What Colour is Your Writing Workshop?

Sreedhevi Iyer argues that her Masters in Fine Arts in Asian Writing at the City University Hong Kong answered Junot Diaz’s criticism about the lack of diversity in most writing workshops.

PULITZER PRIZE WINNING novelist Junot Diaz wrote in the New Yorker in May 2014 about his experience in an MFA creative writing program at Cornell University.

I didn’t have a great workshop experience. Not at all. In fact by the start of my second year I was like: get me the fuck out of here.
So what was the problem?
Oh just the standard problem of MFA programs.
That shit was too white.
Some of you understand completely. And some of you ask: Too white … how?
Too white as in Cornell had almost no POC—no people of colour—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.
‘That shit was too white’

Diaz was a visiting writer at the City University Hong Kong’s MFA Creative Writing program in 2011. On learning of the closure of this program, he told China Daily, ‘In my years as a writer I have found very few institutions that make the practice of writing into a global conversation. At City U you have writers from all over the world learning from each other, cross-pollinating, creating hybrid possibilities — and it’s no accident that this is happening in Hong Kong, long the crossroads of Asia.’

Others associated with the program took to social media and other newspapers to express their dismay at the announcement of the closure. Canadian short story writer and novelist Madeleiene Thien wrote in The Guardian about why she accepted a position on the faculty in 2010. ‘I wished to learn what a multilingual, multi-canonical literary workshop might look like.’

City U began its low-residency, distance learning MFA as recently as 2010. Xu Xi, the Director of the program, is a cosmopolitan writer who put the program together with global intentions. The program’s first summer residency had an international cohort of more than twenty nationalities, a model that has prevailed throughout the life of the program. Some of the students are of Asian origin, and some who have no Asian ancestry want to write about their experiences in Asia. The program explored and encouraged cultural engagement.

Staff included a diverse, international collection of writers, among them Robin Hemley, then also the Director of Creative Non-Fiction at the University of Iowa; James Scudamore, nominated for the Man Booker Prize in 2009; Sharmistha Mohanty a novelist from India; Filipino author Jose Dalisay who was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize,;Jess Row from the United States; and Tabish Khair from Denmark. They brought with them a wealth of literary traditions and pedagogical knowledge. With so many faculty members and students from many parts of the world, new things happened in the program that went beyond label of origins.

In my experience, the beauty of multi-canonical workshops lies in how, when everyone in the program is so different from each other, differences disappear.
If someone is publicly labeled long enough and often enough, they come to see themselves that way. Asian-American. African-American. Chinese-Australian gay male. British-Indian straight female. I am a doubly hyphenated writer–Indian-Malaysian-Australian. This came to mean nothing in an environment with so many identities.

Diaz wrote in his essay: ‘Simply put: I was a person of color in a workshop whose theory of reality did not include my most fundamental experiences as a person of color—that did not in other words include me.’ But this was not so in the workshops I attended at City U.

The MFA Xu Xi headed in Hong Kong personified the ideal Diaz spoke of, by the sheer force of its diversity. When labels collapse, the writer can unload that baggage and just focus on the craft. In workshops, we were just people. We were given story samples and suggestions in line with how we would already tell our stories, instead of converting them to fit privileged aesthetics. It no longer mattered where we had come from, or how we self-identified. We no longer explained to the dominant paradigm because that paradigm was no longer there.

MFA faculty members gave us innovative craft ideas that reflected our cosmopolitan, post-label reality. Instead of learning to fit into the labels, we learned to overturn them. A workshop with Jess Row included a short story by Chimamanda Adichie called ‘Jumping Monkey Hill’. It was a searing piece on the racial undertones in a creative writing retreat in Cape Town. In class discussions, we realized power imbalance influenced the creativity of the disadvantaged. This was real. Our writing exercise was to produce a satirical piece critiquing our own MFA program. Bite the hand that feeds you. It was an odd, but genius, act of self-permission.

Another example was the use of point of view. For example, I had a story in mind during my time as a student. I had been writing it for a while. It had an interracial newlywed couple from Melbourne, Australia. They were on their honeymoon in a small village in India. They realize during the trip their marriage is already breaking down. The wife, Rachel, is an Anglo-Australian, and the husband, Mohan, a South Indian. Both of them become slightly different versions of themselves during the trip. Rachel has the biggest character arc in the story and the most focus. But could I write in the voice of a white woman? Do I dare? Could I even hope to have this published in any decent literary journal that would take the story on its merit ?

The MFA pedagogy understood my collectivist way of viewing the world, and helped manifest it in my craft. Instead of the individual point of view, Xu Xi raised a question of a collective point of view. Instead of first person singular, how about first person plural?

I could write the exact same story but change the vantage point to the village. Not one person, but every person, tells this story, which is how stories last over time in the first place. And if the village is telling this story, it will be a ‘we’. We see. We feel, we think.

More recently, Madeleine Thien conducted a Generative Writing Workshop that evoked the hand of the Buddha in its ‘abhaya mudra’, or to ‘have no fear’. Going by the Japanese form called ‘Palm of the Hand’, the idea was to generate five separate pieces of flash fiction, rather like the five fingers of the palm. Eventually students weave them into a singular tale during the editing process, just like fingers that close into a fist. The creative process takes the many and forms it into one – much like the program itself.

Such aspects in this program made it innovative. It considered writers who came from many places and spoke in many voices. It nurtured alternate perspectives and understood the need for more diversity in the literary world.

In announcing the program’s closure in her blog, Xu Xi wrote that ‘we look at the world with a different lens from many other MFAs because we’re not about one nation, one language, one culture, one race, one religion, one anything.’ On Brevity magazine’s blog, faculty member Ira Sukrungruang wrote: ‘This was a program like no other, producing writing like no other. It was not only shaping literature in Asia but also adding diversity to the western canon.’

All those involved with the program knew it was a gift the world should continue to value.


SREEPHOTOBWSreedhevi Iyer’s work has appeared in Cha: An Asian Literary Journal (Hong Kong), The Asian American Literary Review (US), Hotel Amerika (US), Free Word Centre (UK), and Two Thirds North (Stockholm).