Race, Identity, and Narrative Craft

A conversation with David Mura

I first met David at VONA/Voices, a writing retreat for people of color, in 2015. We were in Miami, and I was scared and anxious that I might unravel during my first writing workshop dedicated to people of color. I wasn’t part of David’s workshop, but I met many of his students who described at length his wisdom, generosity, and dedication to their work. Three years later, when David announced the publication of A Stranger’s Journey on Facebook, I recalled his students’ high praise and emailed him to review the book. I began to write a review and realized that instead, I wanted to continue the discussion. We spoke about personal, pedagogical, and institutional approaches to the writing craft, and how the writer discovers themselves on and off the page. 
—Victoria Cho

Victoria Cho: When I heard A Stranger’s Journey was being released, I was ecstatic. This book combines craft instruction, self-help tips for the writer of color, and education on white supremacy’s permeation of the artistic process. I was looking for a book like this, a torch I could’ve carried in my MFA program if it had been released during that time. Can you talk about what inspired you to write this book? Also, what were your own torches that helped you write it?

David Mura: In a large way the book comes out of my teaching. I’ve had students who have gone to prestigious MFA programs and they don’t know the basic elements of story or narrative construction. This has been true of fiction students and even more so with nonfiction students.

(As I say in the book, in fiction we create story; in memoir we discover story.)

When I started writing fiction, I discovered most books on writing fiction did not deal extensively or even at all with narrative construction (John Gardener’s classic The Art of Fiction, for instance, presents very little on this subject). Instead, I found material on narrative in books on playwriting, screenplays and myth. I began using that material in my teaching and I developed ways of interweaving the lessons from these three areas (for instance, the structure Joseph Campbell outlines for the hero’s journey in A Hero with a Thousand Faces can be seen to embody the structure of a three-act play). I also developed concepts and ways of teaching narrative to my students. For instance, if you take the basic story structure as the protagonist’s pursuit of a goal, your role as an author is to create difficulties for the protagonist in pursuit of the goal. One figure I invoke for this is God in the Book of Job who rains down calamities and misfortune upon Job; another is Poseidon who keeps coming up with ways of foiling and delaying Odysseus’s journey home from the Trojan War. But the figure of the Devil is also useful, since the Devil provides temptations that may either pull or distract the protagonist from their goal or may pump up the ego, pride or vanity of the protagonist and provides opportunities or traps for the protagonist to act badly.

The second gap A Stranger’s Journey addresses involves the ways the issues of race and the writings and traditions of writers of color are neglected in creative writing workshops. Over the years I’ve had many younger writers of color talk to me of the difficulties they’ve experienced in workshops and MFA programs; other teachers of color have heard similar complaints. The difficulties can start with misreadings or a lack of appreciation of the work and literary context of writers of color; sometimes this is embodied in stupid workshop comments like “Well, I’m just not into poems about identity; isn’t the whole thing to get beyond race?” “Spanish speaking people don’t talk like this” or “Why don’t you use the Beatles as a musical reference rather than Outkast?” Then there are also instances when the white writers in the workshop bring in work plagued by stereotypes, racist tropes or mono-dimensional portraits of characters of color. Oftentimes, when the student of color brings up issues of race, they are chastised for bringing the political or PC into what is supposed to be a neutral aesthetic space.

Of course, there is no politically neutral aesthetic space, and part of what I’m trying to do in the first essays in my book is to explain why this is so, in part through writers like Berger, Eagleton, Brecht and Foucault and in part through writers on race like Morrison and Baldwin. In the process, I’m making an argument for a study of craft that takes in the traditions of writers of color and that understands that all writing has a political effect and reflects to some extent the prejudices and unexamined assumptions of its age—and this is particularly true when it comes to issues of race in literature.

Richard Wright once remarked that black and white Americans are engaged in a struggle over the description of reality. Well why wouldn’t that struggle also be present within the literary world, where we as writers are attempting to describe our lives and our social realities? All of us are living now in a complex, multi-ethnic, multi-racial society and in order to write about that society, it’s no longer sufficient or useful to ignore the issues of race, whether you are a white writer or a writer of color. In light of our rapidly shifting demographics we all possess pockets or areas of ignorance and we all need to learn more about each other.

In short, the issues of identity and race are neither minor nor beyond the realm of creative writing workshops; they are essential to the craft of writing, both in the past and in twenty-first century America. Take, for example, Playing in the Dark, Toni Morrison’s exploration of canonical white fiction writers writing about black characters; there she argues that the limited and myopic understanding of race on the part of white writers like Cather, Faulkner, Twain and Hemingway led them to failures of craft, and not just in their depiction of black characters but—because black identity and white identity cannot be separated—also their white characters.

