My writing and teaching are complementary and mutually reinforcing projects. In both, my goal is to approach the world critically and empathetically, to imagine my way into new perspectives, and to build connections between people of different languages, nationalities, abilities, and identities. I am on the core fiction faculty and am also an affiliated faculty member of the Centers for East Asian Studies and Jewish Studies.
I am the author of four novels: Someday We Will Fly (Viking Penguin, 2019); Blind (Viking Penguin, 2015); Big Girl Small (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011); and Repeat After Me(The Overlook Press, 2009) and also of Foreign Babes in Beijing (W.W. Norton, 2005), a non-fiction account of life and Sino-US cultural exchange in China in the 1990's. I have published and continue to publish poetry and non-fiction, most recently in The New Yorker (an essay on the work of Derek Walcott), and Agni (a poem called “Without,” and an accompanying essay about the art and artifice of confessional poetry).
My work explores peripheries and the transnational experience, particularly questions of how human beings communicate across linguistic, cultural, national, and physical boundaries. Foreign Babes in Beijing allowed me to investigate the social landscape of China during a contemporary moment of vast cultural transformation, as the country lurched inexorably into the 21st century. I lived in China for six years, and have worked on translations of both Chinese poetry and Chinese musical lyrics, trying to find a hybrid language. Foreign Babes in Beijing has been developed as a television series for BBC America after being optioned and developed by Paramount, HBO, and Sundance. My novels grew out of interests that continued to compel me but weren’t easily deepened by way of non-fiction projects. Repeat After Me is set in the aftermaths of June 4th and 9/11, and poses questions about the geopolitical crises and national identities that connect the East and West. Big Girl Small and Blind explores how we as a society understand and navigate physical difference and perspective, and also how we address youth and violence. My forthcoming novel, Someday We Will Fly, synthesizes issues I’ve investigated in my work so far, including how identity is built in the context of geographies unfamiliar enough to require a reformatting not only of our languages and historical reference points, but also of ourselves. A fictional account of a young Jewish refugee who escapes Warsaw in 1940, the new novel follows the lives of a community of refugees who lived out World War II in Japanese-occupied Shanghai (where almost 24,000 Jewish refugees survived the war). It’s a novel about borders and where we allow (or don’t) each other to land. It’s also about language, about how we learn who we are by way of our words. The novel integrates Chinese with Polish and English in order to communicate what it might have sounded and felt like to be part of the diverse refugee community that formed in China. It’s essential for the Shanghai Jews in the novel to narrativize their experiences in order to make sense of and survive them. Of course this is what writers ourselves are doing in our work, trying to distill and express visions of the world as we’ve seen, imagined, or would like to see it.
Work with Students
I teach all of my courses as both reading and writing classes, requiring students to read authors including Nabokov, Baldwin, Coates, Danticat, Cao Xuejin, Rankine, Sharma, Wharton, Bechdel, and Mo Yan, and to write critical response pages and annotated bibliographies in addition to their own creative manuscripts. Texts from Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Criticism” to Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen serve as guides for a conversation about form and genre, about how writers can import the most essential components of each genre into the others: the clarity, economy, and focus of poetry into fiction and non-fiction; the propulsion of fiction into poetry and creative non-fiction; and the research, depth, and contextualization of good non-fiction into both poetry and fiction. I use student work as an occasion to discuss and hone the crafts of both creative and critical writing. I advise eight thesis projects a year, a combination of undergraduate and MAPH projects, which take the shape of novels, plays, screen plays, or short story collections.
- Someday We Will Fly, Viking Penguin, 2019
- Blind, Viking Penguin, 2014
- Big Girl Small, FSG 2011
- Repeat After Me, The Overlook Press, 2009
- Foreign Babes in Beijing, WW Norton, 2005
- “Without,” Agni Magazine, Spring 2018
- “The Problem with Poetry Students and Other Lessons from Derek Walcott,” The New Yorker, 2017.
I teach a core class on beauty and truth, in which we read poetry, fiction, and non-fiction, ending with the film and memoir Twelve Years a Slave, analyzing every aspect of the adaptation from POV to the cadence of language and silence to the presentation of violence. I teach a fundamentals class on literary empathy, in which we read Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, and Eula Biss’s “The Pain Scale.” In that class, I often ask students to read Jo Ann Beard’s essay “Werner,” and then interview each other, write each other’s stories – in first or second person – and then read the stories out loud. This exercise requires students to take a kind of care with their presentations that writers should be taking in general. I also teach a technical seminar on characterization, guided in part by Will Dunne’s useful The Dramatic Writer’s Companion, and at least as much by James Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain. In that course, students learn to create fully rendered, three- dimensional human characters, with whole lives underneath, behind, and in front of them, and the contradictions actual people embody and exhibit (all while keeping their characters plausible and compelling.) I have taught and teach workshops on topics ranging from adapting between genres to a course called “Not Your Native Language,” in which students read works written in English by writers for whom English is not a native language, and also translate from foreign languages they know and don’t know. One of my workshops is a full-length novel workshop, in which students write two chapters of a novel and a chapter breakdown that imagines one possible arc for the book; this class inspires students to continue working long after the quarter ends.
MA, Poetry, Boston University, Boston, MA, 2000; BA, Columbia University, New York City, NY, 1994. Teaching at Chicago since 2014.