GrubStreet's #Muse17 Pilots Writers of Color Track

Already getting excited about next year's The Muse & the Marketplace conference? So are we. And we're over the moon to announce that #Muse18 dates are confirmed! Next year's Muse will take place April 6-8, 2018. In the meantime, we're reliving the highlights from this year's #Muse17. Today, Muse Presenter David Mura reflects on the Writers of Color Track, new this year. 


The Muse & the Marketplace 2017 (May 5-7) was my first GrubStreet Conference. I was surprised by its size—around 500 attendees filling a hotel ballroom for the opening convocation—and I was impressed by the organization and variety of the weekend’s panels and presentations.


This was also the first Muse Conference with recommended “tracks” to help writers navigate the 120+ sessions, one of which was a track for writers of color. The sessions in this track included: “Beyond Almond Eyes and Chocolate Skin: Indicating Racial and Ethnic Identity,” “Do I Need to Explain That? On Cultural & Linguistic Translation,” “Agents and Editors of Color Roundtable,” and my own sessions, “Race and the Situation of the Writer in 2017,” and Race & Identity in Fiction & Nonfiction.” There were other events across the weekend that I thought were particularly pertinent for writers of color, such as “Setting Fiction in Other Cultures,” “Who Are We When We’re At Home: the Black Experience in Boston,” Randa Jarrar’s “All-Conference Read in Fiction,” Him, Me, Muhammad Ali, and the Mid-Muse Keynote with Isabel Wilkerson, speaking on her seminal work, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Story of America’s Great Migration. There was also a Saturday evening gathering of writers, editors, and agents of color (though, as far as I could tell, no agents of color showed up).


The conference opened with a stimulating talk between Grubstreet’s Artistic Director Chris Castellani, and authors John Freeman, Claire Messud, and Aleksandar Hemon on the question, “What’s a writer for?” I was particularly struck by Hemon’s account of his experiences as someone who had come to America to visit, and then found that because of the siege of Sarajevo, he could not return home. Later, in trying to write about his dislocation and his experience of being caught between two worlds, he had to confront the ways that the war had changed the language of Sarajevo, and his unfamiliarity with that new language.

 Authors John Freeman, Claire Messud, and Aleksandar Hemon during the Opening Keynote.

Language in general, and literature in particular, transform and adapt in the face of new realities. Such shifts occur not just through the direct effects of cataclysmic events like war, but are also impacted by individuals’ changing sense of self and nation in relationship to the rest of the world. In other words, in such times, people are forced to reassess their identities, to ask questions about who they, and who their communities are, and, in the case of Sarajevo, who their neighbors are. As Hemon has said elsewhere, “Bosnians believed—and I believed—that they were a part of Europe. So when the war began, they expected Europe to respond. ‘This cannot happen again in Europe,’ everyone said, and we all expected some kind of reaction or intervention. But then the response was, ‘Well, maybe you can have a war in Europe if they are in Southern Europe, if they are Muslims’…you can suddenly decide that’s the other kind of Europe and you can just forget about those people.”


The first Muse session I conducted was titled “Race and the Situation of the Writer in 2017.” My session directly followed the opening keynote conversation and picked up on some of Hemon’s remarks. As we have been made painfully aware since the election, America is in the midst of a crisis in our national identity, evident from the political battles that form our new Zeitgeist: Obamacare vs. Trumpcare, the dismantling of regulations for the environment and industry, the privatization of public school systems, a return to the more Draconian justice policies eliminated during the Obama administration, the swerves by Trump on foreign policy—And yes, the many renewed conflicts over race.

 David Mura presenting "Race and the Situation of the Writer in 2017."

I had decided to focus on race and the writer in our present moment, in part because I’d held a similar presentation and conversation with a class I teach at the Loft—a Minneapolis literary organization similar to GrubStreet. This is a class specifically for writers of color and indigenous writers. After the election, it was clear that the writers in the class very much needed a safe space to discuss their reactions to the election. At the same time, I wanted to use the ways the current political climate has altered our perception of race in America to assess what all this means for all writers of literature, both writers of color and white writers.


In the session, I began with a quotation by Nell Irv Painter, author of The History of White People, who notes that in recent years, particularly in the post Civil-Rights era, the identity of white people as white people has existed mostly as an absence or a hidden unacknowledged identity. It has been people of color who possess a racial identity and not whites. But Painter argues that in the Trump administration, white men—who, of course, have always occupied positions of power—now occupy those positions specifically as white men; that is, with their racial identity as a perceived element of who they are, and who they represent. With Trump, whiteness is proclaiming, rather than masking, itself. Similarly, the surfacing of racial animus on the part of Trump supporters, particularly the alt-right, confronted liberal whites with a question concerning their identity that they previously could avoid or render silent. After the election, the question became, “If you’re not of the alt-right or a Trump supporter, what sort of white person are you? And what does that mean?” From the mythical post-racial state that many proclaimed after Obama’s election, we’re now confronted with the largest racial divisions since the Civil Rights era.


