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31 Questions: Some Answers

31 Questions: Some Answers

Earlier this year I posted a link to a most excellent piece: Stephen Burt’s THIRTY-ONE QUESTIONS AND TWELVE APOLOGIES BY WAY OF A THANK-YOU NOTE FOR THE 2013 VIDA COUNT, and at the time I promised to write in response some of the questions. Life intervened, but I did want to return to that project, if only because I was so deeply stimulated by the original article. Here’s the first post:

Stephen Burt’s Question #9:

Is it possible to read a piece of literary writing without imagining that the author has an age, or a profession, or an ethnic identification, or a height, or a weight, or a race?

Well, yes, maybe, but which of us has the opportunity to read anything with the identifying information redacted—other than contest judges that is. For the rest of us, the publisher conveniently plasters images of the author on the cover and everything else we want to know is neatly summarized in the biographical notes. The message couldn’t be clearer: A person like you will enjoy reading something by a person like this.

I Just Work Here

I Just Work Here

Part of my AWP tradition is to attend each year at least one of the several panels devoted to the painful, recounting of the horrors visited upon writers of color while earning their MFAs in creative writing. On April 30 The New Yorker book blog published what is likely the highest profile version of this genre. Junot Diaz describes his program thusly:

Too white as in Cornell had almost no POC—no people of color—in it. Too white as in the MFA had no faculty of color in the fiction program—like none—and neither the faculty nor the administration saw that lack of color as a big problem. (At least the students are diverse, they told us.) Too white as in my workshop reproduced exactly the dominant culture’s blind spots and assumptions around race and racism (and sexism and heteronormativity, etc). In my workshop there was an almost lunatical belief that race was no longer a major social force (it’s class!). In my workshop we never explored our racial identities or how they impacted our writing—at all. Never got any kind of instruction in that area—at all. Shit, in my workshop we never talked about race except on the rare occasion someone wanted to argue that “race discussions” were exactly the discussion a serious writer should not be having.

You can read the rest of the post here.

Stephen Burt Has Some Questions

Stephen Burt Has Some Questions

In addition to almost hiring me away from SMU to come back and teach at my Alma Mater, Macalester, Stephen Burt is also one of our finest literary critics, essayists and poets.  I am intrigued with a post  that he wrote for the VIDA blog.  VIDA, founded in 2009, encourages female writers of literature and others to engage in conversations regarding the critical reception of women’s creative writing, and among other projects it has tracked the percentages of women published and/or reviewed in leading literary publications.  In his blogpost, Burt puts pressure on the assumptions that underlie “the count.”

Here are a few questions from the post:

7. Is it possible to read a piece of literary writing without imagining that the author has a gender (perhaps an unusual gender, or maybe two gender or three genders, but at least one)?

8. How do you think the answer to that question (beginning “Is it even possible”) would differ in a language, such as Persian, where neither pronouns, nor noun case-endings, differed by gender?

9. Is it possible to read a piece of literary writing without imagining that the author has an age, or a profession, or an ethnic identification, or a height, or a weight, or a race?

10. Is it possible to read a piece of literary writing without imagining that it has an author?

11. What about cookbooks, hard-news journalism, government documents, furniture-store instructions, math? Must we imagine authors for all those?

The other twenty-five questions are equally engaging.  I’m linking to Burt’s piece today, and then I thought I’d spend the week answering a few of his question myself.  Click on the link below to read the rest of the post.

http://www.vidaweb.org/thirty-one-questions-and-twelve-apologies-by-way-of-a-thank-you-note-for-the-2014-vida-count-by-stephen-burt/

Professional academic researchers in the social sciences of many colleges and universities exploit the struggles of oppressed peoples. Oppressed peoples are left stranded with little to no resources after researchers leave their communities high and dry.

