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It Will Be Empowering: An Interview with David Mura, Author of A Stranger’s Journey; Race, Identity, and Narrative Craft in Writing

This post is the eighth in a months-long series that explores the topic of craft: what it is, how it has evolved, who has historically had access to it, and the ways it is used in the classroom today, among other things. This week’s interview is with David Mura, author of A Stranger’s Journey: Race, Identity, and Narrative Craft in Writing.

David Mura is a poet, creative nonfiction writer, critic, playwright and performance artist. A Sansei or third generation Japanese American, Mura has written two memoirs: Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei (Anchor-Random) and Where the Body Meets Memory: An Odyssey of Race, Sexuality and Identity (1996, Anchor). His first book of poetry, After We Lost Our Way (Carnegie Mellon U. Press), won the 1989 National Poetry Series Contest, and his second, The Colors of Desire (1995, Anchor), won the Carl Sandburg Literary Award from the Friends of the Chicago Public Library. He has a B.A. from Grinnell College and an MFA in creative writing from Vermont College. He teaches at Hamline University, VONA (Voices of the Nation Association), and the Stonecoast MFA program.

Ruth Joffre: What was the first craft book you read, and what was the first craft book written by a person of color you read (assuming these two are not one in the same)? What did these books teach you about craft and craft books as a genre?

David Mura: My first craft book was Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town. There were two technical points he made that served me well as a poet and later in all my writing. Hugo pictured the typical beginning poet as starting a poem with a line about a subject, say autumn rain; then the beginning poet proceeds to write another line about autumn rain, which is usually less interesting, and then another line about autumn rain, which is even less interesting. In contrast to this stasis, Hugo said the poet and poem should move on to another subject.  He pointed out that his poems often started with descriptions of small, isolated towns in the West where he grew up and lived, but those descriptions merely acted starting points for the poem; the triggering town was not the true subject of the poem, which would be discovered in the writing of the poem.

Hugo then brought up the question of how one moves from the triggering subject to the true subject. One way to move from the triggering subject was the use of sound. When Hugo was younger, he made it a personal rule that when he came to a sound he liked, he tried to repeat or echo it. One of his poems started with a description of a falls and used the word “cascade”; then, in trying to echo that sound, he used the word “suicide,” and the poem became about someone who had committed suicide at the spot. What Hugo helped me realize was that sound associations—assonance, alliteration, rhyme, half rhymes—along with form and repetition of rhythms could all be used to think of or conjure from the unconscious both new verbal combinations—don’t write “bright sun” but use sound association to find a different adjective—and new directions for the poem.

One general principle from this is that beginning writers assume that creative writing starts and ends with a conscious intention or purpose. But as I constantly tell my students, the unconscious is smarter and knows more than the conscious mind; unfortunately, because of our schooling and nonsense like the five paragraph essay, people are taught that writing comes out of conscious planning and, thus, there’s no room for surprise or the unexpected, no room for the unconscious to surface and take the writing to a new and richer place, one the writer may even have been consciously and/or unconsciously trying to avoid. Sound association, leaping—these are ways of triggering or eliciting language from the unconscious. The same holds true for other techniques in writing, including the structures and techniques of narrative construction, which I go over in A Stranger’s Journey.

For a craft book by a writer of color, I’d cite Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark, which perhaps technically isn’t a craft book. But when Morrison states there that until recently, white Americans writers never considered a black reader of their work, that statement immediately struck me as obvious and yet something I’d never considered, much less the implications of that statement. Over and over, Morrison demonstrates that it is the racial vision of canonical authors like Cather, Twain, Faulkner and Hemingway, which keeps them from seeing their black characters clearly—that is, without the distorting lens of racial blindness. Thus, a failure to understand and critique their own biases as whites in a society of white supremacy led these white writers to failures in craft, and these failures involved not only their portrayal of black characters but also of their white protagonists. Like Baldwin, Morrison argues that the white writer’s failure to critique the givens of white identity means that white writer cannot see either blacks or whites themselves clearly. Morrison adds that the dangers for the black writer are different: “My vulnerability would lie in romanticizing blackness rather than demonizing it; vilifying whiteness rather than reifying it. The kind of work I have always wanted to do requires me to learn how to maneuver ways to free up the language from its sometimes sinister, frequently lazy, almost always predictable employment of racially informed and determined chains.”

