Coronavirus Special

Mirna: Hello, hello, and welcome to MFAngle. This episode is going to be a little different--because of the pandemic unfolding around us, we've gone into isolation, and you should be doing it to the best you can in whatever ways you can. Our episode today is being recorded on Zoom, so it's going to sound a little different. In the first half of the episode, we'll be talking about what it means to write right now and what it means to be in an m.f.a.

program right now with isolation, stay at home orders. In the second half of the episode, we're going to have some special guests on to talk about the application process during coronavirus.

I'm Mirna, I am still in Blacksburg, and I have not left my house to go anywhere public in 3 weeks. I've been pretty good about isolation. I'm starting to eat just popcorn for dinner, though, so clearly something's getting to me.

Bessie: Okay, so I'm Bessie, I am a fictioneer, and because of the pandemic, I am now in Miami, which is very far away from the program I'm in.

Mirna: We miss you.

Bessie: Aw, I miss you too.

Honora: Hi, I'm Honora, and I am a poet. I am currently in Blacksburg, living it up.

Bessie: She's not, she's not living it up, she is social distancing.

Mirna: Be clear about that, please! By herself.

Honora: Y'all, don't mess with my vibes.

Mirna: Alright, so, why do we want to do this episode? I think it's unavoidable, right? It's very part of our responsibility, especially because as a podcast we've dedicated ourselves to making the space that talks about not limited to the truths of being an m.f.a.

program and it's a really big part for us right now, right?

Bessie: I think that an MFA program is supposed to give you the structure to be writing and now that structure is gone for us, so I think it would be just weird not to address that in this podcast that's about what is it like to be in an m.f.a. Program. I mean, coronavirus--this pandemic has changed the world forever and the way we do things forever, including this, and so as people who are in the academia world of creative writing, we have also been displaced by it.

Mirna: And that leads us to our first question, right, which is: Are you writing?

Bessie: I don't know her!

Mirna: You're not writing at all?

Bessie: Eh, so I'm in a class in which we have to write every single week--it's not a workshop but we do have to write every single week--and you know, the professor has been really accommodating, he has taken into account all the impact this has had on our mental health, et cetera. So I am writing less, but I'm still producing new words, I'm just stressing less about the quality of the words because we are--you know we're all trying to do our best.

What about you, are you writing?

Mirna: Not at all. I have not written anything for myself. I'm in that same class as you, so I'm having to do that, and I appreciate it because it's starting to kind of get me back into it, but I haven't written for myself my own work in a long time to the point where, like, I'm not even reading. I'm not reading poetry because to poetry, I go for truth. I'm like, "I can't fucking handle that right now!" Then there's so much happening around me.

Bessie: That's so interesting because--so, Mirna and I were at AWP just right before all of this got super big. We bought so many books.

Mirna: So many.

Bessie: Mirna bought so many books.

Mirna: Less than last year!

Bessie: That's what she says. And now we went our separate ways, and we never got see each other again. And this sounds so weird, but you know, we have all those books and not reading them.

Mirna: I am reading my fiction books because I'm like oh that give me some made up world where I don't necessarily have to face what's currently happening. And I'm more willing to do that, but not poetry. I'm like I'm too--I'm too tender right now. What about you, Honora?

Honora: Am I reading or am I writing?

Bessie: Both.

Mirna: I mean reading or writing, I mean, sorry, I went into both.

Honora: Yeah when this first started, I was like, oh you know we have all is free time, so this is my chance to, you know, write everything I've ever wanted to write, submit it for publishing, and edit all my work and everything. After the first day, I was like, I don't have it, so I've been trying to write, but it's difficult. A lot is happening and there's a lot of worries on my mind that I can't always, like, ignore to go write a poem about, like… Even when I do write, I'm not necessarily writing about the current situation, I'm writing other things, kind of like an escape, using that as a way to just kind of not think about what's going on right now instead of writing about what's happening right now. Because poetry is meditation, and if I have to meditate on this moment, I will probably just… I don't have that in me, so as far as reading, I think that's been the only thing that has really, like, saved me this whole time.

I have found that I've also been reading a lot more fiction than I usually do because it's just, you know, you get lost in the world⁠—in the fictional world⁠—and it's a great way to escape, like, you know, our current reality. I'm still reading poetry, too, though, because, you know, I’ve found that I’ve kind of gotten numb to things⁠—like, you know, very numb. So, sometimes, I want to feel something⁠—so, you know, I've read a little poem and I feel again.

