Marta Asks Me About My First Time
<iMarta asks: You’ve expressed a great deal of openness with what we are calling “cultural trespass,” with authors writing across lines that can sometimes feel dangerous — race, class, gender, sexuality, etc., even when writers don’t always “get it right.” Have you always felt this way? Or was there a time when those boundaries around voice and identity felt more rigid to you, like boundaries you needed to protect?
For better or worse I came of age before the heyday of cultural studies. Even the youngest among the professors at “progressive” Macalester College was strictly old school in his approach to literature; with the exception of a brief foray into Native Son during my senior year in high school, it’s likely across my entire “formal” education that any work I read by a person of color I read because I chose to and not because I was assigned to. Good, bad or indifferent, representations—in any media—of people who looked like me or lived the kind of life I lived were few and far between. Culture, therefore, was mostly lived experience. It was the eclectic music on the stereo and a family field trip to see the touring Pearl Baily production of “Hello, Dolly” and Nikki Giovanni on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson—as well as her first books of poetry delivered by my cousin who was in graduate school at Yale.
It’s also the case that our family instilled in each of us a solid sense of self-possession—leaving me fairly immune to the charms of identity politics of any kind. I’m disinclined to join any club that doesn’t allow me to write the rules. (Rule #1: No meetings. Rule #2: No costuming of any kind.)
I skipped attending a writing program. (I think I forgot to go.) My first exposure to the identity game in the literary world coincided with the publication of my first two stories, where the editors called me up (this was before email) and sheepishly worked their way around to asking me “what I was.” When I gave what apparently was the right answer, each of them heaved a sigh of relief, followed by some general babbling about how careful they had to be “these days” about “that sort of thing.” They would not have published such stories had they not come from a writer whose identity didn’t matched the subject.
During these early years of my career, I was teaching elementary school. (Fifteen years: Never sick, never late.) This was at the apex of the “Process” phase of the writing industry, and we were all about facilitating creativity. So, honestly, during all those years it never once occurred to me to tell my sixth graders that they couldn’t write about…anything.
Shortly after my second novel came out, I went to a reading at the late, lamented Vertigo Books in DC by my friend Susan Straight. Milkweed Editions had published my book as well as her first book, Aquaboogie. A white academic stood up during the Q & A and excoriated Susan for her “cultural trespass.” That (bogus) argument doesn’t merit any space here, but it was all I needed to hear to be done with essentialism once and for all.
Except: I knew that in order to dismiss such nonsense with any validity or authority I needed to understand the sources of the arguments—work that I was engaged with right around the time I joined the faculty of the MFA Program at Warren Wilson.
To be clear, I have no real interest in dictating content one way or another. However it has always been curious to me that in the draft fiction I read at Warren Wilson and elsewhere there seems to an absence of the kinds of diversity that I know represents the lived lives of the writers I am teaching. Reading worksheets over the years continues to convince me that the protectors of the boundaries have won the day.
Additionally, I’ve had a longstanding interest in teaching pedagogy—in particular the fascinating work that has been done around culturally responsive pedagogy and I have been exploring for myself the implications for the teaching of creative writing. A lot of my attention to such issues arises out of this exploration. Among the many intriguing questions: How do we work with writers of color to address culturally specific issues of craft.
Creative writing programs don’t talk about this because a lot of the people who teach in creative writing programs don’t give a shit about such things.