For myself, being neither black nor white, I grew up in a society and with an education which taught me only the white version of our racial reality; I also grew up as an Asian American, a member of a community whose reality and history have also been occluded and distorted by the white version of reality. So I read Morrison’s analysis from several angles. But, for me, her most important lesson is probably that I don’t have to write to readers who are incapable or unwilling to understand my reality as a person of color in America.

RJ: Many of the essays in A Stranger’s Journey were drawn from writing courses you’ve taught at programs like VONA, the Loft, and the Stonecoast MFA. When did you decide to turn what you taught in class into a craft book? How did you go about adapting these teachings into essays?

DM: The Stonecoast MFA is a low residency program, and so I was working with students by writing them lengthy written responses to their work. One critique I have of workshops is this: In the workshop, you the writer are told what is working and what is not working in your writing, but you’re rarely helped with how to fix or revise what is not working. In the intense one-on-one work I did at Stonecoast, I couldn’t—or felt I couldn’t—just critique a student’s work in terms of its faults; instead, I had to help the student discover ways of solving their writing problems, and this led me to articulate many of the principles and techniques I explore in A Stranger’s Journey. So, in that way, it wasn’t that difficult to turn some of my responses into the basis of an essay. It still surprises me, though, how often creative writing books on fiction provide little help on narrative structure and technique. I’ll get students at VONA from Ivy League MFA programs who don’t know how to tell a story.

In terms of race and creative writing, let me start with an anecdote: When an Asian American actor friend was going through her MFA, she came to the program director and said, “All we’re doing is plays for white characters. Could we do a play by an Asian American playwright?” Her teacher replied, “Well, I don’t know any. If you can find one, I’ll consider it.” In various ways, students of color in creative writing programs often receive similar responses, which can be summed up as, “I don’t have to know about your reality or your background; you’re here to learn from me, what I know.”

But my approach to teaching was shaped by my experiences at VONA, a writer’s conference for writers of color. Each year my students came from increasingly diverse backgrounds. I felt I was constantly having to prepare and learn about these students’ backgrounds, constantly trying to understand their perspective, and I saw that as part of my job—and my mission. A mixed race immigrant student who grew up in Trinidad and whose mother came from Ghana is not the same as a black student from Mississippi whose family’s roots go generations deep there. To read V.S. Naipaul properly is to understand that his situation was entirely different from Salman Rushdie, who grew up in India, though both are of Indian ancestry and both eventually went to school in England; and of course, both are entirely different than Jhumpa Lahiri, who grew up in America. In A Stranger’s Journey, I’m trying to approach the issues of race from a broad paradigmatic level and from a level that honors and explores specific histories and backgrounds and cultures.

RJ: In the essay “The Search for Identity,” you write that you acquired the language necessary to talk about being a writer of color from writers like W. E. B. DuBois and Frantz Fanon. Are there any additional books you would recommend to those looking to begin acquiring such language (either for personal use or pedagogical reasons)?

DM: The problem for both white writers and writers of color is that our society and culture is still dominated by a white version of our reality and our history. So, if you’re really going to understand race in America, you have to move from that official white version to alternative versions and visions. For many, this often starts with the relationship between whites and blacks and the black understanding of race. Here you can begin with literature, and probably the best place is The Collected Essays of James Baldwin and the writings of Toni Morrison. But one has to move on to theory—Gates’ The Signifying Monkey, for instance, or critical race theory, or Afro-pessimists like Frank Wilderson or a writer like bell hooks—and then to history, such as Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.

But if I’m a writer, why do I need to go beyond the literary? one might ask. My answer would be that the literature comes out of the ways race has shaped our history, our culture and our present, and if you’ve only been educated in the white version of that, you have to start from the beginning to learn about a different tale and reality of America; in many ways, you have to undo the lies and distortions that growing up in a white surpemacist society has placed within your psyche concerning the nature of both white and black reality. And then you must begin to do the same thing with other racial groups—Anzaldua’s Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, for instance, or Viet Thanh Nguyen on the difference between being an immigrant and a refugee.

