In the few years preceding my acceptance into a Master of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing, I had been a Katrina refugee, had a baby, grieved the death of my father and more. I had a thick skin and a lot to say. I couldn’t think of a better time to dedicate myself to my writing. I felt prepared to be critiqued. I was self-aware and detached from taking criticism of my work personally. I had done this as an undergraduate; it was all constructive; I was ready.
A friend of mine from college, already waist-deep in an MFA program in New York, warned me …
“I was fine, till the day this guy said my work was didactic and particularly concerned with victimhood. I cried afterwards. They are going to get you,” she said.
We laughed and I waited for my turn.
It came. A rare poem of mine that features dialect, received the royal treatment from a professor. She decided to take command of the workshop by asking if anyone would like to discuss the dialect. I was aware of the consequences of writing a poem filled with dialect for a majority-white audience. I was prepared for all the most critical things I thought I would hear.
I was ready to listen to people debate whether or not it is acceptable to write something that is hard for white people to understand. I was ready to hear that a person who spoke that way wasn’t someone they imagined would have high-brow ideas or spend time meditating the on the meaning of life. I was even prepared to hear someone say that dialect didn’t belong in poetry.
I was not prepared to hear this:
"I’m going to go out on a limb," the professor began, "and say that I found the dialect phony, and therefore I didn’t believe the rest of the poem. The dialect isn’t even consistent, sometimes this speaker says gon’, sometimes she says gonna’…didn’t buy it."
Phony? In whose expert opinion? This older, white person, from the Midwest was now the authority on South Louisiana Black dialect? I wanted to say this, but workshop decorum prohibited my voice from being heard. That irony was not lost on anyone, as my facial expressions did all the talking for me. This isn’t to say that I did not receive useful constructive criticism from this same professor or my peers…still, those moments occur, and they have resonance within a writer’s psyche.
I am a native New Orleanian writing about the people that pepper these streets—in the city my program is located—yet many of my peers know nothing about my culture. My references are often off-the-mark and obscure in their eyes. I write about black people, mixed people, and their stories are hidden in the binaries that dominate our understandings of race and sexuality.
"Almost like a white person, trying to sound black," chimed in a classmate.
I sat there red-faced, definitely embarrassed, and definitely pissed that workshop had gotten under my skin. Maybe, this wasn’t the place for me. But no sooner had I put that thought into the universe, it threw it right back at me. A classmate put me in the know of a writers group he belonged to. I think he could tell I needed it.
The MelaNated Writers Collective, an alliance of writers of color, was founded by jewel bush in 2010. After attending workshops for writers of color in other places, she was determined to recreate that sense of community, year-round, at home in New Orleans. We are all grateful for that decision of hers to follow her intuition.