A Separate Space
Finding role models can be difficult when you don’t ever see people that look like you in the media. But Woke Words, a writing and reading program for women, femme, and non-binary artists 15 years and older, is changing the narrative. By highlighting diverse female authors, the group provides a safe space for young black, indigenous, and women of color.
In this episode, we hear from English Literature major Madeika Vercella about being a writer when you don’t feel like you can talk freely about your work. We also hear from Meeyong McFalls Schwartz and Sarah May, two artists working to empower young women of color writers in Salt Lake County.
Authors Mentioned in Episode
Jhumpa Larhiri, The Namesake
Erika Sánchez, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter
Sarah Vowell, Unfamiliar Fishes
Sheree Thomas, Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora
Nishta J. Mehra, Brown White Black: An American Family at the Intersection of Race, Gender, Sexuality, and Religion
Thi Bui, The Best We Could Do
Zadie Smith, Grand Union
Fatmah Asghar, If They Come For Us
Maaza Mengiste, The Shadow King
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ANDREA SMARDON: This is More Than Half. I’m Andrea Smardon. In this podcast, we want to find out how all of us could work on solutions to the challenges facing Utah women. But along the way, we’ve heard from women and people of color that they need spaces where they can hear their own voices.
MADEIKA VERCELLA: I don't think a lot of people realize that it's just not common for people of color, especially women of color, to see themselves in the stories that, you know, we're reading.
ANDREA: Sometimes that means creating a separate place, where not everyone is invited. Today on the program, we speak with a young black woman about what it’s like to be a writer when you don’t always see yourself reflected in your surroundings. And we hear from some women of color who are forging a space for a new generation of artists.
ANDREA: Madeika Vercella has a love for coming of age stories.
MADEIKA: I know I'm not a teenager anymore. I'm 20, but I still think they're important. Like I see myself in them.
ANDREA: When you ask her about her role models, she'll tell you about authors.
MADEIKA: I love Jhumpa Lahiri because her writing really focuses on second generation children of immigrants. And that's something I don't really see a lot in books. They don't really talk about the, in between like the kids that are caught between both worlds. And so I think that's really interesting.
ANDREA: But growing up as a second generation Hatian American, it was hard to find books that she could see herself in.
MADEIKA: And at least like as a black young woman, I know that there are lots of, um, or at least a decent amount of black and female authors. I don't always see them being celebrated as much as other authors.
ANDREA: And when books did have characters of color, they often lacked the depth she was looking for.
MADEIKA: I don't think people realize how often people of color are just caricatured. Sometimes we see people of color in books, we think yay diversity, but they were always there to add to the other person’s story
ANDREA: Madeika was born in New York, but grew up in Edmonton, Canada. She moved to Utah County as a teenager, an area that’s almost 90% white. Coming from a large, diverse city was a bit of a culture shock.
MADEIKA: I’ve had a lot of people telling me I'm their first black friend and I'm like, Oh, yikes.
ANDREA: Madeika is now a third year English Literature major at the University of Utah. In fact, she was on campus when we spoke with her. She told us that being a writer in a place where she doesn’t always see herself can be difficult.
MADEIKA: There's not a lot of areas in my life where I can just discuss like writing and literature and the way that I see myself in it very freely. And to be honest, sometimes I just don’t feel like it’s necessary to defend my existence.
ANDREA: So, when one of her professors tweeted about a new program in Utah called Woke Words that was exclusively for women of color artists, she was intrigued.
MADEIKA: I retweeted it and I thought, oh, this actually looks like a cool thing to do.
MADEIKA: I'm not really the kind of person that likes to wait for things to happen. I just like to do things. I just applied for it.
ANDREA: Every month, Woke Words participants read, discuss, and create together.
MADEIKA: The very first workshop we all just circled our favorite words in different books and magazines and just painted around them.
ANDREA: In that first workshop, they created collages that explored the question- where do you come from?
MADEIKA: I think, um, one of the things I wrote down in my collage was home is where my feet go. Cause I've moved a lot throughout my life. And I just think I just bring home with me everywhere. Wherever I am is where like home is. Cause I make home everywhere.
It was fun because it's kind of like you reclaim words that are already out there and you make space for yourself with which I think is the whole point of the program.
