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 Miami and participate in writing workshops. Fiction, poetry, memoir, political content, graphic novel, and more, all taught by established writers of color: Elmaz Abinader, Evelina Galang, Tananarive Due, Chris Abani, David Mura, Junot Diaz, and more. 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 schools since I was ten. Eight Nobel Prize winners and seven Pulitzer Prize winners graduated from my high school. Vice presidential candidates, politicians, business and finance magnates graduated from my alma mater. A decent education. 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 because I was living in East Harlem where his book was set. I couldn’t believe I was reading pages that were usually reserved for settings like merry Old England, the American South, deserted islands. This wasn’t Holden Caulfield’s New York either. 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.
Everyone has a memory about 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. My friend Angie did a fine job of breaking it down earlier.
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.
This all only makes it exceedingly clear as to why it’s important to hold these spaces, like VONA. Someone will always come along to tell you to get over it, every sling and arrow, and move on. That just means shut the fuck up. That your pain, your experience, what you grapple with isn’t worth anything. 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 ending 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 choking on silence. 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.