing I’ve seen. Are they really that rare? Or are the books and essays out there, but we don’t know where to find them?
In some respects this is really another part of a longer discussion around the violence and erasure of POC experiences and writing in many contemporary MFA writing workshops. Junot Diaz's April 30, 2014 article "MFA vs POC" in The New Yorker brought into the public forum many of the frustrations and issues that writers of color have come to know as part of the MFA experience. For Diaz, the MFA workshop is too often a space that privileges and celebrates a white and often male perspective, while silencing other voices. In what is often a profoundly white space, the student writer of color is often asked to conform to a standard rooted in white experience, or else asked to perform as a token or a race ambassador, or to write toward expected race narratives for the sake of "believability" as judged by their predominantly white peers. In such settings, feedback tends to be grounded in the assumption that the "reader" is white and imply that their appetites and approval require particular handling, placating, or self-mutilation to appease. Diaz's article led to a number of responses from well-known writers of color as well as current and former creative writing workshop students who had witnessed or experienced similar things. The end of this article features a collection of some of these responses.
At the heart of the MFA vs POC discussion is the contention that any discussion of craft does not take place in a vacuum -- that race is part of one's lived experience and how we see ourselves and are seen does impact how and what we write. Much of what is taught, for example, about craft in a writing workshop presumes the primacy of a Western European aesthetic tradition, ignoring 1) that tradition's historical debts to other cultures and traditions; 2) the multiple aesthetic traditions in literature and the arts elsewhere in the world which were concurrent or preceded the European tradition; 3) the complexity and fluidity of cultural exchange happening presently -- that we live in a global society where our literature and art should more accurately reflect the reality of our communities, not look back nostalgically to a whitewashed world that never was.
So how do we move forward? A key step is becoming better educated about what is and isn't out there already. If we wish to be more cognizant of the ways race and craft intertwine as we interrogate assumptions about canon, aesthetic tradition, and the workshop, then we need to read and study the existing archive (which, though often invisible inside a typical workshop, nonetheless exists) -- and if we find some things are missing, we should call attention to the gaps and (if possible) work toward filling them.
This following list is an expansion of a post I started on my own blog to catalog what writing resources are out there that have been written, edited, or presented by other writers of color (if you are aware of other texts, essays, and resources that should be listed, please post in the comments and I’ll add them in).
Single Authors on Craft
- Delany, Samuel R. About Writing: Seven Essays, Four Letters, & Five Interviews. Wesleyan. 2006.
- Hongo, Garrett. The Mirror Diary: Selected Essays. University of Michigan Press. 2017.
- Johnson, Charles. The Way of the Writer. Scribner. 2016.
- Kingston, Maxine Hong. To Be the Poet. Harvard University Press. 2002.
- Lee, Li-Young. Breaking the Alabaster Jar: Conversations with Li-Young Lee. BOA Editions. 2006.
- Lorca, Federico Garcia. In Search of Duende. New Directions. 1998.
- Mullen, Harryette. The Cracks Between What We Are and What We Are Supposed to Be: Essays and Interviews. University of Alabama Press. 2012.
- Mura, David. A Stranger’s Journey: Race, Identity & Narrative Craft in Writing. Forthcoming.
- Paz, Octavio. Alternating Current. Arcade Publishing. 2015.
- Paz, Octavio. The Bow and The Lyre: The Poem, The Poetic Revelation, Poetry and History. University of Texas Press. 2009.
- Paz, Octavio. The Siren and the Seashell and Other Essays on Poets and Poetry. University of Texas Press. 1991.
- Phillips, Carl. The Coin of the Realm: Essays on the Life and Art of Poetry. Graywolf. 2004.
- Phillips, Carl. The Art of Daring: Risk, Restlessness, Imagination. Graywolf. 2014.
Anthologies on Craft
- Dawes, Kwame (editor). When the Rewards Can Be So Great: Essays on Writing and the Writing Life. 1849 Editions. 2016.
- Galvan-Huynh, Amanda & Luisa A. Igloria (editors). Of Color: Poets’ Ways of Making An Anthology of Essays on Transformative Poetics. Forthcoming.
- Tabios, Eileen (editor). Black Lightning: Poetry-in-Progress. Asian American Writers Workshop. 1998.
- Quan-Lee, Sherry (editor). How Dare We Write: A Multicultural Creative Writing Discourse. Modern History Press. 2017.
- Huey, Amorak and Todd Kaneko. Poetry: A Writers’ Guide and Anthology. Bloomsbury. 2018.