ANDREA: Meeyong McFalls Schwartz is the cofounder of Woke Words. She’s a writer and Korean American adoptee who grew up here in Utah. And like Madeika, she didn’t have many roles models that looked like her growing up.
MEEYONG MCFALLS SCHWARTZ: I grew up in an adopted family that was white. And I grew up with a sense of inferiority because I was a minority. And so I didn't have a whole lot of empowering connections that way.
ANDREA: As an adult, Meeyong spent 11 years in New York City. She came back to Utah to help take care of her niece and nephew. She says Utah had changed a lot, but some things were still the same.
MEEYONG: within the first couple of months, I'm going to say that I moved back here. I had already had people coming up and saying, hello, do you speak English or trying to speak Chinese to me and saying, Oh, I'm just trying to practice
ANDREA: When Meeyong first started building the program, she got some pushback on creating the space exclusively for women of color.
MEEYONG: People saying, well, this shouldn't be, uh, just for people of color, this should be for everybody.
ANDREA: But Meeyong says that there already are a number of writing programs available to white men and women.
MEEYONG: So we have to carve out a space for people of color to be able to, um, speak freely and speak outside that narrative
ANDREA: She noticed that her niece and nephew were experiencing some of the same things she did growing up here. Her niece is half Korean and Half Mexican and one of the few people of color in her friend group.
MEEYONG: Andshe was really into reading and writing and, uh, didn't have any kind of community to do that with. And so I thought that I would like to try and create something like that. And so I think to be able to be validated in a group of other people of color where you are not made to feel like you stick out or have to fit into some kind of idea, other people of you, uh, is empowering and healing.
ANDREA: But in Woke Words the participants can explore topics that might not be as easy to talk about otherwise.
MEEYONG: They don't have to feel like they have to censor anything that they're saying, or feel like they have to explain everything about what is Black Lives Matter, what is, you know, racial injustice, how do you feel, does this affect you? So being in that space, they don't have to provide those explanations.
ANDREA: This also means that the participants don’t have to explain the complexities of what it means to be both female, femme, or non-binary and a person of color. Madeika points out that those pieces of her identity are hard to fully separate.
MADEIKA: I think feminism includes race, gender, sexuality, and even socioeconomic status.
ANDREA: Medika sees women’s rights as only truly existing if they’re intersectional.
MADEIKA: I do think that a lot of people who are part of the majority of demographics sometimes just don't realize that people who share similar issues to them also on top of that have other issues.
MADEIKA: I hope people don't feel upset if they're, um, not able to be part of what words, if they don't fit that demographic. I hope they understand that it's not because we want to shut them out, but it's because we want to carve out a space that didn't exist for us
ANDREA: During the very first meeting of Woke Words in 2019, everyone shared a meal together and listened to the writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk. She talked about what she calls the “danger of a single story.”
CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE: The single story creates stereotypes. They make one story become the only story.
ANDREA: Chimamanda tells a story about a professor who told her that her novel was not “African enough.” As a woman born and raised in Africa, she was confused.
CHIMAMANDA: The professor told me that my characters were too much like him, an educated and middle-class man. My characters drove cars. They were not starving. Therefore they were not authentically African.
ANDREA: She realized that most people only hear one version of what it means to be African, that literature and media failed to present a nuanced description of her experience. When she came to the US for college, she found her roommate had those same stereotypes of African poverty.
CHIMAMANDA: In this single story, there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals.
ANDREA: Meeyong says starting with Chimamunda’s talk highlighted one of the program’s core values.
MEEYONG: It's really important to be able to hear different perspectives and different stories.
ANDREA: She points out that unless she took a class specifically about African American literature, US literature typically came from white male authors.
MEEYONG: They took it as a given that the readers and the writers and the landscape were white. And so I think it's really important to focus on writers of color and to give a young woman of color that sort of, that sort of space and that sort of exposure, especially at such a young age.
ANDREA: So each month, Woke Words highlights a different female writer of color. Here’s some of what they’ve read.
