Why Race Matters When We Write

by Nancy Arroyo Ruffin It's a gray overcast morning in San Francisco. I sit at Gate 86 of S...


by Nancy Arroyo Ruffin

It's a gray overcast morning in San Francisco. I sit at Gate 86 of SFO airport waiting to board UA Flight 358 to Las Vegas. I watch people pass by. One woman settles on a spot on the floor along the wall mumbling words that I cannot hear into her iPhone. Others jump on the electronic walkway carrying luggage, children, or both. Each headed to a specific destination and I wonder if this is home for them.

For many of us, home is where we feel safest. It is more than a place. Home is a feeling so deeply embedded in our consciousness that when we are not "home" we feel like foreigners just passing through. It is the place we long to be. For people of color, for immigrants, for those of us whose history is deeper than what our American textbooks tells us about who we are, it is our constant search for that place that is familiar, for that place where we fit in.



For writers of color it is an ardent desire to not only have our stories read, but to carve ourselves into this nation's literary landscape. But how do we do that? How do we share our experiences in a way that is honest, authentic, and reflective of our experiences? How do we prove to the rest of America that our stories are just as important ─necessary even─ in American literature?  When do we demand  that our racial identities (the core of who we are) as they relate to story writing, not be trivialized into just another “race” thing, as if racial inequality has somehow disappeared?

In Junot Diaz’s recent article MFA vs. POC in The New Yorker, he writes, “In my workshop we never explored our racial identities or how they impacted our writing—at all… In my workshop we never talked about race except on the rare occasion someone wanted to argue that “race discussions” were exactly the discussion a serious writer should not be having.”

Not talking about race and dismissing the topic altogether is the same as saying that cultural perspective as it relates to creative writing is irrelevant. When in fact, more often than not, writers pull from the human experience. Some of the best stories written are those that reflect emotional truths; stories that are representative of our realities either directly or indirectly. To not talk about how our cultural experiences affect our writing would be a disservice to literary integrity. Even in the genres of fiction or speculative fiction therein exists some universal human themes. Take Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis for example, on the surface the story is about a salesman who wakes up one morning and realizes that he has transformed into a huge insect, but in fact the story is full of metaphors and symbolism about the human experience.

In his novel, Kafka directly reflects upon many of the undesirable aspects of his personal life, both mentally and physically. He demonstrates the difficulties of living in a modern civilization and the struggle for acceptance by others in his new body. Can’t we all relate to wanting to be accepted?  So to add to Diaz’s argument, race discussions are indeed discussions that serious writers should be having. “Simply put: I was a person of color in a workshop whose theory of reality did not include my most fundamental experiences as a person of color—that did not in other words include me,” he says.

I recently attended a writing workshop whose mission brings race and cultural identity to the forefront.



The organization supports individual writer growth and simultaneously creates an environment where writers of color could write about their racial and cultural experiences. After attending the week long workshop, I, like Gregor Samsa became transformed. Not in a big insect kind of way, but in the way that requires you to look at yourself with a fresh set of eyes. There was a change that happened sitting in that fiction workshop all week long with writers who could relate to my story. I became liberated. I allowed myself to be unapologetically honest in my writing. I wrote work that mattered to me. I wrote in context, using language that was authentic to the character and got rid of the footnotes and explanations.

Something my workshop facilitator said has remained with me, “Remember the story is your story. Do not water down the work with what everybody wants. Nurture it, but be firm with it. Don't tell it what it wants to hear. Give it what it needs. Go to the heart of it. Revise. But only after you have been able to detach. Only after there has been some time for the draft to sit away from you. Only when you are ready to deal with it.” –M. Evelina Galang

How many writers are guilty of doing those very things? How many of us either intentionally or unintentionally have been watering down our work?  Running away from telling our stories honestly and hiding behind pretty words because we’re afraid to get at the ugly truth. The reality is that for writers of color, race and cultural experiences matter. We cannot and should not have to detach who we are when writing, but instead use those experiences to write bold and revolutionary work. Remembering that we should, as Edwidge Danticat states, “Create dangerously, for people who read dangerously… Writing, knowing in part that no matter how trivial your words may seem, someday, somewhere, someone may risk his or her life to read them.”

Photo Credit: Shutterstock



Nancy Arroyo Ruffin is an award winning author and motivational speaker. She is the acclaimed author of two books, Welcome to Heartbreak (CreativeINK Press, 2011) and Letters to My Daughter (CreativeINK Press, 2014) which was Latino Literacy Now's 2014 International Latino Book Award finalist for Best Poetry Book. Nancy lives in Bergenfield, NJ with her husband and their daughter. For more info visit www.nancyruffin.net

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