Reid Family Writers of Color Reading Series
Student Work & Testimonials
While participating in the workshop with Roosevelt High School students, I thought a lot about how much I would have loved this opportunity when I was in high school. I am just a sophomore so I do not feel that far removed from the high school student with which I was writing that afternoon. At his age, I really did want someone older to look at my work and to talk to me seriously about writing. I had my teachers, but I wanted to engage with someone who existed in a place that was closer to my own experience. Because of this personal desire, I would have loved more time to connect with my student. That said, I still think it was very meaningful to be able to share a writing space with the students and my peers in the Creative Writing program. I actually enjoyed the brisk pace that was set during the workshop because it made the whole experience more exhilarating. It felt as we were rushing together, all of us pulling words out of minds onto paper faster and faster. This was refreshing for me-- after all, usually I write alone and slowly! The workshop with the Roosevelt High School coupled well with the subsequent Master Class with Ayana Mathis. In her class, Ms. Mathis discussed point-of-view as well as characterization and themes. Following up a writing experience in which I was asked to suspend my judgment and criticism with one in which I was required to closely examine craft was very effective. This set-up gave me the opportunity to enjoy writing from two different vantage points. In addition, the partnership of the two programs provided an interesting flip of roles. That is to say, in the first workshop, I was one of the older writers there to work with a member of the younger, high school audience. With Ms. Mathis, I was present solely to learn.
When people write together, especially creatively, it enables us to build a strong personal connection and facilitates a deeper kind of mutual respect and understanding for one another. Last Wednesday I had the honor of participating in a creative writing workshop with Roosevelt High School as well as a Master Class with the amazing Ayana Mathis. I left this experience feeling truly impacted and inspired by both events. Working with Roosevelt High School students was incredible; they were all so passionate about reading and writing, and were eager to attempt challenging and time-restricted prompts. What I loved most about working with these students, however, was the opportunity we got to share personal experiences through our writing, and talking about those experiences in a safe and comfortable setting. While creative writing was able to bring us together, the writing, to me at least, wasn’t the most important part of the workshop. The discussions my partners and I had after the actual assignment, about writing, creativity, family, and even life in general, were more insightful to me emotionally than the writing I ended up doing in the workshop.
It was great that immediately after that workshop we got to go to the Master Class with Ayana Mathis, which personally helped me take the inspiration from the workshop and focus on more concrete writing skills. What resonated with me the most at the Master Class was when Ayana Mathis was discusses how the book was set in the larger historical context of the Great Migration, but the way to really show that context, or anything that you want to say, is through the strong development of character. Whether you write about love and belonging or vengeance and anger, the characters and the emotions of those are the only way to fully elucidate what you want to say. That’s why the workshop was so important, in addition to the Master Class, because it allowed us to communicate through emotions and translate those emotions into writing.
Being able to sit and write with a high school student that I had just met was an incredible rewarding and intimate experience. Talking about the experience of writing, and how we both approached the prompts allowed us both to look at them through each other's eyes. That was incredibly rich and rewarding, and I think it enhanced how we both looked at the writing. It was especially interesting to hear about his experience with writing, and understand the different reasons individuals have for going about creative writing. I will never be a student at Roosevelt High School, nor will I ever experience the world as he does, so being able to write with him allowed me the closest insight I think I could ever hope for. He is a sophomore in high school, and yet he spoke of regret and longing for the past as if he had experienced far more in his life than I had and it was so amazing to be able to listen to him speak about how he felt that changed his view of the world. We spoke most extensively about the third prompt, and when he tried to explain what he thought the best way to guide someone through life was, he elucidated things beyond his years. It was incredibly rewarding to be there with him. The Master Class with Ayana Mathis was equally rich. How often do we get the opportunity to sit and talk with a reader whose book we have all just read. It was most interesting to me to hear how she went about the creation of the novel, and how she wrote and wrote before she knew exactly what she was writing. I felt that it really spoke to the fact that writing can often create itself, and we as writers have to allow that to happen.