RJ: A Stranger’s Journey has four main sections (“The World Is What It Is,” “Story in Fiction,” “Narrative and Identity in Memoir,” and “The Writer’s Story”), plus an appendix of basic writing assignments the reader can use in their own practice. How did you arrive at this structure? It seems to have arisen organically from your interests in identity, fiction, and memoir.

DM: I’m glad it feels to you like the book is an organic whole. But when the book was at the University of Georgia Press, it went through two readers and two sets of critiques for two revisions. The most significant suggestion was that the readers wanted more material on the issues of race and creative writing. I was happy about these requests, and I’m glad I followed them. But I was also angered, not at the readers but at what their responses said about my situation as a writer of color. I had thought that if I put too much on race in the book, there would be objections that it wasn’t enough of a craft book. Yes, my book argues in part that an understanding of race is an integral part of craft for an American writer in the twenty first century, but my experience had indicated to me that such a thesis would not be welcomed. Twenty-five years ago, I wrote an essay on post-colonial literature where I examined the racism of Conrad and was chastised for making unfounded claims. But in 2016, one of the readers asked for me to expand the brief racial critique of Conrad in A Stranger’s Journey, and it seemed to me that, as a writer of color, I was always trying to figure out what I could and could not get through the gatekeepers concerning the issues of race. The broader lesson here is that, as a writer of color, you should be writing not for the limitations set by the racial understanding of the present but for the future where our current racial issues will be contextualized in a more complex and accurate manner and reflect a more racially diverse population.

RJ: A number of your essays examine how we as human beings create our own self-image—or, to put it another way, how we sometimes make ourselves into characters by telling stories about ourselves to ourselves. This can be an emotionally draining process, especially for marginalized people whose self-image is often under siege by society. As a writer and memoirist, how do you sustain yourself while negotiating your work and your self-image?

DM: My friend, the African American novelist Alexs Pate—who is decidedly underappreciated—has devised a program, The Innocent Classroom, which trains K-12 teachers to improve their relationships with students of color (I’ve worked as a trainer in the program). The program starts with asking teachers to list what American society says about children of color. Of course, what comes up is a horrible barrage of negative stereotypes. The problem, Alexs says, is how to get the students to believe that that list has nothing to do with them (and to get the teachers not to view the students through that list). These are children; they should be regarded as innocent. And the program argues that a sense of innocence is vital to the psychic and spiritual health of children of color—and, by implication, adults of color. For a child or an adult of color, that can be an revelatory task—to see yourself as innocent in a way our society never wants you to see yourself.

In this task, you have to constantly work to make the voices of doubt and marginalization smaller in your head. For writers of color, this means making the voices of whiteness less powerful, less a part of the ways you think about yourself. In his great essay “Notes of a Native Son,” Baldwin posits the dilemma of what he is to do with the racial rage and bitterness he finds within himself, his father, and his community, and he poses this first as a spiritual and psychological question, rather than a political question. If you move chronologically through Baldwin’s Collected Essays, you can see him making whiteness and the voices of whiteness smaller so he can hear himself and the voices of his own community. And as he begins to travel in the South and connects with both individuals in the Civil Rights movement and ordinary black people, he begins to understand their strength and spiritual resilience, the fortitude through which they have endured, confronted, and fought the racism around them, and he begins to learn from that.

Of course, Baldwin also felt he had to leave the country to save himself, and there are times we need to give ourselves respite, a time away from the forces and voices of marginalization. It is a balancing we are constantly engaged with.

The terrific Asian American Literary Review recently did an issue on Asian American mental health, which included an Asian American version of DSMB. In my article there, I argue that psychotherapy still operates within parameters established by a white conception of the self, family, and society and is, by the very definitions which set the field, unable and unequipped to deal with the problems of race, both for whites and people of color. But on a panel for that issue, I told a group of Asian American students, “Sometimes what’s required for our mental health is a simple, Fuck you. It can be loud or soft or silently to yourself, that doesn’t matter. Just say it. It will be empowering.”  My friend Alexs Pate would probably say, the more you see yourself as innocent, the less loud that Fuck you needs to be.

