David Mura on Race, Identity, and MFA Diversity

November 27, 2018 § 2 Comments

This is the second part of Brevity Assistant Editor Alexis Paige’s talk 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.  Part one can be read here.

A Paige headshotPAIGE: “The work will teach you how to do the work,” you reminded me on the phone recently, “Do whatever it takes to keep the writing going; you’ll write your way into the answers that you need.” How or when in the process of writing this book did you know that race, identity, and narrative craft were all part of one book? Did you set out to write about them all, or did they come together by way of alchemy in the writing itself?

MURA: In much earlier incarnations, the book was rejected by two publishers. At the time, I was of course disappointed and discouraged by this; I experienced that sense of failure and even despair that I describe in the book as part of certain narrative constructions—the crisis of the second act of a three-act play; this is the dark night of the soul that comes in the middle of the mythical hero’s journey. Still, I continued working on the book because it came out of questions and problems that I encountered with students in my teaching at the VONA writers’ conference and in the Stonecoast MFA program.

At Stonecoast, I was writing long letters to individual students about their work, and I found that, unlike in many workshops, it wasn’t enough for me simply to point out the problems or deficiencies in their work. I had to help them come up with possible solutions or new ways of considering and addressing those problems and deficiencies. In this way I never stopped working on the book; I made it part of my job as a teacher.

I also kept in mind a couple of bromides about writing. As I’ve said to you, “You can always revise something; you can’t revise nothing.” Just write something; it doesn’t have to be perfect; writing is a process. I was also fueled by my friend Garrett Hongo’s observation after reading through drafts of Turning Japanese, my first memoir: “David, you’re not a writer, you’re a rewriter.” To put it more bluntly, he was saying, David, your first drafts are shit, but you just keep working at the writing and revising and eventually you get it.

DavidMuraThe connections in the book among race, identity, narrative craft, and the process of becoming a writer stems from both my teaching and my own writing. For instance, in the essay on the four questions regarding the narrator, the opening question is: Who is the narrator? This question applies to memoir in an obvious way, but it applies even to the third person omniscient narrator in fiction. So the very first question regarding narration involves these issues of identity. And so does the second, whom is the narrator telling the story to?

Let me take just one aspect of this second question. As Toni Morrison has observed, until very recently, white American writers never imagined a black reader; that is, white writers didn’t feel they had to consider how a black readership might interpret and evaluate their writing. Writers of color know that the literary gatekeepers will often be white. As I say in the book, that doesn’t mean a POC writer needs to write for a white audience, but we are certainly aware that our work will be judged by a white audience. Indeed, that involves, as DuBois noted, a more complex dual and multiple consciousness. But today, as opposed to the past, white writers must understand that those who read and judge their work will increasingly not be white; often, those readers and writers of color and indigenous writers may look at your writing differently than you do—so why would you want to remain ignorant of different aesthetics and ways of approaching writing? In her introduction to The Best American Short Stories 2018, Roxane Gay delineates her aesthetic disagreements with the choices of Richard Russo in an earlier edition. This is not to say that Gay is right and Russo wrong, but it is to say that you can’t even evaluate their differences if you aren’t aware of how Gay is formulating her aesthetic criteria.

Of course, with students of color, it’s often obvious to them that their racial and/or ethnic identity is a multi-faceted question, but this is also true for white writers. American culture itself emphasizes the individual over the group, but it’s clear that we are simultaneously individuals and members of a group. Moreover, in part because of this cultural tendency—and in part because of the ways race is processed, or rather, denied in this country—my students, but particularly my white students, often had a hard time thinking of themselves as a member of a group or how the lens of the group comes in many different contexts—race, ethnicity, class, gender, orientation, generation, region, etc.

PAIGE: I remember well my own resistance. Thinking about these issues is work—some of the hardest and best kind—but still work, and ongoing, endlessly complex. As a white writer, I have more work ahead of me than I can ever fully appreciate, for as you say, we don’t know what we don’t know. Such realizations can be daunting. In our semesters together, for example, I would often hope that some evolving draft was, if not done, then at least getting close—only to find one of your legendary letters in my inbox about more that needed to be done, or that could be done, or about different frameworks to consider, different ways of thinking that might open up the work, ways to formulate my own aesthetic criteria. With the single-mindedness of all students, I began to worry about ever finishing anything: “What if I can’t finish it?” I asked you about my thesis/ book. “The book will teach you how to finish it,” you said. I loved this idea, still love this idea—that the work is itself instructive—that the work is animate even; it decides, not the writer. What a relief! Now, on my best writing days, I am able to get out of the way and listen to the work. What did this book teach you as you wrote it?

MURA: First off, I learned that history and reality can change rapidly and thus, the context around your own work. Here’s how the book opens:

“The earliest essays in this book were written just before Barack Hussein Obama was elected President, bringing some deluded to declare a post-racial America. I write this introduction just after the 2016 election, in a nation where Michael Brown and Ferguson, Freddie Gray, Baltimore and Black Lives Matter are now juxtaposed against the rampant racism, xenophobia, religious bigotry, and sexism of Donald Trump’s election.”

I started the book in a time when many white writers did not want to think about the issues of race or thought them as mainly part of the past. In Trump’s America, race—and thus the question of white identity—cannot be avoided. So I started the book in a climate where I felt my project was a steep, uphill climb, and now I feel the book has come out at a time when the issues related to race are more and more considered a necessary part of our literary conversation. In short, I’ve gone from being ahead of the curve to just keeping up with it. That’s why I’m rushing to finish my next book of essays on race.

While the book was being considered, the readers for the University of Georgia Press asked for more material about race and identity, which I was glad to do (I had worried that they were going to say there was too much). I was also spurred on by conversations with students and writers of color about their experiences in creative writing classrooms. In the process, I’ve had to work towards a deeper understanding of how race structures our perceptions of our social reality, and thus, how literature is created and interpreted. If unconscious or implicit bias is at work in other areas of society, why wouldn’t it also infect our considerations of literary craft and excellence? And what are the sources of that bias? Over the last twenty-five years, the scholarship and theory concerning race has exploded, and I’ve tried to keep up with that—Frank Wilderson, Saidiya Hartman, Khalil Gibran Mohammad, Michelle Alexander, Critical Race Theory.

I’ve also had to become less concerned about negative reactions to what I’m saying about race and literature. This has been bolstered by work to find the intellectual and literary arguments to support my views, to find the basis for certain feelings I just have as a person of color seeing what this society does to people of color. In this way, I had to own my own perceptions and trust in them. As I say a couple times in my book, we start to write a book in order to become the person who finishes the book. I sometimes tell people, “I’m a Japanese American kid who grew up white identified in a Jewish suburb of Chicago. When a white friend would say to me, ‘David, I think of you as a white person,’ that was the way I wanted to be regarded.”

At a certain point, I began reading black authors like Fanon and discovered I was not white and that I had to figure out what that meant. But that suburban Asian American kid still resides in me and he’s astonished at what I’m now writing, what my life—so much more diverse than when I was growing up—has become.
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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.

David Mura on Race, Identity, and the Creative Writing Community

November 26, 2018 § 2 Comments

DavidMuraBrevity 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.

A Paige headshotPAIGE: 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?

Read Part Two of this discussion.

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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.

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