| Book Reviews

Writing from the Body: Felicia Rose Chavez’s’ The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop

Shabrayle Setliff

The statement that everyone writes from the body could serve as a litmus test: if such a statement seems untrue or if it is, perhaps, unfelt, it may very well indicate a person’s absorption–or for some of us, assimilation–into the predominately white world of writing and literature. Before encountering the work of anti-racist educators, I had only the vaguest idea of what such a statement might mean. I along with many writers from marginalized backgrounds and living in marginalized bodies are used to wielding language in negotiation and for survival. There is no privileged permeability between our inner worlds of experience and the outer world we aspire to. We have often assumed that if our language is not enough, it is because we are not enough.

Felicia Rose Chavez’s newest book, The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop: How to Decolonize the Creative Classroom, releasedthis past January by Haymarket Books, considers another possibility. As Chavez puts it, the novice writer does not have to be “quick to submit to convention for the sake of survival,” asking, “What do you want me to say, and how do you want me to say it?” Her idea of an effective writing workshop is not one that focuses on improving drafts, but one that empowers writers to trust themselves, which requires the writer to engage in the “ritual of tuning in and listening to the language inside.” This type of embodiment constructs a different kind of power, “the power to make sense of ourselves, by ourselves, independent of the system of white supremacy.”

The very existence of white supremacy requires work, enacted mindlessly, habitually, and from a desire to protect what we call “tradition,” frequently using unexamined rationales. For instance, there is the idea that a text must stand on its own because the writer will not be present to explain it to a reader. Chavez counters this idea. She frequently invites writers to her classroom so that her students can engage with the person behind the work, and the theme of trust also extends to the reader, who she sees as capable of reaching beyond the text if necessary. She also challenges the idea that the writer should be decentered during workshop, a practice most notably evident in “silencing writers,” which Chavez says is “central to the traditional workshop model” and one that “enlists writers of color to eradicate” themselves. In the anti-racist workshop, writers engage participants in accomplishing their vision for the work. They discuss their intentions, ask the questions, and choose what feedback they will invite. The conferences that they have with their instructor, before and after the workshop, along with the informed analysis of their own work, prepares them to discuss their writing.

Foundational to the anti-racist workshop is the idea that students must commit to writing. Attendance is required because their presence is not only valued in the classroom, but necessary. Students’ ideas about what constitutes craft are negotiated with their peers and inform the way they discuss workshop drafts. 

Importantly, the workshop is not the first place they will share their work. They read their unpolished, emergent, handwritten free writes to one another throughout the course. They also share food. Play with silly putty. Pace. Lie on the floor. The anti-racist workshop has the look and feel of a studio environment that can be found in other creative disciplines where the students engage their own bodies.

Each chapter of Chavez’s book addresses a facet of the writing classroom that can be dismantled and communally reconstructed. Each chapter also begins with a short essay in which Chavez discusses how she as a student or a teacher has been impacted by the failure of educators and administrators to insist on building classrooms where the full personhood of all students is valued. Chavez ends this essential manual for anti-racist writing pedagogy with: “They say that a writer’s work must stand alone, that I won’t be there when you pick up my book, but maybe I can be, if you let me. Maybe we can build this thing together.” After spending a couple of hours fully engrossed in her book and her vision of what a writing workshop could be, I felt her there. There has been a widespread and consequential failure to recognize that we never really read a piece without the writer’s bodily presence in the work. What Chavez makes evident is that there is a person enacting a process behind the product, and she allows those of us who create in workshop environments to imagine what it would be like if we actively trusted and valued that person.

Felicia Rose Chavez

is an award-winning educator with an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Iowa. She is author of The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop: How to Decolonize the Creative Classroom and co-editor of The BreakBeat Poets Volume 4: LatiNEXT with Willie Perdomo and Jose Olivarez. Find more at her website

Shabrayle Setliff

is a nonfiction MFA candidate at George Mason University, where she currently teaches undergraduate writing and literature courses. She is also the assistant nonfiction editor of the intersectional feminist journal, So to Speak.

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