In residence: Writer Grace Talusan and poet Chen Chen

Writers in Residence Grace Talusan and Chen ChenPhoto/Mike Lovett

Writer Grace Talusan and poet Chen Chen, respectively the Fannie Hurst Writer-in-Residence and the Jacob Ziskind Poet-in-Residence at Brandeis, are able to divide their time between teaching courses and working on their personal writing projects. As a result, their art is thriving. 

While the two have won numerous awards as writers, the Chicago nonprofit United States Artists honored both Chen and Talusan as 2022 fellows “​​for their remarkable artistic vision and their commitment to community – both within their specific regions and discipline at large” with an unrestricted grant of $50,000 each. Only six honorees are selected after being nominated by a diverse, rotating group of artists and arts professionals. From the national selection of talented writers, these two are bringing pride to the Brandeis writing community. “I am doing my best writing here,” said Talusan. “It’s been an incredible experience for me.” 

For Talusan and Chen, writing has been a lifelong pursuit of passion and self discovery. As a child, Chen struggled to come to terms with his identity as an Asian American and queer person. He found comfort in expressing his feelings and navigating his identity through writing. “I have always loved telling stories,” said Chen. “I needed an outlet for the things I was going through. Poetry became a way for me to express personal things I wasn’t ready to share.” 

Chen eventually came to terms with his sexuality, but still grappled with his identity. “I wasn’t sure how to label myself,” said Chen. “I was born in China and my parents referred to themselves as Chinese, but I spent most of my life in America. It wasn’t until college that I embraced that I am an Asian American.” 

As a professor, he loves sharing Asian American stories with his students. “It means so much to me that we’re seeing more Asian American writers and I’m able to share their work with my students,” said Chen. “It’s an honor and a privilege.”When Chen isn’t teaching, he can be found developing new poetry. His debut book, When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities (BOA Editions, 2017), was longlisted for the National Book Award and won the Thom Gunn Award, among other honors. His next book, Your Emergency Contact Has Experienced an Emergency, will be published in the fall of 2022. 

Grace Talusan at young age
Photo/Grace Talusan

Talusan picked up a pen to write before she even knew how to read.

Talusan also always had a love for writing, but traveled on many different paths before pursuing writing and arriving at Brandeis. Even as a toddler, she had a sense for her passion. “My father took a picture of me pretending to write before I even knew how to read,” said Talusan. Growing up, she spent her high school summers attending writing camps at the University of Virginia and Harvard University, but never thought of pursuing writing as a career. “Writing is something I just enjoyed doing,” said Talusan. “The arts didn’t seem like a feasible thing for me to do professionally.” 

Talusan found herself on the opposite path in college, pursuing a career in the medical field. It wasn’t until a memorable experience during an internship at hospital that she realized it wasn’t a match. “I fainted watching a medical procedure,” said Talusan. She realized she had to follow her passion for writing. After teaching writing at Tufts University for many years, Talusan accepted a position at Brandeis which has been the perfect balance of teaching and writing.

Since starting her residency, Talusan has felt able to take more risks and experiment with her creative practice and writing projects, which have paid off. This year alone she is the recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts Award in Prose, the Brother Thomas Fellowship, and a United States Artists award.“This prestigious award gives me hope that I can write the books that I’ve always dreamed of putting into the world,” said Talusan regarding The National Endowment for the Arts Award in Prose award.

Talusan also takes great pride in teaching her courses at Brandeis. As a Filipinx immigrant, she shares Chen Chen’s pride in bringing Asian American voices into her courses. She finds that for many of her students, this is their first time seeing themselves represented in the college texts. 

“I have Asian American students who go through 12 years of education without ever reading authors who share identities with them,” said Talusan. “Also, my class is often their first experience with a professor who is a woman of color or Filipinx American.”

Both Chen and Talusan focus on inspiring Brandeis students to share their voices through their writing. “I'm often surprised by students in other majors and minors who come into the class and get so much out of it,” said Chen. “We often don’t pause and take the time to reflect on our own lives. My poetry class gives students that space.”

While both writers are busy producing their own award-winning works, they’re motivating the next generation of writers to share their own stories.

“When I write, I imagine my nieces and nephews and my students as readers,”said Talusan. “I hope my writing adds a diverse voice in the classroom and inspires others to write their stories.”

Categories: Arts, General, Humanities and Social Sciences

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