“Geniuses Hiding in Plain Sight”: Tayari Jones on How the Academy Can Reinforce Inequality

Tayari Jones does a reading on stage during the Feminist as F*ck with Amber Tamblyn and Roxane Gay panel during the 2017 Vulture Festival at Milk Studios on May 21, 2017, in New York City. (Photo by Dia Dipasupil / Getty Images for Vulture Festival)Tayari Jones does a reading on stage during the “Feminist as F*ck with Amber Tamblyn and Roxane Gay” panel during the 2017 Vulture Festival at Milk Studios on May 21, 2017, in New York City. (Photo by Dia Dipasupil / Getty Images for Vulture Festival)

2018 is a dynamic year for Black creatives. In film and television, as well as books, the cultural landscape is rich with stories featuring African Americans in diverse and beautiful ways. Despite this glorious variety in ambitious depictions of Blackness, white supremacy remains a vivid expression of socially-constructed power against which Black voices must rage. Even in the arts and academia, where opportunities for progressive discourse abound, racism persists. In addition, the overreliance on adjunct labor in colleges and universities generates a two-tiered system of equally qualified professionals divided by economic inequality. Indeed, the term “adjunct slave labor” produces 282,000 results on Google.

The university is a good gig for some, but a nightmare for others. The inequality is staggering.

In this interview, Tayari Jones — the author of An American Marriage, one of the most anticipated and celebrated books of the year — discusses this inequality and contributes to the public discourse around the Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree. Who has access to the MFA? In what ways are the financial risks associated with the artist’s life compounded by racism? How do we ensure “the geniuses who may be hiding in plain sight” become visible?

Eisa Nefertari Ulen: You have been blessed to receive numerous grants; however, like most writers, you also teach to support your life and career. How do you balance the demands of full time teaching and writing?

Tayari Jones: You know, I feel really lucky to have my position at Rutgers-Newark. I have tenure, and a very reasonable load. Right now, the university is subsidizing me to allow me to take advantage of the Shearing Fellowship at the Black Mountain Institute. So many of my friends and colleagues are not full-time faculty, and they exhaust themselves running from school to school, chasing check to check. The university is a good gig for some, but a nightmare for others. The inequality is staggering.

I don’t have as much time to write as, say, someone who is able do art all day because of family money or a supportive spouse; I have enough time to do my work if I organize myself well. I am very pleased to have a means to support myself that is not my art. This way, I am never in a position where I have to choose between pleasing an editor and paying my rent.

I do feel torn, however, by the rise of the MFA degree. I have an MFA, and I do believe that it was instrumental to my development. I gained a rich understanding of craft when I was a student at Arizona State. I hope my students have a similar experience. However, I am concerned that the academy has defanged creative writing. I am in a position to read a lot of personal statements from aspiring writers. It is not uncommon for me to encounter someone who is unsure whether to pursue an MFA or [a Master of Business Administration degree]. It’s a brave new world in which this is the same person. Writers used to be primarily renegades. When I was very young, a meeting of writers would be a gathering of real outliers. But that said, I believe the security of the academy allows more marginalized people to pursue the arts. You know how you say, “On the one hand,” then you say, “On the other hand?” Well, I want to say on the third hand: What does it mean if the academy becomes the gatekeeper to literature? We do a great job with diversity at Rutgers-Newark — diversity in terms of race, explicitly, and sexuality and gender identification. We have a great cohort in the classroom and on the faculty, but we are only one program.

I am locked in a sudden and (I hope) discreet panic whenever undergraduates seek advice from me about pursuing the MFA or the Ph.D. How can I advise students to take the route that leads to academia, given the exploitation of labor that has become status quo at colleges and universities around the country? How can I urge my largely working-class students to actively pursue the dream of becoming a professor, given that half of all professors are adjuncts or are otherwise working on an on-demand basis, as if institutions of higher learning were producing widgets instead of enlightened citizens?

And then there are all the Black writers, women and men, who have been unable to secure full-time teaching gigs despite having mile-long CVs and shiny MFAs. I still encourage talented undergraduates to apply to MFA and Ph.D. programs, but with a lingering sense that I am being irresponsible, and so I also caution them that they are taking great risks when they pursue these advanced degrees.

