Liquid Stories: Writing & Teaching the Personal as a POC in White Literary Spaces
by Freda Epum
In a meeting with a prominent prize-winning author, she asked me, “Are you sure this really happened the way you think it did?” I was writing a series of poems confronting microaggressions I experience as a woman of color in predominantly white spaces. It was a poem about getting a flu shot in which the nurse focused on my dark skin noting that she “could not see the blood.” At the time, I was merely excited by the opportunity to meet with such a prominent author that it did not hit me that I was in fact talking to an older white woman with very different life experiences. The critique was short, “seems like you know what you’re doing.” I felt dismissed. Of course the black girl knows how to write about the black things. It was fitting.
Throughout my short time in the literary world, I’ve been faced with the idea that I either do not write “black enough” or “African enough,” or that it’s too black, too personal to be judged on a craft level. In a skit by comedian Nicole Byer, a casting agent tells her hesitantly, “can you do it a little blacker?” She cycles through “In Living Color black, Urkel black, and Oprah black,” finally with the casting agent ending with the line, “that’s the blackest we’ve seen all day.” Zora Neale Hurston’s “What White Publishers Won’t Print,” reads, “[It seems impossible] that a great mass of Negroes can be stirred by the pageants of Spring and Fall; the extravaganza of summer, and the majesty of winter… As it is now, this capacity, this evidence of high and complicated emotions, is ruled out.” It is clear that there is a certain level of expectation of what it means to be a person of color. And more so to perform as one.
Being a person of color in white literary spaces has been written about extensively. In Junot Diaz’s “MFA vs. POC,” he writes: “in my workshop we never talked about race except on the rare occasion someone wanted to argue that ‘race discussions’ were exactly the discussion a serious writer should not be having.”* In my MFA program, I was lucky enough to have classmates unlike Diaz’s. We discussed race and read works by authors of color across the gender and sexual orientation spectrum. My white classmates were intentional, not glossing over issues of race while also considering more deeply their own privilege. However, I longed for a place where I was not the only Black women in the room or one of three or two people of color. I longed for a community in which my cultural background did not to be explained. In my Rhetoric and Composition pedagogy course we emphasized listening to “multiple perspectives.” This to me, proved fruitless. The at-times-more-liberal English department did not exist in a vacuum, shielded away from the white conservative midwestern undergraduates. To entertain the idea of multiple perspectives, that meant to include harmful dominant narratives. As an educator, this proved to be most apparent in the composition courses I taught as opposed to the creative writing courses. In my composition courses I took the onus to direct my students away from topics such as “the right for the Redskins to keep their mascot,” or “what Colin Kaepernick got wrong.” In my creative writing courses, the challenge was getting students to understand the works of writers of color that interrogated their world view.
Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place, a work of creative nonfiction, tells a story of the island of Antigua and the tourists that take over the place making it inhospitable for native Antiguans. While teaching this work my students and I had a fruitful discussion about what it means to be a tourist, intruding, and coming into a space that is not your own. In my class I referenced the quote, “the personal is political.” I’ve used that phrase to speak to apathetic apolitical eighteen-year-olds about the importance of being an ally and advocate for others, and here I used it to speak to the merits of creative nonfiction for political discourse. There was some push back to this in which students stated that the author “wasn’t really doing anything.” As if anything other than direct action didn’t contribute to the struggle.
In these moments, I try to look to the lone one or two students of color in my class. What are they thinking? How can I make them more comfortable? Marginalized students are often asked to perform or serve as the sole narrator of a collective experience. These students are asked to write towards narratives of “neutrality,” as well as receive feedback by peers that necessitates the need for approval or “believability.” I keep in mind Ngũgĩ, Liyong, and Owuor-Anyumba’s discussion of academic institutions. “If there is a need for the ‘study of the historic continuity of a single culture’ why can’t this be African? Why can’t African literature be at the center so that we can view other cultures in relationship to it?”
The poems I had submitted for review were titled, “The Interesting Subject,” was written as a response to daily microaggressions in which the scene of these events are reimagined to include a response or refutation of the event. This piece was originally inspired by Donna Kate Rushin’s “the bridge poem.” Rushin’s work, reiterates the lamentation, “I am sick of…” Her work speaks to Robin Boylorn’s discussion of tiredness as it relates to the daily lived experiences of Black women. “Tiredness might not be an emotion, but it is affect. I feel it, I sense it, it exists on the surface of my skin and underneath, it contours my relationships—political, professional, and personal.” “The Interesting Subject” subsumes the identity of a Black woman as she navigates predominantly white institutions and spaces of everyday life. In addition to Rushin’s work, the structure is informed by Brittney Cooper’s, Susana Morris’, and Robin Boylorn’s exploration of clapbacks in the Crunk Feminist Collection. A clapback “refers to a rhetorically combative way of responding to people who criticize—or in contemporary parlance, shade—you.” Shade in the context of my series of poems is theorized as the insidious nature of microaggressions which can be defined as everyday verbal and nonverbal derogatory acts or communications against a member of a marginalized group.
I wonder to myself, what could I have said to that prize winning poet? What would be the appropriate response instead of meekly turning away at the end of the encounter? I returned to a familiar resource, “De-Canon: A Visibility Project,” which works to put forth “multiple canons,” that are “multi-storied in their-storied approach.” According to Neil Aitken of De-Canon, “At the heart of the MFA vs POC discussion is the contention that any discussion of craft does not take place in a vacuum—that race is part of one’s lived experience and how we see ourselves and are seen does impact how and what we write.” I wish I would have said this to the poet. I wish I could write this on every cover letter I send out to lit magazines. Print it on T-Shirt and post up at a table at AWP with a sign that says, “ask me about my black girl writing.”
