Nearly a decade ago, I made a critical career decision to divest my life from academic institutions that didn’t value me. As a woman of color who came of age in the 1980s, I went to college roughly a decade and a half after the major movements in the late 1960s had made significant space for people of color, and after Title IX had guaranteed equal education for women. Then, like now, our smiling pictures were on the brochures of many schools, but instead of enjoying our education, we gritted our teeth and endured it. By the mid 2000s, I had survived several hostile academic environments and learned my lesson. When it came time to finish my MFA in creative writing, I picked the program that seemed more likely to nurture me as a writer, instead of the one that would stamp the name brand of an elite college on my resume. This was a profound break from the survival strategy I had inherited from my immigrant roots, but I decided to gamble on the optimistic possibility that my family had already survived.
My mother is the daughter and granddaughter of immigrants. After my mother’s Puerto Rican mother became a widow, she couldn’t get work in 1950s Los Angeles because she was too dark and her accent was too thick. My grandmother eventually found work in the Catholic Church, and was able to pull herself and her two teen daughters out of poverty and into the working class. My immigrant family’s lesson? Powerful institutions in the US will be our family’s salvation.
Fast forward to Berkeley in the 1980s. My mother was a civil rights attorney, and I was a teen feminist and anti-nuclear activist applying to college. The Ivy League schools were courting me because of my grades and test scores. Counselors and others talked about “good” schools and “top” schools as if college selectivity guaranteed a superior educational experience. Although my mother and I were not politically aligned with these elite institutions, our old immigrant survival training kicked in. We picked the brand name school, the big institution, the one whose mystique promised that my future would be assured. We picked Harvard. Further, as an activist of color I had a duty to my community: I was one of the few brown faces that could get into this powerful institution. I would use the degree to advance the race. I was obligated not to waste the opportunity.
I hated it.
Harvard, circa 1980s: the chair of the African American Studies Department was white. There was no women’s studies department. I didn’t check on any of these things before I decided to go. I didn’t think I had to. I came from Berkeley, where we like our racism liberal. I wasn’t used to this more vicious brand of racism, or prepared for the complete institutional support that it received. My high school had an African American Studies Department that taught Swahili. Meanwhile, Harvard had no African languages. It was unfathomable to me that Harvard, one of the most selective colleges in the country, had fewer African languages than my public high school. I came to understand that Harvard’s actual distinction was that it was simply the first college in the US. It had been founded while women were still legally defined as property of their husbands and fathers, while my African ancestors were still in bondage. And the school would carry the residue of these historical realities. The entire time I was there, it was always clear to me—through a myriad of formal and informal policies, microaggressions from students, faculty and administrators—that this place was not created with me in mind, that my presence was always an ill-fitting afterthought. I struggled, dropped out twice, but I moved off campus, joined the Dark Room Writers Collective, and managed to finish my bachelor’s degree.
So one would think that when it came to picking MFA programs, I would have learned my lesson. But no. As an aspiring novelist with a full-time job, I needed a low-residency program and I chose Bennington. In recent years, as marketing language has penetrated daily life, I can see that I stayed with the “brand” of New England, conservative, upper class, white, male-dominated schools.
Yet Bennington was much worse than Harvard because the community was so tiny and isolated in the woods of Vermont. I was one of two African Americans, and I don’t recall any other Latinos. My second semester, I spoke out against the reading of a very graphic piece of fiction by Bret Easton Ellis. A student read an extended scene of sexual torture without a “trigger warning.” I had walked out before the excerpt was read, disgusted by the previous lecture which praised Nabokov’s Lolita. Half an hour later, two distraught friends came to my dorm room crying. I led them in a ritual where we burned the handout that went with the student’s lecture. In an era before the internet, I put a note about it on the bulletin board. “We burned [the] Bret [Easton Ellis handout] not like the Nazis burned books, but like a woman burns the love letters of an old lover who became abusive.”
I was shocked when I became the target of the community’s outrage about censorship. Censorship? Censorship is suppression of speech, not burning a handout or asking for a warning so people can consent to hearing a story that contained such graphic sexual violence. In response, the program director attacked me daily at every public lecture, including making me the subject of his graduation speech against “censorship.” He went on about how he was “sickened and disgusted” by my actions. Worst of all, nobody spoke up publicly to defend me. A decade later, I was able to name the experience as sexual harassment, a hostile environment. But at the time, I was just trying to get through it.
I came home from Vermont shaken and traumatized. How had this happened to me? Over time, I came to the painful realization that I had actually thrown myself under the bus. No victim of harassment is ever to blame, but I could see how my immigrant family training had made me vulnerable. Having survived Harvard, I was mentally wearing a t-shirt that said, “I didn’t survive the Ivy League just so I could go to a graduate school with no name recognition!” This is a version of “Our family didn’t leave everything and emigrate from the Homeland just so you could major in Art.” My internalized class compass was always seeking institutional gateways to that better life, even as my five senses could tell there was nothing there for me or worse yet, my inner alarm was sounding a danger warning. I dropped out.
