Decentering the White Narrative: Felicia Chavez and the Anti-racist Writing Workshop

Caroline Malone
University of Tennessee
Knoxville, Tennessee, U.S.A
cmalone1@vols.utk.edu

Felicia Rose Chavez. The Anti-racist Writing Workshop: How to Decolonize the Creative Classroom. Haymarket Books. 2021. 216 pgs., Hardcover $67.50

For many, writing is a political act, a means of dismantling systemic racism and sexism by challenging the traditions of domination and silencing in the creative writing workshop. In The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop: How to Decolonize the Creative Classroom, Felicia Rose Chavez offers an alternative to the oppressive Iowa Workshop model. Students in the Workshop meet weekly to critique one another’s fiction or poetry, the round-table discussion ideally providing the feedback necessary for revision. The ideology of the Workshop, however, encourages competition between writers, privileging white male authors, often erasing the voices of women, writers of color, and other marginalized groups. The writing workshop in general is an institution of white dominance via selection of faculty, students, and the white literary canon read in workshops. Chavez, who graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop with an MFA in creative nonfiction, has developed a unique perspective on the traditional creative writing workshop. Using a combination of memoir and discussion of practical, progressive teaching techniques, Chavez has written a “how-to manual” of ways to dismantle the oppressive writing workshop that is run by and caters to the White supremacist and patriarchal culture in the United States.

For Black writers, the creative writing workshop has never been a haven from judgements or threats towards their voices. On the contrary, the experience of stepping into the workshop for the first time is similar to that of a soldier exiting a helicopter into his first combat mission. With rotary blades churning furiously above him, the soldier clutches the machinery his commanders have deemed sufficient to protect him and her leaps into the air. Hence, any student whose identity is perceived as not belonging to the dominant culture of the writing workshop, which is usually overwhelmingly white and most often male, must either participate armed and wearing armor or risk being chopped into pieces by the spinning blades of criticism.

A majority of undergraduate and graduate creative writing programs in America rely on the University of Iowa / Stanford University model to structure their writing workshops. Established in 1936 as the first degree granting creative writing program in the United States, Iowa accepts on average around 3.7% of applicants to its MFA writing program each academic year with writers of color in the extreme minority. The politics of Iowa’s writing workshops are embedded in its philosophy: “As a workshop, we provide an opportunity for the talented writer to work and learn with established poets and prose writers” (University of Iowa). Iowa’s program is clearly exclusive.

In 1941, the poet Paul Engle became director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and under his tenure, the workshop environment became increasingly infested with racism and sexism as Engle encouraged the aggressive white masculinity of its faculty, as well as personal attacks, physical violence, predatory behavior, and the harsh scrutiny of writers’ work. In The Anti-racist Writing Workshop, however, Chavez challenges this ego-driven, hierarchical, colonized culture through a blueprint for the type of writing workshop that promises to create “an enlightened, democratic counterculture” (10). Indeed, the traditional writing workshop has for decades practiced an identity politics that Chavez is determined to change through a creative revolution.

Chavez analogizes the colonization of the creative writing workshop to the world beyond its walls. Without a voice in American culture, democracy fails. Still, in the early 21st century, the dominant voices of both the literary world and American culture are overwhelmingly white and male. One of Chavez’s criticisms of the traditional writing workshop is that it assumes that all workshop writers share the same knowledge of the craft and employs academic vocabulary to dominate other voices. As a remedy, Chavez proposes that workshop members collectively define the vocabulary that ought to be used to discuss their writing. One of the most oppressive protocols of the traditional workshop is the silencing of the author during the critique of her work. In other words, while her peers compete to craft the wittiest comments and to rewrite the text according to their notion of what it should look like, the author must remain voiceless: at most, she is allowed to nod her head in agreement with whatever is said. Conversely, Chavez aims to free the author from the enforced silencing of her self/voice by empowering the author to moderate the discussion of her writing. In Chavez’s decolonized writing workshop, participants honor the vision of the author while focusing on how the author can best achieve her vision. Competition and ego are unwelcome. Indeed, the effectiveness of Chavez’s anti-racist writing workshop depends on creating and maintaining a collaborative artistic community of writers with the term “writer” stripped of its definition rooted in Western white patriarchy; anyone who wants to write belongs to the decolonized writing workshop.