Bessie: We're gonna get some messages like, “Is she okay?”

Honora: No, I am not okay. I'm just playing. I am okay.

Mirna: But it’s also okay to not be okay.

Bessie: It is okay to not be okay.

Mirna: Shit’s everywhere right now.

Honora: Exactly.

Mirna: I’m not reading poetry for, like, the exact opposite as you, Honora.

Honora: Yeah?

Mirna: The other day I was just sitting here, you know, watching t.v. because I’m like, yes give me something fucking fictional. I was watching, I don’t fucking remember, but I was eating popcorn and I somehow, like, just, like, dropped one onto the floor and I started crying and I could not explain why. I’m just like, I’m too tender for this shit, I can't handle it.

Bessie: Wow, the group therapy I didn't know I needed.

Mirna: There you go!

Honora: No, seriously. I don't think we're having enough conversations about mental health in this time. Like, it is hard, especially when you're already prone to certain, like, you know, mental health struggles. Being in the house and not being able to escape yourself and being, like, having to face everything that, you know, academia helps us avoid, like, you know. Being in academia, you can immerse yourself in your students, your work, everything else, and completely forgetting about sometimes the issues that you’re actually facing.

Now you're stuck at home, all you have is you and your brain. And it's hard out here. Like, it is really hard to have to face all of that.

Bessie: Right, it's, like, who are we when we're not jumping from meeting to meeting, from class to class, from assignment to assignment?

Mirna: Before we wrap up this question: I saw this tweet that I just want to share with y’all, because it stuck with me and it says, “you are not working from home, you are at home during a crisis trying to work.” Which is very different, right? And I’m like “ah, shit, you’re right.” Thanks, Neil Webb. Shout out to you⁠—not sure who you are⁠—but you got to my timeline and it helped out.

I just think that's really important for us to keep in mind as we’re literally fuckin’ go through it.

Bessie: And we still have a long way to go.

Mirna: so it's kind of goes into our next question which we talked about a little bit right. like what exactly does it mean to continue to produce during a pandemic. what does it mean to write poetry, which I'm not doing, but what exactly does it mean to go into that production process while we're in the middle of a pandemic

Bessie: I remember when this first started like one week ago? Two weeks ago?

Mirna: It was like four weeks ago now, girl. It’s been a second.

Bessie: There were those tweets about, like, William Shakespeare wrote King Lear during the pandemic. And then everyone was, like, yeah, and also you shouldn't be thinking about producing right now. Like, you don't have to be a tool of production at every moment. Especially during a global pandemic, when thousands of people are literally dying. What does it mean to be writing right now? I don't know. I think we should all just be doing what we want to do, to feel what we can do, and want to do, to feel human. And if writing is part of that great and if it's not, then you don't have to do it.

Honora: I feel like, if you do write, do it for yourself; I think this time has given me the space to think about, like, you know, who do I do things for and am I doing this because it's expected of me or doing something that I genuinely want to do? And I think a lot. That's a question we're always thinking about: us, writers, is like, you know, are you creating for yourself, are you creating to meet other people’s expectations? Right now, if you want to create, it should only be for yourself. You don't have to prove anything to anybody anymore. Like, you know, and if you don't want to create, you don't have to. You shouldn't have to create either, like, you get to do stuff for yourself now. This is your chance to be the person that you feel like being. If you wake up today, “I don't want to do anything,” don’t do anything. Like, you know, we're so used to being machines and just working and working and working. Now just hit pause and reevaluate everything, like, you know, why do you do the things you do? A lot of times it’s all for the wrong reason.

Mirna: I will admit, I feel a sense of, like, guilt when it comes to not producing too. One, because we're in an MFA program, right? This is literally, like, quote unquote, what we come here to do. So I feel like I feel guilty because I feel like I'm failing myself in that sense. But then another part of it is also that this is not necessarily selfishness⁠—but, like, self care that you're talking about, Honora. I kind of feel my guilt is kind of stemming from that because I'm consuming so much; I'm consuming, like, t.v., I'm consuming the books that I'm reading. And, obviously, people worked really hard to create these and get these out, and there is that whole system, so I feel kind of guilty consuming so much of that and then not reciprocating to my own creative communities. That's where some of my guilt is coming from.

