The Plate Question / by Peter LaBerge

BY BINDU BANSINATH, Blog Editor

“...These days you got fifth graders that can talk your ears off about MFAs...” (Diaz, “MFC vs. POC”)

Earlier this week, award winning Dominican-American author Junot Diaz penned an article in the New Yorker: “MFA vs. POC,” or people of color. The article, replete with insights from Diaz’s own graduate experience at Cornell University, explores the apertures in MFA program diversity as they have persisted from past to present. Diaz recounts the prevailing sentiment of “...get me the fuck out of here..” among him and his peers, as well as the similar frustrations of current MFA students who turn to Diaz for advice. It is an article primarily about disenchantment, but also one of curious incredulity: what kind of writers are we trying hardest to produce, and in that process, what kind of writers (and for that matter, what kind of stories) are we most willing to sacrifice?

“...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...” (Diaz, “MFC vs. POC”)

It is undoubtedly food for thought for MFA candidates, but the question has implications for writers across the age gambit. If writers as celebrated as Diaz and Sandra Cisneros, who recently expressed her own displeasure over the Caucasian-bent within her graduate program at the Iowa Writer’s Studio, questioned their decisions to pursue their MFAs, what does that mean for undergraduate and high school writers? Do we opt to run the risk of exploring ourselves in places where we won’t be readily received?

Well, being that the issue is societal, it’s about more than the acquisition of a graduate degree. It’s about honoring all kinds of stories.  As a young “POC” writer myself, I like experimenting with the different voices of differently-imagined people. I’ll try my hand at the POV of the opposite sex, of the opposite gender, of a vegan, of a meat-eater, of a meathead. I don’t hesitate. Most of it is shit anyways; a conflation of words that never seem to grow big enough to fit the britches of their typeface.  It is a comforting experimentation; binge-writing on lifestyles which, save for stock footage and other odd mediums of research, I know thoroughly nothing about.

“...What might have been if the other writers of color in the workshop—the ones who were like I don’t want to write about race—had at least been open to discussing why that might be the case...” (Diaz, “MFC vs. POC”)

But when I’m not writing to bridge my disconnects, I’m writing to explore my connections. hat is, I’m writing to explore my life because I can talk about it senselessly and without due end; I can discuss it with authority and honesty and, best of all, without poise. And an enormity of my life experience, of my authority, has stemmed from my racial background. Yet, out of all the perspectives I am open to experimenting with, I am most hesitant to write about race, especially my own. In “MFC vs. POC,” Diaz openly wonders why honest explorations of race are sidelined in writing workshops, and why this method of negligence is regarded as the best way to handle the “race question.” The whole concept reminds me of being little and using a fork to muddle together the food on my plate, so that I wasn’t really eating anything, but there was an illusion of satiation in the things that got moved around.

And like the MFA students Diaz writes about, who only encounter matters of race in their peers’ work when there’s some perpetuation of a racial stereotype, I’m tired of that illusion.

From primary school to senior year, I can count the number of required books that were POC authored on one hand. And what’s more, it has often felt like whenever we were studying one of the aforementioned books in class, most all of the instruction was devoted to a historical overview of the country the writer had his or her origins in. The storyline and characters were compartmentalized into socioeconomic constructs of faraway places, drowning in so many contexts that they themselves became imperceptible.

World literature in school thus became decidedly adverse. I learned a multitude of things I wish I could unlearn. I hesitated to write about or from the perspective of my own race because I felt like I had to engraft my characters with stereotypical affections of Indians and Indian-Americans for them to interest readers. Diaz’s students, in parallel, complained to him that their peers only wrote about POC when it came to “crime and drugs.” I didn’t know how to write honest stories without sacrificing attempts at universality. I didn’t know how to write about my origins or myself without first having to justify the decision behind my character’s race, and so sometimes, I strayed away from Indian characters altogether. I wrote about people I didn’t know and failed miserably at encapsulating them. The stories I wanted to tell withered in my unwillingness to tell them. Sanjay became Jason; Arya jarringly metamorphosed into Ashley.  Because when we talk about race and diversity, we’re talking with the limited language of what people have decided to accept and bearing in mind the things they haven’t.

I’m not saying that any experience has more merits than another. Every story is equally worth telling: fiction is about truth, not elevation; fiction is about exploration, not normativity. If you’re going to tell the truth, do it fully and unashamedly. Do it without justifying yourself. How much of what anyone has to say about race is going to be lost in an effort to tap into the formula of universality? I mean, at worst, the shoes won’t fit. Can’t we as writers and readers make the effort to squeeze?

To disenchanted MFA candidates, Diaz reassuringly advises, “...If you can, please hang in there. We need your work. Desperately.” Let’s allow that message to trickle down to all aspirant writers, to high schoolers thinking about college, to undergrads thinking about graduate school, and then to the majority of us, who are just thinking about thinking. I’m tired of not writing the about the things and people who inspire me to write; I’m tired of serving up my identity the unspoken context of how it’s supposed to fit into the social fabric. I don’t care if I’m writing gold or if I’m penning crap. If I don’t fit, I’m going to write regardless. If I do fit, thanks for caring.  Diaz, Danticat, Cisneros, Lahiri, Roy: truth is in fact, written, and there’s nothing foreign about it. Let’s stop moving things around on our plates and eat it.