"Teaching Involves Learning from Our Students as They Learn from Us": A Conversation with David Mura

David Mura’s A Stranger’s Journey gives a thoughtful and unequivocal voice to what has been missing from creative writing workshops in the United States: open, honest, and nuanced discussions centered on race, culture, and identity. The book deepens and redefines the way we should view and teach craft if we are to truly serve writers of color. It provides a sort of blueprint for the kind of introspection, humility, socio-cultural awareness, and empathy needed to foster a truly inclusive and pedagogically fruitful environment.

Author of A Kind of Solitude and GrubStreet’s Director of Core Programs and Faculty, Dariel Suarez, talked with David Mura about his book on a deeper level.

In your introduction, the conversation is partly framed through the question of audience. Using Toni Morrison’s Playing In The Dark: Whiteness And The Literary Imagination as reference, you note that “while white writers have not traditionally had to imagine a reader of color, writers of color have always been cognizant that their work would be judged and interpreted by white readers.” How do you think this fundamental difference between who we imagine our readers to be has influenced the way writing is interpreted and critiqued in a typical workshop setting?

Morrison’s point is that traditionally white writers have not had to think about readers of color because those readers were considered unimportant or inessential. But even this formulation posits a stance that’s more conscious than it actually is. In so many instances in our society, whiteness is centralized and empowered and placed at the top of racial hierarchies and yet this centralization remains unspoken and, to a certain extent, unconscious on the part of many whites. One reason for this: Up until recently, in our post-Civil Rights era, whiteness has been supposedly invisible and not considered a prime factor in the identity or experience of white people.

This dovetails with DuBois’s double-consciousness: Black people, said DuBois, have had to be aware of how white people think about themselves and how white people think about black people. Of course, black people also knew how other blacks see white people and other blacks. The formation of this double-consciousness was and is a knowledge black people must acquire in order to survive in this society. But in this dialectic, most white people don’t think they have to think about how people of color think of white people or of people of color; that is, most white people don’t think about the consciousness of people of color—and thus about the lives of people of color. (In the past, we weren’t in positions of power; we weren’t gatekeepers.)

All this affects writing workshops in two major ways: First, most writers of color have experienced instances where they’ve been instructed to make their writing more palatable or understandable to white readers. At times, such critiques may possess some validity, but most of the time, such critiques evidence a clear racial bias. For implicit in this admonition is that what white writers know or are interested in is essential; in contrast, what writers of color know, what our experience has been, is inessential, secondary, minor. A racial hierarchy of knowledge and experience is being invoked, but this hierarchy is rarely questioned. Moreover, here’s what I don’t get: Why would you, as a white writer, want to know only about your experience, your range of references? Isn’t one of the prime purposes of literature to enter other people’s lives and consciousness, to expand your knowledge of the world rather than say, “Well, I don’t need to know that,” or “That’s not essential.” How do you know it’s not interesting or essential if you haven’t given yourself a chance to learn not just about the writings of people of color, but the communities and experiences and literary and cultural traditions we write out of?  The white writer who refuses to entertain the question of a more open canon and a more inclusive range of references is making an a priori assumption of our inferiority.

Secondly, given all this, it’s not surprising that white writers rarely consider how a reader of color might receive their work, and we also see that reaction in workshops. In the essay “The Student of Color in the Typical MFA Program,” I portray one scenario that often happens to be a writer of color in a workshop: A white writer, or perhaps a series of white writers, hands in work where people of color are portrayed in stereotypical or one-dimensional portraits. In such a workshop the one or two students of color have to decide whether they are going to critique these works by white writers. In that essay, I note that more often than not, the instructor and the white writers do not make the critique that is forming in the minds of the students of color. If the student of color voices their critique, there is generally pushback from the class and even from the instructor. Indeed, this pushback can easily turn to hostility.

As I say in the essay, what is being defended here is the right of white writers to write about people of color without having to take into account the critiques of people of color. There’s an implied assumption that writers of color could never make a critique of white writing that white writers might learn from—which is nonsense (that is, unless you subscribe to unconscious racist assumptions).

Early in the book, you share how your personal experiences and revelations led you to not only explore your own identity but, in essence, write A Stranger’s Journey. You go on to say that “the exploration of identity is…a central theme of this age,” that we “live in an era when strangers are encountering strangers daily, making each of us stranger to ourselves,” and you describe all of it, quoting Bertolt Brecht, as “marvelously complicated.” What impact do you believe this exploration of identity will have on the dynamics of creative writing classrooms going forward? How might writers use the question of identity to deepen their own work and be helpful readers to a peer whom they might deem “a stranger”?