Honora: That is so real. But you also have to realize that the people who created the work you're consuming now were not creating it in the middle of a fucking pandemic. Like, you know, yes, life before the pandemic wasn’t ideal, but it was a different circumstance and you know we get to all hit pause and just be in a moment of realizing that the world as we know it has changed completely; and our responsibilities and the ways we can just exist, as artists, has to change to match it too. So, you know, feeling guilt is something that is never⁠—it is never not going to be there, because, as an artist, you're always going to feel guilt when you don't produce because you feel like you know that is why you're, you're put here in this world to do. But one of the realisations I've come to in this time has been that I'm going to create my best work out of this MFA program.

Mirna: Oh, yes.

Honora: And it's a great space to learn⁠—and I've learned so much and I've grown so much in the time I've been here⁠—but it's not as conducive to being a creative as we all make it out to be, because there's so much more that comes into it. So much more. Like, you know, even right now, if I want to sit down to write I realized, “oh, I still have all my classes and a thousand emails to go through, and I still have to do the writing center online”. Like, you know, all of those things have not gone away and they all hinder your ability to create. You don't have time to just, you know, it's just so much that we can't do because of the space of the MFA. So you have to, like, forgive yourself for that.

Bessie: Because we are literally separated, like, we all get to choose⁠—not choose⁠—but we, we make connections in the MFA program of the people we are, like, that are our support system in writing. And now we're, like, literally separated.

Mirna: Yeah, no. Now, we were still interacting with our peers and our friends and the people we choose to, you know, connect with, as Bessie was saying, but now we have to do it over Zoom or Google Hangouts and it's a little more limited. You don't get the same kind of, you know, like laugh or automatic response or even just like a hug, right? But with Zoom, now, we don't necessarily have to travel and we can also invite some really cool people to join us because we don't have to do everything in-studio and that's how we got our guests today! We have some really cool guests.


Mirna: Alright, guys, thank you for joining us. Before we get too deep into it, would you mind introducing yourselves? That would be your name, pronouns, genre, context of how you got into the MFA program and anything else you'd like to share.

Jess: Alright, I can start first. My name is Jess Silfa, my pronouns are they/them/theirs. I'm currently living in Florida⁠—in Tampa Bay⁠—but I'm a native New Yorker and I'm mostly a fiction writer and that's what I applied with⁠—but I'm also a poet. I graduated from college in 2016 and I had applied to MFA programs during my senior year. I got into programs, went to a program for a year, realized it wasn’t for me [laughs]. Left for a while and now this is my second, second stab at programs.

Mirna: Cool! Thank you Jess.

Emily: Hi! hi my name is Xueyi Zhou, Zhou is my surname and I'm from mainland China and I'm a fiction applicant for this year's creative writing MFA, and I finished my undergrad in 2017 and I have been working in my family's business since then. It is a totally unrelated field and it’s a B2B business⁠—we trade stainless steel. I'm currently living with my mom and we are working from home, since last December, because of other things⁠—not the pandemic. The city I’m at is Wushan and is near the city Canton, and is in the south part of China. so I got nine rejections for this round and the only offer I got is from Colombia and I just declined it today, so⁠—no, I declined it yesterday. So, I was already moving on to the next round.

Bessie: Wow, thanks for joining us!

Emily: Yes, thank you! It is my honor.

Mirna: Thank you so much, you guys! Alright, so we're going to go ahead and get into our first question, which is just: How's your season going? How's everything unfolding? I feel like now, because of everything that's happening, we all have kind of a lot to talk about. Also because we have been isolated for the most part, but yeah, how's it going to guys in general right now?

Jess: So, I'm also a caregiver for my grandma⁠—she's ninety-six. She recently broke her hip and she's okay… but it's the pandemic that made everything worse, obviously, because she can't really get the care she needs. We can't have people in the house to do her physical therapy and whatnot, and that has thrown⁠—it's relevant because that sort of puts my MFA plans up in the air. Or, now I'm worried about leaving her. Back when I first applied, you know, when I applied this last October, December, whatever, she was in a better space, so I felt more comfortable leaving her. Now it's like, I'm not really sure what's going on. I'm not even sure if there’ll be school in the fall, I mean [chuckles]. But I did have a pretty successful season. I applied, I think, to eleven programs and I got three rejections.

Bessie: Wow!

Jess: So, the rest were good news and narrowing them down was hard. But I did; I did finally accept my offer to Vanderbilt.

Bessie: Wow! Congrats!

