Learning from our lineage: In conversation with Carlina Duan
As a freshman at the University of Michigan in 2011, Carlina Duan didn’t know what the term “person of color” meant.
“I wasn’t keyed into that way of speaking as much. I’m not sure the campus was either.”
Campus was pre-2016 election, and Michigan in Color, the section of The Michigan Daily that Duan would eventually manage, had just started as a column housed under the Opinion section. Maybe in part due to the political climate of the time, Duan said the conversations on campus about race felt more muted then compared to today. Those conversations also lacked a centralized platform –– a signal that there was a space for Michigan in Color to fill.
“I think there was a hunger for narratives that people had overlooked –– prior there was really no space for people to think about storytelling from that perspective.”
Soon after Michigan in Color’s founding, the term “person of color” became a part of Duan’s daily lexicon, as she helped grow Michigan in Color from a column to a full-fledged section of The Michigan Daily while also becoming of the Daily’s most prolific writers. Her piece “Our sacrifice, our shame,” which was written in 2014, remains the most-read MiC piece in its history. The piece garnered over 150 positive comments online –– a rarity for writers publishing radical words about race.
Her writing career was only beginning. Since her graduation in 2015, Duan has written a book of poetry, received her MFA from Vanderbilt, and is now teaching an English 125 class at the University while pursuing her PhD –– successes she attributes largely to the community she created at the Daily.
“I think that I was really excited about the possibilities that MiC showed me –– that writing can kind of transform others and myself.”
Duan’s research concerns pedagogical strategies for using creative writing as activism –– a topic that in turn examines the role people of color play in teaching an audience about identity. While Duan said she hopes she can instill a sense of activism in her students, she knows there is no way for them to embody her own lived experiences, a limit to teaching impossible to cross.
Coupled with the complexity of being one of the few Asian Americans in the creative writing PhD program, identity has become one of the more salient aspects of her teaching career thus far.
“I think a lot about how there are experiences my students will never understand. But I think about the classroom as a space in which I can incorporate different questions in literature that many students might have never encountered,” Duan said. “We think a lot about language as ideology and language as action. I try and introduce text and writers and thinkers into their world that might ask certain questions that can help them think about activism.”
But in teaching her lived experiences became a vulnerability to tokenizing as well as a partial release in ownership of her own personal experiences. As a minority in the English department, Duan said it is important for herself to balance her desire to teach about identity with the protection of her own experiences. Though she is now a teacher, it is not her responsibility to use her experiences to teach people about race.
“It can be frustrating to be looked at as the only one of the experts in the room, but I feel very strongly about kind of keeping for myself a certain set of experiences to protect myself from feeling used and tokenized,” Duan said. “It's not my personal obligation educate everyone on specific lived experience.”
Being a PoC writer doesn’t only run the risk of tokenization, Duan said. It can also take a toll on mental health. The process of first exploring and then sharing deeply personal experiences can be draining and difficult, so much so that it’s a “radical and super revolutionary act,” Duan said. But she stressed that to help remedy these difficulties, a sense of community is important. By actively remembering the women who paved the way for her to be able to write about race, Duan said the sense of solidarity she feels helps her remember the radical importance of writing.
“I try and keep a kernel of why I began to write in the first place,” Duan said. “So much of that for me is about community and I think there are a lot of narratives that come from the fairly westernized and fairly white cannon of literature that writers should be solitary figures who exist to produce and produce. I feel really accountable to writing with other people.”
Despite these practices, the act of writing about race continues to be very difficult, especially for those who choose to make writing their career in a society that doesn’t reward writers in the same way it rewards other professions. This stigma is one of the main reasons Duan decided to become a teacher –– she entered the field through empowering teachers and she wants to do the same for others.
“Our society doesn’t really believe in writers as being able to make it and be “productive” –– whatever that means. Yet, writing exists as a way for me to chisel away at different questions that have to do with how I want to be generative and generous and productive.”
And for the current students who also want writing to be their mechanism for productivity and generosity?
“Know your stories don't exist in a vacuum. What MiC is doing is building its own cannon and letting people write alongside a lineage to which they can feel a sense of duty and gratitude. Each story is a part of a community.”
Maybe this story is a part of that community, too.