When I was workshopping my first novel, a gringa told me my main character, India, wasn’t believable. “She talks like Margaret Thatcher but she’s a Latina from Brooklyn. It doesn’t fit.” I never told her that India was modeled after me, a Puerto Rican and Honduran girl from Bushwick.
When my sister friend, Angie, told her classmate that she was pursuing a degree in Multi-Ethnic Literature, her white classmate said, “But you have to study the classics to understand the world.” I still remember Angie’s expression when she told me the story, she shook her head and sighed a sigh that twisted her face, it was an exasperated, exhausted sigh, a “here we go again” sigh, a “they just don’t get it” sigh. Angie’s response: “The classics have never helped me understand myself.”
My own story goes something like this: As a scholarship student in a boarding program in Wellesley, MA, I was teased as I sped down the hall my first year; a huge backpack weighing me down, I couldn’t run away fast enough to drown out the “Tawk, Rosie, tawk, we wanna hear you tawk.” The only context they had of a Latina in 1989 was Rosie Perez as Tina in “Do the Right Thing.” I was all of 13 years old. A chamaquita from Bushwick, Brooklyn, I was just trying to get an education. It wasn’t until I was sixteen and in my junior year that I read a book by an author that looked like me. I was sitting on the mezzanine overlooking the school cafeteria, my face in a book, when an English Professor, Brooks Goddard, handed me Julia Alvarez’s How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents. I ate that book up in two days and read it again at least five times.
A few years later, as a student at Columbia University, a professor once handed back a piece and said, “This isn’t writing.” He didn’t have the cojones to look at me when he said it. The piece was a story about growing up in Bushwick, Brooklyn when the neighborhood was a pile of rubble, after the Fire Wars and during the crack era, long before the $5 cappuccino cafes and organic markets, before the factories were converted to lofts that cost upward of 4 grand a month.
When you don’t learn the history of your people and don’t read their literature, when all you read and learn is white and western and male, and so very different from anything you’ve ever known and loved, you inevitably begin to believe that you are less than. You learn that in order to succeed, you have to assimilate to a culture that is not your own and does not welcome you, no matter what you do.
When I’ve tried to explain this to white people, some get it (thank you allies), but some have responded with “I don’t see color when I read. I see the story. I see humanity.” I don’t have that luxury. I cannot unsee myself.
After that incident at Columbia, I didn’t write for years. When I finally did, I had trouble believing in myself and my stories. I couldn’t find my voice through the voices that said, “Who the fuck do you think you are?”
Then I went to the VONA/Voices workshop in 2009 and my world shifted.
Started in 1999, VONA/Voices is the only multi-genre writing workshops specifically for writers of color. The organization was founded by Elmaz Abinader, Junot Díaz, Victor Díaz and Diem Jones.
I don’t remember how I heard of VONA/Voices, but I remember when I received my acceptance letter. I cried and danced in my office, so loud and ecstatic that the CEO came running to see what the ruckus was about.
What VONA/Voices offered was a safe space where I could focus on my craft without the racist lens that questioned why my characters talked like that or ate that food or used Spanish in their lingo. It was at VONA that I learned to stop writing for the white gaze. I learned to write for my people, for people who look and sound like me, for people who eat the same foods and walk the same streets, and understand why we revert to Spanish when we get angry because there’s something about a coño, a carajo, a puñeta that no English word can grasp.
We’re living in a country where a twelve year old black boy carrying a toy gun can be shot down by a cop within two seconds of arriving on the scene, and people will defend the shooter’s actions. In 2014, police brutality and the shootings of unarmed brown and black men by police officers took over the headlines. When grand juries refused to take those officers to trial, protests spread across the city, most were peaceful and nonviolent, but the media chose to focus on the few that were not, because salacious headlines get attention and ratings. And still, people will tell you that it’s not about race, that we don’t have a race problem in the U.S.
In a country where the minority is rapidly becoming the majority but mainstream media insists on ignoring that, VONA/Voices is needed now more than ever.
In his New Yorker essay that went viral, MFA vs POC, VONA/Voices co-founder Junot Diaz confessed to hating his workshop experience at Cornell because “That shit was too white.”
“In my workshop the default subject position of reading and writing—of Literature with a capital L—was white, straight and male. This white straight male default was of course not biased in any way by its white straight maleness—no way! Race was the unfortunate condition of nonwhite people that had nothing to do with white people and as such was not a natural part of the Universal of Literature, and anyone that tried to introduce racial consciousness to the Great (White) Universal of Literature would be seen as politicizing the Pure Art and betraying the (White) Universal (no race) ideal of True Literature…
“Simply put: I was a person of color in a workshop whose theory of reality did not include my most fundamental experiences as a person of color—that did not in other words include me.”
Junot describes what many of us writers of color have been experiencing in writing classes and workshops for years. I can’t count how many stories I’ve heard like Angie’s, and I could go on and on about my own, suffice it to say, we need a place like VONA/Voices to remind us that we are not alone, that our stories do matter and that it is up to us to write them.
I returned to VONA every year for five consecutive years as a student, and studied with such masters as Elmaz Abinader, Chris Abani, Staceyann Chin, Mat Johnson and David Mura. Two years ago I took over as the newsletter editor and last year I joined staff. I believe in all things VONA and have made it my mission to help it grow and succeed so we can continue to offer a safe place for writers of color to study and develop their craft; where “our experiences [are] privileged rather than marginalized.”
If you’re a writer of color with something to say about the climate of this nation; if you need a safe space to write and study and talk about issues relevant to our communities; if you want to take a chance on yourself and your writing, check out the VONA/Voices workshop. After 15 years in the San Francisco Bay area, VONA/Voices has moved to the University of Miami. Applications are up with a due date of March 15th. We’re waiting to hear your stories. We need them now more than ever.