Regarding portrayals of women in fiction, Junot Diaz said, “Unless you are actively, consciously working against the gravitational pull of the culture, you will predictably, thematically, create these sort of fucked-up representations.” If you’re not actively subverting the sexist/racist/homophobic status quo of our culture, you’re likely reinforcing it. And it’s the duty of any writer worth their salt to do so. Subvert, transform, transmute the shit of our culture into gold. And it’s hard work and it’s not easy. There’s a fine line between accurately representing a racist culture and reinforcing that racism. Just ask Dave Chappelle. One of the advantages of a workshop-centric MFA program is that you have the opportunity to learn these lessons before you start putting your sexist/racist/etc stories out into the world.
A few weeks ago, a to-remain-nameless writer in our program wrote a story in which there was a borderline racist portrayal of a character. (The only black character in the story is the one with all of the problems; everyone else in the story are white saviors. Oh, and her skin is described using food terms.)
So we spend—at the most—five minutes saying that yeah, that’s problematic, when you write about marginalized groups, you have to be careful not to stereotype, do your research, avoid racist tropes, maybe read Writing the Other, et cetera. You know, general helpful things that any aspiring writer should know before sticking their uneducated, privileged, white foot in their mouth.
Fast forward to aforementioned writer’s next story. Universally panned as a terrible: the plot is incoherent and illogical and there is no arc nor character development. There are no physical descriptions of people, nor are there any gender pronouns (which could have been a great experiment but hang on—), because all of the characters are only described as food items and their behavior never stretched beyond their food moniker. (For instance, a nice and sweet character would be named after a candy bar, that sort of shortcut.) We are baffled by the story and the writer’s general incompetence.
The writer informs us later, after we’d workshopped it, trying our damnedest to find something constructive to say, something to salvage in this trainwreck of a story, that the whole thing was basically a fuck-you to our workshop for “wasting twenty minutes harping on” their black character in the previous story. A childish “Oh you don’t like that I described someone as food . . . I’ll describe everyone as food!” retaliation. Needless to say, everyone was pissed that this writer would waste our time in such a way, wasting a precious workshop opportunity on what’s basically a 101-level, getting-called-out-on-your-racism, temper-tantrum.
Want to piss off your entire workshop, the community of writers whose support, advice, insight, et cetera, et cetera, you’re paying an ungodly amount of money for? Want to take a big steaming dump on an opportunity to learn, to grow, to avoid filling the world with more racist bullshit? This is how you do it.