In The Devil Finds Work, James Baldwin states: “The question of identity is a question involving the most profound panic—a terror as primary as the nightmare of the mortal fall.” Baldwin goes on to describe the conditions in which identity is questioned—when “the mighty begin to fall” or “the wretched begin to rise” or when “the stranger enters the gates” and makes “you the stranger, less to the stranger than to yourself.” The link between a revolution and questioning identity is fairly obvious, but the stranger less so: What the stranger presents you with is another way of looking at the world, and thus, yourself, and thus, the stranger brings both stated and implicit questions about how you have defined your world and the people in it.

In American society today, more and more strangers are encountering each other; evidence of our increasingly diverse populations is everywhere, from Republican Representative Steve King’s home town in Iowa to writing workshops. And then factor in that some time after 2040 whites will no longer constitute the majority in America, that we will all be racial minorities. Indeed, social scientists have discovered that the mere mention of this demographic shift makes whites more fearful concerning their own racial identities and more threatened by people of color, and with this awareness, whites answer more conservatively even on non-racial issues like climate change. In other words, our changing demographics will only increase the crisis of white identity. As conservative whites embrace a conscious white identity, liberal whites will increasingly be confronted with the question: Well, if you’re not a conservative white person, what sort of white person are you? How do you identify as a white person? In other words, liberal writers won’t be able to avoid questions concerning their identity; they won’t be able to assert or imply that identity is only a question writers of color need to consider.

All of this argues that identity will not recede as a question in our national dialogues and thus, in our literature, but will only bring more and more questions. But if writers are not prepared to investigate this diversity—and this involves not just a more diverse literature but a reconceiving of our country’s history—they will not be able to confront our country’s present, much less our future. I need to know the literature and history of all our communities--yes, a large task which I’ll never completely fulfill, but that is how we should be educating our writers.

In your essay “Writing and Reading Race,” you mention the following regarding storytelling: “the absence of a racial marker means that the character is by default white.” You argue that, for white writers, “race…is not a significant part of their identity or social reality,” and describe their avoidance of race as political because “it serves to bolster and camouflage rather than challenge the racial inequities and biases in contemporary society.” Given how crucial race and identity have been in defining the history and social structures of this country, why do you think the emphasis has been on ignoring rather than exploring these realities in the workshop? Why are so many writers—presumed practitioners of empathy, imagination, critical thinking, and curiosity as it relates to the human condition—either incapable or hesitant to discuss race, interrogate their own identity, or contemplate their own social and pedagogical blind spots?  

In “Reading and Writing Race,” I analyze this common literary practice: In works by white authors, when a character is named but the race isn’t indicated, we are to assume the character is white. Only characters of color need to be indicated as such. In this way, whiteness becomes the universal default; people of color are the exception. A certain universalization is afforded and granted to whiteness and white people that people of color are excluded from.

Add to all this the standard mainly white literary education, and you produce white writers who don’t think they have to think about what people of color are thinking or how we look at the world or at white people. That’s why, in a workshop anecdote related to me by a student of color, a young white poet told the student of color, “I’m just not into identity poems. I mean, isn’t the point to get us beyond race?” This young white poet is saying, “I don’t want to know who you are, I don’t want to know about your life or your community, and doing so, gives me no pleasure.”

In his essay on the Metaphysical Poets, T.S. Eliot defines “wit” as involving a recognition, implicit in the expression of every experience, of other kinds of experience which are possible.” But when white writers shut out or ignore the experiences of people of color and the description of those experiences in our literature, they’re engaged in what Baldwin dubbed a “weird nostalgia” for a time of innocence which never existed, for a centrality which was based on unjust power and an ideology of white supremacy.

Of course most white writers are liberals and would blanch at any association with Republican ideology and its definition of whiteness, but in truth, a number of white writers embody such an ideology in their refusal—both conscious and unconscious--to explore the experiences, literature and thought of writers of color. Like the MAGA crowd, they want to go back to a period and a literature where writers of color were always deemed unnecessary or inessential and where whiteness was central and definitive and set the standards for everyone else. But that time has long passed. And that terrifies some white writers as much as it does the Republicans. It means not only a diminution of their assumed necessity and importance, but it also means they must reinvestigate who they are, question how they have identified as white people and what that means, and such questioning is not easy; it entails hard work, and the most difficult part of that work is more spiritual and psychological than it is literary or intellectual, though that too is required.

At GrubStreet, we’ve started offering classes with a workshop model that emphasizes two things: more voice and agency for the writer in the discussion of their writing, and the inclusion of content—meaning race, identity, socio-cultural context, literary influences, etc—as part of the craft conversation. One of the central goals is to ensure writers from underrepresented communities don’t feel silenced, ignored, or misunderstood, as they historically have been, and to challenge all students to interrogate how the aforementioned elements of content might or might not manifest in their work and why. In “The Student of Color In The Typical MFA Program” you break down several scenarios writers of color face in writing programs and the implications of such examples. You contend that the experiences of writers of color at these institutions are “symptomatic and revelatory of the ways the voices and consciousness of people of color are suppressed in our society.” What kinds of changes need to take place, in your opinion, for MFAs to become a truly welcoming space for writers of color? With so many voices in contemporary American literature providing access to a diverse array of socio-cultural experiences, why have writing programs been so slow to catch up to the realities outside of it?

