So that happened. Let’s start at the beginning. VONA Voices, the link Angie was sharing, is a program that supports and nurtures writers of color. For one week in June/July writers from across the country travel to the University of Pennsylvania and participate in writing workshops. Fiction, poetry, memoir, political content, graphic novel, and more, all taught by established writers of color: Patricia Smith, Kiese Laymon, Junot Diaz, Willie Perdomo, just to name a few. It is the only program of its kind in the country. The only one.
Let me tell you a little more. I’ve attended gifted and specialized schools since I was ten. I cannot remember reading a writer who wasn’t white until I was about fifteen and out of my own curiosity, not school curriculum, picked up Piri Thomas‘ Down These Mean Streets. I was living in East Harlem where his book was set. This wasn’t Holden Caulfield’s New York. I could walk down to 115th and Lexington and stand on the same corner Piri stood. It gave me a sense of history and importance, of connection and continuity. It was as if a blank spot on a map had been drawn.
Every reader or writer of color remembers the moment they realized stories took place in neighborhoods like theirs, to people that looked and sounded like them. Before that moment, you are an outsider. Non-existent. It’s almost worse than solely reading tragic stories about people like you because at least in those you exist. Reading a predominantly white literary canon, as a person of color, you are a voyeur peeking into the collective imagination where you don’t get to play. It’s when you see yourself reflected in the books you love so much that you are conjured into existence.
My writing peers that are more well-versed and eloquent at describing racial politics and US history can better explain why it is by definition impossible for us to segregate ourselves. Why the “if I did x thing for whites” logic is flawed. (It’s the “if” that gets me because whatever the x is describing already is and always has been). My friends in MFA programs can explain how their experience differs vastly from their white counterparts.
What I can tell you is that if you sat in the lounge on that Sunday evening when VONA holds orientation, you would feel integration rather than a segregation. All the pieces that are suppressed, silenced, separated from each of us, all the ways in which we are divided and sub-divided from each other every single day, for one week we get to climb into this intensely beautiful hyperbaric chamber and take a collective breath.
This only makes it exceedingly clear as to why it’s important to hold these spaces, like VONA. Because someone will always come along to tell you to get over it, every sling and arrow, and move on. And in essence, that just means shut the fuck up. Your pain, your experience, what you grapple with isn’t worth anything, you are not worth accountability. You are not valuable enough to see yourself in the world, much less be seen by the world.
What if we could write a different plot point to this story? How satisfying would it be if something great came out of this, like the books, stories, plays, poems of tomorrow’s bookshelf? What if we could use this opportunity to say no. No, we refuse to continue swallowing our words. No, we will not be made to feel guilty about the desire to express our experience, to be seen, to exist in every facet of society and nurture that desire how we see fit.
If you felt anything twist inside of you when you read that conversation earlier, hold a door open when others would rather see it close:
Nia Nicole will be in Tanarive Due’s Speculative Fiction class, working on an original post-apocalyptic story about her hometown, Baltimore City.
Salima Harimani says, “Before VONA I’d only written in secret, trying to figure out what it meant to be a writer, and I fumbled along trying to create the kind of literature I’d wanted to read when I was young.”
Danielle Buckingham is a graduate student at the University of Mississippi who will be workshopping essay with Kiese Laymon.
Chido Muchemwa says, “I’ve been writing short stories and essays since I was six, but I never considered it as a career until I read Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah at age seventeen. Despite the fact that I grew up in Zimbabwe, I had never read a book by a non-Zimbabwean African writer until that point. I thought that Africa had no tales to tell me. Instead, I read books about England, America, stories with people who led lives that looked nothing like my own.”
Aurielle Marie is “a Queer Black woman and a teacher, poet, and a community organizer in the larger movement for Black Lives.”
The Angelique Rodriguez is returning to VONA. “If you know me, you know that I am a writer and always have been. This year, I began the #52Essays2017 essay writing challenge and completely connected with it. I have been pretty consistent with the challenge and am super excited that I am producing so much work. With that being said, I took a big chance applying for the Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation’s summer workshops at the University of Pennsylvania to work with the renowned Kiese Laymon. And I GOT IN!”
Kimarlee Nguyen says, “Growing up, the knowledge of my family’s survival during the Khmer Rouge has always existed in the periphery of my knowledge; I knew that my parent weren’t immigrants, but refugees and that they survived a major war. It wasn’t until I was older than I learned the depth of horror and cruelty that my family witness during the Khmer Rouge. I also knew that their stories were important, precious and needed to be told. This is one of the main reasons I began to write – to tell my stories and the stories of those who looked like me.”
Shirley Huey says, “I write in the intersections of food, culture, place, and histor(ies), personal and political: about growing up in San Francisco in the 80s–shopping with my grandmother in Chinatown, going to see movies at the Great Star, and the delicious flaky pie crusts at Sun Wah Kue bakery.”
Annie Vy Trinh with be studying under Evelina Galang and writing about Asian and Asian-American women.
Jabari Jawan is a poet and teaching artist from the south-side of Chicago trying to get to VONA and Prague.
Christina Marable is a second year MFA student at Old Dominion University.
Zhayra Palma is headed to Hedgebrook, Lambda, and VONA.