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On Teaching Writers of Color

Bill Cheng

On the last leg of my book tour in 2013, I was invited to do an event at the Asian American Writers Workshop.  I was there to promote my novel Southern Cross the Dog.  The book is about a young black boy growing up in Jim Crow-era Mississippi.  Also invited that night was a poet, a folk singer, and her guitarist.  During our panel discussion, the moderator asked me, ‘How does a Chinese guy from Queens justify writing about black southerners?’  

There are no simple answers here.  Cultural misappropriation is a real phenomenon and there are real world consequences to the way we organize power in our culture.  But there is also, as I see it, a responsibility to narrative-- to tell your story without compromise and in a way your conscience and skills can best bring to bear.  The issue is further complicated when you take into account the fact that I’m neither white nor black, biographically lacking in both cultural authority and white privilege.

Any satisfactory answer to the question ought to begin by acknowledging how complex and layered the issue is.  

But what I said that night was: ‘Well, why shouldn’t I?’

I’ll spare you the play-by-play, but lets just say my fellow panelists disagreed forcefully and the audience was none too happy with the cocky debut novelist on the stage.  During the Q&A, people stood up from their seats to denounce what I’d said as an attack on their identity as writers of color.

It was a difficult night for me--something I’ve only spoken to a few people about.  I’ve had my writing criticized before, but I’ve never had my integrity questioned in such a complete and devastating way.  

I left the building, shaken, the earth unsteady under my feet.  Fast forward two years and there’s an e-mail in my inbox inviting me back to the AAWW.  They wanted me to teach their fiction workshop.  

I said yes right away.

I love teaching workshop.


In some ways, workshop is the polar opposite of a panel discussion: it’s intimate, protected, a space where you have room to try things out, make mistakes.  

At the AAWW I had twelve students of varying ages.  There were eight women and four men, most with at least some degree of East Asian heritage.  Their writing differed greatly in style and interest.  For eight weeks, we spent an hour and a half together, going over each other’s work and reading from the fantastic Charlie Chan is Dead Vol. 2 edited by Jessica Hagedorn, an anthology of Asian-American fiction.

As the “teacher” my job was easy.  Workshops pretty much run themselves. All I do is offer guidance and structure-- nudging my students toward better and better drafts.  During our sessions, I tried not to be prescriptive, avoiding setting down “rules” to writing.  Instead my focus was on craft, interrogating the ways we use language and narrative to create an effect.

I set aside time at the start of each evening to touch base with them about how their writing was going.  It was a way for us to all remain engaged in each other’s progress, even if we weren’t workshopping a particular student’s piece that night.  This “catch up” was probably my favorite part of our time together--a chance to look at not only the technical and personal challenges of their writing, but more importantly, to delve into what it meant for them to be writers.

In my experience, it’s rare to see many Asians in a workshop.  Asian-Americans are taught to be small.  They are expected to be dutiful, studious, self-protective.  Even me, I still hate being vocal, hate confrontation, and am profoundly uncomfortable with self-promotion.  Humility is valued over personal advancement-- and deference, in this industry and country, can be self-destructive.  

This is what makes the AAWW such a necessary entity--its mission to actively seek and encourage Asian and Asian-American writing in a literary landscape that seems content enough to sideline writers-of-color into their own cultural silos.   

The turning point in my own education was meeting the writer who I would come to consider as my mentor and role model, Colum McCann.  I was in Colum’s workshop my sophomore year of college.  The feeling of smallness was overwhelming.  I remember that first class, shrinking in my seat, too anxious to speak.

McCann saw value in my work, but it was more than that.  It was the way he made you feel he was invested in who you were as a writer. And this is the difference: good workshop leaders don’t just nurture nascent talent, they build relationships.  They are open and honest not only about their hopes and ambitions but also their failures and their insecurities.  They invite their initiates into a fellowship of like-minded practitioners in which we all share in the same stakes.  

For writers of color, this is especially crucial.

Science has more or less agreed that the Asian brain is not structurally different from the Caucasoid brain (the Bell Curve not withstanding).  The elements of structure and language do not change because of the pigment of your skin, the upturnedness of your eyes, the number of creases on your eyelid.

But I’d be a liar if I said the scrutiny that befalls a writer of color isn’t, at least, different from the one a white writer might face.  If that first night at AAWW has taught me anything, it’s that no one gets to write in a vacuum, not anymore.  No matter the subject matter, a writer of color cannot escape the lens of their race.  Your race marks you, determining how you’re viewed, how you’re read, the kinds of stories you’re expected to tell.  

The complexities of race is an important matter to weigh, and one that I never fully appreciated when I first started writing.


But there will come a point in every writer’s development when being a writer becomes more than what you set down on a page.  You will have to make choices about the kind of writer you want to be, what you want to mean to your peers, to your family, to the literary community at large.  You will have to decide what you stand for.  

I don’t want to go too deeply into my students or their work--a workshop after all is a sacred space--but there is one student I want to mention.  She’d signed up for the course specifically because she was working on a novel where one of her main characters’ cultural and ethnic makeup was vastly different from her own.


The night her piece was workshopped, another one of my students--one who had been in the AAWW audience--brought up that panel discussion from two years ago.  

For the first time in our sessions together, I let the in-class conversation be about me.  It was uncomfortable but I think necessary.  We spent a good part of that evening talking about that night in 2013, about what I learned, about why I said what I said, what that did to me.  We talked about authenticity, about power, and about the appropriation of story.  I told them that I still believed that there are no territories a writer should fear to tread--be it race, class, or gender but also that this was a choice I made and I have to live with the consequences of that choice.  

I told them they had to decide on their own what was best in accordance with their conscience.

There will be a lot of hard decisions my students will have to face as they continue on their careers.  I can’t make their choices for them because I won’t be the one living out the consequences.  All I can do is make sure they’re not alone when they make them.