You have to diversify the faculty; you have to diversify the student body. More and more MFA programs are recognizing this necessity, but other programs are still rooted in past assumptions of who writers are and what constitutes the literary tradition. There needs to be a transformation of the sort of program where the white writer invites his white friends or the program where the white writers are completely unprepared to deal with the issues of race and identity in literature. This isn’t a change certain white writers will welcome, especially older ones. It involves a loss of their power and comfort, the ways they’ve been used to doing things.

But as T.S. Eliot, that old conservative has observed, every new work in the canon changes our perception of the canon. Add Toni Morrison and James Baldwin to the canon, and Zora Neal Hurston takes on more importance just as the white canonical writers Morrison critiques in Playing in the Dark look a little less in their achievement and centrality. So you have to diversify not just the faculty, but the reading lists, and this must include not just literary works, but the critical and theoretical works that would provide writers with an intellectual and historical framework to approach the issues of race and identity (an education most writers still do not receive).

The modernist critic Kenneth Burke defined literature as “equipment for living.” The necessary tools for our craft are changing and expanding, for, as Audre Lourde has famously observed, the tools of the master will not dismantle the master’s house. And this is true for white writers who would want to dismantle the house of whiteness too.

Indeed, this new equipment will more and more become a necessity. Today, the critics, the judges and gatekeepers of literature are still predominantly white and male, but this is going to change over time. In this year’s 2018 Best Short Stories introduction, judge Roxanne Gay alludes to an aesthetic disagreement she has with Richard Russo’s selections of a previous year. It’s not that Gay is necessarily right and Russo wrong, but wouldn’t it be useful for the white writer as well as the writer of color to understand the terms and nature of this disagreement? Especially since there will be more and more writers of color critiquing the work of white writers or acting as literary gatekeepers?

There is a final and complicated aspect of this, and that is, we must all be constantly educating ourselves to teach the increasing diversity of our students; we must all be looking for our own pockets of ignorance and the ways we might be resisting questionings of our own assumption. In its proper spirit, teaching involves learning from our students as they learn from us; it involves a sense of humility and open inquiry as well as a passing on of knowledge.

One of your essays discusses a talk David Foster Wallace gave black students about the use of Standard White English and how they should just accept it if they wanted to succeed in America. Years ago, as an immigrant student, some of the feedback I received included things such as: “Your writing is awkward; you should make it sound more American,” or “You should read more American authors (all the names given to me were white and mostly male),” or “Fiction should be more intimate and less political.” Part of my growth as a writer has come from unlearning a lot of what I was taught. What advice do you have for writers of color who are told that their language or style are not acceptable, who are asked to dismiss their interests and influences, who are encouraged to join literary traditions and workshop norms that, quite ironically, exclude them?

You need to keep those dismissive voices from infecting your psyche; you need to recognize their bullshit as bullshit. At the same time, you can still learn from writers with whom you disagree with about race—just don’t learn from them about race or the role of race in literature.

On a different level, as I point out in the essay “The Student of Color in the Typical MFA Program,” as a student of color you don’t have a lot of power; so you do have the option to opt out and not spend all your time fighting the powers that be—that is, you can wait till you finish your degree and begin to have some power in the academic and literary world, when you are, as Sun Tzu would say, better equipped to fight. 

Your book includes several chapters with illuminating craft advice for fiction and nonfiction writers, from character development to multiple storylines to narrative structure and reflective voice in memoir. You also provide several writing assignments, some of which explore questions of identity. What do you hope writing instructors and students will get from these sections that they perhaps might not be able to get elsewhere?

I’ve had students from prestigious Ivy League MFA programs who don’t know how to tell a story. Similarly, when I first started writing fiction, I discovered that most books on writing fiction did not inform you how to tell a story. They might mention a few things about plot or they might not, and that would be it (c.f, a work like Jon Gardner’s classic, The Art of Fiction).

Instead, I found instruction on the structures and techniques of narrative in books on screenwriting, plays and myths. A Stranger’s Journey weaves that material with what I’ve learned from my own teaching and analysis of narrative in fiction and memoir (as I say at one point, in fiction we create story; in nonfiction or memoir, we discover story).  

