Vona Community site
VONA Community November 2017 Newsletter
From the Executive Director

VONA Coming Home
The VONA/VOICES WORKSHOP RETURNS TO THE BAY AREA

The 2018 VONA Workshop Dates
Session I June 17-June 23
Session II June 24-June 30

The Board of Directors is excited to announce the return of the VONA Summer Workshop for 2018 to the Bay Area. Our original co-founders: Junot Díaz, Elmaz Abinader, Diem Jones and Victor Díaz rejoined forces to bring VONA Workshop 2018 to Realm Academy in Berkeley CA, where co-founder, Victor Díaz is founder and President of the Board.

After vibrant workshops for two years at the University of Miami and the University of Pennsylvania, VONA is returning to where we started, and back in the cultural fabric of the Bay Area. Joining us in our journey are some of the faculty favorites: Junot Díaz, M. Evelina Galang, Faith Adiele, Kiese Laymon, Tananarive Due, Beth Bich Minh Nguyen, Willie Perdomo and Elmaz Abinader. David Mura will guide a residency and other faculty writers will be announced soon.

To facilitate this exciting return, VONA is raising moving money with both an Indiegogo campaign and an askers campaign. We are generating a community of support for VONA’s relocation and operation.

Our Twentieth Anniversary is in 2019 and we want to show how VONA has influenced the literary landscape and has held strong.

Please stay tuned for some upcoming excitement!

Askers and Indiegogo Campaign begins November 20, 2017—look for notices on FB and in your emails.

New Website rollout is on December 10, 2017—the same address www.vonacommunity.org but a new fresh look and some movement!

Applications for Summer 2017 are available starting December 20, 2017—the deadline is February 19.

Stay tuned for more excitement, news and movements. Thanks for being in the VONA community—We are because of you.

La Luz,

Diem Jones
Executive Director

The 52-Week Shove: My Interview with Vanessa Mártir
By Gail M. Dottin


Sometimes you need a push. Other times a shove is what’s required. VONA staff member and OG alum, Vanessa Mártír provided exactly that with the 52-week essay challenge. Vanessa is known for her boldness, her fearlessness with the word and her love for VONA-- all elements that tied into throwing down this literary gauntlet. Participants were invited on the VONA Facebook page to commit to writing a whole essay each week of 2017. Depending on the writer you ask, this either sounds like madness or motivation. However, there are now 719 writers signed up on the official challenge page! Add your name to list and finish out 2017 with the audacity to shove yourself!

I checked in with Vanessa to talk about the challenge, her memoir- in-progress, A Dim Capacity for Wings, and the knotty complications of writing about family.

Gail: So, we're ten months in. How's it going? Have you kept up?

Vanessa: I stopped doing the essays at Week 18 because at that point worrying about writing an essay a week was getting in the way of working on my memoir, A Dim Capacity for Wings. I had by then written 71 weekly essays.

G: Wow, I don’t think I’ve written that many in my life! But you had been working on something similar before you posted the challenge, right?

V: I started the challenge on my own in 2016, dubbing it The Relentless Files. At the end of 2015, I was writing but not as much as I wanted to. I was battling a serious case of perfectionism, which has been an issue for much of my life. I knew in order to confront it, I had to take direct and consistent action. To me that meant producing—writing a lot without worrying about it being perfect or "publishing worthy." I was trying to get out of my own way.

G: That’s hard, but you’ve got to learn it.

V: I was inspired by my colleague, Sarah Dohrman, who challenged herself to post an essay every Wednesday in 2015; and by my comadre, Alicia Anabel Santos (also a VONA alum), who has written consistently in her blog. I thought, "Why not?", and went ahead and did it. I wrote a total of 53 essays for the challenge, in addition to pieces for my memoir, and gained a solid following. A number of my essays were picked up by lit mags, including , “Color In AW(hite)Place”, a reflection on a horrible incident I witnessed and reported at AWP 2016 in Minneapolis. I haven't rid myself of this perfectionist streak I have but I made some serious strides. I also learned to trust my voice, my stories, and my abilities as a writer. And I was reminded that the epiphanies happen in the work and the writing, not in our heads. 

