Voices of Our Nation (VONA) Workshops

So this is what they call “VONA Withdrawal”. I returned this weekend from the Voices at VONA Workshops after school has ended for the year and the darlings are bouncing off the walls, the home is in slight disarray, and Joseph had managed to keep an almost military-like order in managing it all. Yet, there’s still the laundry, the cooking, the eating, and bathing, and self-maintenance to keep myself and those around me operating at some level of normalcy.

But… All. I. Want. To. Do. Is. Write! That’s what I’m told I should do. But do I have to go to sleep, and eat, and stop to get somebody a snack, really? The furor scribendi has been ignited. Once again. Not that the flame of feverish writing had died out sometime in the recent past. If there had been just a slow steady burn up until this point, then now there is an all out inferno.

The poets at VONA have won me over. I find it hard not to write a metaphor into everything that spills out of my warped imagination. “We write the poems that bite back!” proclaimed Willie Perdomo‘s tribe. I was first a poet you know. So much passion in their words and in their expressions. A must if the words spewed out towards the audience are to leave its tooth marks on that tender spot right where the jugular pumps lies and self-hate and inferiority. I’m still nursing my wounds from Staceyann Chin’s bone-gnawing words at the amazing faculty reading.

If poems can bite back, then stories can rip heads off. If fallacies can be sucked out of the masses by vampire poets, then decapitating storytellers can certainly do away with the oh-so troublesome groupthink mentality. Poems can be venomous fangs. Stories can be iron-sharpened machetes. Or so I’d like to think. I really must believe this if I’m to be impervious to rejection after to rejection. The title, “Voices of Our Nations” was what attracted me. I have a nation and I have a voice. I had to be there!

I was sure I’d get in…and then I’d have terrible bouts of inadequacy. I’m a writer. I’m allowed to have an ebbing ego. 350 applicants I’m told. 95 selected for the 9 workshops (3 of which were reserved for VONA alums only). Author ZZ Packer was my instructor for the fiction workshop and I was in excellent company amongst 12 other absolutely amazing writers. With each story I read by my fellow classmates, my ego was increased tenfold. They are really good writers and I was selected to be with them and to read and critique their work and they would do the same for me. Not to mention the award-winning ZZ Packer. She read my words and offered feedback. This was enough. This was all the validation I needed for now to press forward. Resiliently.

I’ve been somewhere like this before. Exactly ten years ago. (I wrote about my experience with Octavia Butler here. Nalo Hopkinson was also an instructor.) Clarion West was 6 weeks long with 6 different instructors and 16 other classmates. There were 6 writers of color out of 17. 3 black women including myself, and 3 Asian women. “White Spaces” was a term that came up at VONA a number of times. One of the instructors mentioned the dire statistic of people of color in MFA programs across the country. Three percent! So there are whole programs with absolutely no people of color. It is ultimately their space, and their stories and voices are, for the most part, understood and validated. And there were quite of few MFA students, grads, and hopefuls at VONA.

Up until this past week, I thought I had found somewhat of a community in the feminist sci-fi world. I’ve written about it here and here. But I’m now realizing that this wasn’t really the kumbaya village I imagined it to be. It was more like crashing a party, demanding an extra chair for a seat at the table, and coveting an extra slice of cake to take home and share with mi gente. I’d march into these “white spaces” ready for battle. An internal one that is. At Clarion West I had written a fable about how a village deals with the birth of an albino twin that was described as soulless. A few of my fellow Clarionites found this offensive and were outraged. I am shamelessly emotional so I cried like a wuss. Ten years later I still remember the feeling of being wrongly accused. It makes me think about if I should have got a defamation lawyer to fight my corner, but it wasn’t right for that moment. It didn’t affect how I wrote my stories, but it certainly affected how and if I submitted these stories. I always had this overwhelming fear that I’d be offending a slush reader, an editor, or an agent. So after 2 or 3 rejections, I’d shelve it.

“Keep your fears at bay,” Junot Diaz had told a group of us VONA grads on the last day. He spoke about being an immigrant and these fears that immobilize us from being the best writers we can be. So it took me ten years to come full circle, make my way back into the workshopping process to dismantle this fear of offending the gatekeepers, those who judge our work and decide whether it’s worthy of praise. I am grateful to Ruth Forman‘s tribe for introducing us to Iambic Fucktameter (a, b, a, b, c, d, d, d, f, u). And to Junot Diaz who reminded us, “You don’t have to look cute for nobody. You can lock yourself up in a room and just write, and mothafuckas will still come through.”

I’m grateful to the myriad of indigenous, immigrant, and first-generation writers of color who either spoke up for their people or didn’t-writing whatever stories and poems they wanted to write all within a safe space. Safe space was what the Carl Brandon Society tried to create at WisCon. All of VONA was a safe space. My fellow classmates were from China, Sri Lanka, London by way of Lagos, Virginia, Chicago, Los Angeles, the Philippines, Argentina, Puerto Rico, and Pakistan. Each with their own voice, style, and life experiences from which to tell their stories. I think we would agree that ZZ Packer’s claim, “I’m surprised you all are not published” was the highest compliment to the caliber of writing in our class. Towards the end of the week, one of our classmates got news that she will be publishing her novel in her native country. I think this is the highest form of praise for any immigrant writer.

And I will also be forever grateful that my class accepted with open minds my crazy sci-fi story. At Clarion West, I submitted spec-fic stories with heavy political content and received some backlash. I did the same at VONA, and they got it. Even with my heavy-handed Vodou mythology, my beloved classmates totally got the racial politics in my dystopian future Haiti. I had a deep reservoir of tears that I happily saved for more pertinent emotional triggers like a poet’s native song to set off the final day’s presentations. Elmaz Albinader‘s Political Content tribe had me all choked up when they each made an offering of a song, a poem, a valuable possession, or dirt from Puerto Rican soil to the ancestors. Elmaz asked us “What are your ancestors telling you?” on the first day. Ancestors? They were speaking my language. My words were understood. My voice was heard.

Alas, I know what ‘latinate words’ are and what a ‘story shape’ is. ZZ Packer did a fine job of revealing the intricate world of craft. Story science, I call it. And my VONA certificate says it all: “…we honor Ibi Zoboi for being committed to completing a Fiction class based on nurturing the traditions, perspectives, and aesthetics of writers of color.”

I am truly honored, indeed.

Team ZZ Packer in alphabetical order: Juan Alvarado, Julia Brown, Rita Chang, Tara Dorabji, Tina Fakhrid-Deen, Jaime Figueroa, Pamela Harris, Serena Lin, Nayomi Munaweera, Koye Oyedeji, Melissa Sipin, Simha Stubblefield, and me.


The Kiskeyans (Haitians & Dominicans)

Ther other Haitian at VONA, poet D. Colin

Part of our class. Rita, Koye, Simha, Tara, Me, & Nayomi.

Writer Serena Lin, our very own in-class therapist.

books, Culture, education, Junot Diaz, publishing, VONA, Writing, ZZ Packer

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