Interview with Bisi Ideraabdullah, Women of Color Writers Workshop

Documenting Immigrant Women’s Writing in New York City : Story of the Women of Colors Writers Workshop

by Shilpa Kameswaran

OyaBisiBisi Ideraabdullah is an educator, writer, and activist. In 1999, she founded the Women of Color Writers Workshop (WOC) in response to her own writing needs and the under-representation of women of color in the literary world.  She helped edit their first publication through Face to Face Press, Voices of Brooklyn: Writings from the Women of Color Writers Workshop (2000). Her story “Imani Means Faith” appears in the National Book Foundation’s Collection: Sounds of This House. She is currently working on an anthology “Boundaries & Borders,” a collection of writing from women of color across the globe.  Her memoir How Many Days Until Tomorrow is expected out in 2015. Ideraabdullah is a certified Amherst Writers as Artist (AWA) workshop facilitator and an AWA board member.  She heads The WOC Writers Community, a global collective of women writers.  Besides leading women in creative writing, she sponsors the WOC Visiting Guest Artist Series, readings, performances and publications. Bisi Ideraabdullah is also the founder and executive director of Imani House, a nonprofit organization with programs in Brooklyn and Liberia, W. Africa. She is of African-American/Caribbean descent. 

SK: When was the WOC Workshop series founded? How many women have participated in your Workshop series since then? Is the WOC Writers’ community mainly African-American women or residents of Brooklyn or both? And how many of them have made it to the published world?

BI: The Women of Color Writers Workshop was founded in 1999, and I have never not done it. Our youngest participant was 21 years old and our oldest participant was 70 years old but, most of our participants are between the age range of 25 to 45 years . The women come from all over – South East Asian, Afghani, Iraqi, African American, South American, Caribbean, African. We have not more than 5 women in each workshop series, which lasts up to 5 weeks. We have 6 cycles of these writing workshops each year since 1999. When I opened the writing workshop, I had a long wait list of applicants. However, over the years, there have been more writing programs for special populations in New York City. Some of the women come because they have been writing and they’ve heard about us and they want to try the WOC workshop to see if they can be authors or not. Other women come with their already written manuscripts and want to bounce it off the other participants at the workshop. About 12 women have solely and individually published their works as books, these include A Tree Without Roots by Theresa Willis; Song of the Shaman by Annette Vendreys Leach, and One Story Thirty Stories, An Anthology of Contemporary Afghan American Literature, edited by WOC writer Sahar Muradi. But, we also had a publication Voices of Brooklyn, an anthology which allowed a lot of women from the workshop to publish their work collectively, and more recently another forthcoming anthology, “Boundaries and Borders,” which also has works by our workshop participants.

SK: Who are the literary mentors at WOC ? And how exactly does the Workshop help its authors in building a literary network?

BI: I am one of the literary mentors. NYC-based author and performance poet Sapphire (Ramona Lofton), William Zenger, and Heady Jones are my mentors, and indirectly mentors of the workshop. Women of Colors Writers Workshop is modeled after the Amherst Writers and Artists (AWA) method founded by Pat Schneider.

One has to take training in the AWA method to be able to conduct these writing workshops, and authors who train with Pat Schneider have gone on to found various writing workshops for women of color, women in prison, women dying of breast-cancer, and so on. None of these mentors come here for the workshop. However, we have one upcoming workshop for 12 weeks in conjunction with Sapphire who will be doing an intensive fiction workshop for the participants.

The method leans toward allowing women to be who they are; it’s about their voice. I’m not teaching Virginia Woolf or Toni Morrison, I’m not teaching at all so, what the participants do is just receive prompts and write, and they read and they listen, and they review each other’s manuscripts. At the Workshop, women write in groups to keep themselves sharp, this is an opportunity for women to brush up on their skills, enhance their skills, or begin as a beginner. We do a lot of public readings during the course of the workshop–sometimes at the Jefferson Market Library, sometimes at the Bowery Poetry Club, and yet other times at cafes, and at the Barnes and Nobles bookstores in the city.

The participants  don’t really “graduate” at the end of these five weeks, they can continue to sign up for more workshops but, after those five weeks, every participant since 1999 is put on the WOC network, and they all stay in touch, and share their writing and other literary opportunities through our social media outlets.

SK: Does the Workshop cover literary methods in only poetry and prose, or does it also cater to non-fiction and journalistic writing?

BI: Yes it does, it covers literary methods in poetry, prose, narrative, fiction, non-fiction, and memoir writing. We talk about figurative language, and all of the elements of poetry and story that I learn in my MFA classes at the New School. We have guest poets who work with our participants on metaphor, dialogue, character building, and showing not telling. We don’t do any journalism. This is a purely creative writing workshop, and not a class.

The core purpose of the Women of Color Writers Workshop is to document who we were and how we existed in this very complex setting. Document women’s anxieties, perceptions, feelings – we’re not just all abused women, we’re not just all gay and lesbian women, we’re not just all black women, and we have to let the world know that we existed, and that we weren’t invisible.

SK: Why the faith in the AWA method?

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Photo Credit: WOC Writers Workshop

BI: The method is extremely therapeutic , there are some women who are coming out of grief, some with mental illness, and it gives them an opening to release some of the feelings that are still bottled up in their heads. Also, gives them a group of literary peers to be among, there is a circle of trust – it’s a very secure situation, the way the AWA sets up these workshops. For instance, one of the workshop participants has been writing about the loss of her son for 3 sessions, i.e 15 weeks, and has finally started writing about other things. The reason I bring this up is because I too began writing to write myself out of post-traumatic stress. When I came back to Brooklyn, I was coming here from seeing and living 7 years of war in West Africa. It was hugely traumatic for me, and I wrote my way out of it.