G: Why'd you invite others to take it on the challenge? Did you want to want motivate people? Were you looking for company?

V: I learned so much from The Relentless Files that I wanted to share it. It's who I am: when I learn something, I feel it's my duty to share that knowledge. Towards the end of 2016, I was mulling over continuing the challenge in 2017. My bruja sister, Lizz Huerta (a VONA alum and fierce writer in her own right) encouraged me to invite people to take on the challenge with me. I thought, "Hey, why the hell not?" So, I posted it on Facebook and my blog, and more than 800 writers responded with enthusiasm and fear and hope. Who knew?

G: They did, apparently!

In my research on memoir, I'd searched for work by writers about their journey in writing their memoirs. I found a lot of reflection on the experience post-publication, but I didn't find anything that chronicled the journey during the actual writing. I knew if I needed and wanted that, there were writers out there who needed it too. The Relentless Files was part of my effort to chronicle my own journey to share it with the world and other writers.

G: I didn’t take the sign on because I couldn’t handle the idea of being forced to write. I chickened out! What was the process like for you?

V: Some essays came out of me like waterfalls, easy and quick. Some didn't. They were like pulling hair and pummeling. I walked out of them feeling battered, but I never regretted writing them. I'm convinced that the only way out is in.

The challenge fed my work in so many ways. The essays helped me process the emotions that came up and continue to come up. I've learned how to surrender to mystery, and that is so necessary for this writing life. I opened myself up to stories that I never dared write or that I'd written over and over, and demanded a new perspective, new insight, new energy. And the challenge made me write when I didn't feel like writing. Inspiration is great but you can't always wait for it to come knocking. Sometimes you have to grab it and go. Sometimes you have to be your own inspiration.

G: What was the response like when you first posted the challenge?

V: I had a writer reach out to me during that time to ask why I did it and if I thought about publishing the essays in lit mags, etc. I told her, no. That I did this for me, and I'm so glad I did. Yes, some of the essays have been picked up by lit mags. I've gained thousands of followers. People have reached out privately to thank me. Apparently, that challenge inspired people and pushed people to write, and that was a wonderful development.

G: That must feel good.

V: I drew on that energy to invite people to take on the challenge in 2017. I created a Facebook page and posted the rules on my blog  and answered questions as they came in. Writers are still sharing their essays every week, and…

G: Yeah, I know a few people who are still at it!

V: Some are taking on the challenge privately. It's amazing to see people hold each other accountable and support one another, and offer praise, commentary and empathy. We writers need community. The challenge has offered that to so many, myself included.

G: Looking from the outside, you seem to be pretty prolific, generally.

V: But I wasn't producing as much as I wanted to in 2015. That opportunistic mothafucka imposter syndrome had me by the nape, and I had to do something about it.

G: Yeah, I know. We’ve met!

V: The Relentless Files helped me tackle that. Still, some essays were really hard to write. I share a lot of my life and my heart in my writing, and that can be taxing on the spirit—vulnerability hangover is very real and can be brutal. But I pushed and I surrendered, and I'm really glad I did. I have a lot of material for my memoir that I don't know I would have uncovered had I not challenged myself in this way. 

G: Going on this regimen, has anything been surprising for you? Like, did you find an essay you didn't know was in you? Or just the level of discipline it takes to stick to this plan, was that something you didn't know you had?

V: I have been and continue to be surprised by both the support and the backlash. I write a lot about being unmothered, how isolating and difficult it is, and how I had to learn --and am still learning-- to mother myself. I was shocked to learn how many women in the world are unmothered too. 

G: Absolutely, yes.