Jess: Yeah, thank you! Thank you. That was⁠—it was hard, but Lorrie Moore called me and I was like, well, I can’t say no to Lorrie Moore. [laughter]

So, it's, you know⁠—it's really good and I feel really happy, but it's also just so much in the air, up in the air about what's going to happen and how the semester is gonna shake out that I almost can’t, like... I almost can't plan you know? Like, I'm excited about moving to Nashville, but realistically, I don't want to move anywhere in June, you know? It feels too soon. So, yeah, that’s what’s going on with me right now.

Emily: So, my season was kind of weird because I'm from mainland China and there was practically no information on our websites. I started to write fiction in English last July when I decided to apply for MFA, but I didn't find any information from our websites, so I basically relied only on Google and the school website. I didn't know about the draft group on Facebook until I submitted all my applications. So that was pretty much all guess work, to finish my application alone, and yeah. I find that the information gap between maybe international applicants and American applicants is very, very huge. It’s, like, I don't even know where to look before I found the Facebook group, so... So, I'm writing my MFA application guideline for Chinese applicants, so I hope I can, maybe, help the future applicants, if anyone's interested.

Bessie: That is so awesome of you. Continue! But I just wanted to say, that’s so awesome of you.

Emily: Yeah, thank you. It was... It felt really lonely because it's kind of very rare for a Chinese, a native Chinese, to want to pursue a writing program, I think. Because I knew no professors⁠—I still don't know any professors⁠—and I have no connections to any U.S. school, so... And I did my undergrad in Shanghai, so I don't have any U.S. education experience, and so that was completely in the dark to finish all the applications. I was surprised to get in one schoo,l although it was too expensive for me to attend. Sorry, Columbia, if you're listening to this! I'm so sorry. [laughter] It’s just too expensive!

Mirna: Also congratulations on that acceptance, though! That’s huge!

Emily: Oh yeah, yeah. Thank you! But I had to decline because of financial reasons and other things. So, I'm ready for the next round! Hopefully I can land somewhere with more funding.

Bessie: I mean a lot of people⁠—most people⁠—do several rounds of application before they find a program that they can commit to.

Emily: Yeah, I think I underestimated the time it took to do research and I didn’t know much about the states, you know? What's going on in different states in the U.S. and I've never been to the U.S. So I hope, I think, with more researching, maybe, I can land somewhere cheaper.

Mirna: With better funding right?

Emily: Yes, yeah, that’s definitely a huge concern for me.

Mirna: It'll happen. Like Bessie said, sometimes it takes a couple rounds. Sometimes it takes being, like you Jess, I was in a different program. So, sometimes, you go into one thinking it’s gonna be great, then you realize it's not the best⁠—the best match for you. So there's a little bit⁠—there's quite a bit of trial and error when it comes to finding an MFA home, you know? But, you said you had to decline Colombia because, partially, the funding right. but because of everything that's happening that we can't avoid with a pandemic, like, how has the pandemic affected your decision? Like Jess, I know you said you were wondering if you might be moving at all because you're worrying about family, you’re worrying about yourself, where there's the possibility that we might not have classes in person in the fall right. So how has the pandemic infected you in those ways?

Jess: Well, for me, I'm also a disabled applicant, so not visiting campuses before making my decision has been so stressful. I mean incredibly, incredibly stressful. I actually did my undergrad at Columbia, and it was kind of a nightmare, because Colombia is very historic. It's very beautiful, so they have a lot of loopholes when it comes to accessibility.

Mirna: Oh, I bet.

Jess: And every⁠—every day was a challenge to get to my classes; I was actually a STEM major, and it was just so hard to get to labs, to get to these underground classes, to get to... It was just horrible. And I knew I didn't want that experience in the MFA. But, of course, by the time it was time to do recruitment visits, the pandemic had really started here, so all those visits got canceled. So,Ii had to choose, you know, a program sight unseen. So I still have worries about, am I gonna be able to get to every classroom at Vanderbilt? Am I gonna be able to, you know, I got actually a really great deal from NYU. You know, full tuition, huge stipend, health insurance. You know, it was one of their big fellowships they give to, like, a couple of people. The creative writing house is not accessible whatsoever. It's in this cute little brownstone. I would only be able to access the 1st floor, and I'm like, what can I do on the 1st floor?

So, I have had to turn down programs simply because they're not accessible. So I, like I said, just not being able to visit was just really, really hard. Vanderbuilt, luckily, sent me a lot of maps, a lot of really reassuring emails, you know: “we’ll make it work. We’ll figure out what you need. Don't worry.” And that is, ultimately, why I chose them over some of my other options. But yeah, that was hard.

