I VONA Check-In

I haven’t been regular with posts these past couple of weeks. Rest assured I have drafted multiple Field Notes for the Millennial Quran Study Project, and have diligently worked on some other posts. Its just I have had to really buckle down and get out of the way something that I have dragged my feet on, and for…

I haven’t been regular with posts these past couple of weeks. Rest assured I have drafted multiple Field Notes for the Millennial Quran Study Project, and have diligently worked on some other posts. Its just I have had to really buckle down and get out of the way something that I have dragged my feet on, and for all intents, that has been a major personal blockage to forward momentum in my life.

Confronting my personal demons on this is a sordid affair. Requiring a commitment that has been difficult to muster up. Its an epic battle of classical proportions, Homer could probably write a whole new Odyssey on my journey if he were alive today. And if he was my therapist.

Besides the excitement of Ramadan, but honestly its sadness on my part because my epic battle continues through a portion of Ramadan, I am really excited to share that I got accepted to VONA/Voices Workshop at the University of Miami.

For those not familiar with VONA/Voices, the acronym stands for Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation. It was created as a visceral response to and realization that the culture found in a Masters on Fine Arts (MFA) program were toxic for minority writers. At the time, the 1990’s, many MFA candidates and teachers from minority backgrounds found their stories marginalized-  with professors and teachers alike demanding that minority writers take out the Spanish dialogue that characters mixed into their language, or worse, to add stereotypical depictions of minority groups to make them “relatable.” Instead of the MFA being a space to explore and push literatures boundaries it created and recast dominant White realities of [North] America and people of color.

With this shared experience, Elmaz Abinader, Junot Díaz, Victor Díaz and Diem Jones created VONA in 1999. Voices are workshops put on by VONA each summer for writers of color. Bringing experienced minority writers and fledgling writers of color from the margins to a community where their work is centralized and honored, and a place where they can explore the their craft, hone in on their skills, and receive guidance on pursuing their authentic voice in their writing.  

I am thrilled about this opportunity. This whole journey kicked off a year ago while I was at the Millennial Leadership Conference at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.

While there I was challenged by my peer group to recognize that I was in fact a creative hiding behind my activist title. I also vicariously lived through my friends, a majority of whom were all creatives pursuing their creative interests, but I had excuses for not pursuing that for myself. Last summer in New York City I got called out for this, and in turn it put me on this path to explore an outlet for my creativity.

I never considered myself a “writer” and would not have ever considered doing an MFA. In fact, this blog, it is a hobby, not an outlet for my creative writing. At least, thats how I’ve viewed it for the past ten plus years.

I always saw it as something I enjoyed doing, so I kept the blog going, almost like a journal, except very public. Yet, this was me being a “writer”, or pretending to be one anyway. For me, Voices, provides an opportunity to explore that creative avenue, without having to commit to an MFA.

Reading the descriptions for the various Voices workshops I was immediately pulled by the statement “Every time folks of color leave the house, we travel.” Travel Writing with Faith Adiele was the workshop I decided to pursue because this statement is true of my own experiences.

I have always shared how I would transition from one culture to another, from the Urdu language to English, when I stepped outside the home. I have constantly done this, and it was a few years ago that I realized that I had stopped dreaming in Urdu. My dreams were in English, always English. This realization made me sad, but it also brought to the surface that I had stopped living between continents in one aspect of my life, my subconscious dream state.


I once read a quote by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a Colombian novelist I very much admire, that got me thinking about my writing, inadvertently.

He said, on providing advice to a young writer, “I would say to write about something that has happened to him.”

Yet, for me, I always felt my experiences were not only boring, but they weren’t relatable to [white] people, therefore, I never felt compelled to “write from experience”. I don’t think I stopped myself to step back and ask, who these “people” were, let alone to reflect on how human experiences, no matter what the experience, when boiled down to the universal core, become universally relatable. Maybe, because I didn’t see myself as a “writer”, I never took that step to try to boil down my experiences, and felt it wasn’t my job.

Two things that stand out- almost a year and half ago I had already began to recognize that this blog was more then a hobby, and that maybe I was a writer?

The second thing from this past post was that I saw that I was not embracing my authentic voice in writing, but rather writing about what others told me or I read about.

The problem was that I was struggling to embrace this idea of being “creative” and being a “writer”. Labels, they really bother me. Yet, as I am learning, labels are important to refine the essence of something, especially when you’re like me and you skirt around the thing but never really acknowledge the thing to be a thing- does that even make sense!?!

In this vein, travel writing was of particular interest to me because it recognized that travel was not just a physical journey, but it was a genre of writing concerned with (internal) cultural encounters as well as (external) physical journeys (and I do a lot of internal journeying while external moving around from place to place).

The workshop allows participants to explore moving back and forth between language and culture, like my experience; embarking on roots journeys or road trips; living as an expat or multicultural family member; being a nomad; climbing from working to middle class; our family’s escape/ exile/ emigration/ immigration and even discovering that not to far removed a generation lived as refugees in a new foreign place; leaving home or dropping out of college; setting out on pilgrimages or spiritual quests; going abroad to study/ research/ witness/ do reportage/ volunteer; walking the road to recovery every day. Travel writing fits the genre of writing that allows me to do curiosity and exploration, adventure and journey, quest and discovery.

All of these things encompass, in one way or another, my life story- in Marquez’s’ words my experience- and the sort of stories I wish to share with others deal with these experiences in that I want to share with people what I learned. Through the workshop I hope to collect, reflect, and write all (maybe some, at least to begin with) of my adventures- around the world and locally, in the National Parks and navigating the diversity that makes up California- into compelling narratives.

I don’t expect to write a novel, or a travelogue.  But at the very least, I hope the workshop is the beginning of the process toward delivering meaningful content on this blog. I do wish to make this blog more then a passing hobby, especially since I have kept it going for a decade now.

Responses to “I VONA Check-In”

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    […] spent the plane ride over to Miami, Florida reading the manuscripts of other participants in the VONA Voices Travel Writers Workshop. Four things stand […]

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