Finally, I pointed out that several social psychologists have discovered a telling phenomena: When whites are made aware of the way US demographics are changing, learning that around the year 2040, whites will no longer constitute the majority in this country, as a group they tend to respond more conservatively, not just on racial issues, but on other issues such as the environment.


But what does all this have to do with literature? Well, for one thing, it raises several questions: Will white writers react to news of the coming demographic shifts and shifting political power in ways similar to other whites? How will white writers react to an increased presence of writers of color and indigenous writers in their field?


More generally, as Hemon intimated, language and literature change with changing realities. But such shifts do not occur uniformly throughout the population and do not always manifest in the same ways. And, for a variety of reasons, some refuse to accommodate or acknowledge the changing realities, and in this failure or refusal to change, their language—and their literature—becomes outdated, unable to respond to and articulate these new realities.


For an example of such resistance: It is a common literary assumption that if a character is named Ben or Louise, and that character’s race is not designated, that character must be white. White, then, is considered the universal default, the implied standard; the non-universal, the non-standard, is the character of color, the indigenous character. Most white writers don’t consciously consider this practice of unacknowledged racial identity for white characters; it’s just the way they (“naturally”) write. Nor do white writers consider such a practice political.


But it is political. In my second session, “Race & Identity in Fiction & Nonfiction,” I argued that such a practice assumes that the character’s being white is not an essential aspect of that character’s identity, is not important in understanding who that character is. Such practice also assumes that the character’s life experiences have not been significantly affected by their race.


Now, one may construct an argument that these two premises are in fact the case. However, one cannot legitimately maintain that these two premises do not constitute a political position on race. Certainly, many writers and readers of color would contest these two statements concerning the whiteness of literary characters. Most writers of color understand that while their character’s racial identity is far from the sum total of who that character is, the character cannot be understood and contextualized, their depths and complexities cannot be revealed completely, if race is absent from any consideration of who they are and what their life experiences have been. And many of us writers of color also believe the same holds true for white characters. Being white affects the experiences of white people—and thus white characters—whether white people acknowledge this or not.


If the very way our characters are introduced in fiction involve different literary and political approaches to race, it is impossible to say that discussions of race have nothing to do with literary practices, both in the creation of literature and in its evaluation. Given everything I’ve just said, it’s absurd when writers of color are told, “You writers of color write politically, while we white writers are concerned with aesthetics.” Such a division simply doesn’t exist. Though writers often like to think we exist in some Platonic realm where such concerns do not enter, that has never actually been the case. Variations on this assertion, though, continue to appear in literary classes and organizations. But we are now in a cultural moment when such previously unchallenged axioms are being critiqued for what they are—attempts to keep literature from addressing the fundamental cleavages in our society regarding race, cleavages which will increasingly become sites of conflict in the coming years. Obviously, demographics are part of this, particularly when it comes to the consideration of fundamental questions such as, “Who is an American?” and, “How shall power be distributed in this society in terms of race?”


In my session, I presented this quotation by Toni Morrison from Playing in the Dark, her study of the ways canonical white American writers have attempted to portray black characters:


For reasons that should not need explanation here, until very recently, and regardless of the race of the author, the readers of virtually all of American fiction have been positioned as white. I am interested to know what that assumption has meant to the literary imagination. When does racial “unconsciousness” or awareness of race enrich interpretive language, and when does it impoverish it? What does positing one’s writerly self, in the whole racialized society that is the United States, as unraced and all others as raced entail? What happens to the writerly imagination of a black author who is at some level always conscious of representing one’s own race to, or in spite of, a race of readers that understands itself to be “universal” or race-free? In other words, how is “literary whiteness” and “literary blackness” made, and what is the consequence of that construction?


This non-existence of a non-white reader does not only characterize the practices of past white writers like Cather or Hemingway; it also characterizes the mindset of many white writers of the present. But, as I’ve implied above, the period for white “racial ‘unconsciousness’” is coming to end, and this is happening not because of the efforts of liberal whites and artists, but because of the backlash against the increasing presence of people of color in our population and culture. As The Atlantic and other researchers have shown, whites who voted for Trump voted less because of economic interests and more for cultural reasons: They look around and feel and see that the country “isn’t like what it was when I grew up.” That is why they want to Make America Great Again—to return to a mythical past where the primacy of whiteness was unchallenged (and whites were able to do what they damned well please with people of color). For the white artist who does not want to join such voices, a number of troubling questions arise.


In her book, Morrison astutely demonstrates how white canonical authors have failed in their artistry, failed to create three-dimensional black characters. Instead, these white writers have concocted projections of their own fears and misconceptions of black people, and these projections take the form of “traditionally useful constructs of blackness” that whites in general have used to characterize and misperceive blacks. Morrison says she herself doesn’t have “access” to these tropes:


Neither blackness nor “people of color” stimulates in me notions of excessive, limitless love, anarchy, or routine dread. I cannot rely on these metaphorical shortcuts because I am a black writer struggling with and through a language that can powerfully evoke and enforce hidden signs of racial superiority, cultural hegemony, and dismissive “othering” of people and language which are by no means marginal or already and completely known and knowable in my work.”


