Student Group Spotlight: Our Word

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Periodically, we’ll be spotlighting various student organization within Columbia’s graduate Writing Program. For this edition, we spoke with Our Word, a group that hosts meetings, readings, events, and even a writer-in-residency program, all centered on the topic of diversity in writing. Here, the group’s co-presidents, Jane Marchant and Jarret Leong (both current Writing Program students), discuss Our Word’s history and future, and why talking about diversity in writing is so essential.

Jane MarchantTell us a little bit about what Our Word does.

Our Word is a student organization whose mission is to enrich the Columbia University School of the Arts Writing Program, and the literary community in general, with outreach, advocacy and inclusion of new and old literary voices.

We support writing students (both current and former) in their artistic development through various events and projects, such as student readings, the writer-in-residence program, and conversations with special guests. We also work with Writing Program faculty to sustain an ongoing dialogue in support of diversity within the Program.

Our main goal is to nurture a community of students within and outside the Writing Program committed to championing diversity in literature. Our Word’s community is a place to enrich one’s education within the School of the Arts and is open to any student.

How did your group get started?

Our Word’s history is based on activism. It was created in 2000 as the direct result of the protest by Victor Cervantes, an artist and student at Columbia. He locked himself in a mock jail cell on campus and fasted for five days in order to highlight the lack of attention for artists of color at Columbia. Since that time, Our Word has grown into a leading voice in the advancement of cultural diversity. Our Word continues to support diverse writers whose identities are non-normative, including, but not limited to, persons of color, international students, LGBTQIA and women.
Jarret Leong
What are some of your goals for this year?

This year, Our Word’s main goal is to foster a strong community for current and past students. Our programming is focused on giving our members a greater opportunity to participate creatively. We also want to expand Our Word’s events to include discussions of art, food, and politics, in more interactive settings. We’ll be doing a discussion series around food in the city’s outer boroughs, as well as film screenings and a conversation series to expose students to a wide range of multicultural artists.

We’re really excited to have Alice Sola Kim as our Writer-in-Residence for the fall semester; she’s doing some delightfully subversive work. She’s been described as sci-fi, but she often dodges categorization with stories of witchcraft, racebending, and technology. Our writer-in-residence program is designed to give group members one-on-one feedback sessions with the writer; we’ll also be hosting a reading and Q&A session later this year.
What made you, when you were a first-year in the program, want to join Our Word?

Jarret: I came into the program with a lot of frustration about race in literature already brewing within me. Junot Diaz’s article MFA vs. POC  was very much on my mind. My thinking was pretty unfocused and I hadn’t learned how to discuss issues of inequality and injustice in a way that was collaborative and thoughtful. Immersing myself in a community of compassionate writers really helped me improve the depth and quality of my thinking, and ultimately, my writing.

Jane: Simply the diversity. I wanted to be around people who valued differences in each other, who saw the importance of how our different life experiences inform our art. Our Word is a place to debate and have beautiful, yet difficult, conversations. The real world is diverse, and Our Word supports that reality in the Writing Program, and the result is a benefit to all School of the Arts students.
What's been your favorite Our Word experience so far?

We held a reading at the beginning of the semester to showcase the work of Our Word’s second- and third-year students. We had an amazingly diverse line-up and audience, and the readings inspired great conversations afterward. Students were inspired to create a workshop series for Our Word members, which is going to culminate in a ’zine compiling all our work at the end of the semester. We are very excited to see where Our Word members take this project.

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Columbia University School of the Arts offers MFA degrees in Film, Theatre, Visual Arts, and Writing, an MA degree in Film Studies, a joint JD/MFA degree in Theatre Management & Producing, a PhD degree in Theatre History, Literature, and Theory, and an interdisciplinary program in Sound Arts.