David Mura on Race, Identity, and the Creative Writing Community
November 26, 2018 § 2 Comments
Brevity Assistant Editor Alexis Paige talks with her mentor-turned-friend, David Mura, author and VONA faculty and board member, about his new book, A Stranger’s Journey: Race, Identity, and Narrative Craft in Writing. Mura and Paige first met in 2012 at the low-residency Stonecoast MFA in Creative Writing program. After taking the workshop, “Writing on Race,” co-taught by Mura and author Alexs Pate, Paige worked with Mura for two semesters, including one in which Mura served as Paige’s final thesis advisor. They remain in touch on many of these issues and others. Here is part one of their two-part discussion:
PAIGE: Your new book is called A Stranger’s Journey: Race, Identity, and Narrative Craft in Writing; immediately striking is the complex synthesis you undertake, even in the title, of subjects that are often compartmentalized or marginalized in American letters. The book engages so many issues and with such depth and complexity that I do think varied readers would benefit from it, and I could see it being used in varied contexts, both including and beyond the creative writing classroom. Who did you write this book for, and why?
MURA: As I state in the introduction, the book is for both writers of color and for white writers. I want it to provoke discussions in creative writing classrooms, and ultimately, I want the issues of race and identity to be considered essential to the writer’s craft. Too often when students of color bring up racial issues in class, they are summarily dismissed as being political or outside any question of aesthetics. Through close readings and discussions of aesthetic and pedagogical principles, I demonstrate the speciousness and narrow-mindedness of such dismissals and how a disregard or ignorance of the aesthetics and traditions of writers of color runs contrary to any principles of creativity.
To start with, any arguments concerning race in literature are both aesthetic and political. As Richard Wright observed, black and white Americans are engaged in a conflict over the description of reality. Why wouldn’t that struggle also be taking place within literature, which is obviously one way of describing our social reality? Moreover, as T.S. Eliot observed, the canon is constantly changing; when new works are added, they alter our understanding and evaluation of past literature. Add James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Maxine Hong Kingston, add post-colonial writers like Achebe, Jamaica Kincaid or Rushdie, and we look at past works slightly differently. For instance, you discover, as Morrison does in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, limitations and blind spots in canonical writers like Cather, Hemingway, and Faulkner. (Edward Said makes a similar critique in Culture & Imperialism.) We then begin to see how the inability of these white writers to move beyond a white understanding of race led them to failures of craft and aesthetic limitations.
At the same time, I want to emphasize that this is also a book on creative writing in general; the book’s focus on narrative structures and techniques is especially geared to fiction writers, memoirists, and to certain types of nonfiction. I’ve had students from prestigious MFA programs who simply didn’t know how to tell a story. Recently, a student at the VONA writers’ conference said that discussions concerning narrative structure or technique were shunted aside at her MFA program. To me this is pedagogical malpractice and simply ignorant. Shakespeare, Austen, Melville, Marquez, Flannery O’Connor, Morrison (yes, in complicated ways) all use these structures and techniques. So did the ancient storytellers.
PAIGE: As you mention, the book focuses intently on narrative structure and suggests, perhaps, that cultural understanding of basic principles of storytelling is in decline. Why do you think that is? And, since Brevity is a nonfiction journal and our readers are likely most interested in creative nonfiction forms, do you think fundamental principles of story—such as positing narrator goals and throwing up obstacles—are more especially overlooked by essayists and memoirists, seen more as tools for the fiction writer? Why must CNF writers master narrative structure too?
MURA: There are so many examples of narrative structure in great nonfiction and memoirs, like John Hersey’s Hiroshima or Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life; even when the work as a whole is not a linear narrative, certain narrative techniques are used to create narrative drive, as I demonstrate in an essay on Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club. Then too there are novels that read like memoirs and seem to traverse some gray area between fiction and nonfiction, like Duras’ The Lover or Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival. Narrative structures can be used to create aesthetic pleasure and reader interest, and I think the more overtly novel-like structure of my memoir, Turning Japanese, explains in part why it is my most popular book.
Narrative structure is a way of understanding experience, not just organizing it. As I say to my students, I can tell the story of any failed relationship in three acts—which also follows some of the outlines of the mythic hero’s journey. There’s the fallow kingdom before anything happens; there’s the call or calls to the relationship and perhaps the traditional hero’s reluctance to enter the relationship. There’s the start of the relationship that begins the second act, which may go smoothly or wonderfully at first, then runs into the crisis of the second act, the period where things began to break down and arguments start, where irreconcilable conflicts emerge (when my partner is happy he’s great vs. when he’s depressed he’s terrible; I like my job vs. my partner wants to move to another state, etc.). Finally, there’s the point where it’s clearly the last chance for the relationship. Narrative structure isn’t simply one thing happens after the next; it’s understanding the crucial events, decisions, actions or turning points; honing in on when the protagonist faces irreconcilable conflicts, when the protagonist lies or evades the truth.