Bessie: Yeah, I mean, it sounds super, super hard.

Honora: What are the strategies to use to figure out, like how accessible a campus is? Especially if you can’t visit. Like, what other things have you done to try to gauge that?

Jess: Most schools have some sort of disabled student group. It’s not always, like, MFA⁠—or even grad school specific⁠—but there’s usually some kind of angry students in wheelchairs, pissed at their schools for not doing enough type of group. So, I tend to find them and see what they say the issues are on campus. I tend to reach out too. Sometimes it's not, like, a straight up disability, sometimes it’s older professors have issues getting around campuses, so I tend to reach out to those and ask them, you know, what they think about accessibility on campus. If I'm lucky, there will be an MFA student who’s gone through it, you know, whether a temporary injury or, you know, they are disabled, that kind of thing. I'm also president of the Disabled and Deaf Writers Caucus for AWP. So that's a good network to have. There’s like 500 of us, so, I can sort of say “does anyone know anything about this school, this campus, this area” and that's how I found out about accessibility in Nashville, accessibility in Austin, in Miami, all these places I was considering.

Mirna: Those are some really great resources and I know, I mean people, definitely need to hear that. Thank you for sharing that with us!

Bessie: Jess, how have people from the MFA programs that are trying to, you know, to recruit you helped in this too? You told us about them being helpful and, you know, addressing those needs.

Jess: Yeah, I think... So, it's funny, because I think a lot of my decision was based on who was helpful or who wasn't. There were certainly some MFAs, you now, administrators who sort of had this like “oh, we don't know what to do for you. We don't know, we just don't know anything” and I certainly snapped at one person and was like, “have you never had a disabled student?” [laughs] You know, sometimes there’s just this tone, like I don't want to name names, but there’s definitely, among some of them, this tone of “we're giving you a full ride, we're giving you, you know, a stipend. Isn't that enough?” and I'm like “No, I need to get to class.” [laughs] I need to actually get inside the building. Your tuition means nothing if i can’t actually access what you’re giving me a full ride for. Some schools definitely got crossed off my list because of the tone they had with me, in terms of how helpful they wanted to be. But, in general, I think there is a huge disconnect. I think most MFA directors, faculty, they really don't think about accessibility and that's a shame, you know. It really is a shame. And it’s widespread. Like I said I am president of the caucus and we've been fighting with AWP for years. [laughs] It’s been written about, it's been in articles. I think in general, just the literary community, doesn’t reall⁠y—it’s not at the forefront. I mean, if I had a dollar for every reading that was in some loft somewhere, or in some basement without an elevator, I'd be rich; I could just publish my own book. [laughs] It’s just a widespread problem.

Mirna: Now, I have a question⁠—and I apologize if I'm mispronouncing your name⁠—Xueyi?

Emily: “Xueyi”

Mirna: [repeats]

Emily: Yeah, you can call my surname.

Mirna: Okay, but, what would you rather be called? Because I want to call you what you would rather be called.

Emily: I have an English name: Emily. But nobody seems to call me that

Mirna: Is that what you would prefer?

Emily: Yeah, you can call me Emily.

Mirna: Alright! Emily, what about you? How has the pandemic affected your decision? I know you said you ultimately said no to Colombia because of expense reasons, but, like, we're facing the very real reality of isolation⁠—of classes online. So, how has that kind of curbed your experience?

Emily: I think that the pandemic makes me overthink a lot. Because at the beginning, Colombia, I knew that I want to decline, but then with the pandemic and everything, I start to wonder if schools would cut funding for the next year because of possible repercussions or anything like that. Or will there be more writers to join the competition, you know, to take a break from work and apply to grad school? So, I overthink a lot, and, in the last week, I’ve had a very strange sickness and that made me question the medical care for international students as well.

I just... I'm not sure whether it's a good idea to trust that we can be safe this year in New York City in September; but, on the other hand, the next year is probably going to be more intense, more brutal. So that made me kind of question whether I'm going to decline, but ultimately I declined anyway. But that makes me overthink a lot and that gives me stress, so that is not helpful for creative work anyway.

Yeah and I'm... I tried to sit in some classes but, just, online is still very different from in-person experience, so we don't really know what it's like to be in a U.S. MFA program, what the workshop will be like, it’s like, online chatting is very different from a real person workshop.

Mirna: Super different!

