Image courtesy of Emily Montgomery (University of Alabama ’17)
Within the basement of the three-bedroom house that I rent in Tuscaloosa, there is a portal to hell. This particular hole belongs to Mikhail, the devil that has called Alabama his home for over a thousand years. Mikhail is not his first name; he goes by many names, but I’ve been listening to a lot of Dostoevsky on the sixteen-hour straight drive from Jersey to here, so the name stays. He’s not an evil devil, compared to other demonic entities; he’s helped me with things that one wouldn’t ask the dean of graduate admissions, like: where’s the best place to get Chinese food (Mr. Chen’s), the best place for graduate students to drink without undergrads lurking around (undisclosed location), and the nearest restaurant that deliver to our address (no one and you’re living on less than 1,300k a month, so your broke brown ass should be cooking anyway).
Most of what Mikhail has helped me with is getting a grip on reality.
“So what brings you to Tuscaloosa?” He asked.
“I’m getting an MFA at Bama,” I said.
“A Master of Fine Arts in Fiction. I’ll be studying different methods of prose, take outside courses that interest me like history, and work on my projects, like my novel—“
“Hold up; you’re going to school to learn how to write?”
“Nah it ain’t like that. I mean, well, yeah. I’m going to graduate school to work on my prose and learn to write…better. It’ll give me time to flesh out my style.”
He tilted his head to his left, narrowing his eyes. “Are they, at least paying you for this?”
“Yeah. Sort of.”
Mikhail straightens his head and smiles to stick his fist out to bump knuckles with me. “Roll Tide.”
It was then as we bumped fist, and solidified our bro-ship between demon and human; the power in the house went out. The two of us sat in the dark, only the faint embers of hell sparkled out of the pit. Mosquitos revealed themselves just above the fire; some darted across my face. The devil sat in his hole with his arms to the side, lounging like he was kicking back at a spa, and he asked me if he could play some music and light up a menthol. Mikhail is a big Kanye West fan, and so was I, so he played the Graduation album while I talked to him about my past and why I wanted to live in Alabama for three years.
Up until around this time last year, I never considered an MFA as an option. Being the son of immigrants who reinforced to me that they came to this country with less than twenty bucks, going to a graduate school where I’d the study the ‘art’ of writing was not only impractical, it was selfish. The dream pushed onto me, and others like me, isn’t original at all. It’s a familiar cycle: get an education in a ‘respectable’ field, get a living wage with benefits, get married (preferably with someone of your ethnicity or white), get a few kids, get a house, take care of your parents, send balikbayan boxes back to the Philippines, don’t forget from where your blood comes from, and then one day pray that your children will grow up and take care of you. Then die. Rinse, repeat, and do it all over again. Don’t worry about what’s going on throughout the country.
Those who strayed from this dreamy cycle weren’t outsiders; they were assholes.
As Jess Silfa would say, “writing can feel like the bougiest thing anyone can ever fucking do.” For a writer of color, or for someone coming from a low-income background, it certainly seems like it. In my program, the full-residency (full-res) MFA experience means living on a meager wage while exploring your craft; there is the hope that by the end of this, you’ll have a couple of publications or some book you’re proud of calling your own. And after that, who knows?
The full-res MFA is marketed as a space to give you time to work on your projects, learn, and gain teaching experience. In a fully-funded MFA program, you’ll have to balance your workload with your classes and the demands of the institution, as the majority of fully-funded programs have their students as teaching assistants (Bama included). But after the MFA, there’s a lack of opportunities in the academic market once you leave. If you decide not to go into academia and instead go for a freelance career or some other job, you’re back to where you were in the first place; mixing in the writing/editing/revising/reading of your project with the demands of life, job, and security. True, there are a few outliers that emerge out of an MFA with a book deal, chapbook, teachings jobs, etc., but even those prospects can be small and not every writer’s process, or chance of marketability, is a guaranteed success.
Before I started the MFA application process at the beginning of fall 2016, I read a bunch of sources like Junot Diaz’s MFA vs. POC, Chad Harbach’s book MFA vs. NYC, and this blog. I started with the oldest articles about MFA programs to find out where the students are today. For years I held off applying for an MFA because of all the stories that condemned it: mostly white writers who come out of the program and say the same damn thing, lack of writing time due to teaching and/or doing other menial tasks, lack of pay, issues with XYZ university faculty, and others.
