AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

These days, self publishing may be all the rage. Still, for many writers, the holy Grail remains a contract with one of the major publishing houses. And one possible shortcut into that world is being accepted into a prestigious MFA program in writing. But these elite programs have a history steeped in whiteness that can make writers of color feel unwelcome.

JUNOT DIAZ: Things have not kept up with the absolute transformation of our society.

CORNISH: That's best-selling author, Junot Diaz. He recently caused a stir when he blasted MFA programs for being too white in an article for The New Yorker. That led NPR's Lynn Neary to wonder just how racially diverse the publishing industry is. We'll hear about what she found today and tomorrow. Today, how writers of color cope with the whiteness of elite writing programs.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: MFA writing programs can be expensive and hard to get into, says Junot Diaz. But they can also be well worth the time and effort for a would-be writer.

DIAZ: It certainly ain't bad for you, you know, especially the more prestigious institution that you get attached. It creates all sorts of opportunities. An MFA program can be incredibly valuable.

NEARY: Diaz enrolled in a program at Cornell University 20 years ago. He doesn't think much has changed since then.

DIAZ: There's nothing about creative writing programs that I've seen that leads me to believe that, in general - that the diversity found at the institutional level even begins to equal the diversity, not only of our just country, but of our readerships.

NEARY: Around the same time Diaz was at Cornell, Lan Samantha Chang was a student at the Iowa Writers Workshop. Back then, the head of the program was writer Frank Conroy, who gave Chang some advice. If you don't want to be typecast, don't keep writing stories about Chinese-American characters. Chang didn't resent the advice, but she couldn't follow it.

LAN SAMANTHA CHANG: Because it was only by writing about Asian-American characters that I had been able to access whatever it was that made me write in the first place - that my voice was entirely driven by subject matter at that time in my life and that there was not way I could've written about anything else - that those were the stories I wanted to tell. And I was sort of - for better, for worse - stuck with my subject matter.

NEARY: Chang says she was still finding her own voice. And now that she's director of the Iowa Writers Workshop, she encourages young writers to do the same. Iowa is one of the oldest MFA writing programs, and before Chang, all of the directors were white men. The program is so respected, Chang says, they have to turn away some of the editors and agents who are eager to hunt for new talent there. Graduates of Iowa often become well-known writers or editors or teachers.

CHANG: Because we're large - because we're the oldest - because we have such high quality students, the people who come to our program have a great impact on the conversation about literature that takes place after they leave.

NEARY: That conversation, says Chang, needs to reflect the world we live in. So she had made it a priority to attract more diverse students and faculty to her program. One young writer whose application got her attention about six years ago was Justin Torres.

CHANG: He said something like I'm a queer Latino writer, and he has this extraordinary talent. Justin got into a million MFA programs.

NEARY: And Chang was determined to woo Torres to Iowa. But he wasn't so sure.

JUSTIN TORRES: A lot of my kind of reservations and hesitations were about the diversity of the program and the diversity of the town. And I was, like, coming from Brooklyn as a queer Puerto Rican. And I was just nervous about what it would be like to, like, move to Iowa City. And sometimes it's just exhausting to go - and you're just like - if you just know you're going to go into a room of all middle class, straight white people. You're just automatically that other.

NEARY: Torres decided he might need his own support system in Iowa. So he convinced his close friend, African American writer Ayana Mathis, to move with him. The next year, Mathis got into the workshop, as well. Both say that Chang has done a lot to make the program more welcoming to people of color. Even so, both had moments of frustration. Mathis remembers a time when the class was discussing her work.

AYANA MATHIS: One of the characters is sort of referred to as having something like almond skim - something like this - but something that would identify the character as being black. There was a person in a workshop who said that they had been sort of reading happily up to that point and then, suddenly, they began to feel that they were reading a story about race - which somehow invalidated what they had been reading up to that point, you know? So things like that certainly happened.

TORRES: And make you want to pull your hair out.

