Friday, June 29, 2012
VONA: A Community for Writers of Color
Downtown Berkeley was shining with the rock stars of literature Thursday night. I attended the Voices of Our Nation Art Foundation faculty reading at Berkeley City College. VONA, as it is better known is a writing program for writers of color. http://www.voicesatvona.org/Home.html As Diem Jones, director of VONA said, it is a community of writers that was founded so that creative voices from cultures that until very recently went unnoticed. Diem went on to say 70% of the writers are people of color, and don’t you remember going to writing programs or workshops and being the only black or Latino or Asian?
I am an alumnus of VONA when they were still at University of San Francisco; they are in their second year at U.C. Berkeley. Being in a community of writers where you have an affinity with others who look like you, where you can write about your culture without excuse, or you know that the critiques are based upon your writing rather than snide comments about a character that is unfamiliar to the majority. I remember attending the Squaw Valley Writers Conference several years ago and out of over 500 writers, there were maybe 20 black writers. I remember one of them telling me that she was verbally attacked in her workshop repeatedly about her characters or writing. One classmate asked her, “Do your characters have to be black?” WTF! A writing community such as VONA is a place to create freely without apology.
Students came from all over, from a range of ages, at different stages in their writing careers. There were New Yorkers, southern Californians, Floridians, one from Puerto Rico and one from Nigeria. They came to glean all they could to sustain their writing for a little while longer. But the stars of the night’s events were not the students and there were 94 of them, in fiction, memoir, poetry classes, LGBTQ narrative and some in residencies. The focus was the illustrious faculty. With authors like Sci-fi author Tananarive Due, literary fiction writers Mat Johnson and poets Willie Perdomo and Patricia Smith, there was plenty to be star struck about. They read from either works in progress or published works.
The formidable Nuyorican Willie Perdomo read from a work-in-progress with a character of theme of Bon Bon to rhythmic rap of his tongue simulating bongo drums. The petite Maaza Mengiste read a moving passage from her acclaimed novel, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, set in Ethiopia during the Haile Selassie regime. Minal Hajratwala read from her memoir about immigration, Leaving India. She talked about being American born did not remove her from the pain of immigration politics. Randall Keenan and Mat Johnson are two brothers I can listen to for hours on end. They both read from their fiction works-in-progress. Both were engaging and witty, Johnson lamenting about ghosts, and Keenan about Capoeira and art. Math was hoot, saying he never had so many students willing to let him make them cry. M. Evelina Galang, a Filipina, is currently writing about women during WWII but she read from a past book about a teacher who empowers a group of young students of color. Tananarive Due kept us spellbound reading from her fourth book in her Living Blood series, My Soul to Take. In speaking with her later, she told me she is teaching at SpelmanCollege in Atlanta. Co-founder Elmaz Abinader, writing chair at Mills College read from her memoir about her father (who is now 102 years-old) as a boy in war-torn Lebanon. Faith Adiele, also faculty at Mills, read from her already 600-page memoir manuscript about traveling to Nigeria to find the father who had abandoned her. Closing out was Affralacian poet Patricia Smith. “Lysol” was heart-rending as she spoke of a mother who wanted to wash away her daughter’s dark skin. The daughter kept saying, “I’m black, I’m not dirty.” Powerful! The audience rose to their feet.
Two veterans of VONA were missing. Pulitzer Prize winning Junot Diaz, also one of the co-founders of the program is ill, as is David Mura. Junot has been a draw for years, pre-Pulitzer, for his outspoken demeanor, and his sharp New York, sometimes acerbic critiques. David as the residency instructor is known for his thorough, straight forward guidance of fine tuning your manuscript. They were missed but both are on the road to recovery and will be back next year. Well wishes to both of them.
It was truly a reunion of VONA alumni, staff and others in the writing community. One of the first people I saw when entering the auditorium was Jacqueline Luckett (Searching for Tina Turner & Passing Love), also a VONA alumnus. I saw Aya de Leon who was the facilitator of a black women’s writing group I was involved with in the 1990s. She is at U.C. Berkeley teaching poetry and was instrumental in bringing the poetry of Tupac to the curriculum there. I got reacquainted with Kira Allen, who used to host poetry readings at La Pena in Berkeley. Carolina DeRobertis, whose books about women in Argentina and Chile have received much acclaim, was there due to give birth any day. She taught English at Merritt College where I am. I saw another colleague, Cleavon Smith, English faculty at Berkeley City College, who just had a play staged.
I missed seeing Nakia White, the daughter of my good friend Denise. I was delighted she had gotten into the VONA program despite it being highly competitive. I asked around about her and Maaza Mengiste said she was in her class and that Nakia is an excellent talented writer, which I already knew. You go Nakia!
I am so glad I didn’t let a sinus headache keep me from Thursday’s event. It was well worth the ten dollars I had to pay for parking. VONA is such a needed and necessary program. There is now a program in the winter at the University of Florida and I hear talk about a program possibly in New York. VONA, a writing community for the people.
June 28, 2012