It was very exciting to be able to work with the Roosevelt High School students. I think it was an important gathering for teaching young people that writing is a valid outlet for expression, which sometimes gets lost or forgotten, I think. I also enjoyed the time that we spent together not writing, but just talking. In a thriving community of writers, I think it’s crucial to have the opportunity to share experiences with one another. In my opinion, no great writing is ever done in a vacuum, and the only way for ideas to grow is to give them space to grow in a group setting. For this reason, I also enjoyed speaking with Ayana Mathis. Ms. Mathis’ perspective on how to be a successful writer is invaluable and inspiring. I received a lot of helpful tips for improving my own writing and, again, it was really nice to have a space to come together and talk about craft for craft’s sake, without having to worry about consequences or critiques.
I was pleasantly surprised with the workshop. To be honest, I was worried that the students would be standoffish, too cool to do creative writing. Perhaps I had those misconceptions because I assumed that these students would act like the students I went to high school with, but I was happily proved wrong. The student I worked with was shy, but we had no problem talking about everything from school and family to tattoos and farm animals. It was a really cool experience that I would absolutely do again, and I look forward to more opportunities like this. As for the Master Class, I had no idea what to expect. I had assumed that we would be in a large lecture setting, so I'm quite glad it was a more intimate setting. Ms. Mathis created a wonderful environment in which I felt like I could learn and also ask questions. We had a really cool discussion about POV that was helpful for my own writing and for understanding works by other authors.
I didn’t know what to expect of the workshop with the Roosevelt High School students, but I was incredibly grateful to discover how generous they were in sharing their work and stories about themselves. The student I worked with wrote a touching response to the third prompt: “What does it mean to be prepared to meet the world?” He wrote that the world can often be a dark place, but that this darkness is never a match for love. I’m paraphrasing, but his own expression of his thoughts was honest and without pretension. Regarding my own experience with the writing exercises, I found myself very resistant to the second prompt. The prompt directed us to write a poem in three stanzas, describing a canyon, an audience, and a stage. A bay horse that we referred to as “Mother” was to run through all three stanzas. I rarely feel comfortable writing poetry, so this is partly what caused me to feel so stuck when responding to the prompt. I find it especially difficult to free write poetry, because I feel that poetry’s denser form requires so much intention and carefulness with word selection. It is very difficult to write a poem without stopping to think before you write—particularly when, like me, you find poetry a difficult task in any context! Both the first and third prompts, however, inspired me to write with ease. I’m not sure I’ll save anything that I wrote in this workshop, but nonetheless, the experience of writing without stopping to edit or plan was therapeutic and creatively stimulating. In the workshop with Ayana Mathis, I really enjoyed listening to Mathis discuss her writing process for “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie.” She told us that her primary concern when writing the novel was with her characters, and their experiences with love, with belonging, and with the failure to recognize one another as sources of love. The fact that the novel was, in a sense, about The Great Migration was of secondary concern. Towards the end of the workshop, the discussion turned to the topic of mystery, and of the balance between telling the reader what is happening, and allowing the reader to discover it for his or herself. She told us to notice the moments when mysteries arise, and to then ask ourselves: Do we need to know the answer, or are we simply curious about the answer? If we’re just curious, then it’s probably something we don’t need to answer when writing the story. I thought this was a great self-check to perform when creating a piece, and it is certainly advice that I will keep in mind as I continue to write.
Working with the Roosevelt High School students was a new experience for me, and one I greatly enjoyed. It was exciting to be in a room full of young people who have the desire to write stories. When I was in high school, I did not know anyone my age who was as passionate about creative writing as I was, and I was afraid to share my work with others. This event was an opportunity for creative minds to come together and write in a safe, supportive environment. We sped through three writing exercises. While these exercises did not necessarily produce our best work, it got the creative juices flowing (something I always had trouble with in high school.) Personally, these exercises helped me understand that a “first draft” is nothing to be afraid of. This was something I tried to impart to my student, Sammy. At first, he was shy about sharing his work, but he eventually had the courage to share what he had written, even though he hadn’t spent much time on it. I truly think that this workshop gave the students more confidence about their writing abilities, and I hope that this is what they will take with them from the event. Ayana Mathis is an inspiring woman who offered us insight on her creative process for The Twelve Tribes of Hatti. We discussed the function and importance of point of view, or POV. She stressed that there is always a narrative consciousness at work in a story, regardless of whose POV it is told from. This “narrative consciousness” ultimately drives the work and ties POVs together. Additionally, she said something that has stuck with me for the past week about “the writing temperament.” A writer, Mathis claims, is someone who is willing to work on a paragraph for weeks in order to get it “right”—but the words are always secondary to the thoughts. A writer must be, first and foremost, a thinker. Then he/she must be willing to edit mercilessly until the words are exactly right.
