MINDING THE GAP

East:west1

There’s a wide gap between the West and the East when it comes to creative writing programs writes Xu Xi ( 許素細 ) who established Asia’s first low-residency MFA in creative writing.

In April this year Pulitzer-winning novelist Junot Díaz published an essay in The New Yorker entitled ‘MFA vs. POC,’ (‘person of color’) in which he recounted his experience as one of the only writers of color enrolled in his MFA (Masters of Fine Arts) program in the 1990s. As an Asian writer who did both her MFA in the 1980s, much of this resonated.

Here in Asia, there are hardly any longstanding MFA programs – the exception being in the Philippines. Communities of writers are primarily local or national, with much smaller global readership or recognition. Junot Díaz’s contention that: ‘These days, you got fifth graders that can talk your ears off about MFAs. This is the Age of the Writing Program,’ may indeed be true in North America, and perhaps also in the UK, given the proliferation of MA’s and PhD’s in creative writing in those places. But in Asia (though I cannot speak for South Korea or Japan), the study of creative writing is still perceived as a kind of recreational pastime for children or the dilettante with too much time on his or her hands.

In Hong Kong, the MTR subway system still reminds riders to ‘mind the gap’, a quaint hangover from a British colonial past. Minding this gap should be the job of writers and translators here if we are serious about what we write and the influence we wish our work to exert. In other words, it is high time our part of the world played catch up to the world in the writing game.

Oddly, this is also a time when all of Asia seems obsessed with the idea of creative writing. Literary festivals are springing up throughout the region and workshops by the invited writers are constantly over-subscribed.
Everyone and their dog wants to be a ‘published author’, and given the ease of self-publication these days, and the long-standing practice in Asia of author-subsided publishing, a dog could easily be an Asian author today (and even a best seller).

Author Junot Diaz says that in North America this is the "age of the writing program".

Author Junot Diaz says that in North America this is the “age of the writing program”.

There are writer groups and informal workshops, retreats and residencies where you can couple yoga or travel with writing, and generally a lot of pent-up desire among young people to ‘be creative’ – writing being one of the obvious paths.

Yet the universities in Asia have been slow to respond to the interest in creative writing in terms of offering courses and programs that are not just electives or additions to a ‘real’ degree. The MPhil in English, for example, is one way some aspiring creative writers are allowed to do a creative submission as partial fulfillment for their degree. However, the serious academic work is still the ‘lit-crit’ (literary criticism) dissertation-cum-thesis. Having been an external examiner for such creative submissions, I can attest to the limited value for the writer if she is not able to focus on the creative work in a serious way other than to obtain limited feedback on a final product.

This is perhaps another hangover of colonialism, manifest in the British post-colonial world of much of Asia. The MFA, which is the writing game for a great deal of the English language writing and publishing in the world is, unfortunately for Asia, an American invention. Most of Asia is still beholden to the English university system that does not recognize the MFA as a terminal degree. Consequently, the trend in the UK and Australia has been towards the PhD in creative writing as a way to allow writers to work in the academy.

Most undergraduate creative writing teaching in Asia is still at only a very rudimentary level, some courses accepting students who have never read a book.

Yet, even in the UK, any writer knows they’re better off in one of the credible MAs in creative writing if they want to actually write.

Universities in Singapore, Hong Kong and elsewhere in Asia regularly invite international authors for conferences or readings, or to conduct workshops. The Chinese poet Bei Dao, who is based at Chinese University of Hong Kong, stages bi-annual International Poetry Nights, with poets invited from around the world. There are also now a few creative writing courses at the undergraduate level, but this is only the beginning of creating a writing culture.

Most undergraduate creative writing teaching in Asia is still at only a very rudimentary level, some courses accepting students who have never read a book.

The five-year old low-residency Asian MFA I helped to found at City University of Hong Kong has begun to contribute to the writing game in Asia, but I am daily reminded of how new that culture is here. It is not at all unusual to encounter interested applicants who are horrified to learn that a writing sample is required for consideration!

Unless there are more quality writing and translation programs in South East Asia the writing game in this part of the world will be limited to work distributed only at local or national level, written for the most part in South East Asian languages and remaining un-translated for the global marketplace.

Despite this slow development of quality creative writing and translation programs in universities in this part of Asia, I remain hopeful. Baptist University in Hong Kong introduced a BA major in bi-lingual (Chinese-English) creative writing as part of their Humanities curriculum, and brought onto their faculty the poet James Shea. James previously taught in a MFA program and holds an MFA from Iowa. And, despite the limiting self-financing strictures imposed by the Hong Kong Government on all Masters programs, both the MFAs in Hong Kong are still in existence.

Another positive step is the new Yale-NUS college in Singapore which has a visiting writer program and offers some creative writing to its students. The Singapore Government sponsors a significant amount of literary activities and, perhaps, will direct some of that funding towards creative writing education in the universities.

Asia also has the advantage of creating a writing culture in its universities with the benefit of the pedagogical models in the USA, Australia, the UK and elsewhere. They also offer lessons in what to avoid. The MFA is certainly not the only answer to becoming a successful writer.

Xu Xi 許素細 is the author of nine books of fiction and essays. The most recent titles are Access Thirteen Tales (2011), the novel Habit of a Foreign Sky (2010), a finalist for the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize and an essay collection, Evanescent Isles (2008). A novel-in-manuscript, That Man in Our Lives, and an essay collection, Typhoon Mum, about living with her mother’s Alzheimers, are currently represented by the literary agency Harold Matson. She is currently Writer-in-Residence at City University of Hong Kong’s Department of English.