VC: In the “Destroying the Imago of the Protagonist” essay, you write: “Each of us creates a self-image, or imago, of ourselves, which includes both how we would like to look at and identify ourselves and how we would like others to look at and identify us.” You tie this to W. E. B. Du Bois’ double-consciousness theory in another part of the book. Can you talk more about the ways you render this sense of imago for your characters? Are there particular obstacles you face during that process?

DM: I think of the imago as the projection of the self—the way a person wants others to view that person and the way that person wants to view their self. I imagine this like a life-size cardboard image that the person carries around and shows to the world. In fiction, part of your work as a writer in developing the narrative is to tear down this imago, this projected self-image, so that the protagonist’s true self is revealed. So the imago is not necessarily that hard to detect or characterize since it’s the character’s conscious perception of themselves.

What’s more complicated is the development of the elements of story and how they interact with the imago. What the story or events of the narrative should reveal is the true character of the protagonist, who that person is beneath the mask of the imago or ideal, beneath the cardboard image. The story does this by forcing the protagonist to struggle to achieve their goal; it baffles and thwarts the protagonist with calamities, distractions, temptations or it presents another goal that clashes with the original goal. Thus the protagonist’s choices and actions, their failures or mistakes or problems with others eventually reveal a truer—and generally more contradictory—self than how the character or the reader imagined the character to be at the start of the story.

In response to the second half your question, I’d like to approach the idea of imago and DuBois’ on a broader racial level. In DuBois’s concept of double conscious, he explains that blacks must be aware of how whites think of themselves and of black people; at the same time, the black person knows that he or she looks at their own self and other black people differently than white people look at black people. This double-consciousness was and is a necessary tool of survival for black people. In many ways, white people don’t think much of how black people might view them; mostly they don’t have to because of the powers and privileges they receive by being white. But as Baldwin and others have taught us, we cannot separate the existence of whiteness and blackness separately; they are part of a system of race—and racism—that whites created to establish their racial power.

So many whites lack a sense of double-consciousness or have a less developed double-consciousness. In general they are more likely to not be aware of how black people and other people of color look at white people differently than white people look at themselves. The corollary to this involves who the author envisions as the readership of their work. In Playing in the Dark Morrison makes that observation that, until recently, white authors simply did not imagine a black reader of their work. In contrast—a la the double-consciousness—black writers were aware of a white readership because generally they could not publish their work without it passing through a white gatekeeper and without a white readership being important to their viability as an author.

Part of our work with race in this country involves the tearing down of white America’s imago of itself, the ideal projection of the generalized white self. This imago involves an ignorance of history (“Make America Great Again”), a belief in American innocence and exceptionalism, and a worship of white heroes and whiteness which is both inaccurate and ideological. The imago also relies on the silencing of the voices and experiences of people of color, the ways we critique and point to the lies in that imago. To put it more bluntly, we as a country are still in denial about our history regarding race and thus, of who we are today. Baldwin is great at tearing apart the images America still retains of white heroism, innocence and virtue. What we ultimately need is a new national narrative and identity; in various ways, that’s what we’re going through right now, and of course, we writers and our work are part of this struggle for a new national narrative and identity.

VC: I found the book to encourage enormous introspection, more so than other writing craft books I’ve read. You encourage the writer to explore their identity, vision, and blind spots off the page in order to explore them for the character on the page. Tell me more about your process for exploring your own blind spots.

DM: In my teaching I’ve often found that beneath a problem with quality or a technical block lies a psychological block. Whether in fiction or nonfiction, we as writers often want to work on what’s easiest, what comes most natural, what we’re most fluent in, what our conscious mind plans for the work. This is part of what I don’t like about workshops because so often the writer wants to impress the workshop and present work the write knows “works.” But we only grow by entering new territory or trying new approaches, and when we do this, we may not succeed at first; thus, we sometimes have to give ourselves the permission to write “badly” or unimpressively at first because we are doing something new with the writing or encountering a new subject.

Oftentimes with students I’ll look for a paragraph or a page or sometimes even a sentence that marks off a new or hidden direction for the writer. Sometimes this is because the writing in that page or paragraph might be more energized or more powerful; sometimes a sentence points to a missing element. Recently I had a student whose memoir pieces were well-written but had no energy. I assigned an exercise where I asked students to write out of their anti- or shadow self, the self they or their parents or their group doesn’t want them to be, and in that writing, the student had a sentence, “I hate my mother.” Now of course she also loves her mother, but none of her previous writing on her family had reflected this level of antipathy and ambiguity towards her mother, and it was clear she had both consciously and unconsciously been avoiding the complexity—and yes, the anger—that she felt towards her mother, and the result was in part writing that was even handed and rather flat.