Working alongside Iliana, a Roosevelt High School student, was a great privilege. Although it was to my understanding that the leadership project was one of outreach, working with her benefited my writing. Sharing with her my unpolished and completely unedited writing was a radical change from how I’d been used to interacting with my writing. I have always been possessive of my work, especially in its planning stages, so learning that it is okay to be in-progress helped me grow as a writer. I had inadvertently made sharing my own writing a personal taboo and participating in those writing exercises helped challenge the secretive habits I’d formed. The masterclass with Ayana Mathis was wonderful! With only two chapters in her The Twelve Tribes of Hattie written in the first person point of view, Mathis explained her reasoning behind the choice. She delved into the benefits and limitations of both first person and third person and flushed out the variations in voice the latter allows for. She invited us to ask any questions we might have about her artistic process. She disclosed that while she was writing she did not always know how certain chapters would progress, but she always knew what each chapter felt like. With those impressions in mind, while writing Mathis listened to music that was evocative of those in-progress chapters’ moods.She stressed the importance of economy in writing, stating “don’t say in twenty-four words what you can say in four” and reminded us that rhythm and sound are not just the monarchy of poetry, but also the citizens of prose. An avid poetry reader, Mathis emphasized the need to be mindful of the language poets use. If I had to consolidate all that she told us into one piece of advice I would toss out all the rest and keep her blunt but powerful assertion that “a book that does not engage the reader is a failure.”
Working with the Roosevelt High School students was a pleasure; the student I worked with was bright and creative, and responded to the writing prompts with insight and clarity. It was a pleasure to talk with the students, both personally and creatively, and to see a group of high schoolers so interested in writing. The Master Class with Ayana Mathis was also a great experience. Reading her book made talking with her even more enjoyable, since I could see a lot of her writing advice reflected in the characters she wrote about. Her insights about developing character were especially valuable to hear about, since she crafted such vibrant personalities in The Twelve Tribes of Hattie. It was nice to talk to an established author within small group setting, and to get her perspective on things like voice, character, and point of view.
Participating in the workshop with Roosevelt High School students and the subsequent workshop with Ayana Mathis was a great way to round out the end of my Junior Year. Being able to write stories and share them with other people is such a privilege, and the opportunity to work communally (both with my classmates and the Roosevelt High students) was a new experience. Oftentimes, I think writing can feel very isolating. It's something I do on my own, in my room, in silence. However, I felt that by writing communally, we were all able to feed off of each others' energy. It was highly motivating. Additionally, I think that it is important to teach writers (especially young writers) to accept their own work where it is. Spending time feeling self conscious about your writing does not allow you to improve. My partner and I talked to Sammy (our Roosevelt High student) about this. Working with Sammy was very inspiring because writing is so new and exciting to him. I wish I had been as interested in writing as he was when I was in high school. The Master Class with Ayana Mathis was enlightening. We had a very in depth discussion about point of view, outlining the pros and cons of various types of narration. We also talked a lot about process. Hearing a successful, professional writer talk about her own struggles with writer's block and sorting out characters was very comforting. She also had some really good tips that I have been excited to try in my own writing process. Ultimately, Ayana Mathis encouraged us to remember that writing stories is an art form. While it is our job as writers to get the story across and flesh out the characters and use scenes and dialogue, the goal of this work is artistry. Our job is to create beautiful works which hopefully bring joy to others and inspire them through the stories we tell.
