By Guest Contributor Kristina K. Robinson
In the few years preceding my acceptance into a Master of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing, I had been a Katrina refugee, had a baby, grieved the death of his father and more. I had a thick skin and a lot to say. I couldn’t think of a better time to dedicate myself to my writing. I felt prepared to be critiqued. I was self-aware and detached from taking criticism of my work personally. I had done this as an undergraduate; it was all constructive; I was ready.
A friend of mine from college, already waist-deep in an MFA program in New York, warned me …
“I was fine, till the day this guy said my work was didactic and particularly concerned with victimhood. I cried afterwards. They are going to get you,” she said.
We laughed and I waited for my turn.
It came. A rare poem of mine that features dialect, received the royal treatment from a professor. She decided to take command of the workshop by asking if anyone would like to discuss the dialect. I was aware of the consequences of writing a poem filled with dialect for a majority-white audience. I was prepared for all the most critical things I thought I would hear.
I was ready to listen to people debate whether or not it is acceptable to write something that is hard for white people to understand. I was ready to hear that a person who spoke that way wasn’t someone they imagined would have high-brow ideas or spend time meditating the on the meaning of life. I was even prepared to hear someone say that dialect didn’t belong in poetry.
I was not prepared to hear this:
“I’m going to go out on a limb,” the professor began, “and say that I found the dialect phony, and therefore I didn’t believe the rest of the poem. The dialect isn’t even consistent, sometimes this speaker says gon’, sometimes she says gonna’…didn’t buy it.”
Phony? In whose expert opinion? This older, white person, from the Midwest was now the authority on South Louisiana Black dialect? I wanted to say this, but workshop decorum prohibited my voice from being heard. That irony was not lost on anyone, as my facial expressions did all the talking for me. This isn’t to say that I did not receive useful constructive criticism from this same professor or my peers…still, those moments occur, and they have resonance within a writer’s psyche.
I am a native New Orleanian writing about the people that pepper these streets–in the city my program is located–yet many of my peers know nothing about my culture. My references are often off-the-mark and obscure in their eyes. I write about black people, mixed people, and their stories are hidden in the binaries that dominate our understandings of race and sexuality.
“Almost like a white person, trying to sound black,” chimed in a classmate.
I sat there red-faced, definitely embarrassed, and definitely pissed that workshop had gotten under my skin. Maybe, this wasn’t the place for me. But no sooner had I put that thought into the universe, it threw it right back at me. A classmate put me in the know of a writers group he belonged to. I think he could tell I needed it.
The MelaNated Writers Collective, an alliance of writers of color, was founded by jewel bush in 2010. After attending workshops for writers of color in other places, she was determined to recreate that sense of community, year-round, at home in New Orleans. We are all grateful for that decision of hers to follow her intuition. We are made up of native New Orleanians and transplants from other cities and, while primarily African-American in our membership, we also have members with roots in India, Malaysia, and the Philippines.
Belonging to MelaNated not only fosters growth through critique, but frankly, is the only way I’ve stayed sane as a writer through the barrage of voices that is an MFA program in Creative Writing. I write about issues of race and identity and have often found that very premise challenged by my peers in academia. MelaNated workshops have been a place where I did not have to defend the validity of my content, just its presentation. MelaNated workshops are a place where everyone knows “ain’t” is a real word.
This summer the members of MelaNated will put on a summer reading series in New Orleans. Over three dates, members of the collective will read original work to the public. The first event will be held on June 1 at the New Orleans Museum Of Art and hosted by Kalamu ya Salaam. A living literary legend, Salaam, along with fellow writer Tom Dent, founded BLKARTSOUTH, the southern wing of the Black Arts Movement, followed by the Congo Square Writers Union in the late 1970s, which counted James Baldwin and Ishmael Reed as visitors.
MelaNated hopes to continue in these collective’s tradition of supporting and sustaining a writing community for people of color in New Orleans. MelaNated, with our monthly meetings and upcoming reading series, is working diligently to create a space, a space that encourages me and others not to back away or back down from our voices. Stories by people of color are being told everyday, whether we write them or not.
The writers of MelaNated are determined to contribute our perspectives and truths to the pot, and we are helping to dispel this notion that the world does not need nor yearn for a counter-narrative. There are the Greek myths of course, but we have our own heroes and goddesses. There are hidden stories to be told, new temples to be built.