So if you’re broke, brown, and the stuff you often write about involves the stories of your immigrant family and gun-toting robots, why the hell would you do this? Well, why the fuck not?
Writing is a process, the more time you devote to it and understand your writing, the better your chances will be that you’ll get it right next time. Writing can leave a lasting impression, a note of the human spirit that can start a conversation about an issue that was raised today, yesterday or years ago. It pushes our decision-making process, questioning events again and again. Whether the story is about dragons in The Sword Coast or the dragoons of 19th century Napoleonic France, the many forms of fiction continue to tell the story of the human conflict through different perspectives. Speculative fiction writers like Ken Liu, N.K. Jemisin, Ted Chiang, and Octavia Butler have created worlds that examine our forgotten myths and explore humanity’s uncertain future. Star Wars, Warcraft, and Star Trek are franchises loved, or hated, by millions across the world and continues to influence culture today. The works of James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Lynn Nottage, to name a few, further the discussion of the systematic racial divide in the United States that has existed since its founding. As a writer of color who is trying to work in an era of xenophobic narratives and a pushback against identity in favor of blind patriotism, if I or writers of color do not try to improve the narrative or stop trying altogether, who will write our stories? No one. And if they do try, it won’t be our story anymore. It will be an interpretation of Other.
The decision to come to the University of Alabama was to give me time. Time to organize, to build up my CV, establish my work habits, and develop myself as a writer while I have time and lack of external responsibilities on my side. From the cohort and what I gather online, Alabama favors a hands-off approach. It’s a large class of poets, essayists, and fiction writers who are here to develop their skillsets overtime. While I have yet to seek out a mentor amongst the faculty here, the vibe I get is that it’s not the sort of program to those who expect to be pushed throughout their three or four years here. No one tells you to try and publish; they just give you the tools through email. What you do with it, that’s up to you.
A majority of my writing cohort is white. For fiction, in my year, I am the only writer of color. Poetry has one woman of color and nonfiction has two. In total there are four of us in the first year. As far as writers of color in the entire MFA program, there is a handful of us. So that’s nice.
Mentor or not, my goals over the next three years boils down to three things: write, revise, and publish. If I were more realistic, it would be: try, try, and try again. Writing is a skill that takes time, refinement, and a lot of luck. If you’re passionate about something, what better time to go after your goal than in the here and now? Will I fail? Yes, constantly; however, I know I’ll just get back up again and go back to work.
I told all of this to Mikhail on top of my soapbox that was a stack of crit papers from the past summer at Clarion West; when I got off the box, a long silence followed. The demon lit up another menthol across his lips and blew smoke into the dark.
“That’s real cute and all, but how long are you going to be doing this for again?”
“Three years. Four if you want.”
“Okay…so you’re studying the art of making stuff up. After your three or four years are up, you’re going to come out of this with a job, yeah?”
“Job markets tight but yeah, possibly. I mean you could, in practice. There are fellowships, grants, becoming an adjunct professor-”
“With benefits? 401k plan? Healthcare?”
I scratched the mosquito bite on my arm until it bloomed red and yellow against brown.
“So none of this is secure for your future,” the devil said. “You’re lofting around for three years in cushy old buildings, talking about books, grammar, and shit.”
“Hey, dude, weren’t you listening?”
“This is what I’m passionate about.”
“This MFA shit sounds like a hell of a gamble.”
“Fuck man, ain’t life a gamble? It’s to better live the life you want and work on what you’re passionate about then wondering what if I had the time, energy, and education to do it. I’ll find the time to write, and I’ll do it.”
Mikhail inhaled and blew. Through the light of the fire, I saw his smile. “Make sure they at least paying you to survive and shit,” he said. “Roll Tide.”
“Roll Tide,” I replied. The devil took out his iPhone to play The Good Life, and as T-Pain and Kanye spoke about living, the power came back to life, and the horde of mosquitos revealed themselves in the light. They encircled my face while the humidity in the room reached a point where I had trouble breathing but by then I was so taken in by sleep that I didn’t bother with fixing anything. I’m good.
Mark Galarrita is a McNair Fellow at the University of Alabama MFA Fiction Program. He is a graduate of the 2017 Clarion West Writers Workshop and received his B.A. from Marymount Manhattan College. His work has appeared in Bull Magazine and the Kelsey Review. He has also written for the “The Aethera Campaign Setting: a Pathfinder Compatible RPG” and narrative scripts for Global Gamer Jam events. Follow him on Twitter @MarkGalarrita or on his website.