Long before Junot Diaz won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” he was just another frustrated MFA student at Cornell. One of the only students of color in his program, Diaz dealt with white peers who questioned his use of Spanish and generally didn’t try at all to interrogate their own views on race.
That experience led him to co-found Voices of Our Nation (VONA), a week-long summer workshop for writers of color in 1999. This year, the workshop published its first anthology of writing, which includes an introduction from Diaz, part of which was published this week at the New Yorker:
From what I saw the plurality of students and faculty had been educated exclusively in the tradition of writers like William Gaddis, Francine Prose, or Alice Munro—and not at all in the traditions of Toni Morrison, Cherrie Moraga, Maxine Hong-Kingston, Arundhati Roy, Edwidge Danticat, Alice Walker, or Jamaica Kincaid. In my workshop the default subject position of reading and writing—of Literature with a capital L—was white, straight and male. This white straight male default was of course not biased in any way by its white straight maleness—no way! Race was the unfortunate condition of nonwhite people that had nothing to do with white people and as such was not a natural part of the Universal of Literature, and anyone that tried to introduce racial consciousness to the Great (White) Universal of Literature would be seen as politicizing the Pure Art and betraying the (White) Universal (no race) ideal of True Literature.