“Otherness” in MFA programs

Much has been made of the lack of people of color (POC) enrolled in master of fine arts programs. Last year, best-selling writer of color, Junot Diaz, made the rounds on a variety of news outlets to discuss the lack of diversity in many MFA programs.

Diaz was expressing a real concern and frustration for the lack of diversity in both the student body and the faculty at many of the MFA programs around the country. As his message got louder and spread across the media last summer, other writers echoed his sentiments and shared their stories about workshop experiences (NPR  dubbed the experience “writing while other”). For many writers who identify themselves as “other,” they see this problem as an extension of the publishing world as well, where agents and publishers are not interested in fiction projects that are written by or feature people of color. The excuse is often given that no one buys those books. The standard reply from a person of color, “How would you know? Have you tried?”

Obviously, books exists that are written by, for and about people of color, but there can always be more, or else the #WeNeedDiversity social media campaign would never have been necessary.

But back to the topic at hand, the MFA experience. Fortunately for me as a person of color, I didn’t experience any of the things that Diaz and other writers felt at many of the highly regarded MFA programs they attended. When I began searching for an MFA program, I didn’t consider what schools had a more inclusive or “diverse” student body, I wanted MFA programs that focused on genre (or popular) fiction. I wanted to write what I loved to read, not what some literary snob thinks I should be writing (no offense, friends). Turns out such an MFA program that focuses on popular fiction is very rare.

I’m not trying to promote my school or anything, but I believe that a focus on popular fiction was the key to unlocking this diversity equation. You throw a bunch of students totally in love with popular fiction into a room and you’ll find that the diversity is there automatically. Perhaps it’s because we don’t spend a lot of time trying to be somebody we’re not (I will never be the next Ursula LeGuin or Octavia Butler), we just write what we love to read: popular fiction. Throughout my two and a half years in Seton Hill University’s Writing Popular Fiction program, every incoming class was made up of students from various races, economic backgrounds and sexuality. The admittance of writing geeks who made questionable cosplay costume choices was more like a side effect.  Don’t get me wrong, we love our literary fiction as well (I worship Philip Roth), but we love our popular fiction just as much.

Yes, talking about diversity makes us uncomfortable, but it sometimes is necessary. There is a whole generation of writers waiting to be born and we absolutely must pave the way for them to express themselves too.

So the next time you’re in a writing workshop and criticize a story because you don’t understand what happens in the “hood” or you don’t get why a male on male sex scene needs to be there, just focus on the grammar instead. Or you might want to include questions in the comments section of the submission that asks the writer, politely, what they meant.

Learn more about this ongoing discussion about diversity in MFA programs in the writing community:

Diaz, Junot. “MFA vs POC.” New Yorker.

Neary, Lynn. In Elite MFA programs, the challenge of writing while “other.” NPR Code Switch.

Image: Takuya Goro

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Gina N. Anderson is a young adult sci-fi/fantasy writer who grew up in South Carolina and Miami, Florida. After graduating from The George Washington University, she taught English in Nara, Japan, for two years where she wrote a short story series, The Adventures of Bianca Sukiyama. After returning to the States, she became a contractor for international organizations before she decided to take the plunge into studying creative writing.  She received her MFA in Writing popular fiction from Seton Hill University in 2015 and BA in international affairs from The George Washington University. She is married and has a dog named Jack.

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Categories 2015, Archives, February 2015, The MFA Years

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