In Teaching Queer, Stacey Waite explains, “I do not believe the story of my scholarship is separate from the story of my life or the body I live.” What would happen if we wrote and performed and lived and taught with our bodies at the center of all of our interactions? Perhaps then Byer’s character would not be called on to perform blackness but it would be accepted that it is inherent to her everyday experience. It’s possible that what I am calling for as a writer teaching writing is the hope of emphasizing “alternative epistemologies,” as Waite would put it. It was not until I attended the VONA/Voices of Our Nation residency for writers of color that I had the opportunity to experience the multistoried writing by POC in real time. At VONA I was allowed to see the merits of placing writers color at the center as opposed to hearing discussions of POC authors’ work through the lenses of many largely white experiences. The importance of this lies in instances where I have had to explain my Nigerian-American background to all white audiences; when literary magazines assume a piece of my writing is talking about blackness when it does nothing of the sort; when I desire another Black girl to James Baldwin, and Camille Dungy, and the best place to buy natural hair products in a white college town.
It has been said by scholars of “queer of color critique” that the experience of people of color is inherently queer—alternative, against-the-grain, nonnormative, nonlinear, “other.” Perhaps that could be why Waite’s words resonated with me. In hopes that students and teachers alike may develop possibilities for writing, knowing, and becoming that are, “or could be, queer.” All of us teachers and students of writing could benefit from the concept of teaching queer—through embodied teaching and embodied writing. There is fear in teaching from a queer body and even so being taught from one. Waite writes about teaching queer texts to her students and her emotional response, “I also understood the ways I, too, felt terrorized by him—he’s not going to feel bad for them. It’s the ‘them’ that’s terrifying. It’s seeing myself as this student’s ‘them’.” I, too, experienced fear, that my students could sense the pain in my voice of being marked clearly as a “them,” and not an “us.” After reading Lorde’s “Transformation from Silence to Action,” one of my students stated that she “just wants us to feel sorry for her because she is black and gay.”
Waite calls for her students to imagine queer kinds of arguments, those which involve “learning how to move around, fluidly, among other voices, how to make arguments that do something more nuanced, more complicated than agreement or disagreement.” This is what I sought from my students but also from other writers I’ve come into contact with. I want them to embrace a new pedagogy for living. For us all to be looked at as teachers and students who create texts for living and walk around as living texts—walking multi-storied bodies—to embrace the notion as written by Jean Bessette that, “some ways of reading make some ways of being livable and legible, and how others participate in their erasure.” Our perspective around our own identities and in relation to others should be “liquid,” capable of embracing movement. Movement that strays away from performances of supposed identity markers (be blacker as the casting director says); away from binary critiques of writing as an insufficient act of resistance; away from the fear of embracing our queer bodies via “us,” vs. “them,” ideologies. Movement towards being, living, hearing and seeing people as multistoried.
* – I should note that I’m not here to discuss Diaz’s negative contribution to the Me Too movement and his reprehensible actions but the space created for writers of color via the VONA/Voices of Our Nation workshop.
Byer, Nicole. “Be Blacker: a SKETCH from UCB Comedy.” YouTube, YouTube, 14 Feb. 2013, www.youtube.com/watch?v=PefZk3q0U_U.
Junot Díaz, “MFA vs. POC,” Oberlin College Library – Omeka Projects, accessed July 23, 2019, http://www.oberlinlibstaff.com/omeka_projects/items/show/88.
Cooper, Brittney C., et al. The Crunk Feminist Collection. New York City : Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2017, 2017.
Hurston, Zora Neale. “What White Publishers Won’t Print, Negro Digest, 1950), 3.
Kincaid, Jamaica. A Small Place. New York, N.Y: Penguin, 1988. Print.
Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider : Essays and Speeches. Trumansburg, NY : Crossing Press, c1984, 1984.
Ngugi Wâ Thiong’o, Taban Lo Liyong, and Henry Owuor-Anyumba, ‘On the Abolition of the English Department’, p. 2096.
Rushin, Donna Kate. “The Bridge Poem.” This Bridge Called My Back : Writings by Radical Women of Color. New York : Kitchen Table, Women of Color Press, c1983, 1983.
Steinmetz, Katy. (2014-08-13). “Oxford Dictionary Additions: Hot Mess, Side Boob, Throw Shade.” Time.com. Retrieved 2018-12-14.
Waite, Stacey. Teaching Queer: Radical Possibilities for Writing and Knowing. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2017. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1r33q4d.
Freda Epum (FREE-DUH EYY-POOM) is a Nigerian-American writer and artist from Tucson, AZ. Her work has been published or is forthcoming from Entropy, Bending Genres, Cosmonauts Avenue, Heavy Feather Review, Nat.Brut, Third Coast, Atticus Review, Rogue Agent, and the 2020 Bending Genres Anthology. She received her MFA from Miami University in Oxford, OH. A 2018 Voices of Our Nation/VONA fellow, her work has also been supported by the Anderson Center and the Jordan Goodman Prize. She is the author of two chapbooks, Input/Output (Tanline Printing) with Amanda Beekhiuzen-Williams and Entryways into memories that might assemble me (Iron Horse Literary Review). She is at work on her first book and lives in Cincinnati.