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Minority Writers At VONA Workshop Strive To Intersect Fiction, Politics

Alexander Gonzalez

Geetha Balakrishnan grew up in what she calls a “very white Australia.”

“I’m grateful for my education, but there are certain things you can’t explore in an environment where you’re the only person, or very few of you are from different backgrounds,” she says.

This led the 33-year-old to apply for the Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation writers workshop. The annual two-week writing conference brings together minority writers of all skill levels. It permanently moved from California’s Bay Area to Miami this year.

Balakrishnan and fellow VONA participant Shalewa Mackall aim to incorporate their politics about immigration and race into their writing.

This is the kind of thing VONA founders Elmaz Abinader, Victor Diaz, Diem Jones, and Pulitzer Prize-winner Junot Diaz intended 16 years ago. They wanted to create a safe space where minority writers like Balakrishnan could discuss complex issues of race.

Balakrishnan grew up in Sydney and she is of Sri Lankan descent. Her parents moved to Australia as part of a skilled migrants program.

She says mainstream media in Australia often doesn’t recognize “the fact that our nation was built on immigration isn’t part of the narrative … in mainstream media.”

Balakrishnan first considered pursuing writing while she was working toward a master’s in creative and cultural practice at the University of Western Sydney.

“That was probably the first time I started thinking about how writing fiction in particular can intersect with your politics of bringing awareness to marginalized groups,” she says.

Balakrishnan then began “scouring the internet” looking for a program like VONA. She had applied last year but was not accepted.

She is working on a novel. It’s set in the western suburbs of Sydney and deals with themes of racial condition and how people become racialized.

Mackall is also attempting to bridge the personal and political in her own writing.

She is participating in VONA for the second year in a row and says she “was shaken up” the first time.

“I used to whisper. I don’t know how to say it any other way,” Mackall says. “I was really invested in making work that was beautiful and accessible, but it wasn’t necessarily honest and it wasn’t really my story.”

Mackall, 46, is Black and has “family roots” in Honduras. She was born in Brooklyn, grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts and lived for some time in Atlanta.

The Brooklyn-based dance teacher and choreographer first heard about VONA when she took a poetry workshop that introduced her to women’s and Latino writing communities.

Mackall is working on a performed memoir titled “Code Switch.” She says she is unsure whether this will take off in New York before next year’s VONA workshop.

Additionally, she plans to write a collection of personal essays about code-switching, which is the practice of alternating between two languages in conversation.

Mackall says the VONA experience has stayed with her long after the program’s two-weeks.

“It’s had ripples beyond simply the work I’m creating as a writer,” she says. “In the recent kind of blossoming of political activism that’s happening in this country, it’s made me a person who is participating in that, and is not afraid to speak up."

The second VONA faculty public reading will held 7 p.m. Thursday, July 2 at the Books & Books store in Coral Gables. Participating authors will include Faith Adiele, Chitra Divarkaruni, Tananarive Due, M. Evelina Galang, Achy Obejas, Willie Perdomo, and Andrew X. Pham.

Alexander Gonzalez produces the afternoon newscasts airing during All Things Considered. He enjoys helping tell the South Florida story through audio and digital platforms. Alex is interested in a little of everything from business to culture to politics.
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