For instance, take the premise a story involves a character’s pursuit of a goal and that you as the author must work to make the pursuit of that goal more and more difficult (if it’s too easy, there’s no story). In working with students, I came up with two ways of approaching the creation of these difficulties: One is the God of the Book of Job who rains down calamities upon Job; or there’s a figure like Poseidon who keeps creating difficulties for Odysseus on his return journey home. But there is also the Devil, who prevents or hampers the protagonist’s pursuit of the goal by creating and offering temptations, by appealing to a weakness, to one of the Seven Deadly Sins, by putting the protagonist in situations where the protagonist has to lie (this is related to David Mamet’s proposition that a play begins with a lie and when the lie is revealed the play is over). Both the God of the Book of Job and the Devil then become useful paths through which the author complicates both the protagonist and the narrative.

The exercises in the appendix of my book come out of my own teaching. They cover the writing process (and writer’s block), the exploration of identity and using narrative structures and techniques. At the same time, the exercises in the appendix emphasize process, exploration and questioning over concentration on product; they stress looking for hints or signals from the unconscious. Such an approach is in keeping with my definition of creative writing: “Creative writing is the search for and creation of a language to express what we know and feel unconsciously but don’t yet have a language to express.” In my teaching, especially early on working with someone, I’m looking for those points in the students’ writing where the unconscious speaks, where deeper emotions or psychological knots poke up, sometimes very briefly, in a paragraph or even one sentence. A writer’s conscious plans or designs may be useful at times, but the real discoveries in their writing come through the writing process, come out of the engagement with and search for the unconscious. But you have to learn how to do this, to look out for this.

As a final question, I’m intrigued by the ways in which the process of putting together A Stanger’s Journey might have impacted your other work, as a writer and educator. Where do you see yourself taking all of this knowledge in the coming years?

Right now, I’m in the process of finishing a book of essays on race in general. Traditionally, race in American has been characterized as a dialogue between blacks and whites, and as a third generation Japanese American, I’m obviously coming at these issues from a different position, one I try to delineate in the book.

At the same time, the book is not primarily about my identity as an Asian American, but more about the issues of race that all Americans must confront. A central theme is that the way we define racism and the basic premises considered acceptable in discussing race are not racially neutral; instead, they’re biased towards a white view of race. In other words, the very parameters of what is deemed acceptable discourse on race have been designed to exclude or silence the views, the experience and history of people of color. 

As any good lawyer knows, if you set the terms or premises of the argument, you’ve almost always won the argument. Racism, for instance, is defined in a way that emphasizes conscious and stated intent and overt animus. But this is no longer the way racism works in our society, and so we define racism in a way so that it doesn’t exist.

Racism today often involves a conscious intent to create or maintain racial inequities but a stated intent which cites some other cause as camouflage—voter fraud, privacy or religious freedom, national security and maintaining our borders, law and order, fiscal responsibility, etc. Such intent doesn’t have to be fueled by great animus, and if it is fueled by animus, that animus is always kept hidden or is revealed obliquely. Similarly, unconscious or implicit bias is also one of the primary causes of many of the racial inequities in our society. Someone may profess to or consciously believe they are without bias and yet still act in a racially biased manner. This is partly the case in the literary world.

Ultimately, our history and our culture continues to deem the knowledge and experiences of people of color as secondary, and this helps shape the consciousness of whites and white identity. To root this out is, as I’ve said earlier, a spiritual and psychological problem, and in my book on race I end exploring how whites need to wrestle with this problem and what they can expect in doing so. In part I explain that in truly transforming their identities as white people, they will need to go through Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief—1. Denial (“That’s not racist,” “He/she doesn’t have a racist bone in their body”); 2. Anger (“Why are you bringing this up? What are you creating conflict where is none?”); 3. Bargaining (“It can’t be that bad,” “But look at the progress we’ve made…”);  4. Grief (“I feel so terrible, so guilty, so shameful,” “How do you deal with all this? It’s so horrible”); 5. Acceptance.

A similar process is required now for those who are resisting the opening up of our canon and the artistry of writers of color.

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About the Author

As GrubStreet’s Artistic Director, Dariel Suarez oversees the artistic vision of GrubStreet’s offerings, with particular emphasis on the Writer’s Stage, new workshop models and advanced programming, Grub’s podcast studio, and fellowship initiatives. Dariel was born and raised in Havana, Cuba, and immigrated to the U.S. in 1997 at age fourteen. He is the author of the novel The Playwright’s House (Red Hen Press), finalist for the Rudolfo Anaya Fiction Award and the Massachusetts Book Award, and the story collection A Kind of Solitude (Willow Springs Books), winner of the Spokane Prize and the International Latino Book Award for Best Collection of Short Stories. Dariel is an inaugural City of Boston Artist Fellow, and his work has received the First Lady Cecile de Jongh Literary Prize and appeared in Best American Essays, The Threepenny Review, The Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, Michigan Quarterly Review, and Literary Hub, among others. Dariel earned his MFA in Fiction at Boston University and currently resides in the Boston area.

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