Danielle Evans on Talking Privilege While in Graduate School

By Thea Lim

From “Smart Conversations about MFA Programs” – though I believe you can apply Danielle Evans’ thoughts to many different academic programs:

4)      We should be able to have real conversations about privilege

We should be able to talk about both privilege within MFA programs and privilege that MFA programs grant attendants in the world at large. In workshop, I have seen women get talked over by men with louder voices, people of color pegged as militant for fairly pointing out a racist element in a story, even if they are echoing a critique made by white students, men praised for their empathy and ability to channel women’s voices in stories that would be dismissed as chick lit if they were turned in by female writers. More often though, I’ve seen a sort of benign neglect of work that gets pegged as “exotic,” – because of the author or characters’ class or ethnic background. I’ve seen people be very hands off on stories that needed a lot of work, because they weren’t quite sure what to do with them. It can be hard to get critical feedback from people who lack familiarity with the world you’re writing about…

I’ve also seen people argue with native speakers about words and phrases in other languages. Someone who had taken a few years of Spanish once insisted the word mija did not exist. For problems that are literally issues of the writer and the critic not speaking the same language,  there might not be much we can do beyond acknowledge it. However, at the level of character  motivation, we can be more insistent that workshop readers not assume the character’s race/class/sexuality explains why they make decisions the reader would never make, and not let demographic details stand in for actual characterization.  MFA programs didn’t invent hegemony, but that doesn’t mean they’re not an important place to look for ways to stop reproducing it.

…It’s terrifying to talk about privilege. It’s especially terrifying in an industry where everyone at every level often seems precariously situated. But we have to do it not just because we all ought to care about inequities, but because we all ought to care about writing—not just our own writing, not just the fact of bring writers, but the overall state of the art form. If we’re not invested in the idea that words still really matter, that books still really matter, and that accordingly we ought to have the best books and the best words, wherever they come from, then we deserve to be irrelevant.

In other news, Danielle Evans has a short story collection called Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self coming out in September. She explains the genesis for her title thusly:

The title and epigraph of Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self come from The Bridge Poem by Donna Kate Rushin, originally published in the anthology This Bridge Called My Back…The section on translation, in particular, was really meaningful to me on both a personal level and as a synthesis of some of what I was struggling with as an emerging writer.

I explain my mother to my father
my father to my little sister
My little sister to my brother
my brother to the white feminists
The white feminists to the Black church folks
the Black church folks to the ex-hippies
the ex-hippies to the Black separatists
the Black separatists to the artists
the artists to my friends’ parents…

Then
I’ve got to explain myself
To everybody

I do more translating
Than the Gawdamn U.N.

I could see some of the characters in the collection identifying with that need for endless translation, and also with the line I am sick of being the sole black friend to 34 individual white people. But the particular line I chose as the title I like because it has layers of meaning. In the poem itself, it’s directed by the speaker to someone else, and the implication is that the someone else is one of the people who has been using the speaker to define him or herself, or expecting the speaker to explain herself all the time. So, there’s an element of the title that’s confrontational, that’s directed at the reader, saying something to the effect of try to understand my experience before you drown in your own, which seems fitting in a collection that is somewhat concerned with characters who don’t often get to tell their own stories in their own words…

Sounds great.