VONA (VOICES OF OUR NATIONAL ARTS FOUNDATION) PROUDLY PROVIDES A WELCOMING COMMUNITY FOR BIPOC WRITERS
Deesha Philyaw’s fiction workshop @ VONA 2023.JPG
Critique and oftentimes all out rejection is a part of every writer’s life so developing a thick skin to deal with the harsh blows is always advised. However, for those writers in the VONA (Voices of Our National Arts Foundation) community the connection runs much deeper.
M. Evelina Galang, Faculty Dean and former Board president with VONA who began with the organization in 2009, talked about their founding and her connection to their mission and passion to aid emerging BIPOC writers.
“Although we are now based in Miami, VONA began in California in 1999 with four BIPOC writers who came together under the guise of providing a space for emerging writers,” said Galang. “It started out as a mom and pop shop and finally in 2016 we became a non-profit organization.”
Galang recently transitioned off the board, she’s still been busy with VONA serving as director of the 2023 Summer Workshop and as Faculty Dean. “I work with the faculty and still faculty so I am very much tied to the organization,” she said.
Although the writing workshop is VONA’s primary function, Galang says they go beyond that, serving as a community that goes beyond the classroom “we’re a family that supports one another because there’s been such a duress of support for BIPOC writers.”
As a writer from Wisconsin and now based in Miami, Galang never grew up reading any writers of color and even in graduate school there were no faculty members of color.
“I was constantly sitting in these workshops trying to explain my culture and getting critiqued on the structure of my writing,” she said. “Then in 2009 I got invited to teach at VONA where there was a joy and freedom of being in this BIPOC community that I’d never experienced myself.”
Local poet and VONA Professor Adrian Castro who has been writing and publishing for thirty years and is a fixture of Miami’s cultural and writing community, expressed a similar sentiment.
“When I started writing there was nothing like VONA, an organization that exists to help BIPOC writers get published. Before VONA, writers like myself were submitting to and being critiqued by people who didn’t understand their point of view and therefore, their writing did not resonate with them,” said Castro. “At VONA we’re trying to be that person that these writers didn’t used to have and make sure these people are heard and receive the correct feedback.”
Castro, who has been a visiting professor at the University of Miami, lectured at Florida International University and Miami Dade College as well as taught workshops at various conferences and festivals, was already familiar with VONA through the workshops they’d been hosting in Miami, when they approached him about teaching for them n 2019.
“I believe that was the first I taught with them,” said Castro “then in late 2020, they went online and I taught three or four sections online for them including weeklong residencies in poetry and weekend poetry workshops.”
Another well known Miami author who is VONA Faculty is Tananarive Due. Additionally, VONA’s alumni have also gone on to great things. Patricia Engle now teaches at the University of Miami and Jubi Arriola-Headly, now a VONA Board Member are just two examples.
Arriola-Headly engaged with writing in various ways throughout his life and so once he got to college, he wanted to write and actively submitted his work but like the others at VONA “didn’t get chosen so I didn’t write for like 20 years,” he said. “During my college years, I knew the James Baldwin’s of the world existed but I still wondered if writing was possible for me. I didn’t know how one existed as a writer. But thanks to VONA I now know how to exist as a writer.”
When Arriola-Headly began his writing journey he didn’t know rejection and revision was part of the story nor that publication is not the sole definition of being a writer.
“Through VONA, I want to circumvent that process. I want them to know that writing is a talent and a skill and needs to be cultivated. That is very important to me,” said Arriola-Headly.
That is because his first poetry workshop was with VONA which was also the first time he was selected. That inspired him to pick up on writing poetry again after a two decade hiatus. “VONA will forever be part of my poetic journey. It’s where I first met my first cohort of poets and when I first felt part of a poetry community. It is where I also learned to not only receive feedback but also give feedback to poets,” he said.
Becoming a board member was a huge honor for Arriola-Headley who said, “I was asked to join the board earlier this year and that was important to me because I wanted to ensure that what was so foundational to me, was available to other writers coming up behind me or next to me really.”
And bringing on new board members is crucial at this time for VONA, said Galang who shared that she and fellow board member David Mura “are some of the last original board members and we are now stepping down. Now our entire board that’s transitioning in, almost all 11 of them are VONA alumni.
Additionally, they’ve also invited several VONA alumni to become faculty because this “really speaks to the organization as the community. This is showing the fruits of all of those years of alumni leading and teaching the organization,” said Galang.
Ultimately, VONA provides everyone involved, be it as faculty, on the board or a participant what Arriola-Headley so eloquently expresses. “VONA gives everyone a sense of purpose and belonging in the literary community.”
Learn more about VONA at their website https://www.vonavoices.org/ to learn about any upcoming workshops and events.
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