In our Writing Lessons series, writers and writing students will discuss lessons learned, epiphanies about craft, and the challenges of studying writing. This week, we hear from Ivan Ang, a candidate in the MFA program at the University of New Hampshire. You can follow Ivan on Twitter @Agonized_Writer. —Andrew Ladd, Blog Editor
I was going to title this essay, “How to be the Only Asian in the MFA Program and Not Drop Out,” when I was reminded of British comedian Matt Lucas, playing a gay character named Daffyd Thomas in a series of sketches called “The Only Gay in the Village.” In the series, Daffyd was convinced that, being only gay man in his tiny Welsh village of Llandewi Breffi, he would be “naturally” hated by everyone else. In reality, everyone in the village was very gay-friendly. Daffyd’s refusal to believe that he was being accepted for who he was formed the basis of the comedic conceit.
Junot Díaz, in his article “MFA vs POC,” writes that his MFA class was “too white.” I guess mine was too. Some people in class still viewed me as an oddity on display since in every class and lecture room I was the only person of color.But recalling Daffyd’s situation, I learned that I shouldn’t assume that people would regard my difference as being something they would feel instinctively uncomfortable about. I also chose not to practice self-victimization even when the situation presented an easy opportunity. It was easy to fall back on the belief that my fellow writers didn’t like the story because “they didn’t get it;” that they were unable to grasp the finesse of cultural images and references I had worked so hard to put into the story.
Being in the MFA program taught me not to be the narcissistic minority who believed that people had to like my story because it was culturally different. Difference, or what others liked to call ‘diversity,’ was not a measurement of merit—it was an indication of dissimilarity, and that by itself contributed little to the aesthetics of a well-crafted story. A story, I learned, was about the heart of the character, and we as writers had to believe that the heart, regardless of its owner’s appearance, beat and ached for the same reasons. I wasn’t in the program to write about difference and diversity; I was in the program to write stories that people loved in spite of their difference.
I had written stories about white characters as well as characters of color set in Dubrovnik, Dubai, Massachusetts and Singapore. Did it matter? Not to my classmates or my professors. In the end, I enjoyed being the only Asian in the MFA program, because, I learned that difference and diversity were like filters on the Instagram app—though I had to find just the right amount of difference to enhance and accentuate a story’s quality, no filter in the world could ever save a badly taken picture or a badly crafted story.
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