- Joseph, Allison (editor). (poetry instructional guide for teen girls) [title tbd]. Upper Rubber Boot Books. Forthcoming.
- Muller, Lauren (editor). June Jordan's Poetry for the People: A Revolutionary Blueprint. Routledge, 1995.
- Shawl, Nisi and Cynthia Ward. Writing the Other: A Practical Approach. Aqueduct Press. 2005.
Essays on Craft (in print)
- Butler, Octavia. “Birth of a Writer,” Essence 20 (May 1989): 74+. Reprinted as “Positive Obsession” in Bloodchild and Other Stories. Seven Stories Press. 2005.
- Perez, Craig Santos. "Whitewashing American Hybrid Aesthetics," in The Monkey & The Wrench: Essays into Contemporary Poetics, edited by Mary Biddinger and John Gallaher. U of Akron Press. 2011.
- Phillips, Carl. "The Ode," in Radiant Lyre: Essays on Lyric Poetry, edited by David Baker and Ann Townsend. Graywolf. 2007.
Essays on Craft (online)
- Cheng, Jennifer S. "The Poetics and Politics of Refraction," Jacket 2 (07/06/2016).
- Diaz, Junot. “On My Way to the Novel, I Fell in Love with the Short Story,” Literary Hub (10/7/2016).
- Nezhukumatathil, Aimee. "More than the Birds, Bees, and Trees: A Closer Look at Writing Haibun," Academy of American Poets (02/20/2014).
- Nezhukumatathil, Aimee. "The Poetry of Superstition and Supposition," Academy of American Poets (04/15/2014).
- Perez, Craig Santos. “On Writing from the New Oceania,” Ottawa Poetry Newsletter (11/24/2016)
- Perez, Craig Santos. “ʻfrom Organic Acts’: Tsamorita, Rosaries, and the Poem of My Grandma’s Life,” Life Writing Journal (2015), 1-6.
- Perez, Craig Santos. “from Unincorporated Poetic Territories,” The Force of What’s Possible: Accessibility and the Avant-Garde (Nightboat Books, 2015).
- Perez, Craig Santos. “from a Poetics of Continuous Presence and Erasure,” Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (Issue 28, April 2013).
- Perez, Craig Santos. “The Poetics of Mapping Diaspora, Navigating Culture, and Being From,” Doveglion Literary Journal (2011).
- Poddar, Namrata. "Is 'Show Don't Tell' a Universal Truth or a Colonial Relic?," Literary Hub (2016).
- Tan, Amy. "Amy Tan's Lonely 'Pixel-by-Pixel' Writing Method," The Atlantic (12/10/2013)
- Wurth, Erika T. "The Fourth Wave," Waxwing Magazine (2015).
- Wurth, Erika T. "The Fourth Wave in Native American Literature," The Writer's Chronicle (2016).
Essays on Canon / De-Canon
- Hong, Cathy Park. "Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant-Garde," Lana Turner Review (2014).
- Waniek, Marilyn Nelson. "Owning the Masters," Gettysburg Review (1995).
Essays on Pedagogy (online)
- Lee, Christine Hyung-Oak. “On Workshop Strife,” Pleiades. (Dec 3, 2016)
- Salesses, Matthew. “CW Workshop & Trump: 7 Things I Teach,” Pleiades. (Nov 26, 2016).
- Salesses, Matthew. “Choosing Texts,” Pleiades (Jan 10, 2017).
- Salesses, Matthew. “Notes on Culture & Craft: Part 1,” Pleiades (Nov 7, 2016).
- Salesses, Matthew. “Notes on Culture & Craft: Part 2,” Pleiades (Jan 27, 2017).
Lectures/Podcasts on Craft (online)
On MFA vs POC
- [2014-04-30] Diaz, Junot. “MFA vs POC,” The New Yorker.
- [2014-05-05] Mura, David. “On the Response to Junot Diaz’s ‘MFA vs POC'” (blog)
- [2014-05-07] Capó-García, Paola. “Addressing the Too-White Problem: A Response to Junot Diaz’s ‘MFA vs POC’ Critique,” Remezcla.
- [2014-05-22] Peña, Daniel. “POC vs PLOT: The MFA, Chipotle Chips, and Narratives We Crave,” Ploughshares.
- [2014-05-30] Kantor, Roanne. “A reflection on Junot Diaz’s ‘MFA vs POC'” (blog)
- [2015-01-11] Joseph, Janine. “MFA vs POC Response,” Speak No Evil Forum, Asian American Literary Review.
- [2015-01-11] Hayashida, Jennifer. “MFA vs POC Response,” Speak No Evil Forum, Asian American Literary Review.