The Amherst Writers and Artists method is a very popular method, it encourages rather than disparages writers who may not have reached their optimal literary standing. Most writing workshops employ this method while working with special populations or minority groups or socially and economically disadvantaged groups. At the WOC Writers Workshop, the participants can only critique pieces and manuscripts if the author asks us to, but otherwise we only give them positive feedback.

It is only when the author is ready that we critique her work, not otherwise. In the past, if you went for a writing workshop with a teacher “teaching” the class, it would be typical to pull your pieces apart. However, some people are not ready for that. Many of the women who do the Workshop with me end up enrolling in MFA programs. I can’t say the ones that took the MFA became published authors but, I can surely say that they felt braver and more secure after doing the WOC Workshop with us. Women want to write together, women want to discover together, and they want to be in a group where if you aren’t already a good writer, your craft is not critiqued. At the WOC Writers Workshop, we believe that anyone who has a face has a story, and one shouldn’t always look to publish a story, an unpublished story is still a story.

SK: Can you tell us a little about WOC’s publications thus far–Voices of Brooklyn and “Boundaries and Borders” ?

BI: Voices of Brooklyn was published by Face to Face Press in 2000, and at that point a large majority of the women at that point were from Brooklyn, so the publisher called it Voices of Brooklyn, but it included workshop participants from other parts of the country too, including some authors from New Zealand, South America, and the Caribbean. Voices of Brooklyn is a niche publication as in it documents history – it documents voices of women living in Brooklyn in the year 2000.  “Boundaries and Borders” is forthcoming – we received over 300 submissions, and we are down to about 80 and are in the final stages of editing. We have 23 countries represented, it’s a multitude of ethnic groups. This self-published anthology is hopefully coming out by 2015.

Photo Credit: WOC Writers Workshop

Photo Credit: WOC Writers Workshop

SK: Does WOC have affiliations with publishers, or do they engage in other forms of collaborations with universities or workshops or conferences that might help WOC’s literary causes?

BI: The WOC interacts with the New York Writers Coalition who also use the AWA method of writing. WOC also takes its works to the Brooklyn Book Fair, The National Black Book Fair, and The Harlem Book Fair. More recently, the WOC is collaborating with Hedgebrook in Washington State on a new initiative to bring together publishers and writers in an attempt to help women’s writing groups publish.

SK: The WOC writers community consists of women who are first- or second-generation immigrants, and who belong to ethnic minorities. Considering the exclusiveness of this group, has the workshop ever given thought to preserving and publishing literature in regional languages or ‘translating’ work of non-English speaking authors in NYC?

BI: White “Caucasian” American authors are not excluded from the workshop, but we have hardly had any “white” participants. The trend keeps changing; when we started in 1999, it was largely and almost solely first-generation immigrant writers and a large number of East-Asians and women from the Middle-East. The participants’ backgrounds evolve but invariably one-third of the workshop is always first-generation immigrant women. A minimal number of submissions or manuscripts come in Spanish, and they have to be translated to be accepted/published by the WOC, but, presently, we just focus on creative writing in English.

SK: WOC charges a modest $150 fee for a 5-week writing cycle, and even offers partial scholarship. How does the Workshop sustain itself?

BI: Under the Imani House, WOC Writers Workshop uses the space and infrastructure. Imani House is incorporated but WOC isn’t. We have the New York State Council for the Arts (NYSCA) grants to run the workshop, and to put together the anthology Boundaries and Borders.

SK: Are the WOC writers in any way, at any point, integrated with the work of its parent organization, the IMANI House ?

BI: Over the course of the Writing Workshop, all the participants are informed about the work at IMANI House. Some women choose to volunteer, some women donate. The writers come here to write. I don’t think it would be fair to expect any of them to be involved with the IMANI House.

SK: As the founder and director of the WOC Writers Workshop, what do you envision for the workshop and its writers’ community in the next decade?

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Photo Credit: WOC Writers Workshop

 BI: One of my workshop participants has now started a WOC Writers Workshop in Atlanta. So, I’ll be writing and leading workshops and teaching other women of color to do so too. Over the past years, women who are in other states and overseas have reached out through our social media page inquiring about participating in the Workshop, so our next move will be to start online writing workshops for women of color. I’m sure the Internet will perfect that, but right now we are using Google Hangout to conduct online literary discussions. I am also very keen on encouraging political writing and historical writing at the WOC Workshops. Good writing needn’t always be literary writing, and I think documenting women’s views on politics and history is something to focus on in the next decade.

SK: What advice do you have for aspiring women writers of color in North America?

BI: We have to write. To be a writer you must read and write. I started reading and writing before I ever thought about improving my craft. One may be a natural-born writer and have the creative edge, and might want to enhance your literary craft, and in order to do so, you have to be part of a formal or informal writing community. I encourage my participants to audit MFA classes if they can’t pay the price for an MFA degree. The stories of women of color are often unheard, under-represented, and undervalued in the literary world, so if they can do collective publishing, they should. And I would urge them to find ways to get themselves on the literary map. These things become art and history.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

To be part of the WOC Writers Workshop and Community, please visit their website.

To learn more about the Amherst Writers and Artists Method, please visit their website.

Special Note on Upcoming Event: Ms. Bisi Ideraabdullah will be facilitating a Writers Workshop using the AWA method in NYC on April 27th, 2014, in honor of Pat Schneider,  founder of AWA. To register for this event, or any other WOC workshops, please email oyabisi@gmail.com

 

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