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ASU instructor leading lessons in literature and life

Venita Blackburn, award-winning author and creative writing instructor, is impacting students beyond her books

Venita Blackburn 1

Venita Blackburn, creative writing instructor at ASU's College of Integrative Sciences and Arts, discusses her new book and teaching style at the Downtown Phoenix campus on Monday, Sept. 11, 2017.

Venita Blackburn, a creative writing instructor at ASU’s College of Integrative Sciences and Arts, did not plan on becoming a teacher. 

“I’m gonna say something I probably shouldn’t say,” Blackburn said. “I did not want to be a teacher.”

But throughout her life, Blackburn said she found herself naturally thriving in teaching roles, whether that be as a high school tutor or as a teacher’s assistant in the MFA writing program at ASU

After graduating from the program in 2008, Blackburn taught creative writing to young writers around the Valley in elementary schools and community colleges while continuing to teach at ASU.

“I have come to peace with being a teacher, and I’ve always loved my teachers, so I don’t know why I was so resistant to that,” Blackburn said. “I learned a lot about teaching from those teachers as well — the good ones.”

But despite having good teachers, Blackburn said in some classroom environments, she felt marginalized and restricted in discussing her personal experiences as a person of color.

“When you are a person of color in these workshops, you’re usually the minority by an extreme,” she said. “So for mine there were maybe two for the entire twelve or thirteen people that were in the program, and we noticed it.”

During her time in the MFA writing program, Blackburn and the one other person of color in her cohort created a separate group in order to discuss the topics they felt weren’t getting enough attention in class. 

"I hope the students are getting a fresh perspective," she said. "My perspective should be a little older. It’s a little more seasoned."

Blackburn’s current workshop, Live Right, is modeled to be a safe space for writers of color to discuss issues that she says are often overlooked in typical creative writing classes.

In Blackburn's workshop, which will meet next at the end of September, the members write poetry, creative nonfiction and fiction within a larger ongoing discussion of race and culture.

“I want to make sure that we’re working toward a world that does not devalue that and does recognize the merit that all of us have in our various experiences," she said.

Blackburn said it is important to create safe spaces for individuals to discuss sensitive issues, rather than shying away from uncomfortable topics, particularly amid the current political climate.

“We’re going in a direction where we can no longer... pretend that we’re in a world where everyone is equal, and everyone is the same, and talking about race is just taking us backwards, and it’s not true,” she said. “We have to be a little bit more upfront with the reality.”

Blackburn’s latest book, “Black Jesus and Other Superheroes,” already received a 2016 Prairie Book Prize in Fiction from the University of Nebraska Press. The collection of stories explores social issues in the context of superheroes with the “worst superpowers.” 

She said she has always been fascinated with those types of characters and that her book, which she categorizes as magical realist, can serve as a metaphor for life.

“The real world is so gruesome, so stressful, so everything that we turn to literature for a way to explain it all,” Blackburn said. “I need the metaphor, I need the comparison in order to make it comfortable, but also to make it more interesting and also something that’s going to make it tolerable.”

Rosalyn Van Amburg, who graduated earlier this year with a bachelor’s degree in English and creative writing, first met Blackburn four years ago as a student in her beginning fiction workshop.

“She was a young, black woman that seemed to be around my age and to see that she was working this position – it was inspiring,” said Amburg.

Amburg was 25 years old when she came to the University for creative writing. She was also expecting a daughter with her fiance and struggling with her finances. 

“I felt that it was something to hide to have a hardship like that,” Amburg said. “But when I met Venita, something about her just makes you want to open up.”

Amburg said she had similar feelings to Blackburn in prior classroom settings regarding discussions of racial and social issues.

“I’m one of those students whose felt kind of like an outsider in classes where you feel nervous bringing up certain topics,” she said. 

She also said the discussions helped her learn more about the other members’ personal points of view and experiences.

“We’re all cut from different cloths,” she said. “You don’t always have to agree but listening is always important.”

Jia Zeng, an ASU alumna originally from China, met Blackburn in summer of 2016 during a fiction workshop at ASU. She said the freedom to discuss personal issues as a person of color in a classroom setting was unique. 

“In workshops and other (classes) I attended, I found that other people were evading the issue, and it’s not mentioned as it should be,” Zeng said. “I think the awareness of Asians in terms of those sensitive issues is not as mature or organized as others in America.”

Although Zeng was not a writer and graduated with a master’s degree in biomedical informatics this past summer, she said she always felt encouraged by Blackburn to continue writing.

“She’s not just teaching the rules,” Zeng said. “She’s teaching the heart of writing.”

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