MEEYONG: I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, Unfamiliar Fishes, Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora, Brown White Black, The Best We Could Do, Grand Union, If They Come For Us, The Shadow King, Lineage of Rain, Sleeping with the Dictionary
ANDREA: Sarah May is the lead coordinator of the program and an artist and biracial Salvadorian American. For her, reading the works of authors of color allows participants to see themselves where they traditionally haven’t.
SARAH MAY: These books that we're reading in Woke Words are a reflection and illustrating my own experience, my thoughts, my dreams. And they pass their words and their visions onto us as we read.
ANDREA: She sees the group as both safe and sacred - where participants can feel comfortable enough to be themselves without expectations put on them.
SARAH: When we walk in the white, hetero-patriarchal world that we are seen as like the model minority, the refugee, the immigrant, that we're not just seeing just as us, just as a person, a human being that lives and breathes and has blood pumping through their veins and a heart that aches.
When we come into this space for Woke Words, all that gets left at the door. It’s really magical.
ANDREA: In Woke Works, Madeika says they get to read stories that don’t just focus on the struggles of women of color, but highlight a range of experiences.
MADEIKA: it's just nice to read a story where, you know, the black character is happy or, you know, the, um, the Latinx or Asian character, you know, isn't going through this like tremendous or super difficult racial hardship. And while that is something that's really important to discuss in literature, it's really nice when, you know, that's not the main focus.
ANDREA: The women in Woke Words come from a variety of backgrounds. And so even though they have some shared experience, Madeika says the discussions they have remind her of the need to see other perspectives.
MADEIKA: I guess just like by virtue of just meeting other awesome women in this program, I definitely I have a better and deeper understanding of other people’s stories.
ANDREA: Madeik remembers when they read the work of native writer Joy Harjo.
MADEIKA: she's the Poet Laureate of the United States. She's a pretty big deal.
ANDREA: Together, they read Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings, which Madeika describes as a series of poems about the human experience.
MADEIKA: I mean, that's just poetry in general, but um, her poetry really speaks to me. Like the experiences and the scenario she explains are so specific and I think the specificity of it makes it so relatable. Iit really feels like when I read her poems that they touched me at my core cause she's Native American and she talks a lot about her experiences. And even though I'm not Native American, it, I think it's really helpful for me to read other people's experiences and really try to feel through them.
ANDREA: As a writer, Madeika sees getting to create with other artists as one of the best parts of Woke Words.
MADEIKA: I feel really energized. Um, just seeing other people actually working on stuff in front of me. I don't even know if I can feel jealous, watching them make better artwork than me because it's so good. It's really inspiring and especially seeing it, it kind of fuels me to keep going.
ANDREA: This year Woke Words added a mentorship program, where participants work directly with one of the program facilitators on a piece of writing.
MADEIKA: I mean, I love all parts of Woke Words, but it's just really helpful for me to have like a more established writer just like guide me.
ANDREA: In Woke Words, Madeika gets to focus on her writing in a way that she might not be able to in other spaces. Just like Chimamanda, instead of trying to defend the supposed authenticity of the work, she gets to focus on growing as a writer.
Now in its second year, Woke Words is expanding. While the pandemic has meant they can’t gather in person or share a meal anymore, it hasn’t slowed them down. Meeyong hopes the program can partner with schools and wants it to expand statewide. And participants' work will be featured at the Bountiful Davis Art Center next spring.
In addition to Woke Words, Madeika is one of 10 students chosen for the University of Utah novel writing program. She’s writing a novel about a young Hatian American’s search for identity. And while Madeika might not have had many role models growing up, her experiences in Woke Words have meant that she’s building a new path for young women of color behind her.
ANDREA: To learn more about Woke Words or see a full list of the authors mentioned in this episode, visit pbs.org/morethanhalf
ANDREA: This is a PBS Utah production. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and please rate and review. Research, interviews and production conducted by Alicia Rice and Ashley Swansong. Audio mixing by Will Montoya. “The danger of a single story” audio courtesy of TED Talks.
ANDREA: Join us next week as we talk with teens about how they’re using comprehensive sex ed as a way to prevent sexual violnce here in Utah.
LUPITA: Aside from teen council, I couldn’t really say that I had an adult who I could have these types of conversations with.
ANDREA: I'm Andrea Smardon, and I hope you'll join us next time on More Than Half.