The Brandeis Writers in Residence are phenomenal people with interesting stories and incredible writing abilities. Brandeis hosts two Writers in Residence, one in poetry and one in novel writing. The Jacob Ziskind Poet in Residence is Chen Chen, who began his time here at Brandeis in fall 2018. Grace Talusan is the Fannie Hurst Writer in Residence, beginning her residency at the start of this semester.
When asked about how he liked Brandeis in an interview with The Brandeis Hoot, Chen Chen immediately replied, “Oh, I love it here!” He claims that the creative writing department is fantastic here and appreciates how dedicated the students are to the craft of writing. Chen has taught a creative workshop and a nonfiction writing workshop, and is currently teaching a poetry workshop. Though he likes teaching here, Chen also mentioned that he is grateful for the flexible schedule he has.
His next publication will be a chapbook—a small collection of poetry—titled “GESUNDHEIT!” that he worked on with best friend Sam Herschel Wein. This collection will feature individual work by both and two poems they wrote together.
Chen’s past work deals with topics that have clearly hurt him, often referencing his mother for shaming him when she found out he was gay and the struggles of immigration from China. Chen says that these are the topics that demand to be written about; it is less that he chooses the topic but rather that the topic chooses him.
He acknowledges the benefits of writing experiences that have impacted him this strongly. He says it is “the most specific writing, most specific experiences that readers end up connecting with.” Even if they cannot relate with the circumstances, they can relate to the emotions conveyed through the memory.
Chen knew that he loved writing from his childhood, when he would make up fanfiction-like skits for his friends to act out during recess. His decision to pursue writing as a career solidified in his junior year of college when he took a creative writing course. It was in college that he felt like he had “permission to write about more personal topics,” like the heavy ones noted earlier.
He mentions that with one of his poems, “Race to the Tree”—that took him almost six years to write—he was struggling to balance the desire to have good writing while also processing the emotions of the work. With this in mind, he advises writers to not attempt to write about heavy topics until they feel ready to face the emotions that these topics will bring.
Though she came to Brandeis very recently, Grace Talusan is already very happy here. On Sept. 18, she did a reading from her novel “The Body Papers” in the Bethlehem Chapel. Talusan told The Hoot she was stunned at the packed room she spoke to, acknowledging the difficulties of actually getting people to show up to book readings.
But even before she arrived she was excited for the position, saying that she “accepted it, like, right away.” Like Chen Chen, she is really grateful to be able to have the flexibility this position allows her. Talusan is only responsible for teaching one class, giving her to have an excess of free time to work on writing. Currently, she is doing research on Jewish refugees in the Philippines that arrived before World War II, studying the harmonious society they had before the war to the effects of the war.
Talusan’s most recent work is “The Body Papers,” a memoir of her life that touches on the hardships of her childhood, particularly the sexual abuse she endured from her grandfather for seven years. She knew that she wanted to get the point across, to put in enough detail that people will understand but without graphic repetition. The decision to publish such heavy material was not an easy one. Talusan says that she was “writing it because I had to.” Writing it was a form of healing, but putting it out in the world was a tough choice. In the end, she says that she “did it for me, did it for the next generation… for all the people taught to keep a secret… even if it’s not your fault.”
Talusan knew she wanted to be a writer from a young age. She joked about photos of her from her childhood, pretending to write. She had the “desire to write even when I didn’t have letters yet.”
Inspirations to Talusan include Lynda Barry, Jessica Hagedorn and Jia Tolentino, all women of Filipinx descent.
Talusan really emphasized the importance of taking space up as an immigrant woman of color. She discussed not seeing a teacher that looked like she did until she toured colleges; she remembers being floored by seeing a woman of color command the classroom. She hopes to be the representation that she wished she had as a child.