Researchers steal value from oppressed peoples by making them the subjects of theoretical research without lending them access to information that could better help their communities. Articles, books, and dissertations written about marginalized populations are written for academics, not working people, and as such have little impact on the people whose lives are the subject of this research. Liberal academics and social scientists are more concerned about developing the wealth of academic literature than addressing the immediate material concerns of the communities they research.

An Article About Pedagogy

An Article About Pedagogy

Last year I was interviewed by Catherine Buni for The Writer about culturally responsive pedagogy.  At the end of the article you’ll find a fine and representative listing of craft texts .

What books do you turn to for guidance? And what books are you missing?
By Catherine Buni | Published: January 6, 2014

Last spring, novelist Gish Jen published her first book of nonfiction, a fascinating book calledTiger Writing: Art, Culture, and the Interdependent Self. In it, Jen explores how the intersection of culture, of East and West, informs the stories she tells, indeed, how culture informs the stories all writers tell.

Tiger Writing is about writing. Tiger Writing is about art. It is also about the assumptions that underlie the standards by which art is judged. In an interview soon after the book’s release, Jen said, “With globalization in full swing, it’s a good time to take stock of our ideas about art and what ideas about art are in other cultures.”

You Have Been Judged and Found Wanting

You Have Been Judged and Found Wanting

I love calling it the Smackdown—even if the action has more in common with psychological warfare than it does with “professional” wrestling.  Don’t get me wrong: there are as many boors and bulldozers in creative writing workshops as in your garden-variety fraternity house or state legislature (redundant, I know), and that ilk is always more than happy to tell you your work sucks and that blowing up that spaceship full of babies was a dick move.  But those of us better trained in the ever-so-elegant ceremonial détente of the creative writing workshop understand the importance of guiding our peers with a more delicate touch.  There are more sophisticated ways of pulling the plug on content that doesn’t meet our approval.  The repertoire of the acculturated includes:

  • The friendly amendment:  “What if instead of a dismembered cadaver, you had the character find….”
  • The displaced (usually prudish) objection:  “Personally, I don’t have a problem with foot fetishes, however…”
I Ask Marta About…THE SMACKDOWN!

I Ask Marta About…THE SMACKDOWN!

Have you ever gotten the smackdown?  Or seen someone get it?  How’d you feel about that?

This is complicated.

I feel like I need to preface my answer(s) with some background that situates me as a writer in this conversation.  As I said in one of my comments, I have such a love-hate relationship with identity politics.  This is because, on the one hand, I have felt silenced and/or unheard in damaging ways, some of which are related to my “identities” – especially as a woman and a lesbian. Sometimes oppression really does take the form of a cultural trespass that can be silencing:  As though the white gaze isn’t bad enough, now here it is masquerading in blackface?  The male gaze in drag?  Heteronormativity chumming around as a fag hag?  What do you do with that, if you are a black writer, a female writer, a queer writer?  How do you get out from under that gaze, how do you talk back to it, when it’s now gone stealth?

Marta Asks Me About My First Time

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.

Yesterday’s Comments

Yesterday’s Comments

Tomorrow I’ll reply to Marta’s question to me, but for today, I wanted to post up some of the highlights of the responses to Marta’s essay from Monday.

Kimberly Smith brought to us her recollections of earlier engagements in the struggle:

“I too remember those times and how dangerous it felt to be white and engage in discussions of race and racism when there were people of color in the room.

I Ask Marta About Cultural Trespass

I Ask Marta About Cultural Trespass

So, Marta: When or how did you first come to be aware of the various sensitivities around “cultural trespass” (as it were)?

In college in the 1980’s I was reading a lot of black women writers and poets – do you remember But Some of Us Are Brave:  All the Women are White, All the Blacks are Men: Black Women’s Studies edited by Gloria T. Hull and Patricia Bell Scott and Barbara Smith? And This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, edited by Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua?  For some reason, it all resonated for me so deeply.

Here’s part of The Bridge Poem by Donna Kate Rushin that still sticks in my brain when a whole lot of other stuff I learned in college is long gone:

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