V: We're taught que solo hay una madre, and that we should and must sacrifice ourselves at the altar of the mother. But what about those of us for whom mother is an abyss? There are so many of us. More than I even realized. I've had women reach out to me from all over the country and world, to tell me that I gave them a name for what they had and continue to endure—being unmothered and the shame and isolation that comes with that. They said I gave them hope and some even said I gave them the courage to write their stories. That's a beautiful thing. 

G: Wow, that’s something to be proud of, to carry in you. What was the criticism like?

V: The backlash was also shocking and sometimes painful. I've been called a bad daughter, ungrateful, spiteful, etc. My sister stopped talking to me late last year because she insists I don't think about how my writing is affecting people, namely my family. Here's the thing: these silences didn't protect me nor did they protect my brother, who succumbed to a fifteen- year heroin addiction in 2013. I'm not trying to hurt anyone.

G: Of course not, but it’s so hard.

V: But I need to write these stories. I need to break these silences so my daughter doesn't carry them and I don't have to carry them anymore. I am willing to deal with the backlash though it has been painful more often than not, because I know these stories are necessary and important. I can't make people like my sister understand that I am writing from and with love, though I hope she will one day see that. I can't be responsible for how people receive my work though. That's something I continue to work through. 

G: I think that’s a lifelong process. Feels like that in my work.

V: I think I'm most surprised by the audacity I've gathered in the journey. A few weeks ago, Roxane Gay tweeted that she needed two to three essays by women of color for her upcoming anthology Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture . She put out the initial call in 2015. I saw it and wanted to submit, but I wasn't ready. Then I saw her post a few weeks ago and I dug into my files for this essay on sexual abuse that I'd been working on for more than seven years. Seven years!

G: I get you. There are pieces that take that long to release.

V: It was time for me to put that piece out into the world. This was my opportunity to do it. I sat with it for a few hours. Chopped and edited and moved paragraphs. Then I pressed submit. Roxane Gay says she got more than 100 submissions. Mine was one of two that was accepted.

G: Hell yeah!

V: I'm over the moon about it, and also terrified. This is my most vulnerable and revealing work to date, but this is the work I do. I am in the business of writing the ghosts that haunt me. In the writing, I find and make healing. There is no other way. 

G: So what are you working on next?

I'm bringing Writing Our Lives online this fall, starting on November 8th with the Writing Fiction from Real Life generative three-part class, and Reclaiming Your Voice, also a three part class that starts on December 6th. 

I recorded a video (writingourlives.com) explaining why I created WOL and what's different about the class. In short, I created Writing Our Lives after my first VONA in 2009. I walked out of VONA knowing I wanted to help bring our stories in the world. Stories by marginalized writers like me who didn't see themselves in the American canon, in the books they read in school or the ones that made bestseller and must-read lists. Writing Our Lives is my way of helping to bring our stories into the world. Since creating Writing Our Lives, I've led hundreds of writers through the journey of writing their stories. Bringing WOL online has been a dream of mine for a while now. I'm excited to step up my efforts. 

Vanessa Mártir is a NYC based writer, educator and mama. She is currently completing her memoir, A Dim Capacity for Wings, and chronicles the journey at vanessamartir.blog. A five-time VONA/Voices and two-time Tin House fellow, Vanessa's work has appeared in The Butter, Smokelong Quarterly, Kweli Journal, As/Us Journal and the VONA/Voices Anthology, Dismantle, among others. She has essays forthcoming in Not That Bad, edited by Roxane Gay, and Connections: An Integrated Reader and Rhetoric for College Writing, edited by Kerry Beckford and Donald Jones. Vanessa is the creator of the Writing Our Lives Workshop, which she teaches in NYC. Check out her website www.vanessamartir.com for more on her writing, teaching and relentlessness.