Emily: So, for international students, we... We don't get to, like, visit every school. And now we can only have some online chatting and stuff like that. So I was, like, okay, I was just gonna decline and take another round. It’s okay. and just one thing that I e-mailed a lot in between schools to ask their future plans in the face of pandemic, and I feel like the schools haven't decided what they're going to do for September. Some schools in New York City are still claiming that they will return to normal by September, and I thought, I don't have much confidence in that to be honest. I feel like they don't have a plan B ready, so that definitely helps me to decide to decline. Plus everything going on and so... the pandemic is making everything more complicated, I think. Nobody knows what the future has for us, so we're kinda just trusting our guts.

Mirna: Yeah, I think that's smart. Everything that you're saying you’ve take into consideration, even down to, like, you said the health care of international students. You say you're overthinking it, but I think that's really smart and I think that would be one of the biggest impacts, especially here because of the way we're seeing things unfold right. Like, even U.S. citizens are having trouble getting it too, that health care that they need. So, I think it's a very realistic approach to your decision making and I applaud you for that.

Bessie: Definitely. I mean, Emily, as an international student, let me tell you that health care for international students is nonexistent, so yeah.

Emily: And I think about accommodation as well because I knew that some schools asked students to move out. [agreement mumbles] Because of the shutdown. But, then, was like how, how would the international students find another room in such short notice? Being international is just, just kind of stressing me out.

Mirna: And those are, those are some of the, some of the most noticeable problems that we've had as this has gone down in the U.S. like you said, Harvard had a five day window in which they asked all of their students to move out. And that meant international students, who only had the dorms, they were shit out of luck because Harvard was just demanding that they leave. And, for some of those international students, some of them don't have money to be able to spend. For others, because of their visas, they cannot leave the country; like, they're stuck in the U.S. because of their visas—and for a certain amount of time—and so that's just another shitty situation too right.

Bessie: I mean and for others, they can’t go back home because the borders of their country have been closed because of the pandemic.

Mirna: So, Emily, you’ve kind of already addressed this and I feel like Jess, you have too, but... Given the uncertainty, how have your expectations of being in an MFA program changed? If they have changed how are you dealing with those changes?

Jess: For me, I think, I'm just thinking that, you know, the format might be different. Maybe we’ll switch to online, maybe they’ll loosen up some policies, but I feel like if they’re gonna move to online, I might ask to defer. [laughs] And normally, MFA programs you can't defer, but I'm thinking—well, given the pandemic, will they allow people to defer? I don't know. So I think it's just, you know, my idea of what's going to happen in the fall is just up in the air. I think, you know, if it even happens, I can imagine things are gonna just be on a smaller scale. A lot of things won’t be in person. And I mean Vanderbilt’s already a tiny program. They only accepted three fiction people this year, so it’s already small but… I just feel like, yeah I wouldn't be surprised to see things taking more virtual approach. And that's not what I want in an MFA, not necessarily. So, I don't know... I can't, you know, be unhappy with it, but I think I’ll probably just have to, you know, to change what I hope to get out of my first semester. And, of course, there's a very good chance, depending on how things go, that even if the school decides to have a normal semester, I might not feel safe because I'm disabled, because I'm immunocompromised, because I have my grandmother, who I had planned to come and visit often.

You know, this might be my second year of going “oops, I guess I’m not getting the MFA right now” and staying home. Do I want that to happen? No, of course not. I would love to head to Vanderbuilt in the fall. But realistically speaking, I'm not gonna, you know, put my health in jeopardy for an MFA, or my grandmother’s health in jeopardy for an MFA. Right now, I'm kind of just playing it cool, and I figure I'll make a decision closer to June. You know, as we see what’s happening. ‘Cause everything’s just so up in the air. But that’s where my head is at right now.

Mirna: No, yeah, that makes sense. What about you, Emily? How have your expectations changed?

Emily: My expectations as an international student are already pretty low, because I've been talking to people in the Draft Group, and from what I could gather, for international students, after they graduate from MFA programs, they either go back to their countries, or do PhD. This is, like, kind of the only choices I've heard of. I think for Americans it’s already hard enough to land a job in academia, I think, so—or to become a full time writer that can support yourself by writing alone. So, my expectation for a career after MFA programs is already pretty low and I'm perfectly okay with going back to my country after graduation. But, as for, you know, as someone who is reapplying next year, I think, honestly I worry a lot about the schools cutting the funding, so the competition will be more intense. And, also, I'm, you know—this is maybe a silly, silly worry—but the anti-Asian sentiment…

Bessie: it is absolutely not silly.

