A Love Letter to Felicia Rose Chavez’s The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop
Felicia Rose Chavez, The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop How to Decolonize the Creative Writing Classroom, Haymarket Books, 2021. $25.95.
By Jessica Lin
Dear Felicia Rose Chavez,
One of the many lines I highlighted in your book, The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop: How to Decolonize the Creative Classroom was this: “There’s nothing harmful about the texts [written by white authors] themselves, of course, assuming they’re analyzed in a multidimensional context. What is harmful is workshop leaders’ collective hallucination of white universality that situates people of color as abnormal” (94). Of whiteness as the uninterrogated default, the norm of what western literature is, of what the canon is.
I attended a local writing group five or six years ago and shared a story of mine that was about a Chinese American daughter learning to fold dumplings with her immigrant mother. The writing group that night was made up of all white writers. One white woman said she didn’t realize until the last page that the characters weren’t white. Another white woman said that I shouldn’t include words from a language other than English without explaining what they meant. One white woman said she thought my main character was making chicken and dumplings because her own background is white southern American and that is what she thinks when she thinks of dumplings.
Even further back, I was in a college creative writing poetry class. Sorry, I was in a white college creative writing poetry class. Or rather I was in a white college white creative white writing white poetry white class. There was another Chinese American female writer, and I was so resentful of her because she wrote beautifully and eloquently about growing up Asian American in the U.S., and she was rightfully praised for her talent and skill. I was jealous and felt that there couldn’t be two of us in this white class that was full of white students and a white professor. At the time, I did not want to write about being Chinese American in America. I wanted to write universally. I wanted to write whitely. I wanted to be able to write about the same things that my white classmates were writing about, without having to frame everything through my ethnic identity, without having to talk about my immigrant parents and being seen as an outsider.
Your book describes the dangerous and traumatic effects of not naming the whiteness that is so often the default of the creative writing workshop. You gave us examples from your own writing life, your own time spent in college, in your MFA program. You gave us examples from other writers of color who were subjected to angry outbursts from white participants who refused to acknowledge the truth ringing out in their stories and writing.
For years, I thought I was the strange one. That I was the one who didn’t understand, who reached for, and then couldn’t cope with that “collective hallucination of white universality.”
You quoted David Mura from his book A Stranger’s Journey: Race, Identity, and Narrative Craft in Writing:
“Do whites lack a racial identity while only people of color possess one? Obviously, this notion is absurd. Is it people of color who gave themselves their racial identity? No, historically white people have done this… Examining the fallacies invoked here leads to several revealing questions concerning race and literature. The first is, If the very way white writers introduce their characters are racialized, how is it that any piece of American fiction, whether written by a white person or a person of color, escapes being racialized? What would our literature look like if this rule were not the norm? How difficult is it for whites to identify themselves as white? And what exactly is the cause of this difficulty? When writers of color acknowledge their racial reality, what does this allow them to accomplish in their writing? Does the fact that most white writers don’t do so indicate that these writers are simplifying or leaving out parts of their reality? How are these two different literary practices related to what we deem craft and artistic excellence?” (125).
I heard him speak at the 2019 Asian American Literature Festival in DC and his words there overturned my conception of that default whiteness in literature. He turned me around to examine my past creative writing experiences and see them for what they were.
These past experiences prompted me to reach out and ask writing instructors before taking their classes if they had guidelines in place for shielding writers of color in their classrooms from microaggressions. Now I know that I wasn’t asking the right question, that I was asking for far too little. I know now that I should expect so much more from a creative writing workshop. That writing instructors can and should make their workshops explicitly anti-racist. That they can still use literature from the white, western canon but to examine it critically and in dialogue with texts by writers of color. You included how Toni Morrison writes in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination: “I do not want to alter one hierarchy in order to institute another…More interesting is what makes intellectual domination possible, how knowledge is transformed from invasion and conquest to revelation and choice; what ignites and informs the literary imagination, and what forces help establish the parameters of criticism” (109). That it is this kind of literary examination of white supremacy that is the work that we must be doing. And you have written a phenomenal and truly essential guide: a love letter to writers of color, an invitation to all creative writing instructors to find a new way. A way filled with humanity, generosity, self-reflection, rigor, and yes, love.
The book is organized into eight chapters that each address a specific part of the workshop: I was particularly drawn to the sections that describe instituting reading and writing rituals.
I remember receiving back drafts of poems with marks and crossed out lines from professors, and comments that dwindled draft after draft. Comments that only pointed to where my writing wasn’t good enough, but no real guidance on how to improve or what exactly the end goal was. One final copy of a professor’s feedback contained just some resigned question marks. You put that marking pen back in the hands of the student, the writer, and tell them to reflect on where their piece is going. What is their vision for this piece?
I love that your writing classes are not full of exercises asking students to imitate an already written piece, but instead, implement exercises that ask students to start with where they are led internally. I love that you are focused on building up their confidence with constant freewriting, reading out loud, and bringing in examples of texts and media by contemporary writers of color, women, LGBTQIA+, disabled writers, and writers whose identities are of multiple intersections, along with building up community and confidence in the classroom. I love that your writing classes are filled with movement and play and messiness and that you address the inherent fears and insecurities that come with the writing territory. And that you acknowledge and have students reflect on their emotional needs that can become tied up in the criticism and feedback that they receive.
Thank you for laying bare the lie that workshop participants just innately know how to workshop. But instead, instructors need to teach students how to provide meaningful feedback and in ways that don’t fall prey to their own subjectivity. You describe how workshop participants can bring up their opinions, and then ask if the author would like to hear it. This gives the author control “without feeling ambushed” (139). What a revelation! That I as the one being workshopped do not need to hear every single workshop participant’s opinion in silence and have it thrust upon me. How forcing writers to be silent during workshop, especially writers of color, is actively harmful, but that instead they can serve as effective facilitators of their own workshop. You write about the critiquing skills and techniques you learned from studio art classes and other art forms like dance, introducing me to the Liz Lerman critical response process, which I hope to implement in my own writing groups going forward.
In the past two years, I have taken a few writing classes that have shown me what is truly possible. I’ve taken classes with Nina Sharma, Nadia Owusu, and Staceyann Chin, where I have felt whole and embraced and lifted up and cracked open. And now with your book published and out in the world, I hope to see more and more creative writing instructors commit themselves to putting into practice your techniques for anti-racist writing workshops.
Jessica Lin lives and writes in Apex, North Carolina. She started a local book club that focused on reading only authors of color. Currently, she is revising a romance novel.
Felicia Rose Chavez is an award-winning educator with an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Iowa. She is the author of The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop: How to Decolonize the Creative Classroom and co-editor of The BreakBeat Poets Volume 4: LatiNEXT with Willie Perdomo and Jose Olivarez. Chavez served as Program Director to Young Chicago Authors and founded GirlSpeak, a literary webzine for young women. She went on to teach writing at the University of New Mexico, where she was distinguished as the Most Innovative Instructor of the Year, the University of Iowa, where she was distinguished as the Outstanding Instructor of the Year, and Colorado College, where she received the Theodore Roosevelt Collins Outstanding Faculty Award. Her creative scholarship earned her a Ronald E. McNair Fellowship, a University of Iowa Graduate Dean’s Fellowship, a Riley Scholar Fellowship, and a Hadley Creatives Fellowship.Originally from Albuquerque, New Mexico, Felicia currently serves as Scholar-in-Residence in Creativity and Innovation at Colorado College. Find her at www.antiracistworkshop.com.