e·lit·ism or é·lit·ism
1. The belief that certain persons or members of certain classes or groups deserve favored treatment by virtue of their perceived superiority, as in intellect, social status, or financial resources.
a. The sense of entitlement enjoyed by such a group or class.
b. Control, rule, or domination by such a group or class.
I was surprised, over the course of one week not long ago, to encounter two online conversations in which the International Institute of Modern Letters was described as elitist. Despite immediately brushing this off – can’t waste too much time over online arguments and rants when work and family and, if I’m lucky, writing demand focus – the seeming prevalence of such opinions seemed out of proportion to the reality I’ve experienced in my years studying at the IIML. Perhaps I simply felt defensive as a graduate of the place. But perhaps somewhere in the background I was worried – all those years – was I part of an elitist organisation?
Well, yes. But only in as much as any tertiary institution is elitist. And it’s becoming more so, but not due to anything the IIML is doing. By abolishing student allowances for postgraduate students, the Government continues the nonsensical attack on higher education, practically sending our greatest academic potential to other shores. Tertiary education is not easy, and it’s not cheap, and you have to have the right kind of cultural capital to make it work. It is true that certain pre-requisites are necessary to study at a place like the International Institute of Modern Letters – facility with the written word and comfort with predominantly Pākehā institutional practices among them (and let's not forget the money). But even in terms of tertiary courses, particularly postgraduate ones, the IIML is not particularly elitist. All you need to get in is a good writing sample – for undergraduate courses no previous tertiary study is required; for the Masters course the need for a previous degree can be waived. Other tertiary institutions commonly require an honours degree or similar for admission to a Masters in Creative Writing. The main prerequisite for entry to the IIML is the ability to write well, and any rudimentary survey of the writing styles accepted will reveal diversity. This last point is important: there is no writing assembly line.
It may seem elitist when a high proportion of ‘successful’ (published and award-winning) writers in Aotearoa/NZ went through the IIML at one time or another, though that thinking is slightly skewed. If a course has a long history, a good reputation, attracts hard-working new writers with a lot of potential, and allows entry to only a small number in order to ensure excellent teaching and learning, the outcome is going to be high quality. Even then, a degree from the IIML is no guarantee of either publication or awards, and contrary to some opinions, graduates do not develop some kind of umbilical feeding tube attachment to VUP. Every year twenty students complete the MA prose and poetry, but there are not twenty new writers published each year. Graduates will go on to do a variety of things.
But none of this is the most interesting thing that came out of my consideration of this question of whether the IIML is elitist or not. For me it is difficult to see how it could be when I’ve witnessed the kinds of people who find a voice and encouragement and yes, legitimacy of one kind or another by taking an IIML course. When I began the MA and PhD, I was a single parent. There was no way I would be able to find the time, support, community and income (thank you scholarships) to write in a sustained way if I had not entered the IIML. Since then I have written about colonisation, single parenting, being old, being neglected, being young, being Māori, being mixed-ethnicity, Māori spirituality, Moriori spirituality, colonial history, postcolonial history, family violence, family healing, and the power of stories. I have seen my friends write about gender and sexuality and radical protest, jail and culture and different underworlds, historical figures, colonial and contemporary frontiers, pain and things that make us laugh. Sometimes these are worlds we know well, and sometimes these are worlds we imagine, but they are not elitist worlds (following my diversity argument, the odd elitist world may come into view, but certainly does not dominate).
And if none of that convinces, there was another thing that happened the week I saw those references to the IIML and elitism online. In a Real Life conversation with a colleague, we discussed how many mothers of young families were studying towards doctorates in Creative Writing. Two of us have already finished; one is nearly done. At present there are at least three more women with quite large and quite young families who are working on creative theses (and possibly more in the MA). It’s great for women with young families, I enthused, it’s so hard to say to your family, I’m just going to go in here and write now. It means you’re not wasting everyone’s time, that you’re working towards something legitimate. My colleague agreed. Just look at J.C Sturm, he said, she stopped writing for twenty years because of family and children. And I think that’s when I decided to write something about this, because when women have young families there are few ways to continue the writing life – it’s impossible to obtain writing residencies that insist you come alone, and difficult to prioritise the importance of writing over the importance of every other important thing that your children require. When you are a single parent, double those impossibilities. But the IIML made it possible and continues to make it possible for some of us. And if it didn’t our voices would be lost, at least for a time. We work hard, and they work hard, and it is a belittling, inaccurate thing to characterise what we may have achieved as elitism.
One thing I learnt and wrote about while researching my PhD is the continued lack of real diversity in New Zealand fiction. What we have now does not yet even approach a proportional representation of our national ethnic make-up. The IIML may not be the perfect place for all writers, and no one would want all our writers to come from only one place. But I do think that, without it, New Zealand’s writing scene would be a smaller, less colourful, less vibrant place, and possibly just a little bit more elitist than it is now.
I have had some interesting conversations with people since writing this, and some of the responses are more ambivalent than the comments below suggest. That's okay. I said it in the original piece but I'd like to re-emphasise it here: This pathway won't work for everyone, and for some there will be barriers to entering a place like the IIML that perhaps shouldn't be there. There are many ways to go about this business. This way has helped me and others I know. But I know it is only one way, and not accessible to all. I also haven't gone into the negatives of this, which for me at present include trying to find a way to make a living! So it can seem very grand, but in the end can still be difficult and fraught. There is always more that can be done. Kia Kaha e hoa mā.
Kōrerorero - Conversations
From time to time I'll post things here that haven't found a home anywhere else, or have been used in other formats. Occasionally I might even blog...