Part of the problem or the dilemma here is that our schooling prizes conscious choice, conscious planning. But writing is a process of discovery; through writing we are trying to tap into the unconscious. In the end, the unconscious is smarter and more creative and knows more than the conscious mind, but we only hear what the unconscious is telling us if we listen for it, if we look for it in our writing, if we make attempts to draw it out.

The concept of Jung’s shadow side is useful here. Jung believed we all possessed a shadow side that involved a capacity for evil. But we also all possess areas of the psyche which are underdeveloped, which we’ve neglected, and we also all possess a shadow side involving our memories of the past—things we’ve been in denial about or perhaps even have repressed and don’t remember. So when we prod the unconscious what can come up in our writing, if we recognize it, is our shadow side.

For myself, I find that writing poetry is often the best way to tap into my own unconscious because there’s a lot more play and liberty involved in writing poetry than in essays or fiction; there’s less need to make sense or create an argument or a plot. Playing with language can liberate or lead us into new areas. I’ve also found that writing notes or fragments—whether as poetry or prose—and not bringing in so quickly the impulse to organize or to create an argument or position can also be helpful. Reading contrary to your proclivities or tastes can also help loosen up the psyche.

VC: You are a renowned teacher and have taught at many spaces, including Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation (VONA) and the Stonecoast MFA Program. The book also includes many craft exercises. Can you talk more about your teaching philosophy and how it has developed over time?

DM: I try to devise craft exercises or assignments for students that will push them into new areas or force them to try a new approach or technique. Or sometimes I will give them a subject and tell them just to write informally about that subject—notes, quotations, a notebook (this is like the assignment in the book to write about one’s identities). I want them in more of a mode of process rather than a product mode, in a mode of experimentation rather than planning.

I emphasize one on one conferences with my students. I think workshops are useful, but they also present definite limitations. As I mentioned above, they encourage competitiveness and only putting your best work before others; in this way, workshops can work against the idea that each writer has their own particular journey and you shouldn’t waste time comparing yourself with others; the workshop model can also work against entertaining experimentation, doing what you don’t know how to do, letting yourself write badly or make a mistake.

Also I don’t know off the bat how someone is going to react to my criticism. Each student is at their own point of development and has their own psychology. What might be the right thing to say to one student may be the exact wrong thing to say to another student. Then too in workshop you have other novices criticizing a novice, and problems often arise from that (how much time does one as a teacher spend cleaning up or correcting ill-informed or stupid remarks from workshop members?). It is true that workshops often help the writer to know what isn’t working with a piece, but a workshop may not help the writer at all with how to solve those problems. And if some of the problem involves psychological blocks, the workshop is not really the arena to try to probe with the writer into these areas.

In an ideal world I’d like to know who my students are, their background, their approach to writing and criticism, their personal story, before I start working on their writing. I want to critique their writing from an informed position—which is a very different process than the one that sometimes goes on in a workshop.

VC: For institutions and professors who are most resistant to discussing white supremacy in their spaces and critiques, what do you feel are the largest roadblocks? What hinders workshops from addressing questions such as “Who is your audience?” and “Does it include any non-white people?”

DM:  If an individual professor is resistant to engaging with the issues of race in relationship to creative writing, I don’t know how much can be done to move that professor, especially if they are older. Perhaps give them my book? (I’m half joking here, but I also have written the book to make a challenge to such professors in ways that a student might find difficult or too risky to do.)

Institutions, though, are another matter.

For the institution as a whole, it should be clear that their students are only going to be increasingly diverse, our literature will only become increasingly diverse, and our society will become increasingly diverse—so much so that some time after 2040 white people will no longer constitute a majority in this country; we will all be racial minorities. Since most writers of color deal in some way with race, how is the institution going to teach these students or our literature or help their students—white and those of color—to confront the realities of twenty first century American without confronting the issues of race and literature?

Moreover, it’s clear that writers of color are only going to be more, not less, important to the shaping of our literature and our criteria for judging literature. In her introduction to the 2018 Best American Short Stories, Roxane Gay states that she has aesthetic differences with the choices Richard Russo made for that volume a few years earlier and its preponderance of white writers. I’m not saying Gay is right and Russo wrong, but wouldn’t it be useful to any writer to understand the nature of this aesthetic disagreement. And you can’t do that unless you understand how Gay has formed her literary criteria.

