R-N fiction (errr, memoir?) MFAer, and my stellar office buddy/ bay area cohort, Dickson Lam, is back from week 1 of the VONA Voices Workshop, which took place June 20th-26th on the beautiful University of San Francisco campus. Put on by Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation, and USF’S MFA Program in Writing, VONA brings together a community of writers of color every summer, offering week long workshops with wiz-mentors like Tayari Jones and Chris Abani. Here’s what Dickson had to say about the conference and his time in Mat Johnson’s Advanced Fiction workshop.
KM: What’s it like being around writers a bunch of writers of color for a week?
DL: One thing that’s interesting is hearing that for many, they are often the only person of color in workshops, including the workshops in their MFA program. This has led to a lot of unhelpful feedback, of the “I love this story. It’s so exotic” variety. Fortunately for me, at R-N almost half the students in my workshops have been people of color. That’s a big reason why I chose the program. At the same time, as writers of color, we can fall into the trap of being defensive about our work, blaming white teachers and readers for our own shitty story. At VONA, we get called out on our shit, in a way that’s hard for a white instructor or classmates to do. Also, there’s something magical at VONA, being around 60 plus writers of color. I need a hit of that to keep me going.
KM: So what’s Mat Johnson like? How were your sessions with him different than MFA workshops?
DL: Mat’s an amazing teacher. He really cares about his students and went way beyond what he had to do, often extending class to ensure everyone got what they needed. He’d give hour and half craft talks each morning, then we’d workshop pieces. It felt like a year of workshop condensed into a week. It will take some time before everything fully digests.
KM: Want to share some of that condensed knowledge with the rest of us?
DL: In MFA programs, they encourage students to write short stories and not novels. The reason is obvious: we don’t know what the hell we’re doing, so why let students fumble for 400 pgs instead of 15 pgs. Help them understand what story is in a confined space then they can apply it to a bigger project. For me, I’m set on writing a memoir, so I haven’t received as much help in structuring a book. But at VONA, Mat spent a lot of time sharing his process for writing his books and for me that was invaluable.
KM: Did you learn anything about the implications of being of color in the current publishing climate?
DL: Mat discussed how when he first published, he was part of a wave of emerging writers of color to first publish including Colson Whitehead, ZZ Packer, Junot Diaz, Victor Lavalle. With the publishing industry taking a hit, there hasn’t been a new sizable wave of writers of color. Mat related it to how things play out in society historically. Tough times affect everyone, but people of color usually take the biggest hit. Like the saying goes, “Last hired, first fired.”
KM: Was there a lot of talk about publishing?
DL: There’s a publishing panel during the week where the faculty discusses their experiences with the publishing industry. It’s all informative, but the thing I took away most from it was to remember that more important than worrying about publishing or marketing yourself is to write your book! Tayari said it best, “If you save Oprah from a burning building, what good will it do if you don’t have a book?”
KM: So, did you guys ever get wild and crazy, or was it all business?
DL: VONA’s pretty intensive, but people do hang out, especially the last day.
KM: Did you hang with Tayari?
DL: Can you believe the VONA Orientation was the first time I spoke with Tayari in person? We laughed about that. I heard great things about her VONA workshop, and she charmed us at the faculty reading with her sweet voice.
KM: Did you discover any rad authors or books while there?
DL: We made a book list in our workshop. Here’s a few from the list: Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer, White Boy Shuffle by Paul Beatty, Erasure by Percival Everett, A Person of Interest by Susan Choi.