Fiction writer and memoirist Emily Raboteau teaches at City College (CCNY) in Harlem, New York. She talked to PW about the need for diversity in creative writing programs and the power of not being a "genre-snob."
What makes the CCNY M.F.A. in Creative Writing different from other programs?
Diversity. We’re located in Harlem. Our unofficial tagline is "Ten times the diversity for one tenth the price,” because we’re also comparatively affordable. Last year The New Yorker ran a piece called "M.F.A. vs. POC" [people of color] by Junot Diaz that went viral. His argument was that predominantly white workshops often feel alienating, dismissive, and outright hostile to writers of color. In contrast with the M.F.A. programs he was criticizing, our program is more reflective of what the U.S.A. actually looks like--certainly what NYC actually looks like. We have students of all backgrounds in terms of race, ethnicity, nationality, and age. No one group is the majority, and therefore none of the work is treated like minority literature. There are radical implications for the kinds of work our students are putting out into the world for it to be nurtured, respected, celebrated, and intelligently critiqued in the classroom. Another thing that sets our program apart is its strong sense of community. Our students have a great deal of affection for one another. They're loving rather than competitive.
Does CCNY’s M.F.A. have any kind of aesthetic focus or area of specialty (e.g. experimental writing, cross-genre writing, etc.). If so, how do you teach toward that specialty?
Our aesthetic matches our student body: diverse and inclusive. We aren't genre snobs. When I got my M.F.A. thirteen years ago at NYU I had a classmate who was snubbed for writing black romance. (Of course, she went on to be the only one of us to become a commercial success.) That would never happen at City College. If a student wants to write "literary fiction" that's fine. If she wants instead to write a steamy romance novel, a young adult book, an absurdist play, a sci-fi thriller, a fantasy trilogy, a vampire bildungsroman, or a collection of noir, that's fine too. We celebrate and encourage all kinds of voices and all kinds of writing, and we teach toward making stories shine. In addition to concentrating in poetry, fiction, or nonfiction, our students can also take workshops in dramatic writing, children’s writing, and translation.
Have you seen any changes in the kinds of students applying and enrolling over the last few years?
No. Our program is in its fourth decade and has always attracted working students committed to honoring their artistic impulses without breaking their bank.
What do you tell your students about how to embark upon a “career”—either as an artist or anything else--following their degree?
Most of our students come in to the program as working adults, meaning they've already embarked on a career. Many of them have kids as well as full time jobs. I feel it's my job as their teacher, mentor, and advisor to help them figure out how to carve out writing time in their busy lives. They've done that for themselves by pursuing a degree, but after they graduate, the hard task is to keep up the daily practice of writing. I tell them what I learned from one of our esteemed graduates, Walter Mosley. You need to write every day if you really want to do this. Without the forced structure of workshops, assignments, and concrete deadlines, the drive must come from within, and must be strong enough to override bills that need paying, laundry that needs folding, and children that need breakfast.
What Are your students doing after graduating? Any big success stories you’d like to share?
I’m happy to report that a LOT of them are publishing books. Some of our most well-known graduates include bestselling mystery writer Walter Mosley, the late Pulitzer-prize winning novelist, Oscar Hijuelos, and Ernesto Quinones, whose debut novel, Bodega Dreams, was called a “New Immigrant Classic” by the New York Times. Salar Abdoh, a graduate of the program, is now its co-director. He just published his third novel, Tehran at Twilight (Akashic). Michael Archer co-founded Guernica Magazine after graduating from the program a decade ago. But as for more recent successes, Joe Tirella, '14, made the New York Times Bestseller list last year with his account of the 1964-65 Worlds Fair in Queens, Tomorrow-Land (Lyons Press); Jessie Chaffie, '11, went to Italy on a Fulbright to research her novel accompanied by her husband, Brendan Kiely, '11 who just made the Young Adult Library Association's 2015 Top Ten Best Fiction for YA list for his book, The Gospel of Winter (Simon and Schuster); Hasanthika Sirisena, '06 just won the Juniper Prize for her short story collection, The Other One, which will be published by UMass Press next spring; and Joe Okonkwo’s novel about the Harlem Renaissance, Jazz Moon (Kensington Books) comes out next year, as does the second novel by Iris Smyles, ’08, Dating Tips for the Unemployed (Houghton Mifflin). I could go on, but there’s not enough room.
If someone asked you, “Why should I get an M.F.A.?” what would you tell them?
An M.F.A. not a necessary credential to becoming a successful writer. However, it can buy you the time and space to get writing done, and give you the gift of deadlines and feedback to improve your work as well as a professional network. DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT IT if it’s going to place you in serious debt. For real. Also, it’s smart to read the work of the writers who might be your teachers.
Any general thoughts about the M.F.A. scene today?
There is no one scene. There are hundreds of programs and they don’t all look alike.