Saturday, November 07, 2015

On Teaching Creative Writing as a Woman of Colour

Ten years ago, I took up the challenge of leading a BA: Creative Writing in the UK.  At the interview (and in the decade that has followed) I kept one secret. I was deeply sceptical of Creative Writing programmes, although I could not have articulated my discomfort at the time. This post is an attempt to begin to do just that: explore why I had been sceptical of Creative Writing programmes, how I confronted that discomfort and tried to find solutions, and - in doing so - stumbled upon on something very unique.

When I first began my teaching job, I had inherited the curriculum and syllabus and in the first years I had very little leeway. Yet it was apparent in the very first class I walked into that neither were adequate, appropriate, or indeed to use management-speak, 'fit for purpose.'

I teach one of the most diverse (British and international) groups of students possible. But beyond that simplistic term lies a whole range of experiences and identities: my students are often from economically and socially disadvantaged sections of British society. They are often the first in their families to pursue higher education. Many juggle multiple jobs with family responsibilities for parents, children, siblings, and are often primary carers for more than one person. In many cases, they are first or second generation Britons, with complex migratory pasts, cultures and histories. Institutionally, many are classified as 'mature students' which flattens the life experiences that they bring to the classroom. All of this makes their decision (especially after the fee changes) to study Creative Writing even more risky (and brave).

Yet none of the course that I inherited ten years ago reflected the reality of students we were teaching. Junot Diaz's brilliant 2014 MFA vs POC essay was still years into the future but I was in a strange situation of living out the dilemma. Albeit from the other side! I wasn't a PoC writer participating in a workshop (An aside: I never did an MFA in Creative Writing. The very few workshops and writing groups I have experienced were enough to turn me off them. And for all the reasons that Diaz details). I was instead the course leader and tutor who could - perhaps, just perhaps - make a difference.

My first changes were discreet. I couched them in pedagogically acceptable language of familiarising students with the canon, with critical theory, with contemporary writing.  Surreptitiously writers like Leslie Marmon Silko, Wole Soyinka, Mourid Barghouti, Alice Walker, Nawalel Saadawi made into my reading lists, as did bell hooks, Edward Said and Frantz Fanon.  The reading list has steadily grown and expanded over time to include writing in translation as well as newer writing (Alex Wheatle and Ta-Nehisi Coates are two of the more recent additions).

Then a couple of years ago, when I got a chance to redesign the course as part of a university wide exercise, I decided to expand the curriculum to include more critical fiction on the grounds that you can't write it if you haven't read it.  And I expanded the syllabus to be focussed on aspects of not just writing as a craft but also research skills, critical thinking, and most importantly critical writing (Critical Fictions is now a set text and I wish someone would republish the volume).  Then I fought to include modules that gave students a chance to learn about the publishing industry, to devise query letters, book proposals, elevators  pitches. I wanted to discuss publishing not in a NYC/London-centric way but open it up to global changes, markets, and developments. It makes sense when my students are from as far away as Brazil and Burma, and want to write and publish for their own people.

In the past ten years, my students have gone on to do amazing things. They write, perform and publish powerful, critical imaginative worlds. They work in publishing, media and cultural industries across the globe. Many teach, mentor and nurture, hopefully paying forward some of what they acquire during their degree.

Teaching Creative Writing has also helped me recognise and articulate my own discomfort. Junot Diaz is right in flagging up MFAs (and in the UK, MAs and BAs in Creative Writing) for their inability to support and nurture PoC.  From the other side of the line, my conclusion is perhaps more distressing: Creative Writing courses are by definition imagined and designed for writers who are primarily white and middle class. The courses are designed to not confront or engage in the necessary emotional, psychic, intellectual, critical and yes, political, work that is required when writing from the margins. It isn't just the workshops that exclude - as Diaz astutely notes - but the very structure, design and conception of these courses.

This is why Creative Writing courses don't - and can't - serve those of us who are PoC, queer, non-binary, differently abled, or in multiple other ways structurally and historically disadvantaged. Even the token getsures towards nonconformist, challenging writing are designed to channel the writer on the margins into more conformist spaces. This coerced conformity is not limited to PoC experience in just workshops but at all levels, including the prescribed readings, the forms and themes considered culturally valuable (and thus worthy of being written), and the critical engagement (or lack thereof) with not only words on a page but also literature as a whole, forms and barriers to cultural participation, and thus with the world beyond.

In the past ten years, I have tried to find ways to circumvent thees design flaws and subvert the underlying premise of teaching Creative Writing. I must admit that it is a draining, exhausting task that often means I finish leading my workshops (and academic terms) feeling shattered. Yet it is also the most rewarding job I have ever held because I am - hopefully - widening the ladder, smoothing the climb, extending a hand to pull in yet another fellow writer from the margins.

Toni Morrison said recently that 'We don't need anymore writers as solitary heroes. We need a heroic writers' movement: assertive, militant, pugnacious." I keep hoping that with each graduating cohort, I am contributing a little to this possible heroic writers' movement.

But damn...I wish it were not so exhausting, draining, and all too often so very solitary!

PS: if the above speaks to you, or sounds familiar, or you'd like to swap ideas, please get in touch.

PPS: I hope to blog more about my reflections on my experience of teaching Creative Writing so watch this space.