Chavez makes a powerful case for the anti-racist workshop through the use of anecdotes about her own creative writing workshop experience. In her first writing workshop at the University of Iowa, Chavez’s classmates refused “to make eye contact” and “shuffled the pages of [her] story back and forth” (34). Uncomfortable silences are characteristic of classroom dynamics, but they are only fruitful when the quiet is filled with students reflecting on the ideas being discussed and not with indifference and/or hostility. During Chavez’s workshop, the professor ended the silence by stating, “’Felica has a knack for rendering scene, don’t you agree?” (35). Not being familiar with writing workshop jargon, Chavez feigned understanding of the comment but also learned to parrot the language of the writing workshop as she realized that using the “correct” language was capital for the writing workshop and a status symbol. Ultimately, Chavez discovered that the dictionary of craft as well as craft itself are “make-believe constructions” (34) and with access to this particular lingo, writers in the workshop could take control of that language to write their own stories, poems, and selves.

Later in her writing life, Chavez and other workshop members explored the dichotomy of the traditional writing workshop and the anti-racist workshop in a writing workshop with Chicano author Ana Castillo. From this experience, Chavez learned that the traditional or “normal” workshop is made of white, middle-class, heteronormative expectations; it supports white creativity and imagination, and safeguards what colonizers deem to be “pure art.” The leaders of the traditional workshop deny that politics inform writing, a consequence of being blind to their own privilege. On the other hand, from Castillo, Chavez learned that the anti-racist writing workshop must embrace identity politics in order to transgress the boundaries of the traditional writing workshop, hence making space for the Other, creating a place where the intersectionality of race, gender, class, and sexuality is central to the anti-racist writing workshop.

For Chavez, the anti-racist creative writing workshop is revolutionary in that its praxis is immediate and tangible action; it disrupts the dominant culture’s control of workshop voices and thus, those who have been silenced become empowered and that power is  redistributed equitably. The revolutionary design of the decolonized writing workshop involves recruiting more writers of color, replacing canonical texts with workshop participants’ writing as models, and empowering workshop members to define the language of craft. Perhaps most importantly, the anti-racist writing workshop promotes learning in place of mechanically executing “the workshop leader’s critique” (13) which replicates the hierarchical structures of oppression in American culture.

Although the Iowa Writers’ Workshop has produced many celebrated writers, it has also instituted the “workshop voice,” a homogenous white male voice that writers of color and women are expected to emulate, and in the process, efface their own identities. The Workshop creates rivalries between its participants, rewarding those who dutifully produce writing that reflects the Workshop ethos. In A Delicate Aggression: Savagery and Survival in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, David O. Dowling chronicles the difficulties, including harassment and emotional/ physical abuse that female students experienced in the Iowa program.

The prestige of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop is clearly alluring: powerful faculty, highly selective admissions, teaching credentials, and publishing connections. For the person of color or woman in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the choice has been between honoring one’s unique identity or acquiescing to the dominant white voice controlling expression. To question the workshop authority is to jeopardize the potential rewards associated with the program. Chavez, in fact, does challenge the traditional workshop but more so, through her blueprint for the antiracist writing workshop, contributes to the dismantling of systemic racism that supports that workshop.

Works Cited

Chavez, Felicia Rose. The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop: How to Decolonize the Creative Classroom. Haymarket Books, 2021.

Iowa Writers’ Workshop. “Philosophy.” https://writersworkshop.uiowa.edu/about/about-workshop/philosophy. Accessed 15 Oct., 2022.

Published February 2023

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