Outsider/Insider: Regarding a Positioning Statement
Given the importance of acknowledging mistakes and making critical corrections in order to move forward, I've decided to make use of the very platform I set out to establish for the many voices of our evolving literary community.
If you have not already read Dr. Lillian-Yvonne Bertram's response to the previous essay we made space for here called "An Open Love Letter to the Black MFA," I suggest doing so now. Dr. Bertram's piece and what I've written here make note of the writer's important position on recognizing that we need to do more to make space for Black writers in the MFA, while also taking very seriously the statements made about the program in said piece.
As the editor who approved this piece for publication, it was clear to me at the time that this essay's position was meant to call attention to the writer's cumulative experience in an academic world where non-Western, non-white curricula were few and far between. I can understand this, as I lived through this kind of Western educational model, myself, and I felt a strong resonance in evoking this issue to the public. I'm sure many writers who've studied or were encouraged to study the Western canon of literature and history know what this feels like. I didn't know how truly vital it was to read a book by a person of color, or by a person of non-conforming binary identity paradigms, until I learned that such literature and such writers did, in fact, exist and coincide with these other mainstream voices populating my reading list. I didn't really see myself represented in books until one day, there she was in the pages of a novel, and seeing her there molded by the shape of someone else's letters was like meeting at last the one person who truly understands your whole existence.
However, in cases such as this, what appears to be a representation of the voices we want to hear more of can easily mask themselves as perpetrators of hate. More specifically, I'm calling attention to the issues presented in publishing a piece by a Black writer that—in conflating generalizations with their personal experience of a writing workshop—further contributed to the destructive narrative of diminishing the very existence of people of color in the workshop and the larger graduate program in an essay that is meant to be rooted in fact.
In my efforts to make space for a writer of color without fully looking into the harmful repercussions for sharing only their lived emotional truth, I inadvertently played a part in the erasure of the voices I desperately wanted to hear. My mission with this blog series was to provide a platform for considering the MFA and its role in the writing community at large. But in order to fulfill this mission, we need to acknowledge the very community that already exists in these spaces.
So, to clarify where we stand, here is the positioning statement for this blog series, for this editor, and hopefully for this journal:
We are looking for singular voices. Tell us about your creative journey, your joys and successes, your challenges and defeats, your experiences as a writer either inside or outside a formalized creative writing program. What is it that writers have failed to tell you prior to applying to or entering an MFA program? What are the everyday realities faced by writers who devote their lives to writing? What is it that you’re still looking for despite all the experiences you’ve had on your journey as a writer? If you’ve left a program, what helped you make the decision to leave your cohort? What does the publication process really look like for today’s writers inside and outside of academia? Has your voice been stifled by institutional elitism that denies artistic credibility for marginalized voices, particularly writers of color, queer & trans writers, and writers in translation? Have we abandoned the fantasy of the institution as a place that makes space for the writer to focus only on improving their craft?
Our goal with this blog series is to foster a home for friendly dialogue between writers of all levels and backgrounds on how the culture of working writers—MFA-informed or otherwise—have disrupted the pipeline of literary production and culture.
The editorial staff at Breakwater Review and the greater creative writing program at UMass Boston aim to continue the important conversation and critical work of addressing mistakes when they're made in order to move forward in solidarity, while providing a platform that is trustworthy and true to the writers' lived experiences. We hope that the previous piece and its subsequent responses are acknowledged by our readers and writers not as a loss of integrity, but as a pathway to healing and reparative justice for all BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ folks seeking acknowledgement of the very spaces you occupy.
Yes, we are waiting to hear from you. And yes, we will be more vigilant in how we share your experiences with compassion.
Nicole-Anne Bales Keyton
Editor in Chief, Breakwater Review
University of Massachusetts, Boston
Do you have a story to tell about your writing experience, either as an MFA student or as a writing working outside the institution? We would love to hear from you. Please email your pitches to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.