In fiction, we create story. In nonfiction, we discover story. A documentarian shoots hundreds of hours of film. That is not a story. The footage must be cut and shaped, must be analyzed to highlight points of tension or decision. A good documentarian also knows how to keep the viewer involved in the narrative and wanting to see what happens next and what happens in the end.
Of course, it’s not that all nonfiction—or fiction for that matter–must have a narrative structure. But for students learning their craft, it’s important to understand how to use the tools of narrative structure and technique and what they can do for the writer.
PAIGE: In creative writing milieus—whether MFA programs, conferences, or communities—issues of race, power, and identity are too often relegated to “special topics,” if they are addressed at all, or else they get framed as content issues, rather than as craft issues. Your book resists this assumption and argues that considering one’s position of identity and power is a matter of both content and craft. When you mentor beginning writers, how do you start to deconstruct and reframe some of the assumptions that delineate the ways writers see themselves and craft itself?
MURA: In the appendix of the book, I have seven assignments I use in my teaching. One of the assignments is to keep a notebook about all the aspects of the writer’s identity that they might consider—race, ethnicity, gender, orientation, class, generation, region, etc. The assignment is based on Michelle Cliff’s The Land of Look Behind, which consists of pieces that contain little fragments—notes, poems, and quotations on her identity—a potpourri. Cliff was a light-skinned black Jamaican who had been taught by her family to pass as white, and after leaving Jamaica, she entered an academic career and was working on her dissertation on “game-playing in the Italian Renaissance.” When Cliff decided to begin investigating her own identity, she discovered that she wasn’t very articulate; she couldn’t find or create much flow to her language. Yes, she could easily write intellectual academic prose—she even dreamed in Medieval Latin–but writing about herself? That was hard, nearly impossible. Cliff was also working a nine-to-five job. So, because she found it difficult to write about her identity, she just allowed herself to write fragments, notes. She didn’t put pressure on herself to be eloquent or create long coherent essays or narratives.
There’s a lesson in what Cliff went through in writing about her identity. When a writer is just beginning to write on a difficult subject such as race or a personal trauma or a difficult relationship, they shouldn’t expect instant lucidity or eloquence or even coherence. As I keep telling my students, writing is a process. You don’t get ten feet deep all at once. If you’re digging into a new area, you’ve got to start with the first inch and as a result, the writing may be unformed or rather superficial. But if you keep digging, if you keep writing on the subject, this prods the unconscious, and the unconscious begins to work on the subject or issue, especially if you’re doing this writing regularly. In this process, new insights and articulations begin to pop up or perhaps buried or hazy memories, more details. In this way, the writer should approach the subject of identity—or any other difficult subject—the way one might in therapy, just saying what first comes to mind and seeing where that leads.
In the penultimate essay of A Stranger’s Journey, on V.S. Naipaul, I analyze how his autobiographical novel The Enigma of Arrival explores a Naipaul fictional doppelganger, who starts out wanting to write like Somerset Maugham and Evelyn Waugh. That a Trinidadian of Indian descent thought his work would center on subjects like upper class white Brits at English country houses may seem to us absurd now, but it’s an example of how Naipaul’s British colonial education led him to denigrate his own background and indeed, to flee from it as a young writer (btw: Fanon analyzes this process in Black Skin, White Masks). But as Naipaul makes clear, it was only by researching Caribbean history and beginning to write about this history that he discovered a path into his true subject; his great novel, based on his father’s life, A House for Mr. Biwas, comes out of an embrace of his identity and familial past rather than a rejection of it. But in many writing programs and classes, writers of color and indigenous writers are discouraged from such explorations or made to feel such explorations are minor, secondary, inferior.
In today’s America, our increasingly diverse population is obviously causing a white backlash, and the idea that we’re post-racial is patently absurd. White writers, like other white people, will increasingly find that their identity too has become a question—e.g., if you don’t align your identity with white Trump supporters, how do you articulate and contextualize your racial identity? Certainly, if you’re unprepared to investigate the issues of race, ethnicity and identity in regards to your own identity, you’re ill-equipped to write about a multi-racial, multi-ethnic America where, sometime after 2040, no race will constitute a majority, and we will all be racial minorities.