Mirna and Bessie: That’s not silly at all.

Emily: And this is just an idea really, because... This is, this is no offense to any program, but I've seen some programs being pretty white, so…

Mirna: Oh my god, yes!


Bessie: Yes!

Emily: So, with that, all that anti-Asian phobia and sentiment flying around, I'm really concerned about, you know, being a Chinese, being international, being a person of color, to join the application pool for MFA programs. But, other than that... If things can get back to normal next year and we can do, like, in-person, on-campus programs... I'm okay with that! Just—I just—I'm just not sure what next year will be. For internationals specifically. Because of this pandemic, maybe people would just cut the international quotas or visas, or anything like that.

Mirna: Yeah, those are all really valid fears. I don't think, like we said, I don't think they're silly at all. In terms of, you know, the programs being super white: yeah, 100%. That's what we have seen, that's what we have navigated as we were going through it, right? Because our podcast is like, by women of color, for people of color, for students of color, for, you know, all of this. Because we have gone through it. We've... I was in a previous program. We've been in other, like, English related undergraduate degrees. End everywhere we go, everything we see, is for the most part white, right? So that's, that's something that's definitely important when it comes to navigating where you're applying, where you're potentially accepting offers from. Even if it weren't for this pandemic that's also a very legitimate worry, concern, fear.

Honora: I think this whole pandemic, in a weird way, has shown a lot of the realities of a lot of people. Especially our country right now—and the ways in which we treat people, the ways in which programs prioritize people—and, like, not to be rude but, it’s shown a lot of people's asses and it's shown that a lot of people are fucked up. And it’s just… It's not going to be easy moving forward to see that a lot of Americans have so little humanity in them and the ways in which they’ve been treating other people during this pandemic. Like, you know, and especially to the rest of the world gets to see the way, you know, a lot of the issues that minorities in America are facing. Like, you know, like this has become an issue that has really, really, you know, is showing that a lot during this time. And it's just so heartbreaking and it's... But, like, you know, it's something that I think for the first time in a long time, like, you know, people have been speaking up and I think this, in a fucked up way, has given us a chance to really see that you know when you're unequal. When a country is unequality and it treats its people poorly, it affects everyone. And this is starting to show really, really badly. Well, it’s always been here, but it's starting to show really badly. And i’m really hoping that, you know, when we do start to recover from this and move forward, people don’t ignore the things that we've learned from this pandemic. We're actually, like, you know, ignite changes and move forward for the better because it's been so difficult to just exist in this country during this time. And, you know, I'm sorry that you feel anxious, like, you know, to come to this country right now. Like, that's the reality of what America is every day for a lot of people and it’s so messed up.

Bessie: And please don't disregard your anxieties as silly or trivial because they are not. I mean, we've clearly seen examples of, you said Anti-Asian sentiment, we've seen this now. We've seen them in academic communities. We've seen them outside academic communities. You know, like per usual in America, events like this—like a pandemic—are used to justify a lot of hate, are used to justify a lot of racism.

Emily: Because I'm not in America now, so everything I'm seeing is just online, but that really just... The news shock me every day. Really, the news shock me everyday.

Honora: This is the reality that we have been living for as long as everyone can remember. It's just, I guess, quote unquote more visible now.

Emily: Yeah, yeah. I agree. And I'm sorry for that. I’m really...

[sympathetic awws]

Mirna: Has your reading changed in these last… What is it? What month are we in, September?


Mirna: [mumbling trying to figure out the months] We just started April, right? So these last three months, like, how has your writing changed? Have you... Earlier we were talking about how some of us aren't writing at all anymore. What's your situation like?

Jess: For me, you know, we have this whole crip community online and on Twitter and I keep joking that, like, the disabled people, you know, on one hand, with the most vulnerable on the other hand, we’re also the most prepared for the government to just not help us. [laughter] So, I have started writing a story about, like, a pandemic—like, a post-apocalyptic thing—but it's... All the characters are disabled, and how they all band together and survive, how they all basically, like, life-hack their living situation.

Honora: Yes!

Jess: All their, like, you know hoarding of medicine comes in handy. And all their, like, knowing how to take care of themselves comes in handy. So, that’s how I’m choosing to work my way through this. I wouldn’t say I'm writing a lot, because I have so many other things to do. ‘Cause now that I can’t have people come take care of my grandmother, I'm going even more, but when I do get to write, that’s what I'm writing. And I think it's been good to sort of flip this into a “we will survive” type of thing. So, yeah, that’s how my writing’s been.