Connie Petruz-Meza and Tabitha Sin 52 Essay Challenge
By Connie Petruz-Meza and Tabitha Sin

Connie Pertuz-Meza
VONA 2015, 2017

I heard about Vanessa Mártír’s #52essays2017 challenge after a year of following her own personal challenge of an essay a week in 2016. Vanessa’s words inspired, haunted, and often echoed what I was going through as a Latina, a mother, a writer, and a daughter with a mother wound. But, after awhile the commonalties receded, and it was the human spirit that she left imprinted on the page, which made me read week after week. When Vanessa posted at the end of December 2017 that she wanted other writers to join her on the challenge for 2017, I listed excuses to myself; I simply could not do this challenge. I commented on Vanessa's status that this challenge was calling to me, but was afraid to commit. Vanessa told me to lean in, and I took the challenge on New Years Eve. My resolution was to write more and be a bad ass too, like Vanessa Martír.

I took the challenge not at all expecting it to be one of the best things that I did in my life, not just as a writer, but also as a human being. In writing weekly essays, I realized how I processed, how I thought, and felt. Writing was the compass to my soul, but also a muscle, and it needs to be exercised daily or often. In short, writing is part grunt work, part holy experience, and part exorcism. My essays are personal, and often on matters I’ve shied away from. But these essays have become my release have brought a self -awareness.

These essays have also helped inform my semi autobiographical novel, they are back-story, which has created momentum and a deeper understanding of the main character. When I sit to write for my novel, I noticed greater ease and less reluctance to write. The essays have prioritized writing for me, and have shown me that writing is its own magic.

Connie Pertuz-Meza: Teacher, Mother, Colombiana, proud Brooklynite. Connie is a fiction writer working on a YA novel. Las Dos Brujas 2017 participant. Cullman Scholar Writing Institute, 2017 participant. Connie is also part of a writing group for teachers that write based in Brooklyn.

Tabitha Sin
VONA 2016

When I saw Vanessa Mártír's Facebook post to join the #52essays2017 challenge, I knew that was a sign to finally begin writing personal essays. I took on the challenge as a way to become a more disciplined writer and for practice. Throughout this process, I have gone through a whirlwind of emotions and am still discovering parts of myself that I’d either forgotten I’d deeply buried them or thought they didn't exist. While fear and recognition swirled within me, I also learned how to be tender with myself. I thought I was writing into the void. But the main beauty of this challenge is reading and meeting other writers who are participating, and seeing how much my community supports my writing. Lately I have not been able to post as consistently as before, but I find myself jotting down ideas everywhere: on my phone, in my planner, on Post-It notes. Taking on this challenge has been a difficult but incredibly rewarding experience, and I am so grateful to Vanessa for sounding the call.

Tabitha Sin is a speculative fiction and hybrid memoir-fiction writer. She also writes about her mixed-race identity, her love for Chinatown and Colombia, and powerlifting.

Connie Pertuz-Meza and Tabitha Sin are two of the bold writers who took on the challenge. Here they reflect on how it’s affected their work.

A Parting Letter to my MFA Program
By Claire Zhuang

Editor’s note: To MFA or not is a constant conversation within the VONA community. VONA alum Claire Zhuang recently made the arduous decision to leave her MFA program. But before she did, she composed the following letter. Originally published in the June 6th edition of Ethos she has allowed us to reprint it here. I believe it speaks to many of the issues we navigate as writers of color in an academic setting and in the publishing world.

A Parting Letter to my MFA Program
By Claire Zhuang

This letter was read to the faculty at my MFA program on May 4, 2017 during my portfolio review after I withdrew from the program.

Last week, I shared a story with my film and TV discussion section about my high school’s production of Thoroughly Modern Millie, which featured three actors in yellowface playing the supporting roles of Mrs. Meers, Ching Ho, and Bun Foo. Mrs. Meers, the head of a sex-trafficking ring in the ‘Orient’, was outfitted with a ‘geisha’ look – complete with paper-white makeup, bright red lips, and chopsticks in her hair. Ching Ho and Bun Foo, Mrs. Meer’s laundry-washing Chinese henchmen, wore yellow makeup that looked more orange than yellow. I played a white character in which my obviously not-white features went unacknowledged. I was complicit in that show and I had no vocabulary to explain why I felt uncomfortable.