- [2015-01-11] Iyer, Sreedhevi. “MFAoC,” Speak No Evil Forum, Asian American Literary Review.
- [2015-01-11] Sharma, Nina. “Year One,” Speak No Evil Forum, Asian American Literary Review.
- [2015-01-11] Weaver, Afaa Michael. “MFA vs POC Response,” Speak No Evil Forum, Asian American Literary Review.
- [2015-01-11] Espinoza, Alex. “MFA vs POC Response,” Speak No Evil Forum, Asian American Literary Review.
- [2015-01-11] Perez, Craig Santos. “MFA vs POC Response,” Speak No Evil Forum, Asian American Literary Review.
- [2015-01-11] Xu Xi, “The Writing Race,” Speak No Evil Forum, Asian American Literary Review.
- [2015-01-11] González, Rigoberto. “MFA vs POC Response,” Speak No Evil Forum, Asian American Literary Review.
- [2015-01-11] Greenidge, Kaitlyn. “MFA vs POC Response,” Speak No Evil Forum, Asian American Literary Review.
- [2015-04-21] Mura, David. “The Student of Color in the Typical MFA Program,” Gulf Coast.
- [2015-08-19] Larson, Sonya. “Degrees of Diversity: Talking Race and the MFA,” Poets & Writers.
- [2017-04-27] Nguyen, Viet Thanh. “How Writers’ Workshops Can Be Hostile,” New York Times.
On Race Appropriation (MDH / 'Yi-Fen Chou' BAP 2015 Scandal)
- [2015-09-09] Ali, Kazim. "An Open Letter to Aimee Nezhukumatathil," The Rumpus.
- [2015-09-09] Hsu, Hua. "When White Poets Pretend to be Asian," The New Yorker.
- [2015-09-09] Trivedi, Amish. "Thinking Through the Yi-Fen Chou Affair," The Trivedi Chronicles (blog).
- [2015-09-11] Zhang, Jenny. "They Pretend to be US While Pretending We Don't Exist," Buzzfeed.
- [2015-09-14] Cheng, Jennifer S. "What's in a Name?," Guernica.
- [2015-09-14] Rao, Sameer. "#ActualAsianPoet Claps Back at White Poet Who Used Asian Pen Name," Colorlines.
- [2015-09-15] Various authors. "After Yi-Fen Chou: A Forum, 19 writers respond to Michael Derrick Hudson's yellowface," The Margins, Asian American Writers Workshop.
- [2015-09-19] Hu, Jane. "The 'Yi-Fen Chou' Poetry Scandal Goes Beyond 'Yellowface'," The Guardian.
- [2015-10-09] Ha, Thu-Huong. "Great Poets Who Are Actually Asian and Not White Guys Pretending to be Asian," Quartz.
- [2015-10-11] Yu, Timothy. "The Real Yi-Fen Chou: What a Fake Chinese Poet Taught Us About Actual Asian Poets," Angry Asian Man (blog).
Other Recommended Texts
Aciman, Andre. False Papers: Essays on Exile and Memory. Picador. 2001.
Alexander, Meena. The Shock of Arrival: Reflections on Postcolonial Experience. South End Press. 1996.
Paz, Octavio. The Labyrinth of Solitude and Other Writings. Grove Press. 1985.]
Yu, Timothy. Race and the Avant-Garde: Experimental and Asian American Poetry Since 1965. Stanford. 2009.
Neil Aitken is the author of two books of poetry, Babbage's Dream (Sundress 2017) and The Lost Country of Sight (Anhinga 2008), winner of the Philip Levine Prize. A former computer programmer and a Kundiman poetry alumnus, he holds an MFA in Creative Writing from UC Riverside and a Ph.D. in Literature & Creative Writing from USC. He is the founding editor of Boxcar Poetry Review, the administrator of Have Book Will Travel, and a board member of Poetry East West. (www.neil-aitken.com | firstname.lastname@example.org | @neil_aitken)
[2017-05-10] - Added links to essays by Jennifer S. Cheng.
[2017-05-08] - Added links to essays by Aimee Nezhukumatathil. Added books by Samuel R. Delany and Nisi Shawl & Cynthia Ward. Added essay by Octavia Butler. Added links to responses to the MDH / Yi-Fen Chou 'yellowface' scandal. Added essay by Amy Tan.
[2017-05-07] - Added links to essays by Erika T. Wurth. Added author byline/bio.
[2017-05-06] - Added links to essays by Cathy Park Hong, Namrata Poddar, and Marilyn Nelson.