RJ: In many of your essays, you discuss classroom dynamics—specifically, how the influence of a powerful instructor can negatively impact a student if that instructor fails to meet the student where they are and understand where they’re coming from. This is a systemic problem within the writing community. You discuss in your book ways that individuals can address it in their own life and work. What would you like to see institutions do to address it?

DM: I remember one woman writer praising her male instructor at the University of Iowa’s writing program for what he taught her. But then she added that, after working with him, she didn’t write for two years.

Really? That is malpractice. What would we think of a basketball coach whose actions led a player never to play for two years?

I spoke above of Alexs Pate’s The Innocent Classroom. Pate makes the point that perhaps in the past, when classrooms were more homogenous and the teacher and the students came from the same backgrounds, with shared assumptions, teachers didn’t have to focus on their relationships with students. But that is obviously not the case in today’s America, where the students come from a diverse range of backgrounds, some of which the instructor may know little about. The liberal white answer might be something like, “Well, we are all individuals and we can and should be able to relate to each other as individuals.” Again, that might be nice in theory, but we are also all individuals with biases and blind spots, and, as the phenomena of implicit or unconscious bias demonstrates, we may not be aware of our biases and blind spots.

To start with, we need a revised and deeper understanding of the ways racism works in our society. The dictionary definition of racism stresses conscious animus and stated intent. It doesn’t address implicit or unconscious bias; it doesn’t address systemic biases and exclusions which involve practices, beliefs, rules, laws, etc., and how those practices, beliefs, rules and laws lead inevitably to racial inequities.

Beyond the need for education about the way racism works, we need conversations concerning race, but such conversations are not easy and many in power would rather avoid them. The gulf that has occurred recently between Joe Biden and Corey Booker/Kamala Harris over their views and handling of our racial past also occur in classrooms on creative writing, and many instructors are not equipped to understand the origins and reasons for such disagreements. As Richard Wright observed, black and white America are engaged in a struggle over the description of reality. Why wouldn’t that struggle not extend into the creative writing classroom, since our work of literature is to describe our reality?

Since individuals are often reluctant to conduct conversations concerning race, programs and institutions must work to facilitate them. And, in these conversations, teachers must be prepared and open to learning from their students, which again is not something teachers are always comfortable with. But I would maintain that you’re not teaching properly if you don’t learn from your students even as you are trying to teach them.

RJ: In the essay “The Idealized Portrait,” you speak frankly about the fact that your writing about race and identity has affected your relationships, your ability to publish in certain venues, and even possibilities of employment. For those facing the same difficulties, what advice can you give and what resources would you point to in order to mitigate these consequences?

DM: One bit of advice is similar to my answer above: The racial biases and limitations of the present are real and you may encounter penalties for crossing them in the present. But remember: you are writing for the future, just like Zora Neale Hurston or John Okada, whose work was once neglected and is now canonical.

Secondly, don’t fight your battles alone. Unfortunately, when some of my battles took place, there wasn’t much of an Asian American artistic community where I lived. So I helped start an Asian American arts organization to foster such a community. Organizations, institutions, writing groups can offer support, and if they aren’t there, someone has to start them. Seek out other writers in your community and make friends with them. Fortunately, for me, almost twenty years ago, I began teaching at VONA and became part of a nationally based community of writers of color; in many ways, as it has for others, VONA saved my life.

Finally, read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power (the latter a text cited by many hip-hop artists). Race in this country is obviously a battlefield, a struggle over power. Knowing how to maneuver though fields and institutions which are hostile and exclusionary involves strategies and skills that one can learn and develop. Sometimes it may be useful to avoid a battle you are going to lose; sometimes you need to disguise your intentions or even yourself; sometimes you need to seek powerful allies.

RJ: In the introduction to A Stranger’s Journey, you write that you think of the process of writing “as a call to change: We start to write a book in order to become the person who finishes the book.” You yourself underwent a change in the process of writing this book. How has the process of writing this book impacted your journey, both as a writer and a human being?