I still don’t have the vocabulary to explain what it feels like to watch a version of myself twisted into a sign that was unrecognizable to me. Perhaps the worst part wasn’t passively watching it happen or participating in the creation of that sign, but that no one admitted that that was supposed to be a representation of me. As though I could somehow be removed, exempted, from the implications of that representation. I, embodying the one signifier that I can never change with clothes, hair dye, plastic surgery, performance – anything – was erased. Ignored. Yet, my peers could carry on making jokes about my “Asian-ness,” exoticizing it by asking me to speak Chinese. They were never willing to engage or understand my culture beyond those measures, which would have challenged them and forced them to see the ways in which I am different from them. Now, every time I hear that Hollywood is whitewashing another Asian story, the pain gets compounded. The fear of not being seen as a complex human being grows. But this is nothing new.

At the beginning of our theatre history and culture course, I wanted to know where Asians showed up in canonical American theatre. As I was doing research for my play, Juliet, I found that the first instance of “Asians” appearing onstage in western theatre was as white people in yellowface for Voltaire’s Orphan in China, which opened in 1767. Then with the development of chinoiserie (literally“China stuff” in French, a term art historians use to refer to the consumer movement in mid-to-late 18th century Europe, when the entire continent was set ablaze with the craze over China-themed goods), I see that the phenomenon of “Chinese-ness” or “Asian-ness” as background objects, and the exclusion of Asians from their own stories and experiences, is a 250-year-old ideology.

Last month, I heard that the directors who ran my high school’s theatre program will be retiring at the end of this school year. Many displayed their affections publicly and expressed gratitude towards these directors for giving them shelter, a sense of safety, and license to explore art in their adolescence. But all I can associate them with is pain. It’s been seven or eight years since that show, but I can’t move past the compounding of negative associations regarding my identity that has haunted me year after year and has immobilized me in almost every aspect of my life. I had to ask myself: isn’t this exactly how institutional racism works? Isn’t this precisely how domination works?

We spent all semester talking about race, class, gender, and sexuality as though it existed on a parallel plane above us. But it doesn’t. We all live those issues every day, whether we acknowledge it or not. We often recite the mantra that education is power, knowledge is power. But education is also colonialism, and education is the primary way that systems of domination perpetuate themselves. Academia, especially, is a site of colonization and US imperialism. As Viet Thanh Nguyen wrote in his op-ed for the New York Times, its “model of pedagogy is an object lesson in how power propagates and conceals itself.” Academia tends to situate us deeply within the processes of naturalization, which is the process through which something comes to not require explanation (Ekert and McConnell-Ginet 2003). The way things are is the way things have always been.

I understand that I have a different reaction to and experience with the two directors, not because they were intentionally racist, but because the institutions that educated them and taught them how to interpret, behave, and act in the world was not built to include someone like me. In these institutions of knowledge production and dissemination (which include but aren’t limited to academia), Asian Americans are largely nonexistent. The history of Asian Americans, our cultural heritage, does not belong in the American canon or even in American history.

I have found that theatre, film and other forms of representation have continually believed it to be acceptable to appropriate my identity and culture, all the while ignoring the history of that appropriation. I tried pitching an article about this phenomenon to Howlround, only to receive links to two articles about whitewashing and yellowface from the year before. It seemed to imply that the Asian American problem has already been sufficiently dealt with. If so, why does it continue to happen? I don’t get to compartmentalize my identity to last year or a unit in a class. My identity is all the time and I am reminded of it constantly, in little ways that are often invisible to everyone because that is how the institution and systems of dominance have taught us to see.

This program has failed me. This past school year was like reliving my high school adolescence; only this time, I can articulate myself and my experiences slightly better. However, the capacity to articulate doesn’t mean that what needs to be said is said out loud, or that it gets heard. I wrote on our anonymous feedback survey that I felt tokenized in this program. I’m not sure why this sentiment was ignored when the program answered our request for more built-in creative space and time. If we don’t know how to meaningfully engage and manage the imperatives that come with racial differences, can we at least acknowledge them and ask each other how to move forward and how to diminish the possibility of alienation and erasure? This burden continually falls on marginalized students, as we are expected to speak up about problems we have, but often the culture of the program and institution doesn’t make it safe for those conversations to take place.

