Toni Morrison’s Lessons and Why I Had to Quit My MFA Program.

Toni Morrison’s words are all over social media at the moment, as many are grieving and remembering. Being reminded of her lessons has made me think back to my own journey of writing and how her words offered me the guidance to quit the thing that was holding my writing back, my MFA (Masters of Creative Writing).

Imagine reading Toni Morrison’s work as part of the syllabus, in a writing classroom that has been employing the white gaze throughout the semester. It’s a trip. A white professor who has made all the people of colour uncomfortable at some point in the semester, by asking us why our writing doesn’t include more “culture”. Since our writing already naturally did, what we came to understand is that “culture” meant, distortions of our cultures. Imagine reading Toni Morrison’s work in a classroom where one is actively encouraged to go against her teachings; to write in a way that positions oneself as an outsider to one’s own life. Imagine.

This was my experience, but after hearing from so many others doing MFAs in different places, it seems to be commonplace, as whiteness is the default and all the other ‘others’ have to write translations for whiteness. What is unforgivable though, is when liberal professors use Toni Morrison’s work in a depoliticised way, which seems to be the only way they do use it.

After Toni Morrison’s passing, I have been reflecting on how her words guided me through that time subconsciously. Sometimes when you are going through an alienating experience, you don’t necessarily always have the language to diagnose what it is. It felt wrong. I didn’t immediately understand why, but I felt it. Writing became really difficult in that environment and the only students who were actively engaging in the classroom were the white students. They were free to be complex, nuanced and take risks. Everyone else was quiet, struggling and heavily critiqued. Always asked to explain and justify. We were expected to write ourselves in the way white authors have always written about us; as an ‘other’. It wasn’t in my head. Toni wrote about this; the white gaze.

Knowing that I wasn’t at a place in my life where I had the energy or willpower to incite a rebellion, I decided to quit. Her words gave me the validation I needed at that time when I questioned myself and whether I made the right decision. A sense of relief came in the aftermath when I was writing freer and able to finish stories that had seemed like dead ends. It’s already difficult to ignore “the white man that sits on your shoulder” as Toni would put it, but if your classroom is encouraging him to have an even louder voice in your life, throw the whole damn thing away.

Writing teachers and mentors everywhere need to learn from Toni Morrison, beyond just including her work as a way to prove diverse literature sources. Writers of colour everywhere are being stifled and encouraged to orientalise themselves. It shouldn’t be on them to do the work of educating the teaching staff whilst trying to creatively flourish. It shouldn’t be too much to expect. Toni Morrison has already done all the work for us; we just need to read and learn from her.

I hope that her words continue to flood social media for as long as possible, we still need her so much.

An Egyptian food, politics and culture writer based in Cape Town, South Africa.

An Egyptian food, politics and culture writer based in Cape Town, South Africa.