Through conversation with the student from Roosevelt High School by asking him which is his favorite prompt/which one he has the most to say, I feel he has an urge to express himself but not given the full attention or not as confident. That is why I think this kind of exchange should continue. There is really no gap between people of different age in terms of writing and self-expression. It is such a good opportunity for both the high school writers and the college writers to learn. Ayana Mathis has said after her reading that before one is a writer, one has to be an observer and a thinker first. Only through observing genuinely and openly can one gains the full experience of the world that she or he wants to portray in words. High school writer and professional and experienced writer like Ayana Mathis are both who I can learn a lot from, because they both see the world using very distinct perspectives from me. And to learn what other ways of looking at the world is inspiring. I really appreciate this opportunity. Ayana talks about the narrative consciousness when a writer forms the character as well as she or he gets to know the character throughout the writing process. This sense is still one part of which that a writer develops through observing the world, the society that she or he leaves within and the ones that she or he even not lives in but can get to know through other people or other medium, for example, books, film, plays. And the most authentic story comes from deep and open conversations. Through the conversation, one needs to listen, to open his or her heart in order to start to understand a world that he or she might not be familiar with.
Walking into the classroom in Rose Hill, I did not know what to expect. I was excited to work with high school students who had an interest in creative writing, but I wondered how they would react to us, the college students. When I was a high school creative writer, I was far too shy to share my work, much less with a group of strangers who studied writing in college. I chucked at the memory of the awful pieces I wrote during my era pre-maturity. I was sure that the students would be far more advanced than I was at their age. I wondered if the students would be like me, eager but shy. When Sarah divided us into groups I was paired with a boy named Omar who seemed as if he would rather be anywhere but in that classroom. I attempted to prompt him with the questions with which Sarah had provided, but Omar was terminally quiet. I wasn’t sure if his silence was due to shyness or disinterest, but I decided not to push him too hard. With that, one of my colleagues, Kieran, joined our group, and instantly there was a change in Omar. Kieran spoke about his home in South Africa and immediately Omar opened up about his home in Guinea. I listened attentively as the boys traded stories of emigrating and adjusting to the United States. Their comments and observations were absolutely fascinating. Sarah gave us our prompts and the three of us began writing, heads down and concentrated. I glanced from Omar to Kieran and smiled. Their connection symbolized what storytelling is all about: exploring and sharing narratives.
Before our workshop with the Roosevelt High School students I was anxious. The night before I had reviewed the four prompts we would be free writing, and each one seemed challenging in its own way. I meditated on the idea of family and drifted into sleep. The next day when I entered Dealy 115 I still felt underprepared, but I was happy to see that I was placed in a group with Brianna, a fellow concentrator whose work I greatly admire from our autobiography class with Elizabeth Stone. Together I knew we’d make a great team. Our high school student, Kelvin Batista, was shy at first. After we all made our introductions he warmed up once we found out we had a lot in common. His family is from the Dominican Republic, while my mother’s side of the family is from Guatemala, and we compared the two cultures. We both also like Kendrick Lamar. He reminded me a lot of students that I had taught at the Roosevelt High School Campus through Peer Health Exchange. Our group was very focused during the 20 minutes or so we had to free write. It turns out that we all found our strengths in different prompts. Brianna vividly rendered the first prompt describing a family portrait. I surprised myself, and was most pleased with my work in the second prompt. Poetry is usually not my forte. Finally, Kelvin blew us away with his response to the third prompt. He wrote with such honesty and candor that it was hard to believe he was only 15.
If I had to choose one word to describe the Master Class with Ayana Mathis it would be: INVIGORATING. I loved reading her work, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie. It was one of those books I dreaded finishing because I wanted more. She started the master class energetically and facilitated an engaging discussion about point of view and its importance. She gave invaluable advice for writing in third person, which is something I struggle with. I left remembering why I want to be a writer, and her personal story reminded me that the path to success does not have to be straight and narrow.
With the Roosevelt High School students, I only wish we had been able to spend more time together and perhaps met more than just once this semester. They seemed to really enjoy the spontaneity that the free-write exercises provided and I think that free writing is a liberating challenge. For writers there's always so much emphasis on intention of language and to remember that the words are there anyway, whether or not they come at the "right moment", is pretty empowering. I would've loved the opportunity to interact with all the students. With regards to Ayana Mathis, I can't even put into words how inspiring she is. While we did speak about narration and the ways that certain writing may flow better through first- versus second-person, etc., what was more engaging was hearing her illustrate the intersection between various forms of art, such as music and writing, and especially the need to read borderline absurd amounts of poetry. I often forget how necessary it is to read poetry, though I think it's one of the closest things we have to motion with words, and she gave me a lot of things to consider about my own writing habits and ways that I could expand.