MATHIS: And make you want to pull your hair out.

NEARY: But the gamble on Iowa paid off for both of them. After graduating, Torres published his first novel, "We then Animals" to critical acclaim. Mathis's debut novel, "the Twelve Tribes of Hattie" was chosen for Oprah Winfrey's book club. Mathis will be returning to Iowa as a member of the faculty.

MATHIS: I would like to think that Knopf would've published my novel if I had had a completely different experience and a completely different agent and never went to Iowa. I don't know if that would be the case or if it wouldn't be. So it's really transformative, in terms of a writer's prospects. And so if there isn't a real representation of writers of color who are able to take advantage of that kind of access - that's a problem.

NEARY: Finding a supportive writing program wasn't easy for Bushra Rehman, a Pakistani American writer who grew up in a Muslim community in Queens, New York. Rehman's first novel, "Corona," which took five years to get published, is named for the neighborhood in Queens where she lived with her family.

BUSHRA REHMAN: (Unintelligible) over here is where I was thinking one place we could sit.

NEARY: Settled at a table in a restaurant in nearby Jackson Heights, Rehman talks about her own experience in an MFA program at Brooklyn College. Anti-Muslim sentiment was strong in the aftermath of of 9/11, and she felt her classmates did not understand her work. It took her six years to finish the program because she kept dropping out. But it gave her the opportunity to work with writers like Michael Cunningham and Susan Choi. So she always returned.

REHMAN: I did learn about the craft of fiction the hard way. I was able to deal with all the rejection once I started to publish my book because I knew - I had already dealt with it in the classroom. So there's a little bit of, like, stubbornness that definitely was encouraged in me there. Stubbornness takes a lot of energy and can be exhausting, which is why I think it's very, very important to have another community outside of the MFA program.

NEARY: Rehman found that sense of community in the Asian American Writers Workshop. There, she found others who got her and her work.

REHMAN: There was so much less competition because everyone was is excited to hear references that they understand. So I had fellow Asian-American writers, you know, just saying, God, that is so funny, you know, and my mom does that. And so they were having just, like, such a catharsis from hearing my work, and it was the opposite of competition. It was please write more so that I can laugh more.

NEARY: The Asian American Writers Workshop is in a big Manhattan loft that's lined with shelves filled with books. They're not all written by Asian writers, Ken Chen points out. He's a poet and executive director of the workshop.

KEN CHEN: I kind of think about a lot of what we do as trying to create an ethnic counterculture.

NEARY: All kinds of writers are welcome at the workshop, Chen says, but it does focus on mentoring Asian-American writers.

CHEN: And the point of the workshop, in terms of creating an alternate space, is not to remind people that they're Asian but to remind them that they're human. It's to normalize them. So if mainstream culture's actually the place that's coming through and saying, you look different - you know, using sticks - you have a strange accent. I can't pronounce your name - where you're constantly marked by how different you are. The point of an alternative art space, like the workshop, is to continually say, you are normal. You're find the way you are. Tell your story or tell a story that has nothing to do with you. And you can tell whatever story you want to tell.

NEARY: For many young writers from different ethnic backgrounds, it comes down to this. They believe the diversity they experience in their daily lives should be reflected in the books they read and the stories they write. And if a culture that supports that doesn't exist yet, they are willing to create it. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

CORNISH: Tomorrow, Lynn reports on the culture of the publishing industry - how it has changed and how it stayed the same.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Discussions about race, ethnicity and culture tend to get dicey quickly, so we hold our commenters on Code Switch to an especially high bar. We may delete comments we think might derail the conversation. If you're new to Code Switch, please read over our FAQ and NPR's Community Guidelines before commenting. We try to notify commenters individually when we remove their comments, but given that we receive a high volume of comments, we may not always be able to get in touch. If we've removed a comment you felt was a thoughtful and valuable addition to the conversation, please don't hesitate to get in touch with us by emailing codeswitch@npr.org.