DM: I’d like to answer this question in terms of the response to the book which started very quietly—even now there have been few reviews of the book. But as the responses have grown, I can feel the book becoming a catalyst for change in the ways creative writing is practiced and taught; writing programs are using it as a common text. Now this was something I hoped the book would accomplish. But I’ve also had experiences where something I’d written was met with harsh criticism and even scorn, both from the mainstream and from my own community—I’m speaking here of my second memoir, Where the Body Meets Memory: An Odyssey of Race, Sexuality and Identity. In certain ways, the issues of Asian American masculinity that I wrote about in that book are only beginning to surface and be understood in the culture and, even at that, in a still marginal way. But certainly the understanding of those issues has at least changed somewhat in the Asian American community.

One writes what one needs to write. How the present receives it is, obviously, not something you the writer can control. As I write in the Introduction to A Stranger’s Journey, I began some essays in the book around the time Obama was elected, when some deluded whites, both liberals and conservatives, started proclaiming we were post-racial and that the issues of race were over and could be relegated to the past. A Stranger’s Journey comes out during Trump’s presidency, in a nation where racism, xenophobia, and religious bigotry have become again more openly mainstream and where liberal white writers can no longer claim with any credibility that race is not a central issue of our society. Moreover, the younger writers have grown up with a very different and, I would argue, more developed understanding of race than many white writers of my generation; certainly, the younger writers have come of age in a more diverse America. At the same time, the increasing numbers of writers of color—reflecting our racial demographics—and, just as importantly, the excellence of their work have altered our view not just of the current literary landscape but also of the canon. All this has made the reception of A Stranger’s Journey more promising than I expected when I began writing the book; and, in many ways, this has given me a new sense of optimism for writing and for the country, which is a blessing given the times we’re in.

RJ: Finally, what are you working on now?

DM: Most immediately, I’m working on a book of essays on Asian American issues, Letter to My Republican Father. The book starts with a letter from my Japanese American father, a Republican; addressed to his children, he tells us why he thought the election of Obama in 2012 was a disaster for the country. In the letter, he states that he’s open to answers, but, addressing me, specifically says “no more than five pages, David.” At this point in my life, I don’t argue with my father about politics, and I wasn’t going to answer. But then I got into a talk with my middle son, who’s in his twenties, about my father’s letter, and after talking about the internment of Japanese Americans, my son naturally asked, “Why does grandpa think the way he does?” So I decided I would write a reply to my father, telling my father my version of his life and trying to explain to my son why father became a conservative Republican. Needless to say, my reply is more than five pages, and it ends with my trying to make the case to my father that his life is actually much more like that of Barrack Hussein Obama, down to the fact that they were both born with names white American finds strange and foreign (my father changed his name from Katsuji Uyemura to Tom Katsuji Uyemura to Tom K. Mura).

Another issue the book explores is Asian American masculinity and how those issues intersect with LGBT theory and with the sexual and gendered positions not just of whites but also of other people of color, particularly African Americans. It’s no mistake, for instance, that Asian American men and African American women are deemed the least attractive on dating websites like Tinder or OkCupid—Asian men are viewed as effeminate, unassertive, and quiet, and all this is attached to our physical appearance; African American women are viewed often as overly masculine, too assertive, and loud, and therefore similarly lacking in the arena of attractiveness. Of course, such judgments are racial distortions and the categories of effeminate or overly masculine stem from an essentialist and rigid notion of gender. And if you take the ways straight white women and gay white men view Asian American men, that pairing also reveals different power dynamics and racial sexual stereotyping. One of the Asian American writers who explores this area is David Henry Hwang, from his best known play, M. Butterfly, where a French diplomat falls for a Chinese transvestite actor—without realizing his lover’s gender—to Hwang’s perhaps least known play, Bondage, where a man and women appear in latex suits and masks that hide their flesh and this allows them to spin through a series of racial and S&M roles.

I’m also working on a book of essays on race in general, my next book of poems, and a novel I’ve been working on for over ten years.  I move between them when the well runs dry with one or when I’m waiting to hear from publishers or editors or critiques by friends about a particular manuscript.