Morrison describes here her own work. But she’s also describing a process all writers—those of color and white writers—must go through if they are going to create a language adequate to the complexity of reality and people that constitute our society, a society which is only going to become more multi-ethnic and multi-racial (not to mention other similar shifts going on with the effect of the LGBT community upon our culture and understanding of ourselves).


In their Muse session, “Beyond Almond Eyes and Chocolate Skin: Indicating Racial and Ethnic Identity,” Sonya Larson and Cynthia Gunadi explored the ways writers of color can describe their characters and indicate aspects of their identities. They used various examples from writers of color to illustrate the techniques they were highlighting, techniques which often are not presented in most workshops, since race and identity are often either absent from or consciously excluded from these workshops. I found this a particularly useful session with a handout I’ll use for my own classes. The session also closely connected to the theme in my session of the unacknowledged race of white characters: If a white writing instructor has never thought of designating the racial identity of their white characters, would that instructor be familiar with the ways writers of color address this issue?


Similar issues were brought up in “Do I Need to Explain That? On Cultural & Linguistic Translation,” with Sonya Larson, Jennifer De Leon, and Celeste Ng. As members of this panel pointed out, writers of color are often consciously or subconsciously instructed to bend their writing towards the tastes and knowledge base of the average white reader; such a pressure can keep the writer of color from focusing on their own experience of the world or that of their characters. Such pressure can also distort the author’s own voice into a search for a voice that seems more suitable to white mainstream readers. And yet, in recent years, a whole variety of works by writers of color have demonstrated myriad ways writers of color can craft their works by digging deeper into their own sense of reality and voice. In authors like Edwidge Danticat, Junot Diaz, Marlon James, or Ru Freeman, we see a fierce adherence to the voice and vision of their characters, voices and visions that are speaking to their communities first and foremost.

Sonya Larson, Celeste Ng, and Jennifer De Leon share a laugh during their session, "Do I Need to Explain That?"

With both “Who Are We When We’re At Home: the Black Experience in Boston,” and Isabel Wilkerson’s talk on The Warmth of Other Suns, it was clear that the role of race in our history is essential to understanding race in the present moment. By implication, then, no American writer can do justice to the complexity of present day American reality without a knowledge of this history, and certainly, of the literary portion of that history. At the same time, a writer in the present, like Palestinian-American writer Randa Jarrar, can write from her sense of the now and alter our picture of Arab women both in the past and in the present. Beyond this, her stories, including her ribald and psychologically astute “The Sailor,” which she read in her session, demonstrates how effectively a brilliant wit and humor can win over readers and open up our sense of what is possible in literature.

 Author Isabel Wilkerson, giving the Mid-Muse Keynote.

At the Saturday evening gathering for writers, editors, and agents of color, I had the sense of a new community of writers of color being created here in Boston. Many of the writers spoke of the freedom and energy they felt from simply being in a room with other writers of color; others spoke of difficult experiences in workshops or in educational or literary institutions where their voices, their practices, and their traditions, were either not considered or were marginalized (a la Junot Diaz’s New Yorker article, “POC vs. MFA”). Sonya Larson, GrubStreet’s Assistant Director of the Muse, spoke about how this first track for writers of color at the Muse Conference came about and her vision for this track. Certainly, it’s hard not to see this new track as part of the decision to incorporate social justice as part of GrubStreet’s mission. I think many of the writers in the room sensed that we ourselves and the literary world are in a moment of transition and conflict regarding the issues of race. In this way, the success of the track for writers of color at the Muse Conference both signaled a call for more attention to these issues and previewed what is going to be happening more and more in the literary world in the coming years.


David Mura is a poet, memoirist, fiction writer, critic, playwright and performance artist. A Sansei or third generation Japanese American, Mura has written two memoirs: Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei, which won a 1991 Josephine Miles Book Award from the Oakland PEN and was a New York Times Notable Book of Year, and Where the Body Meets Memory: An Odyssey of Race, Sexuality and Identity. His novel Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire was a finalist for the Minnesota Book Award, the John Gardner Fiction Prize and Virginia Commonwealth University Cabell First Novelist Award. 

Mura’s most recent book of poetry is The Last Incantations, published by Northwestern University Press. His other poetry books: Angels for the Burning; The Colors of Desire, which won the Carl Sandburg Literary Award from the Friends of the Chicago Public Library; and After We Lost Our Way, a 1989 National Poetry Series Contest winner. His critical essays, Song for Uncle Tom, Tonto & Mr. Moto: Poetry & Identity, were published in the U. of Michigan Press Poets on Poetry series (2002). His next book will be on creative writing, A Stranger’s Journey: Race, Identity & Narrative Craft in Writing

Mura currently teaches in the Stonecoast MFA program and the VONA Writers’ Conference. He is Director of Training for the Innocent Classroom, a program designed to address the racial achievement gap by training teachers to improve their relationships with students of color.


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