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  • Negotiating Cultural Difference in Creative Writing WorkshopsClose Reading Translations and Interpretive Diversity
  • Noor Naga (bio) and Robert McGill (bio)

When Noor first began to write fiction as a teenager, she wrote about squirrels and galoshes and juniper and humbugs, despite living in the desert of Dubai and not being entirely sure what a humbug was. Her family is from Egypt, where the British—including her great-grandmother—had come and then departed, leaving their books behind them, so that half a century later Noor inherited a library full of Enid Blyton, which became her primary source of reading material. Because English was Noor's first language, the fiction that was available and accessible to her was perpetually happening elsewhere. It was not about her and not for her. The education system in Dubai, with its focus on British and American literature, did little to change the situation. The public libraries were few, poorly stocked, and dominated by books in Arabic. As such, it was difficult for her to find reflections of herself in the literature she consumed in her teenage years. A decade later, as a student in Robert's MA creative writing (CW) workshop at the University of Toronto in 2015, Noor realized that her peers, mostly Canadians, were closer to Blyton's world than to hers. She shared with them her fiction about a desert they had never visited, knowing that although they were skilled writers they did not have the cultural expertise to appreciate certain aspects of her work. By this point in Noor's writing career, the humbugs were gone and her narratives were more clearly inspired by her experience as an Arab, a Muslim, a woman of color, and a third-culture kid who had hopped around the United States and then the Middle East before ending up in Canada. [End Page 69]

Our experiences in our workshop sparked conversations between the two of us regarding the range of intersecting identities and experiences that can inform literature and its intended audiences. Our discussions led us to collaborate in writing this article, in which we consider cultural diversity with respect to teaching CW. Sharing bell hooks's (1994, 2003) commitment to a nonoppressive, liberatory pedagogy, we take further inspiration from Rosalie Morales Kearns's (2009) exploration of the ways in which CW workshop conventions such as the gag rule, which requires student authors to be silent while their writing is discussed, can be especially challenging for minoritized students. We argue that a diversity of identities among workshop members, with regard to ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion, geography, class, age, and so on, complicates matters of authority and requires a reworking of some of the workshop's fundamental elements. While student diversity cannot be ignored in any classroom, it is particularly significant in the CW workshop, where students' writing and feedback on others' work are foundational to the proceedings and inevitably influenced by participants' cultural identities. As Wendy Bishop (1993: 503, 508) puts it, students' writing frequently "includes and celebrates the personal," and students often "open up" in writing classes due to the intimate classroom environment. Because workshops feature such personal material and moments, and because the personal is bound up with cultural specificities, there is an added impetus for instructors and students alike to consider how workshops might productively address cultural diversity. Moreover, because CW students are preparing to enter a field in which practitioners are often called upon to stand publicly as cultural authorities, this is a further reason to train them in the articulation of their artistic choices.

The need for sensitivity to difference in workshops is also strong because minoritized writers are subject to systemic discrimination and under-represented in sociocultural and political spheres. Recently, such authors as Junot Díaz (2014), David Mura (2015), and Claire Vaye Watkins (2015) have drawn attention to how CW programs can rehearse white, straight, male, Judeo-Christian, bourgeois norms, affecting what stories are written, for whom they are written, and how they are discussed. Building on these authors' interventions, here we consider how CW pedagogy might avoid replicating problematic social dynamics. In the face of oppression and marginalization, the axioms of CW courses can be daunting...


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pp. 69-86
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