Last year, I was nominated to represent Columbia College Chicago’s Creative Nonfiction writing department. The department chair solicited a short work sample from me that I was told would be blown up on display as an art installation at President Kwang-Wu Kim’s home. I was also invited to a dinner there to celebrate with the two other student nominees.
I sent in an excerpt of my essay on rape culture, which was almost immediately rejected on the basis that it was too controversial for its purposes. I sent in another which was similarly rejected, and yet another excerpt that they finally approved for display. The department chair used vague, euphemistic explanations as to why certain pieces could not be used, calling the initial piece a little bit too sensitive and requesting a sample of something more appropriate. He was sure to shower my work with unnecessary compliments in doing so—it’s so great and I love it, but—and it was clear to me that he was uncomfortable with his own position of power.
It’s important to keep in mind that my work has always been scathingly political. That is, I would think, part of why the writing faculty nominated my work. It’s also important to keep in mind that they were soliciting short work of a long-form artist. I was clipping and revising each piece I was submitting to them, which took hours of free labor.
This last piece they approved was on ethnic erasure and watching my mother internalize white supremacist standards of beauty. When I arrived at the dinner, I saw that they clipped my already short excerpt to just the first paragraph, erasing all context of the story. They kept a few lines of sensory detail. You couldn’t even tell what the essay was about. If you hadn’t seen my name, it could probably have passed for a white person’s work. The irony was not lost on me, especially in those tense moments when the administrators would unapologetically mispronounce my name while pressing me for opinions on their whitewashed installation of my work.
They plied us with wine and deli meats. They heard me and my friends griping and offered to open up communications with a private trustee. They told me my work would have been of great interest to President Kim in full because of our shared heritage. It was insulting and extremely uncomfortable. It was also not the kind of uncomfortable experience I could put on my résumé later.
I wondered how many hundreds of dollars they put into buying bottles of wine, candles, a catering service with servers in black ties. As my friends spoke openly about living in poverty post-graduation, I wondered why we weren’t offered a modest scholarship instead.
This year, I was nominated to represent the student body again. I was one of two Creative Nonfiction students invited to perform at the undergraduate reading event. This is what I read to them, just after yet another white faculty member mispronounced my name—publicly and on stage.
Your faculty members have called me to appear before you today. These are wonderful, woefully undervalued people and I have so much love and respect for them
But after the last time I was nominated for something like this, when my work about whitewashing was effectively whitewashed, it became starkly clear to me that you as an institution, as an administrative body, don’t give a fuck what I have to say.
The crucial message of my work was secondary to you, Columbia. What you wanted was something pretty to put up on a wall and in that process of packaging my work for pleasurable consumption, you rendered my work politically impotent. You stripped my work of its entire purpose and used it as a dress-form for your aesthetics.
Columbia, you don’t give a fuck what I have to say or why. No matter who does actually read it, is touched and comforted by it, and wants it to be heard.
Columbia, all you give a fuck about are funds. You care about ensuring your trustees comfort in their whiteness and wealth. You care about placating the artists you feel you own. You care about your retention rates and name.
You love what I’ve got to say so long as it has no material bearing.
Columbia, you are throwing us a big party and parading us around again and expecting us to be satisfied and even grateful to be given such a grand opportunity to be your shining merit badges.
I won’t sit here and act like it’s not a life-affirming gesture. I won’t act like it isn’t an honor to know that your faculty members—your teachers, nurturers, healers—believe my work deserves this platform.
But Columbia, you as an institution? How you’ve rendered my work politically inert again and again?
I will never be fucking satisfied and I will never be happy to be used as a mascot.
I don’t give a good goddamn about standing on your stage and being seen. I don’t give a good goddamn about celebrity, persona, recognition.
Whatever happened to helping people produce good work? Work that leaves somebody wonderstruck and aching. Work that leaves the artist feeling cleansed and whole? Work that gives somebody a reason to keep living for another day. Work that reminds someone of their importance, reminds someone that they’re not alone. Work that comforts and takes the breath away.
Instead of helping everyone and their mother sell themselves as a lucrative product.
Instead of making people feel as though worth cannot be without recognition.
And that therefore, they are worthless. That therefore, those marginalized voices without the resources to get themselves heard, without a community to serve their ego, are worthless.
I’m sick to my stomach of how you expect us to view and value each other as nothing but a stack of credentials and opportunities. I’m sick with heartbreak that we don’t value the screaming discomfort of humanity in one another.
I’m sorry. This is not what I thought I was going to read but I’m having a fucking crisis and I don’t give a fuck about all this elitist pageantry
I just want time to write and I shouldn’t even have agreed to do this because someone else might have benefitted from it and I am sorry.
But rest assured, there’s no point in hassling me when I walk away. There is no comforting or sating me. This problem is bigger than me, your writing department, or even you, Columbia. I’m angry at how this entire “literary ecosystem” functions, this circle-jerk of meritocracy, I’m angry about copyright, I’m angry about the fact that art even has to sell for us to survive, I’m angry about the state of higher education under a brutal economic system and our complicity in both.
I’m angry and there’s no changing that and I’m doing everything I can to keep my head down and finish my degree so I can leave you behind and I am sorry. But I’m gonna shit-talk til the day I die.
Sung Yim is poet, essayist, and B.A. candidate of Creative Writing at Columbia College Chicago. Their work has appeared or is forthcoming in Crab Fat Magazine, Contrary, Kweli,The James Franco Review, and Hooligan Magazine. They are a bilingual South Korean immigrant residing in Illinois.