Like any number of visitors to Miami, VONA/Voices came for the weekend — and decided to stay.
After 15 years at the University of California at Berkeley, The Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation — the only multi-genre workshop for writers of color — has a new home at the University of Miami.
“For me as a teacher, having that experience here is so exciting,” M. Evelina Galang, UM’s Director of Creative Writing, says of the program. Its arrival will be celebrated with two faculty readings, including one on Thursday with Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Díaz, one of the workshop’s co-founders. “Teaching in that program, I’ve had such a positive experience. I came out of a program where I was the only woman of color. Often, my stories were misunderstood by well-meaning teachers. … This is giving writers an opportunity to have something I didn’t have.”
VONA, which began at the University of San Francisco and later moved to Berkeley, was founded by Díaz, Elmaz Abinader, Victor Diaz and Diem Jones in 1999. In recent years, it has held two satellite weekend workshops in Miami, and those weekends helped show faculty and founders what a perfect fit the city was, says Galang, a VONA board member.
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“We had similar goals and visions of diversity and opening up possibilities for emerging writers,” she says. “For the college, it’s a way of affirming its commitment to diversity.”
“For me, the fit is nearly perfect: Miami is the living heart of multicultural, multiracial America,” and it has a vibrant arts community,” says Díaz via email from the Dominican Republic. “VONA has received an extraordinarily warm welcome from the greater Miami community. We hope to do that support justice.”
The workshops run two weeks and include daily sessions focusing on a wide array of genres, including fiction, poetry, memoir writing, politics, LGBTQ narratives and playwriting. Faculty members in the past have included Jeffrey Renard Allen, Mat Johnson, Cristina Garcia, Chris Abani, David Mura, Tananarive Due and Suheir Hammad.
More than 2,000 writers of color have come through the workshops, and many say the experience is valuable.
“Having a faculty like the one they’re able to gather inspires confidence in you,” says Alejandro Nodarse, who participated in the Miami weekend workshops. “You know you’re in good hands. I had guys like Mat Johnson and Chris Abani come through. Sitting with these guys and talking shop, you know you’re in good hands.
“The other thing VONA does so well is letting you know you’re in a good space, a safe space. You don’t have to explain why your writing is important. These people know what they’re doing and know how to bring out your best.”
Patricia Engel, author of the story collection Vida and the novel It’s Not Love, It’s Just Paris, is another VONA alum who praises the workshops.
“It is no exaggeration that one week at VONA can change a writer’s life,” she says via email. “There, I found the creative community I always longed for. It has sustained me through many challenging periods in my evolution as an artist. I can think of no better home for VONA than UM, which has one of the most diverse writing programs in the country, and, of course, because Miami is such a vital crossroads of cultures and voices.
“VONA is a refuge for writers of color who may feel silenced or isolated in standard workshop environments where matters of race and cultural identity tend to be avoided or dismissed as irrelevant. Such omissions can be extremely detrimental.”
VONA has a three-year commitment to the University of Miami and will continue to host satellite workshops in other locations. Its fans in South Florida, though, hope it stays.
“It’s tailor-made for Miami,” says Nodarse, who is Miami-born and raised. “It’s not a matter of, ‘We’re happy to have you here.’ It’s more, ‘Where were you all this time?’ ”
If you go
There will be two faculty VONA readings:
7 p.m. Thursday: With Elmaz Abinader, Staceyann Chin, Junot Díaz, Kim Euell, Ruth Forman, Marjorie Liu and David Mura; Coral Gables Congregational Church, 3010 De Soto Blvd., Coral Gables; free but must RSVP to booksandbooks.com
7 p.m. July 2: With Faith Adiele, Chris Abani, Tananarive Due, M. Evelina Galang, Achy Obejas, Willie Perdomo and Andrew X. Pham; Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables; free.