So, I actually get why you encounter potential MFA students who are also considering the MBA. What, if anything, can we do to reduce the hard smack of economic insecurity, especially for women writers of color, as a barrier to entry?

No one chooses a career as a writer seeking financial security, you know what I mean? Never has this been true, ever in history. I would never discourage a talented student from seeking an MFA or a Ph.D. if this is what she wants to do. When I wanted to get my MFA, I was strongly discouraged by people who love me very much. They were terrified that I would end up broke and disappointed. It’s only in hindsight that I see they were motivated by love. At the time, it felt like they were telling me I wasn’t good enough to be a writer. But you know, this was their fear, not mine. It was a fear that comes from being new to the middle class. But in my heart, I knew that nothing was promised — art is risky by its very nature — but I wanted to give it my best shot. I pushed on because I really wanted to spend two or three years studying creative writing, learning more about how to write a novel. I moved to Arizona! Everyone was stunned. Me, a Black person, moving to Arizona. I mean, this is the state that didn’t have the [Martin Luther] King [Jr.] holiday. But I wanted to study, and [novelist and educator] Jewell Parker Rhodes promised to mentor me, and she helped me to secure funding. I wanted to learn so desperately. I had an idea to write about growing up in Atlanta during the Atlanta child murders. I knew that I wasn’t good enough yet to write it. When the opportunity came to spend two years working on the book, I took advantage of the chance. I made the move defiantly, angry because I felt like nobody believed in me. I didn’t understand how fear warps love.

It was a challenging experience … I experienced … racism from time to time. I’ll never forget the time that an office staff person accused me of trying to steal an overhead projector! There were some students who hated my work, but I can’t even remember their names. There was a persistent whiteness in the program, and I didn’t feel particularly nurtured by the program. But as we say down South, “I wasn’t studying them.” And in this context, the pun is deliberate. I wasn’t devastated by my MFA program. Workshop just wasn’t that deep for me. I was lucky enough to find two terrific mentors — one was a white man and the other was a Black woman. My own work was my focus.

Writer Martha Southgate wrote in The New York Times about Black people not having the same cultural permission to write that benefits middle-class whites. I suppose “cultural permission” is another way of saying white privilege, but it is also a way of rejecting fear — perhaps something like the fear you just described. Who has cultural permission to obtain the MFA? Entering those spaces is inherently dangerous, to the students and to the work they produce, because those programs are steeped in the dominant tradition of hetero-normative, white male power. Even when effective change in terms of numbers takes place, it is not enough. After all, Junot Diaz attended Cornell with other students of color, but still experienced intense desolation as he struggled against overwhelming whiteness in workshop.

Look, I imagine a whole cohort of “gatekeepers” at MFA programs around the country discussing in meaningful and intentional ways the elegant keynote Claudia Rankine gave [at the 2016 Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference & Bookfair]. In my vision, these gatekeepers work to increase diversity in their programs, among students and faculty. But even if their numbers of people of color increase a little, or even a lot, I think we both know that their work will not be done. The workshops are white, not just because the people are white, but also because the conversations are white. Diversity is not enough; equity and inclusion are needed. To truly liberate the art young writers produce, perhaps the very different but equally important work is to edify in some way for young writers of color their real-life experiences, which are, of course, reflected in the narratives they produce.

You are one of the founding faculty at the Rutgers program at Newark, and so you helped establish an MFA experience that is unique in its diversity. In what ways does that diversity enable real equity, in that each student and faculty member is equally valued and respected and edified? What kind of initiatives or efforts ensure that the diversity you have in place in Newark manifests in real inclusion, so that no one’s integrity or value is eroded? What might my imagined cohort of MFA gatekeepers learn from you and the Rutgers-Newark model?

Grad school is unpleasant, as a rule, I believe. Obviously, there are certain experiences that are specific to writers and thinkers of color. I don’t want to suggest that all is well in MFA-land in terms of race, class, gender, etc. However, we must look at the fact that, in recent years, many fantastic writers of color have graduated from MFA programs and have created a body of work that is as varied as they are, as individuals. Did you see the list in Electric Literature…? Forty-six books by women of color that are publishing in 2018.

