Author Accelerator Diverse Voices Scholarship Program Reflection

Photo by kaboompics on Pixabay

The seeds of the idea for a scholarship program like this one were planted on the very first night of class in my MFA program at NYU. After years of working as a social worker I decided to pursue an MFA in my mid-forties, and was thrilled to have been accepted to NYU’s program. I was a full-time working mom commuting from Philadelphia, but I was determined to get my MFA. I was both nervous and excited to walk into the Creative Writer’s House. My whole life I had wanted to be a writer, and I felt like I was walking into hallowed, exclusive ground. A question pulsed through my whole being: had I earned the right to be there? Was I good enough? Could I really be a writer? My nerves and lack of confidence wrestled with my excitement. I was here! Did it matter that I would probably be so much older than the other students?

What shocked me when I walked through that door and into the reception area was not how old I was — rather how white we all were.

As a social worker I spent the bulk of my career as either the only white person or one of just a handful of white people in almost every job I have had. In addition, I have been with my husband, who is a Black Latino immigrant, for twenty-five years now. We have a diverse group of friends and family, and most of the time I am surrounded by people of all backgrounds, from all walks of life. The dearth of literature by and about people of color had become clear to me in a new and painful way as we raised our multiracial daughters, and I was vaguely aware of some of the issues around equity and diversity in the publishing industry. Still. This was NYU! I simply assumed that the writing program would be filled with people of color, and was saddened and amazed that it was not. I had not been in such a white environment since I left Ohio in 1990. It’s disconcerting to go from environments in which almost everyone is a person of color to environments where almost no one at all is. It’s impossible to experience that and just accept that as the way things should be. When I got home late that night I told my husband about my experience. Together we discussed all the reasons why the program might be so white, and began to think about barriers for writers of color. “If I am ever in a position to fund a scholarship for writers of color to get their MFA I’m going to do it,” I told him.

I grew up in an all-white town, went to an all-white school. The first time I read a piece of literature by a writer of color was my senior year in COLLEGE, when we read Toni Morrison’s Beloved. It wasn’t until I moved to Brooklyn to work at an alternative high school that I began to see and understand the world differently. I was exposed to new voices and new perspectives, so that by the time husband and I had children I was ready to parent multiracial kids. My mom knew to buy them dolls that looked like them — and she was one of the best suppliers of books with characters of color. Yet we felt a dearth. I had always said they would never be exposed to Disney princesses. I quickly learned that you can’t live in the world and NOT be exposed to Disney princesses. Still. I made my own books for them. In one the character was named Cinderella, but she had caramel colored skin and unruly curls. Usually my characters were saving the prince, if we even bothered to have a prince. Making these little books for them was fun but time-consuming. Why can’t Disney just make a black princess already? I used to wonder. Eventually they did, but by that time my kids had moved out of that phase and were well on their way to questioning bigger things. My ten-year-old daughter had just transferred to a public school from a Quaker one, and for the first time in her life had to say the pledge of allegiance. “I don’t like saying it, Mommy,” she told me, “because it’s not true. It says liberty and justice for all. But they are forgetting the poor people, the black people, and the criminals. She made air quotes when she said “criminals” and I was astounded at the depth of her consciousness on this issue at such a young age. She had been unhappy at the Quaker school as one of just two black girls –and thrived in her new diverse environment. But still we struggled to find books with characters of color that she could emulate and fall in love with. Thank God for Jacqueline Woodson.

The issues around diversity in publishing are not just issues of representation, but also issues of consciousness. We can’t help but see the world through our own lenses — and the lack of representation means that the lenses through which many gatekeepers see and experience the world are woefully limited. I know this from my own experiences and my own ignorance — I had an excellent education yet knew so little about the world around me, knew so little about my own white privilege, the true history of the U.S. and all the ways in which that history continues to reverberate today. I have heard too many stories of writers of color being rejected by people in the traditional publishing industry because they don’t sound “black enough.” Phrases like “we already have a black writer” are not unheard of.

When I approached Jennie about developing a scholarship program for writers of color I wasn’t sure whether she would be receptive, but in the amazing way that she does she immediately said OF COURSE!!! We had no idea what to expect but we got right to work. We were surprised and thrilled to receive almost 250 applications for three scholarships. We had our criteria ready, our reviewers trained — how hard could this be, we thought, to narrow the field down?

I can honestly say it was almost impossible.

I tell my students that if they can make me cry they have accomplished something amazing — I almost never cry when I read — and yet here I was, tearing up at every other submission. Even the submissions that were rough around the edges had so much fire, so much voice, so much light and energy. I literally became paralyzed. I am the type of person who does everything early and efficiently. I would set my alarm and sit down to review applications. I would promise myself I was just going to score five today, then five the next day. And I couldn’t do it. I would read the brave and fearless words of writers from all over the world, writers of all ages and at all stages in their publishing careers, and find it almost impossible to evaluate their application. These are all so good! I thought. This writer could be developed. She has something amazing to say! That image, on page 8 — I’ll never forget it. I suddenly felt completely unworthy of this task. I wanted to start this program to support writers of color and develop opportunities in a brutally uneven environment — but suddenly I felt as if I had been entrusted with 250 precious gifts. How could I — how could we — say no to any of them?

We did, of course. Some submissions were just stronger. Of course personal bias and preferences come into play here — they always do, which is why it is challenging for writers of color to even get through the door of so many publishing houses; our tastes, our preferences, are shaped by what is familiar. This is one of the biggest barriers to overcome — what I see as improper grammar, you see as VOICE. What you see as lack of character development I see as poetry. We tried to build objectivity into our system, but at the end of the day it really is just imperfect people judging imperfect people.

As a writer who has been rejected too many times to count myself I can only say KEEP GOING. Even if you didn’t win, even if you weren’t a finalist — your words moved us. Your voices matter. The world is changing, as it always does. Keep writing — even if it is only for yourself or the people who love you. The act of writing itself is an act of courage and transformation, which you already know when you wake up at 4 am, or scribble on the subway, or meet with your writing group once a week. You are doing important work in the world, important work for your soul.

We are excited about some of the connections we have developed as a result of our work on this program, and we are looking forward to collaborating with and building additional relationships with people who are already doing this important work around issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion in the publishing industry. We acknowledge the groundbreaking contributions of the leaders in the industry who inspired us and showed us the way. Thank you. We also acknowledge our board members, who worked so hard to develop and support this program, and our team of reviewers who worked tirelessly to evaluate applications.

We are grateful to you, our applicants, for entrusting your words, your stories, and your passion to us. We thank all of you for fearlessly sharing your voices and wish you many more satisfying hours developing your craft and much success in all of your endeavors. We envision a world in which all of your voices matter, a world which is ready and open and willing to embrace your stories. Our hope is that if all of us keep working and building off of each other’s successes we can create that future together.

If you were chosen as a finalist, congratulations! Your submissions were amazing. Savor this moment of recognition — they certainly don’t come frequently enough for most of us. And if you didn’t make it to our final round of review please don’t be discouraged. Keep your chin up and keep working. At the end of the day the only thing you can control is your own process, so honor that and write.

Kathleen Furin is a book coach at Author Accelerator and a member of the Author Accelerator Scholarship Team.