It’s not often that a narrative, be it prose or poetry, produces such a visceral reaction as Claudia Rankine’s Citizen did for me. A hybrid form of essays, prose poetry, and art, Citizen captures a national voice that rages against the fabricated view that modern America is increasingly becoming racially neutral. With the painful and inescapable feeling that Rankine’s use of second person elicits from the reader, the reality of racism in America becomes not only apparent, but something I, as a white woman, was guilty of. I had not heard of Citizen until I needed it for a class last semester called, “The Body in Woman’s Literature and Art,” but even then I resisted reading it. Even after a woman famously read Citizen at a Donald Trump rally, I could only pick up the book, have the white space glare up at me, and put it down after a few pages.
It’s painful to be confronted with your own micro-aggressions; and selfishly, I let that stop me from realizing the ache of those who have to endure these micro-aggressions everyday of their lives. However, when the time came that I was required to read it for class I soon (and not surprisingly) found that this was the best book I’ve ever not wanted to read. After the stomach churning, second-person anecdotes that put me in a position that white privilege had allowed me to ignore for my whole life, I knew I needed to keep reading—that this was important, necessary. However, it wasn’t until the section on Serena Williams that I had begun to feel the full impact of Rankine’s words. While I was reading this section, all I could feel echoing within me was the sentiment that this was not fair. It’s not fair that the greatest tennis player of all time is at an automatic disadvantage because of her skin color, something that has nothing to do with her talent. Serena has been berated and mocked, booed and bullied, all because her body does not match with what we hold as a stereotype of a tennis player, what we as a nation are comfortable with. Outlined at the conclusion of the essay, Serena’s famous figure only becomes acceptable when the white and blond Caroline Wozniacki “finally gives the people what they have wanted all along”—mocking Serena by stuffing towels to fill out her breasts and butt, Caroline invents the Serena America would be implicitly okay with, without verbalizing their racism (36).
Tennis is an interesting allegory that comes up throughout Rankine’s narrative, even appearing in the final anecdotal piece of the entire collection. It wasn’t until I reread the section on Serena’s struggles that I understood the message behind this conclusion. In tennis, even if two opponents are the same in every single way, equal in strength and talent, one bad call can throw a whole game. It’s an advantage that is not often accounted for, but is always there and always unpredictable no matter how hard someone trains. This is an interesting mirror that illuminates the racism underlying America.
Another interesting thing Rankine does in this collection is something I only noticed upon my second read. Apart for some pictures appearing in color, the white space occupies in a world where it is a character itself, only separated slightly by black words or black pictures, but it always comes back. In one of the many captivating art Rankine features in her collection, the one that stood out to me the most, and the one that explains this pervasive white space, was Glenn Ligon’s “Untitled: Four Etchings” which reads over and over again, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background” (53). This whole book is a white background—even the cover is a black hoodie on a white background. This narrative is meant to make even the reader, who may not be black, feel, even if just vicariously, what it’s like to always live on a white background.
Rankine’s collection manages to still haunt me, to still cause a gut-wrenching reaction. The book has stayed with me in ways that most words never do, and that’s partially in part to Rankine’s beautiful lyricist style, but mostly it’s because this is all a painful truth. This is non-fiction at its most real. What affected me the most was the research I did after reading some sections, and an interview about the James Craig Anderson murder brought me to tears.
I want to hope that I don’t buy an edition some ways away in the future and the In Memorium page does not stretch to infinity. I want to hope that I don’t commit any more micro-aggressions. I want to hope that I am more understanding of race, more understanding of the struggle, of the power, of police brutality and slurs and hope and loss.
So it’s hard, after reading this book, to take Rankine’s own advice— “Move on. Let it go. Come on” (66). However, Rankine does not deny us of this hope; rather she gives us a new start, on one condition: we never forget where we started.
My students and I would like to thank you once again for inviting us to this special opportunity. Upon returning to English class the next day, my students were raving to others about the Fordham Campus and the amazing performance they witnessed. Many of them had not been to a reading before, or sat in a college lecture hall, so this experience was useful to them in many ways. Many other students expressed interest in attending future reading events, based on what they heard. We look forward to future collaborative efforts with the Fordham English Department.