In the course that I co-taught at the Stonecoast MFA, “Writing on Race,” we used an excerpt from Thandeka’s Learning to be White: Race, Money & God in America where she talks to white people about the first time they realized their racial identity. We did this as an assignment for the course, and often the white students were surprised by what they discovered when they looked back to an event in their childhood, such as inviting a black friend over to their house and then being told not to do that anymore by a parent or other adult. Whiteness is based on a set of rules, practices, and beliefs; for many white writers, to examine the origins of how they learned those rules, practices, and beliefs provides them with a new lens to interpret and contextualize not just their own life, but their family and the society around them.
PAIGE: In the chapter, “The Student of Color in the Typical MFA Program,” you write, “In American society, the divide between the way whites and people of color see the social reality around them is always present,” and then you describe various ways that these issues emerge in the MFA workshop—often unconsciously from white writers who assert a dominant or default sense of taste or subjectivity they aren’t even aware of as such. And yet, it happens, and in fact, it happens so predictably that students of color can expect to experience certain classic encounters; this chapter reads, in part, as a survival manual written for these students of color. What do MFA programs need to do or to do better to begin to right these imbalances and to take responsibility for all students’ experiences in the MFA? What do teachers in MFA programs need to do to address these problems so that students of color can enjoy and thrive, rather than survive, their MFA studies?
MURA: In another essay in the book, “Writing Teachers—or David Foster Wallace vs. James Baldwin,” I argue that MFA programs need to address the willed ignorance of certain white professors—their lack of knowledge of the work and craft of writers of color. Obviously, these professors can’t open up their booklists or teaching to a wider and more diverse set of works and aesthetic principles if they aren’t aware of this diversity. Then too, there’s an intellectual tradition and a historical background that’s needed to properly interpret and contextualize the works of writers of color—Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark, bell hooks’ essays, Edward Said’s Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism, Baldwin’s The Price of the Ticket, Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s The Signifying Monkey, etc.; Marxist criticism, feminist criticism, GBLT criticism, scholars like Claude Steel on stereotype consciousness and stereotype threat…this list could go on and on.
This preparation involves simply reading more widely. But the white writer or professor who has not read in these traditions must also ask themselves why they have not done so; what are the prejudices and white-identified concepts which have led to their ignorance? And beyond that, they must engage in a psychological and spiritual reorientation of their own identity.
For one thing, white ignorance of the works of people of color often inherently assumes—consciously or unconsciously—that these works are inferior. Of course, this assumption is racist, but that is precisely why these tasks are so difficult. White writer professors are liberals; they want to think of themselves as enlightened and innocent. To confront their own prejudices and ignorance, they must abandon and deconstruct that sense of innocence. And this is no simple task.
As Baldwin observed, “The question of identity is a question involving the most profound panic—a terror as primary as the nightmare of the mortal fall.” And yet, not to engage such a question, Baldwin argues in “Stranger in the Village,” creates its own problems: “People who shut their eyes to reality invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.” Now let me be clear: I’m not saying that these white writing teachers are monsters; what I am saying is that Baldwin’s statement here surely applies to this country and our culture as a whole when it comes to issues of race.
The task of opening up MFA programs and making them more conducive to the work and presence of writers of color is not an easy one. Why would it be? We’ve been dealing with racism in this country from the time of its inception and we are still a divided people racially. Again, why would we expect the world of letters to be any different?
David Mura’s newest book is A Stranger’s Journey: Race, Identity & Narrative Craft in Writing. He has written two acclaimed memoirs: Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei (Oakland PEN Josephine Miles Book Award & New York Times Notable Book), and Where the Body Meets Memory: An Odyssey of Race, Sexuality and Identity. He has also written a novel, Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire, and four books of poetry, the latest The Last Incantations. Mura has taught at VONA, the Loft, the Stonecoast MFA program, the University of Oregon, the University of Minnesota, and other institutions. He also works with the Innocent Classroom, a program that trains K-12 teachers to improve their relationships with students of color.
Alexis Paige is the author of NOT A PLACE ON ANY MAP, a collection of flash lyric essays about trauma, and winner of the 2016 Vine Leaves Press Vignette Collection Award. Her essays, “Common Purple Lilac,” from Full Grown People, and “The Right to Remain,” from The Rumpus, are Notables in The Best American Essays, of 2018 and 2016, respectively. Paige’s work appears in many journals and anthologies, including Hippocampus, Fourth Genre, The Pinch, and on Brevity, where she is an Assistant Editor. Winner of the New Millennium Nonfiction Prize, four-time Pushcart Prize nominee, and twice a top-ten finalist in Glamour Magazine’s essay contest, Paige holds an MA in Poetry from San Francisco State University and an MFA in nonfiction from the University of Southern Maine. She lectures and teaches widely, and writes and edits from a converted farmhouse pantry in Vermont, where she lives with her husband and three dogs. She can be found online at alexispaigewrites.com.