Honora: That’s so powerful.

Jess: Thank you. Hopefully it turns out okay. Hopefully I'll get to workshop it.


Jess: That’s the hope!

Mirna: We're expecting this book 2021.


Mirna: That’s awesome! Thank you, Jess. What about you, Emily?

Emily: Well, personally, in my samples for the applications, I blend in humor in practically over half of my story but I find it very difficult to write about sort of, light hearted, humorous, funny stories now—when everything's going on makes me you know it makes me kind of think about death, think about the system, think about fate. Very gloomy topics [chuckles]. And I've only written one story last month and it was really sad. It's just sad. It’s a story about, about a traditional festival in China, because, in April, we have a day that is for tomb sweeping to, you know, visit our ancestors and to remember our deceased and families, and it makes me think about, you know, how people die, how people mourn, about death, and how the tradition, you know, sort of conflicts with the modern days and the technology and everything about that. And there was nothing humorous in it. So...

And I've been reading about books that are not very—just they're just not very happy and I feel like I shouldn't be reading happy things. It’s this kind of weird mentality. If I watch comedy or write something funny, maybe I'm being disrespectful. Yes, so, that makes me think about more heavy, more deep, more sort of sad topics. And I don't know whether that's going to change in April or in the future months, but so far I think my writing reflects how I've been feeling right now. And I find it hard to fake happiness because I'm not. I'm not feeling it.

Mirna: No, that’s real. Part of the isolation is we’re having to sit with our own thoughts. And we can't give in to distractions the same way we could before, and I think that's where some of that more solemn-like material is coming from for many of us.

Emily: Because, on one hand, I know it's important to distract yourself a bit. You know, don't... don't fall into the sadness, the depression. On the other hand, I feel like you can't lie in your work. You can only write about what you're truly feeling or what you want to discuss, and so I chose to, you know, face my fears and talk about sort of death and that traditional festival in my writing. But I'm hoping maybe I can find the humor back, in the future months. Because we really need to. We need some hope and something to look forward to in our lives, you know, in this isolation. Just sitting, you know, our rooms you have talking to ourselves. It can drive people crazy. And writers have higher possibility crazy anyway.


Emily: I mean we really need to find that.

Honora: I think I’ve been challenging myself to like rethink my responsibility as an artist and realizing that, yes, as an art, is it is our responsibility to record the time and to bear witness to what's going on in the current time. But that changes, the way you do that changes, because, especially being a poet, a lot of poetry is like, modification and elevation of, like, you know, the physical world or whatever, but I think to be an artist right now is to record the current reality—the way it is without any filters, without any ways to make the language seem beautiful. And when I’ve been writing, I've been—like journaling—I've been wanting to write what's real, how I'm feeling... Just, like, the simple mundane—what seems regular and real right now, instead of trying to produce art that is, in a way, elevating the way I'm used to, you know. So maybe just recording “what did you do today during quarantine?” you know. “What’s going on? What did you hear? What's weird?” like just the regular things that are happening instead of trying to create art out of it. Maybe that's a lot easier to do right now, rather than, you know, trying to be artists who are, like, you know, making beauty out of the chaos, because we don't need beauty right now; we need harsh reality, we need it the way it is, you know.

Mirna: Well alright guys. I'm like, if we end on a sad note, we end on a sad note. That’s the fucking truth, right?

Sarah: We’re living in the sad note, man.

Mirna: Thank you guys, again, so, so much for taking the time—for waking up at 2 am, for coming in to the call—like all of you. Thank you so, so much for coming in and talking to us. We really really appreciate that.

Jess: Thank you.

Emily: Thank you.

Bessie: Jess and Emily, everything you've shared has been so important and we're really grateful that you decided to, you know, share that with MFAngle. We feel very honored to get that.


Sarah: Hi, I'm Sarah Boudreau, MFAngle’s producer and editor. We would like to thank VT Publishing for its support. Mirna Palacio Ornelas is our host. Bessie Flores Zalvídar, Honora Ankong, Xueyi “Emily” Zhou, and Jess Silfa are our contributors here today. Special thanks to Joe Forte for being our audio engineer and podcast dad. And to Dash Ehlauge for creating our theme music. And, thanks, listeners, for being listeners! Now, go wash your hands.