VONA, Junot Diaz Writing Workshop, Moves To Miami

Jun 24, 2015

"What happens if a writer of color wants to write about white supremacy?" asks Junot Diaz, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author who last year penned a New Yorker essay about the "unbearable too-whiteness" of Master of Fine Arts (MFA) programs. 

Diaz is co-founder of the Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation (VONA) and the VONA/Voices workshop, which for 15 years has provided a "safe space" in the San Francisco Bay Area for writers of color.

This week, VONA moved to Miami.

Until July 3, the University of Miami will be home to five-day workshops in 10 genres. The first week's fiction session will be taught by Diaz himself.

"In most classrooms, the question that racism exists is up for debate," he says, "where I think few writers of color would say it's up for debate. I think it's nice to be in a classroom where your most basic fundamental reality is not being undermined."

Diaz wrote in his New Yorker essay, titled "MFA vs. POC," that in the 20 years since he was a student in a graduate writing program, diversity in literature has not increased. And he says that whiteness in MFA programs is paralyzing to the creation, or expansion, of a literary field that includes writers of color and LGBT and female writers. 

Earlier this month the Library of Congress announced Chicano writer Juan Felipe Herrera will be the next U.S. poet laureate.

"The question is," Diaz says, "because we get a Latino poet laureate, does that mean that this place -- the literary culture in the United States -- is any less hostile to people of color? All I know is that this past year the New York Times published its summer reading list and all the books -- all the books, every genre, every book was by white people."

Writers at a VONA workshop in Berkeley.

The VONA/Voices workshop is an effort to diversify the literary field. And Diaz says Miami's cultural makeup and its singularity among other Florida cities will influence the work of VONA writers.

"We're drawing from a community that has, in the state, a history unlike any other," he says. "We're drawing from a community that has a really storied tradition of writing across all races."

The launch of VONA at UM comes amid news of a humanitarian crisis in the Dominican Republic, Diaz's native country. The Dominican government is threatening to deport hundreds of thousands of people -- Dominicans of Haitian descent and undocumented immigrants from Haiti.

There is a history of tension between the Dominican government and migrants from Haiti.

In "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao," the debut novel that won him the Pulitzer, Diaz wrote about the D.R.'s Parsley Massacre -- a 1937 atrocity in which as many as 20,000 Haitian-Dominicans were killed in what then-Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo admitted was an effort to "re-whiten" the D.R. Many victims were chosen because they couldn't roll the R in perejil, the Spanish word for parsley.

The Dominican government has criticized Diaz for speaking out against deportation orders in the past.

"That's a distraction," he says of the politicians' insults. "When you have an argument and somebody attacks you personally, that's a sign you must be doing something."

Wednesday night Diaz sat on a panel with local author Edwidge Danticat, who's of Haitian descent, to discuss the crisis on their island.

Regardless of the criticism, Diaz says "there is a real deep, disturbing pall of terror over the country that has taken decades to produce. ... Especially a lot of the undocumented are saying, 'Hey, man, the last time the D.R. had a problem with undocumented Haitians and Haitian-Dominicans, it chopped them to pieces.'"

It's that kind of discussion of racial concerns that Diaz hopes the VONA workshops, where he'll be teaching until Friday, will allow.

Thursday night at 7 p.m., Diaz and his workshop colleagues will have a public reading at the Coral Gables Congregational United Church of Christ, 3010 De Soto Boulevard. 

WLRN digital intern Alexander Gonzalez helped produce this interview.