I’m asking the program to think about what they really mean when ‘diversity’ is used. To me, diversity has become a neoliberal concept and a handy concealer to excuse the lack of any real engagement with identity differences (Urciuoli 2009). It promotes tokenization at the expense of students with marginalized identities because it asks us to participate in a structure and environment that does not care about us. We are asked to participate because it makes the institution look good, while the institution continues to perpetuate systems of domination and erasure.

Theatre has never been a safe place for me. I have spent many sleepless nights wondering how many “good” or “right” things need to happen to me in theatre before I start believing I have a place within it. Arts education institutions that seek to produce artists, like the one I attended, are rarely able to see what it is they are perpetuating. Interests become caught up in the mechanics, the microcosms of artistic creation, the unmoving belief that X is the thing we have to know. But why and for whom is this true? Craft and techniques are placed in positions of primacy and held up as universals when in reality, they become ways to erase and hide the reproductive machinery of ideology. If institutions across the nation are teaching students unexamined sets of assumptions about what American theatre has been, is, and can be, I have little hope that the realities of the field will be any different. I see no place for myself in theatre because theatre as an institution (which I think it often forgets it is one) has not identified a way to properly engage and understand itself as a locus of domination; as a location that also perpetuates and upholds white supremacist values.

Here is the point where I have to ask myself, what does it mean for me to learn how to make art in an environment that unquestioningly perpetuates and reinforces systems of dominance? Why do I continually subscribe to and seek validation within a system that doesn’t care about me? Will the art I make end up unquestioningly reproducing institutions and ideas that have historically and presently erased me? I understand there is no graduate program that doesn’t operate under these unspoken and unacknowledged assumptions of how to create, whom to read when creating, and whom the creation is for. The work of interrogation is work that must be done constantly because we are so entrenched in these ideologies that there never is a moment when we don’t have to question where our reactions and responses stem from.

In Revolution and Resistance: Ending Domination, bell hooks asks us where we enter into the system of domination because regardless of identity, we are all in it and we all reinforce these systems. More importantly, though, is how do we hold ourselves accountable for the roles we play within it? I was once told by a professor in undergrad that I should continue to share my experiences because that was “good for people.” I was “good for people.” Throughout the years, I have seen this played out over and over again. Most recently, a student came up to me after class and thanked me for sharing my experience with our discussion section, stating that they couldn’t stop thinking about it. In our last class, they said what they learned from the course was the importance of social justice within the arts. I was so incredibly moved and happy to hear that. But acknowledgement is not change. Acknowledgement doesn’t necessarily translate into action.

I made the choice to share. I made the choice to be vulnerable with a room full of strangers whom I had significant power over. I made a choice to not fear conflict and to speak with integrity to young filmmakers going into the industry and pleaded to them, at least those who would listen, to think more consciously about what it is that they’re creating. But what is the cost? What is the price I have to pay to be “good for people”? How do I resist and challenge systems while protecting myself and my art? This is where I struggle.

Claire Zhuang hails from the Midwest and is a proud VONA alumni.

Referenced Readings
Eckert, Penelope, McConnell-Ginet, Sally (2003). Language and Gender. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press.

Schulman, Sarah. (2016). Conflict is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility and the Duty of Repair. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press.

Urciuoli, Bonnie. (2009). Talking/Not Talking about Race: The Enregisterments of “Culture” in Higher Education Discourses. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 19(1), 21-39.

VONA Achievements – November 2017

As always, culling the successes of the VONA fam is one of the most satisfying parts of being the editor of this newsletter. I hope this edition of VONA Shine offers buckets of inspiration and motivation to our readers!

Download the VONA Accomplishments PDF