On a broader level, that America of 2040 is already here. My children went to a high school that was twenty percent Native American, twenty percent Latinx, twenty percent east African and American black, ten percent Asian and thirty percent white. In order to write about this high school, a writer would have to be conversant with the various communities and histories in that high school, and the ways that race has shaped these students and their communities. In many ways, I’m already too old to acquire that knowledge, at least in terms of linguistic usage, and I see in my son a knowledge base that I simply don’t have. But I can teach writing students how to expand their knowledge base and their literary perspectives, and I can teach them the ways that racial issues enter our literature, from definitions of the canon to literary theory to judgments in quality to the larger histories of race in this country. When it comes to our mutual history, white America has lied in both particular ways and in terms of larger interpretive structures. Some of those lies are embedded in our literature, as Toni Morrison points out in Playing in the Dark. Why then repeat the lies of the past?

At the Stonecoast MFA program I co-taught a course “Writing on Race.” One large initial hurdle was getting white writers to think about their own racial identities and how they were formed; using the theologian Thandeka’s Learning to Be White, we had the class write about when they first discovered their racial identity. In the end, the class was probably less revolutionary to the students of color than it was for the white writers.  The white writers became stronger writers, more courageous—entering the taboo of race made it easier for them to confront other taboo subjects. Their writing became more complex, more wide ranging, and deeper (one white student, for instance, had been writing about her working class family, and as a result of the workshop, she began to investigate how her parents’ identities—and thus hers—had been informed not just by class but also race—this led to a crucial epiphany in her memoir).

I will say that although I certainly use the term white supremacy, it’s not the first thing I would offer up if I were trying to convince an institution to become more inclusive. We’re still in the stage where we have to talk to white writers and institutions in ways that they can hear us, and as in Gates’ signification, we can choose to talk to whites in ways that move them forward rather than cause in them a knee-jerk reaction. That doesn’t mean we don’t at other times speak truth to power. But there’s a difference sometimes between working inside an institution and trying to change it, and critiquing institutional practices in general. Think Sun Tzu and The Art of War—don’t fight battles you can’t win; know the terrain of the battle and the relative strength of your forces; find those places or battlegrounds where you have an advantage. Fighting smart is not the same thing as selling out. This is part of the point I try to make in my essay, “The Student of Color in the Typical MFA Program.”

VC: This book is also a space where you share personal experiences, such as your understanding of what it means to be a Sensei, or a third-generation Japanese American. You noted that “For most Asian Americans, American culture provides two unsatisfactory identities: The first is that we are perpetually foreign” and “Our second identity is that we Asian Americans are honorary whites—sometimes the ‘model minority’.” How has this constant estrangement and the model minority conceit impacted your writing?

DM: In many ways, it’s made my progress as a writer and my career more difficult. In conversations about race, our community and our perspectives are often absent and seen as minor or unnecessary. Moreover, our own communities are not always inclined to embrace our work, either because that work brings out issues the community would rather not look at—as happened to me when I began to write about race and sexuality and Asian Americans—or because certain parts of our community are white identified or do not see themselves in connection with other communities of color.

At the same time, back in the nineties, I had many arguments with white writer and artist friends over the issues stemming from Miss Saigon—yellow faced casting, Orientalism. When I wrote an article about these arguments for Mother Jones, I was met with severe negative reactions. I was dropped from an editorial board, the article was cited as a reason not to hire me, and I received notes asking me if I’d become a racial separatist.

So at a certain point I felt my writing was being rejected both by own community and by the white community, and I began to wonder who the hell I was writing for? Eventually, I came to the conclusion that all I could do was write the truth as I saw it; that was my job.

Of course, none of those white writers today would defend yellow face casting, and it is precisely because I explored the issues of race and sexuality that Where the Body Meets Memory is the most frequently taught text of mine.

One other point: In my twenties, I did a lot of therapy and worked on issues stemming from my family—being raised by a Japanese American “Tiger” dad; the ways approval and love seemed conditional and withheld; a masking silence about the internment. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to believe that my deeper conflicts were with the culture and society around me—our family’s racial history; the portrayal of Asians and Asian Americans in the culture (particularly around sexuality); racially biased judgments and norms; microaggressions; the ways my work has been received by the dominant culture.