I am on the faculty at Rutgers-Newark. For our MFA, we began with a motto: “Real Lives, Real Stories.” Our director, Jayne Anne Phillips, founded the program with a serious commitment to diversity. What sets our program apart is that we have an incredible and diverse faculty. This attracts diverse and incredible students. I wish, though, that we could work on more age diversity. There are a lot of important stories out there that can only be told by an older writer. We have a few writers in our program over 40, but I would like to see writers in their 50s and 60s.

All of us in every field must constantly fight for true inclusion, whether it’s a on a faculty or on an assembly line.

Last year, I taught a workshop, and six of my seven students were Black — but check out the diversity within that group of six: We were one Haitian American from Florida just graduated from Princeton; an African American former public defender from the South; a first-generation Cameroonian; a colored woman from South Africa; a biracial woman from Canada; and a Caribbean American from the Bronx. And the white American woman in the room wrote about her experiences growing up in Alaska. These are real lives, real stories.

I think about Black women writers from around the world — like Simone Schwarz-Bart, Mariama Ba, Bessie Head, Alifa Rifaat, Buchi Emecheta and Nawal El Saadawi — whose work is so important, and I wonder: Would any of these magnificent voices be admitted to MFA programs in this country today? And if they were, would the beauty and thematic integrity and rich literary tradition that they established be maintained? I am not suggesting that today’s writers should mimic these 20th century Black women writers, but I am wondering if the MFA produces a sameness. A nod and wink that establishes credibility for other gatekeepers in the publishing world. If MFA programs are generally spaces where diverse writers are not encouraged to maintain their difference as they improve their work, and if MFA programs are generally spaces where diverse voices are not recognized and not celebrated, what impact might the MFA have on the future of the Black female literary tradition?

Programs differ. When you ask whether celebrated writers could be accepted into an MFA program today, I say, probably. It depends on the program. I am very proud of the work we do at Rutgers-Newark, but I must give a lot of credit to Samantha Chang at Iowa. Look at the writers that have come out of there in her years as director — Angela Flournoy, Justin Torres, Naomi Jackson, Chinelo Okporanta, Jamel Brinkley. And we haven’t even started to talk about poetry!

Even if you just look at Black writers — we have Victor Lavalle, who may be the most inventive writer among us. Other Black writers are like me. I tend to write linear narrative, but I play with point of view. Then you look at Kaitlyn Greenidge whose debut is about a family that adopts a chimpanzee. Jesmyn Ward is redefining Southern literature. Have you read John Keene’s Counternarratives? I read it two years ago and my mind is still blown. All of us came through MFA programs and emerged with our creativity and voices intact. I am actually very encouraged by the current state of Black letters, especially the debut crop. As the saying goes, the kids are all right.

There are programs out there that are total nightmares, don’t get me wrong. I have heard the stories. And I absolutely believe that the racism in society is present in the academy. All of us in every field must constantly fight for true inclusion, whether it’s a on a faculty or on an assembly line.

You have to ask around. There should be a Green Book for graduate school! That said, the MFA and the Ph.D. are two different things. I don’t think that the MFA should be viewed strictly as teacher training. The odds of getting that tenure track job aren’t great. But there is a good chance to become a stronger writer and embark upon a career as a writer. Even if I hadn’t landed on the tenure track, I would never regret the years I spent apprenticing as a graduate student. I learned to write a novel, something I have always wanted since I was eight years old.

I would like to see new ways of nurturing writers. For many people, it’s just not practical to go to an MFA program. Other people just don’t have the temperament for that type of environment. Other people cannot spend two or three years living the graduate school lifestyle. Others simply cannot afford it. Still, they have important stories to tell. How can we help these people break into publishing? I am thinking of the late Delores Phillips. SoHo Press is reissuing her gorgeous, gorgeous novel, The Darkest Child. She was a nurse who wrote her debut novel when she was in her 40s. As I was writing the forward to the new edition, I kept wondering what other writers are going undiscovered. This concerns me more than anything else — the geniuses who may be hiding in plain sight.