NFN18: “We Need Some Kind of Tomorrow: Academia in Re-Verse”

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Description: This panel is about breaking traditional academia— and remaking it. Creating a place where performance, song and word intersect. We want to take over the space, change it, reclaim it— speak our ‘unsaids’.  When asked to do panels, Writers of Colour (WoCs) must often position themselves in relation to a white audience. But what would a panel look like that didn’t make concessions toward whiteness?

Panel Participants: Sreedhevi Iyer, Tresa LeClerc, and Margarita Cruz

Sreedhevi Iyer, author of the recent short story collection, Jungle Without Water, visiting from RMIT and the University of Melbourne, Australia, opened the panel. Iyer shared her research about how authors of color perform their authenticity within literary discourse in a presentation titled, “Will the Real Author Please Stand Up?” By examining data from interviews and Twitter posts on a technical level, Iyer identified how two case studies– Junot Díaz and Mohsin Hamid– use specific language strategies when communicating on public platforms. Iyer argues that both authors present themselves in a paradoxical way in order to seem authentic. Iyer states, “Authors face pressure to maintain their author brand or ‘authentic self’ within the publishing world. Authors of color, by virtue of the descriptors of identity politics, have a voice on a public platform, but they are also limited by the discourse on how to express themselves.” Iyer points out how challenging maintaining authenticity can be, “They bear the risk of seeming inconsistent at best and fake at worst at any time.” Iyer explains that all authors face this paradox, but authors of color face particular challenges because, using Díaz and Hamid as examples, they are “expected to speak on certain issues, such as the publishing world as pertaining to Latino writers, or the political situation in Pakistan, for a set global audience.” This expectation, Iyer identifies, limits and pigeonholes authors of color.

Iyer ended her presentation by asking audience members to reflect on their own experience as writers in a digital age. Iyer reminds us that because of social media, acceptable author identity is quickly changing; “We used to think that what the author writes vs. who the author is as a person are not to conflate, but we do conflate it in this day and age. We can’t escape it.” She asked three questions, to which the audience responded anonymously on sticky notes and posted them on the wall: 1) Do you think you are different on social media as opposed to speaking at an event? 2) Do you think your online presence helps or hinders your book promotion? 3) Have you ever had a misunderstanding due to your online language?

Tresa LeClerc, visiting from RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, began her presentation, “The Air We Breathe: Beyond the National Story,” by reading her children’s story with parallel on-screen illustrations and select passages of text. Imbedded in the text were hyperlinks to news articles academic papers relating to the story. In regard to these hyperlinks, LeClerc asks, “We all know about fictionalizing nonfiction, but what happens when you nonfictionalize fiction?” She then discussed the challenges and fears associated with representing white characters in a negative light and including racism in her writing. LeClerc described the many problematic reactions people have to her writing, regularly asking her to verify her Latina identity or asking if she speaks Spanish. Others respond to her by crying and asking what they can do to help the situation. LeClerc calmly concludes, “One of the things we ask when we talk about it [racism] publicly, is that people sit with this discomfort.” She then paused for a few moments, letting her words sink in.

Margarita Cruz, a MFA student from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, transitioned into her presentation, “Hyphens & Erasure”, by asking audience members to again answers questions on sticky notes and post them on the wall: 1) What did you know about writers of color before coming into this panel? 2) What do you want to learn? 3) What you are going to take away from this panel?

Cruz then gave context for her own identity struggle as a first generation Chicana writer, explaining “Writers of color are often hyphenated, they are either Mexican-American or African-American or Cuban-American, and I think Theodore Roosevelt once said ‘a hyphenated American is not an American.’” Cruz then launched into a spoken word poem about the space she feels between her Americanness and her Mexicanness; “[My mother] told me not to become a hyphen. A hyphenated American doesn’t exist. We don’t exist. We are given a hyphen to make space between us and America. And without it we are neither American, or maybe we are, or maybe I’ll lose it. But what am I if I am neither someone from this tierra or that?”

The three panelists, Sreedhevi Iyer, Tresa LeClerc, and Margarita Cruz, offered many opportunities for audience participation. By the end of the hour, a real conversation between the panelists and audience had begun around the often unfair expectations authors of colors face and how best to engage and support diverse communities of writers.

Clare Magneson is a MFA candidate at Northern Arizona University. She grew up in Arcata, California and received her undergraduate degree from Bates College in Maine.  For the last decade she has worked as a Grand Canyon river guide.

Visit Assay’s Fall 2018 issue for more!

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