A former VONA participant told me about the program a few months back. Standing by the buffet at a foundation reception for racial justice organizations, we got to talking about racial justice and cultural transformation and our own creative practices.
Of course it’s a good buzz any time you get to talk about writing. But it’s great buzz when you trust that the person you’re talking to is grappling with structural racism and hegemony and climate sirens going off in Richmond and a mom talking to her kids on skype because she just got deported.
So when I got home I put my daughter to bed and found the VONA website with all these gorgeous photos of writers of color. Then I read VONA’s values — artistic excellence, social justice, and empowering the community of writers of color — and who had founded VONA and why and I wondered how on earth I hadn’t heard of this amazing program before. With two weeks to go before the deadline, I decided to take the crazy leap — and pull a few all nighters — to polish up my short stories and apply.
In my application I told them that I hoped VONA would help me develop effective strategies for telling individual stories in their structural context, to surface — and create opportunities to challenge — the nuanced brutality of exploitation and oppression that shape our individual stories. I told them that I believed VONA would give me the opportunity to explore and reveal the experience of racialization and the construction of race with people who could challenge me to do that honestly and accurately. I told them that I wanted VONA to help me increase my capacity and responsibility to support other writers of color.
Then I got in.
And then I went, taking a week off from my social justice job to walk over to a dorm at Cal each day for my first-ever formal creative writing training.
What I got was Edwidge Danticat’s Create Dangerously where she asks how we write for the reader facing oppression, danger, or death, who “finds the courage to open that book.”
What I got was M. Evelina Galang explaining that the literary world calls my stories “associative” not “linear” — and I understood right away what that meant (and why I had no trouble following the plot in 100 Years of Solitude, why I hated literature classes in high school, and possibly how my daughter learns math).
What I got was Chris Abani demanding that we go through our manuscripts and delete every adverb and adjective.
And, along with all the literary language, craft, and tough love I got, I also got movement building, “the long-term, coordinated effort of individuals and organized groups of people to intentionally spark and sustain a social movement.” This writing program explicitly rejects individualism and the myth of post-racialism, nurturing a loving multiracial, multigenerational community of people painfully wise in the ways of oppression and marginalization, skilled in the transformative practice of writing, and filled with the I-would-die-4-U kind of love that makes unimaginable change imaginable — and possible. Like Culture Strike, Creative Change, Zilphia Horton Cultural Organizing Project, MAG-Net (Media Action Grassroots Network) and others, this arts program is an essential part of the infrastructure we need for deep, powerful, and lasting social change.
The struggles I saw at VONA mirrored the struggles we’re going through in the organizing/activist world: How do we define our communities by our values, not our oppression? How do we heal individually and collectively in order to lead the whole of society? How are we in our bodies — not just our minds — as we do our work? How do we fuse together an analysis of race, gender, and ecology? How do we not just tell our stories, but teach people the way to read the book?
More Than We Imagined, a 2013 report based on interviews with 158 social justice organizers and activists around the country, found most are starving for political imagination,
.. frustrated by their own inability to express a holistic and systematic vision of their better world. Some participants suggested that “a better world” seemed so far off that they thought it was better to think about “winning” as building a strong movement, and a few said that “it’s so far away it seems almost silly to talk about it.”
“Renew Our Political Culture” was the report’s top recommendation:
Since the systems of oppression and exploitation permeate all aspects of our lives, we must also transform the culture in which we operate. This cannot simply be a task that we take on after we win.
I know I’m late to the arts party and I know I’m saying what my activist/artist friends like Anasa Troutman and Melanie Cervantes have been saying for years. But count me in as a born again cultural worker and supporter.
I may or may not get into VONA next year (but will bust my writer’s bootie trying). If I don’t I know I’ll still be standing up cheering the sisters and brothers who did. Because that’s what we do in movements. We help each other and we cheer each other on.
And I’ll be loving VONA always because, you know, the half-life of love is forever.