In “MFA vs. POC”, a 2014 piece for the New Yorker, Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Diaz says, “my [Cornell MFA] workshop reproduced exactly the dominant culture’s blind spots and assumptions around race and racism (and sexism and heteronormativity, etc)…In my workshop the default subject position of reading and writing—of Literature with a capital L—was white, straight and male.” Diaz is one of the founders of VONA (Voices of Our Nations Arts) for writers of color. VONA, along with organizations like Cave Canem, The Macondo Writers Workshop, and Kundiman, provide retreats, workshops, and other activities for artists of color. Not only do they they offer an alternative racial environment where brown is the norm, but all have been founded or co-founded by women of color, so the gender politics are more inclusive and expansive as well. These non-academic workshops offer resources to for the development of emerging writers of color, but they provide neither two-year immersion nor the professional credentialing that many writers seek in MFA programs. Diaz accurately identifies the dangers of white- and male-dominated academic environments and assures the victims of the micro- and macroaggressions within these programs that they are never to blame. However, I am now convinced that we need to explore our own motives for selecting schools where most of the students and faculty don’t look like us.
Claire Vaye Watkins’ speech (and later article) “On Pandering,” has been a call to women authors to consider and unmask the role internalized sexism plays in our collusion with the male-dominated literary industry. Vaye-Watkins says: “I have built a working miniature replica of the patriarchy in my mind. I would like very much to bust it up or burn it down. But I am afraid I don’t know how.” Yet her essay—the calling out of the problem—is a powerful beginning for her. It reflects and inspires the decisions that many women writers have been making about unlearning our internalized oppression.
In 2006, nearly a decade after I dropped out of Bennington, I stumbled into a lecturer job teaching creative writing at UC Berkeley’s African American Studies Department. With no masters or PhD, it was the first time my Harvard degree really opened a door for me. As I strategized to keep the job, I knew I would have to finish the MFA. Bennington wasn’t an option. The director who had attacked me was still in charge and had never apologized, publicly or privately. I did, however, receive communication from students and faculty letting me know that they had later criticized him for his behavior toward me.
When I looked at Antioch Los Angeles, it was ideal for me: As “the world’s only MFA program specifically devoted to literature and the pursuit of social justice,” they had a relatively high ratio of faculty of color, and their gender and sexuality politics were better than any I had ever seen (at the time, the application invited me to identify as male, female, or a third category for the gender non-conforming). They didn’t frown on genre writing, and they would take my transfer credits. In other words, it fit me perfectly, but it didn’t fit my upwardly mobile immigrant family brand. After I was accepted, I felt a disproportionate anxiety. I was certain that if I got an Antioch degree, it would mean that I had somehow failed to fulfill my potential and ruined my future prospects. Yet despite the clutch of panic in my chest, I checked the box accepting admission and held my breath as I submitted my information.
As it turned out, I loved Antioch. I wish I had spent both years of my MFA there. I had two faculty mentors of color. They really understood my work and vastly improved it. I developed friendships that are still an important part of my writing support system. Above all, I shed the prestige obsession. Other writers of color complained that the focus on social justice wasn’t sufficiently integrated into all aspects of the program. Their points were well-taken, but coming from Bennington, it was nirvana.
In an unexpected twist, that same year Antioch was named among the top five low-residency programs in the nation by The Atlantic magazine, right alongside Bennington. But it wouldn’t really make a difference in the prestige department. Brand recognition has never been about quality, it’s about elitism, tradition, and mystique.
Letting go of my prestige obsession has also allowed me to become unapologetic about writing commercial fiction. I want my work to be widely read. I aim to make politically subversive themes sexy and popular. I believe I can publish novels that are character-driven, well-written, politically complex, emotionally layered, and with a mainstream hook. Later this year, my novel UPTOWN THIEF will come out from Dafina, a woman of color imprint of Kensington Books. It’s a two-book deal for the first two feminist heist novels that feature current and former sex workers. I don’t think I would have been able to invest in this type of political and creative experiment if I had stayed on a more elite literary path.
In the poem “We Alone,” Alice Walker says, “We alone can devalue gold.” Writers who are of color, female, poor and working class, disabled, immigrant, and/or queer need to find welcoming spaces that will nurture us. We deserve better than to pay for a name-brand education that adds to our trauma load. In picking MFAs, we need to let go of our prestige attachment and choose the more progressive programs that look like us, understand our experiences, and support our work. As Audre Lorde says, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Many of us writers need to stop knocking on the doors of the master’s MFA programs.
Aya de Leon directs the Poetry for the People program in the African American Studies Department at UC Berkeley. Her work has appeared in Essence Magazine, xojane, Ebony, Guernica, Reductress, Writers Digest, Mutha Magazine, Bitch Magazine, Racialicious, Fusion, Quartz, The Honest Courtesan, Hip Mama, and The Toast. She blogs and tweets about culture, gender, and race at @AyadeLeon and ayadeleon.wordpress.com. Kensington Books will be publishing her debut feminist heist novel, Uptown Thief, in July.