This is one of a series of interviews with students participating in the upcoming conference, Thinking its Presence: Race and Creative Writing. CutBank asked some questions of Diana about her experience with race in academia, creative writing programs, her own writing, and what she reads. The conference will push literary institutions—from MFAs to journals, we hope—to engage in conversation about race in writing.
CutBank: What are you doing for the conference?
Diana Xin: I'm reading a piece I wrote in a cultural theory class in response to Michel de Certeau's essay, “Walking in the City.”
What do you hope the conference will bring?
I hope it will open good conversations that help us to explore a large and sometimes difficult topic.
Why do you think race is an important topic for MFA programs right now?
The world is increasingly global. Sometimes in America people think race is a problem that no longer exists, and people can be dismissive of race as an issue today. In doing so they silence or ignore very valid concerns. It's important for us to keep talking about race.
As a student in an MFA program, what is something you'd hope for in terms of opening conversations in that context?
I hope we can have an ongoing conversation. Fiction is an act of empathy and maybe this conference can help us be empathetic towards people who are unlike ourselves, to whom we might not normally relate.
As a teacher, what do you hope for for your students in terms of the ways conversations about race and creative writing can change the academic and literary landscape for them?
In my last writing class, we talked a lot about narrative. I had my students watch a TED talk titled “The Danger of a Single Narrative,” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. When we assign a group of people one story or view people in one way, that doesn't allow for the reality of peoples' experiences, and it limits the possibilities people imagine for themselves. I wanted my students to have more exposure to topics of race, too, because they are in Montana, which is very homogenized.
We also have a significant number of international students at the University of Montana, so it is a relevant conversation to have here.
Was there a class, teacher, or author you found particularly valuable? That gave you permission to write in a new way or validated your voice?
It was very inspiring for me when I began seeing Asian American women who were no longer writing “Asian American women” stories, when they weren’t limiting themselves to the narratives prescribed to them. I think of Lan Samantha Chang’s “All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost,” in which she writes from the male perspective of a poet from the Midwest, and none of the characters are Chinese. I definitely enjoy the fact that fiction allows writers of any ethnicity to invite readers into their experiences, but I think sometimes writers of minority groups feel limited or consigned to write only about that sphere of their lives. It’s exciting to see women writing male characters, and writers of one ethnicity writing characters of another ethnicity, and yet I also think this leads us into very fraught and complicated terrain. How can we respectfully tell our own stories, and also the story of someone else whose life we didn’t live? And isn’t fiction always about telling the story of a life we didn’t live? But when do we cross the line into appropriation? What happens if our inauthenticity feeds on or propagates further essentialist viewpoints? I’m looking forward to exploring these issues during the conference.
Diana Xin was born in Hebei, China, and has lived in Minneapolis, Chicago, Beijing, and now, Missoula. She appreciates a dash of absurdity and surreality in both writing and visual arts, and feels most drawn to images that suggest a narrative. It’s also cool when an image is characterized not only by what is present, but also what is absent — leaving a mystery inhabitable by the viewer.