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Your View: With VONA, writers of color finally have a home in Miami

Dana De Greff is a Master in Fine Arts candidate in fiction at University of Miami. She also writes book reviews for The Miami Herald, is a freelance arts journalist, teaches poetry with O, Miami to children in Liberty City, and is working with Voice of Our Nation Arts Foundation (VONA/Voices) in community outreach.

When I moved back to Miami from Patagonia a few years ago, I wanted more time with family, a job, and a writing community. I got the first two quickly, but the latter was a bit more difficult.

Miami isn’t devoid of a literary arts community. We have the Miami Book Fair International, O, Miami, The Center for Writing and Literature at Miami Dade College, Books & Books, and quality MFA programs at University of Miami and Florida International University. However, for a city this big, the options are limited. And the opportunities that do exist don’t reflect the diversity of this city, whether we’re talking age, race, or socioeconomic status.

As exciting as it is to go to festivals, author readings, and participate in writing classes, when you’re constantly surrounded by the dominant culture, it takes a toll. I’m Latina and Jewish, and having so few like me around can be alienating, and quite frankly, depressing. I love this city, but there’s a disconnect that prevents people of color from taking advantage of the options, especially when it comes to Millennials.

This is why when I found out last summer that Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation (VONA/Voices) was moving from San Francisco to Miami to make a home at UM, I geeked out. Hard. VONA is the brainchild of literary luminaries Diem Jones, Elmaz Abinader, Junot Díaz, and Victor Díaz and is the only writers’ conference in the country with a multi-genre focus on writers of color as both students and teachers. They offer classes in everything from fiction and poetry to travel writing, speculative fiction, and political content. They set out to break the mold.

Dominican author Junot Díaz is best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. He has also also published short story collections, the most recent being This is How You Lose Her. When I asked him via email for his impression of the move to Miami, he said, “The community support was extraordinary and of course the participants were the ones who brought the magic. We are simply an opportunity for these artists of color to weave their genius, and to be in the presence of such talent is to be on the receiving end of a great gift.”

If this is starting to sound like a love letter to VONA, well, it is in a way. VONA has brought some of the most accomplished writers of color to our doorstep, fostering a sense of community that cannot be found anywhere else in the US.

During VONA’s first public reading in Miami in June 2015, I turned around to look at the crowd. The faces I saw are what Miami looks like to me – young and old, black and brown, non-students – not what you see on television, movies, or glossy magazines.

The real Miami is made up of many voices, many colors, and many experiences – and VONA brings them all out.

Beverly Tan Murray, an alumna of VONA who participated in the travel writing class last summer with author Faith Adiele, described it as such:

“It’s like being obsessed with Harry Potter all your life, not having anyone understand why you do what you do, and then showing up at Universal Studios and losing your shit. Suddenly, there’s a tribe of people that gets you. Writing can be a lonely endeavor, but writing as an immigrant and a person of color is especially isolating. Constantly shape-shifting through the dominant narrative is exhausting. Until VONA, I didn’t feel a sense of belonging, never knew there was a place for writers like me.”

Miami is damn lucky to have VONA, but VONA is also lucky to have Miami. We have the opportunity to foster the next great immigrant writers, writers on the margin, writers who’ve been forgotten, writers who are told they don’t stand a chance, writers who have to work three jobs, writers who have to explain why they won’t use italics or translate a word, writers of color who want to write about more than color, writers who are done with fear, done with defending their work.

Find out more about VONA/Voices and apply for the 2016 summer workshop here. The deadline is March 15.

Follow De Greff on Twitter at @DanaDeGreff.