Recently, a Korean American writer friend remarked that she was tired of novels about oppressive Asian families, and I think partly she meant that to look at Asian American families in isolation or simply in terms of a family system, gives only a truncated view of what goes on with Asian Americans in general. For instance, the work Gish Jen has done with Tiger Writing and The Girl at the Baggage Claim helps provide us with a deeper understanding of the cultural differences between Western and Asian culture and how that complicates ways we Asian Americans try to contextualize ourselves, our experiences, our families and our writing. At the same time, in comparison to African Americans, Asian Americans don’t have a long history of developing a language to talk about our racial position in America. We’re still developing this language, whereas the language of family systems and therapy—a white centered language—already exists in the culture. Then too we as Asian Americans are racialized in particular ways and that racialization also shifts over time, in part through America’s political relations with Asia. All of this is much more complicated than may at first be apparent, and I think as Asian American writers and intellectuals we need to have more conversations about how culture/ethnicity/race affect our experiences and the ways we see ourselves (I recently had a great conversation about these topics with David Henry Hwang and Gish Jen at the 92nd St. Y). And in general, the necessary context for such discussions is not provided for us in the educational system—or in creative writing classes.

VC: In the book, you emphasize that writers “start writing a book to become the person who can finish the book.” Who have you become since you finished this book?

DM: A few years ago, I began working with a program developed by my friend, the novelist Alexs Pate, the Innocent Classroom. The program is designed to address the racial achievement gap by training teachers to improve their relationships with students of color. For a couple years, I was the first trainer other than Alexs and I was training other trainers. But about a year before A Stranger’s Journey came out, I ended that work. I’m working now on finishing and publishing a book of essays on race in general, partly from my perspective as an Asian American. I’m also continuing to work on poetry and fiction.

What I think has changed for me is a sense of urgency. Partly this is due to age; I have work I want to make sure gets done. But it’s also the times. I began some of the essays in A Stranger’s Journey around the time that Obama was elected and some deluded were proclaiming a post-racial America. I wrote the introduction just after Trump’s election and his proffering of racism, xenophobia, religious bigotry, homophobia and sexism. So I began the book at a time when certain white writers could supposedly claim that race was no longer an issue to a time when any white writer who maintains such a view would be seen now as deeply deluded (of course that writer was deluded too in their reading of Obama’s election).

When you inform whites that after 2040 they will no longer constitute a majority of Americans, they feel a heightened sense of their identity as whites, view people of color and immigrants as more threatening, and express a greater concern about their position in America. Moreover, they answer more conservatively not only on racial issues but on other political issues such as climate change. At the same time there is more and more significant work that has been done concerning race both in literature and other fields. So I have to keep running to keep up with the culture and our society. Finishing this book has only increased my sense of urgency, that there is work I need to get done.

I do think that A Stranger’s Journey is indicative a long time change for me. I’ve gone from someone who was very white identified and in denial about my identity as an Asian American to a writer deeply engaged in Japanese American and Asian American issues to a writer whose friends, students and colleagues are increasingly diverse, and so like many others, I now view race through an intersectional lens. The traditional dialogue on race in America has been between whites and blacks. So how do I as an Asian American enter this dialogue? What is it that I can contribute? Over the years, I have worked long and hard to prepare myself to engage in this struggle and dialogue—through reading  (including complex theory), through community work, through conversations and friendships, through teaching, through writing, through collaborations, through working to change the educational system. In this way then A Stranger’s Journey: Race, Identity and Narrative Craft in Writing marks a new stage of my journey.

David Mura’s newest book is A Stranger’s Journey: Race, Identity & Narrative Craft in Writing. He has written two acclaimed memoirs: Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei(Oakland PEN Josephine Miles Book Award & New York Times Notable Book), and Where the Body Meets Memory: An Odyssey of Race, Sexuality and Identity. He has also written a novel, Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire, and four books of poetry, the latest The Last Incantations. Mura has taught at VONA, the Loft, the Stonecoast MFA program, the University of Oregon, the University of Minnesota, and other institutions. He also works with the Innocent Classroom, a program that trains K-12 teachers to improve their relationships with students of color. He was also recently awarded the 2019 Kay Sexton Award, presented annually to an individual or organization in recognition of long-standing dedication and outstanding work in fostering books, reading and literary activity in Minnesota.

Victoria Cho is a Korean-American writer born and raised in Virginia. Her writing has appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, The Collagist, Perigee, Quarter After Eight, Luna Luna Magazine, and Word Riot. She is a Co-Fiction Editor for Apogee Journal and a VONA/Voices alumna. She lives in New York City.

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