VONA offers space for color in a mostly white industry

As an Indian writer in Miami, there’s exactly one person I know that looks like me and has the same job title. And I see her every morning in the mirror. That’s why it was so exciting to learn that another Indian-American writer was heading to Miami — and a pretty awesome one at that.

Chitra Divakaruni, a prominent Indian-American author, professor, and poet, was one of the many writers of color coming here for VONA, Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation, a nationally renowned writing program.

It was was started in San Francisco, almost two decades ago by Junot Díaz and other writers of color. Last year it moved to Miami to make a new home at UM, which is a huge coup for our literary arts scene.

VONA’s community outreach rep Dana De Greff put it best in a Your View she wrote for The New Tropic a few months ago:

“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.”

Teachers as well as students have been giving talks and reading their work all around Miami. If you’ve yet to see a reading, you’ve got one more chance. There will be one tomorrow at Books & Books in Coral Gables.  

We talked to a couple of the teachers and asked them why they are part of the VONA community and what it means to be a writer of color in a predominantly white industry.

Daniel José Older (Courtesy of John Midgley)

Daniel José Older (Courtesy of John Midgley)

Daniel José Older

Fantasy and young-adult fiction writer

On being a writer of color in a white industry:

In an industry where the vast majority are white, whether that’s editorial or publishing, those are the people who have power and privilege in the final product. Whether that’s the cover, the content, the narrative arc, the conversations in the book. A book is a product of a community.

If you’re the only writer of color and everyone else is white, there are going to be issues of what characters survive and get edited out, what clichés you try not to reproduce, what the characters look like, how the book is marketed, and what kind of approach they are taking. All of those things are are all difficult enough questions and once race gets involved it becomes much more difficult. Then, if you have to talk about other languages that’s all so complex. There’s no playbook, no atlas to guide your way.

That said, it’s important to be able to take pushback if it feels editorially sound. And it doesn’t mean that no white editor should edit your work, if they have great critique and feedback and know the limits of their understanding of things. One of my editors said she’s on Urbandictionary.com the whole time she’s editing my work. I appreciate that — she just rolls with it and tries to learn more.

What happens is that because the publishing industry is so white, historically it hasn’t been interested in talking about race in meaningful way. Not until it’s forced to. Generally, it’s writers of color who are forcing the industry to talk about race.

On magic:

Shadowshaper is the piece I’m best known for, it was a book that was rejected 40 times, but now it’s a New York Times bestseller. It’s a young adult urban fantasy set in modern-day Brooklyn about a character that draws murals and brings them to life. We have a lot of books about people of color, but they’re usually are restricted to “issues” books. And those are important, but it’s a problem when that’s the only way you see us.

You don’t have a lot of urban fantasy books and mysteries with characters of color saving the world. You need to be able to see our world in a magical realm. I mean don’t get me wrong, I  love Harry Potter, but I’m tired of the same old white dudes saving the world or having the magic.

I think a book can give permission to say “Hey, I didn’t even realize we could be in fantasy. Let me write my own fantasy about folks that look like me. A whole new mythology. I can be a protagonist, and it’s not just about tragedy. It’s about magic.”

Courtesy of Kiese Laymon

Courtesy of Kiese Laymon

Kiese Laymon

Essayist and novelist

There’s a ton of value. You get some of the best writers in the country all sharing a space in time together. A lot of these writers are often the only writers of color in their schools or workshops.

In writing communities it’s important for writers of color to be in a room with each other. A place where you don’t have to necessarily defend your writing to a group of mostly white people. There’s nothing wrong with mostly white spaces, but if you’ve been writing for 10 to 15 years most spaces you write in are 90 percent white.

On explaining blackness:

In these spaces if you’re the only black or brown person you have to spend a lot of time explaining things to people because they don’t have any idea of where you’re coming from.

For example, I was in a workshop where one of my characters was joking with another character about how ashy they looked and most of the white people in the class, my instructor included, said “you need to explain to everyone what ashiness is and why black communities in Mississippi talk about it.” I didn’t understand why I needed to explain that.

You only have so much space in a story and in my mind, I wasn’t writing a thesis about lotion and ashiness. I just wanted to throw one funny line in the piece.

That’s a small example, but if you’re working with a group of people who share your background, it can help your writing if you don’t have to explain the same thing every time in your work. You can explain more complex things.

On humanity in color:

You have to decide when you’re going to synthesize your imagination and when you’re not. There’s something in stories and essays you need to explain for whoever the reader is. When I was a student, people would talk about my black characters and say “I don’t know how you did it, this character really felt human to me.”

I don’t understand why people are surprised by the humanity of this color. It’s important to write in communities of color and create characters that are multifaceted. Black or brown characters with humanity and complexity should not be an exception.

Photo courtesy of Chitra Divakaruni

Photo courtesy of Chitra Divakaruni

Chitra Divakaruni

Author and poet

On having space:

I think it is so valuable for writers of color to have their own space where they can bring up concerns and have them looked at in a serious way. They don’t have to feel apologetic. VONA is a safe space but also a place to be challenged and to grow. That’s why people come back year after year.

On the immigrant experience:

My own immigration experiences pushed me to become a writer and make sense of the changes going on in my life, both positive and negative. Writing was a way I could tell people about what I was going through. I was feeling excited and displaced, I moved to America in the late 1970s when I was 19 years old. I didn’t know where I belonged in this culture. I wanted  to know how to integrate the Indian and American parts of of my identity.  

I was an Indian-American creative. When my book started getting published in the early 1990s there weren’t many of us. Now I see many more Indian people going into the creative fields. Before, it was mostly a community of engineers, doctors, and businessmen. A lot of people would look at me strangely.

Even now when I go to writers’ gatherings, I feel like an outsider in both of those communities. You just have to learn to live with it.  When I’m an outsider, my brain goes into writer mode and so I start observing and gathering materials, so I guess for writers it’s not a bad thing to be an outsider. Being an outsider helps you examine things. When I first moved to America I questioned a lot of things that people would never question. And when I moved away from India I questioned a lot of things about India, too.

But of course we all want and long for community and that’s why we have VONA.

On writing from the margins:

What’s special about being a writer of color is that you’re often writing from the margins. The less examined spaces. You have a lot of original viewpoints and ideas that question the assumptions that the mainstream makes.

It’s a different way of looking at the world. A valuable way. It helps change prejudices, it’s a way for us to open the doors and let other people create community, understanding, and appreciation of diversity. It’s important for people of color to be present in art in a serious and complex manner.