-- Tara Andreas, Roosevelt High School English Teacher
We were very privileged to be at an event like this on a college campus. I felt the reading of the play was outstanding, especially when the three young ladies stood on stage reading their lines dramatically. As they read each word, it drew the audience in more and more. You could just imagine the setting in your head, even though there was no set. The author of the play Ruined gave the audience a better understanding of how she does her work and how she developed each character in the play. She was also able to explain her trip to East Africa--how there is a war going on in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It was such an overwhelming experience and it helped me gain more knowledge of what’s going on in the world.
--Alexis Augustine, Grade 11
I learned a lot about what was happening in Congo when we went to Fordham University last week to listen to the play, Ruined. As the playwright was telling about her story, I could picture myself in that situation. Many people around the world don’t know or care about what’s happening in other places. They only care about what’s happening around them. I felt this way too; but after listening to her play, I began to think about the outside world. Why do people go to war and why are women and children always the target of war? If I could find definite answers to these questions, I would really be glad to do more research. I felt very privileged that Bronx High School for Law and Community Service was invited to listen and meet a published author who shared her story.
--Debora Ampofo, Grade 11
The trip to Fordham University was quite amazing as we were given the chance to sit in a college classroom as the play Ruined was being performed. From this trip, my eyes were opened to the ongoing war in the places like Congo. From this trip I realized that most of us have been blinded by things that happen outside of our world. During this trip I gained knowledge about what the women in Congo were going through. These women were being thrown in whore-houses and being raped without any voice. These women had no one to turn to. They had been turned into sex-slaves. This trip really opened my eyes to the endless careers I could choose, such as going to new places and exposing the terrible things going on.
--Josephine Opoku, Grade 11
I thought the reading/act of Ruined was amazing. The three students who performed did an excellent job and really captured my attention. It seems like a great play and I really want to read it. Not only did the story interest me, but so did the history behind it. I thought it was fascinating how the author had traveled to Africa and asked the women what had happened to them specifically. I found this to be a great experience and would like to visit Fordham for an event like this again.
--Nicole Faicco, Grade 11
The presentation at Fordham University was very productive and interesting. It showed me how women in Africa are treated. My favorite part of this presentation was the act that the 3 young women performed. They showed us how women treat each other and deal with their issues. The author of the book seemed very proud of her work and its impact. That was very inspiring.
--Ruperto Peres, Grad 10
I liked the performance in the theater, showing us what life is like for women in Congo. I think it was a great experience to be on the Fordham campus and see what college is like too.
--Brian Vargas, Grade 10
During the trip to meet the author of Ruined I found the whole experience to be very new to me and I enjoyed every bit of it. I was awestruck when a page of the work was acted out. That was the first time I had seen something so interesting. It gave me goose-bumps. This experience gave me a very different perspective of the world outside this country I call home. Overall, I was glad I came and I was happy about how much I learned throughout the whole experience.
--Henry Amoako, Grade 11
The reading given by Terrance Hayes and Patricia Smith, I thought, was inspiring, impressive and thought provoking. Inviting these two poets with their differences in style was perfect. I enjoyed listening to Patricia perform her poems, it showed me what can be done with a poem out loud; that presentation can be just as important as written word. Terrance Hayes uses a kind of narrative voice that allows him to not need to complete his thoughts because they are implied. Listening to his other poems blew me away because of his versatility.
-- Cashel Barnet
African Americans are an under-represented group at Fordham. This event is essential because the Black American experience and voice is not seen enough by most of the Fordham community.
Having the opportunity to take a class with Terrance Hayes was one of the high points of my year! It was an unbelievable honor. You should absolutely keep the master class element. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for any writer. I'll be happy for weeks now.
-- Caroline Hagood
As I sat down in Keating 1st for the Reid Family Writers’ Series, I was expecting a reading. What I was not expecting, however, was a performance; and, that is what both Terrance Hayes and Patricia Smith delivered. Both poets read their poems so passionately that even I was entertained, intrigued, and curious to hear each word they had to say.