Poet (he won the Yale Younger Poet award), essayist (his work has been featured in Best American Essays), lawyer (also ratified by a professional body), Ken Chen is a master of multitasking. In his role at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, he works as a relentless advocate for writers of color in the book world.
Tell me about the work you do at AAW. What about it is most exciting for you?
So, the Asian American Writers’ Workshop aaww.org is dedicated to the belief that Asian American stories deserve to be told. More concretely, that means we host events with hundreds of writers a year, grant fellowships to emerging writers, and run the online magazines, The Margins and Open City. Because we believe that race is a political position, we see ourselves as a counterculture, a counter public, an alternative arts space oriented towards literature at the intersection of race, migration, and social justice.
What’s exciting to me changes every day: sometimes it’s how fun and talented the AAWW staff members are. Other times, it’s being able to hold a space for so many writers, activists, and intellectuals of color—and being able to materially improve their lives. (We’ve regranted more than $100K in the last few years.) Maybe one thing: people usually think about race in terms of prejudice and censure. But what is exciting about what we do at AAWW is how we’re creating a positive project of racial imagination. What this means is that I’m always learning things that surprise me. Filipinos came over to the New World on galleons in the 1500s. The opium that was grown in India and forced into the Chinese market helped finance the fortune of the Roosevelts. In the late 19th century, famines exacerbated by British colonialism killed up to 100 million people in China and India. Bengali sailors dropped ship in the early 20th century and became part of black and Puerto Rican Harlem. What does it mean to write novels and poetry out of this history?
You are a poet and essayist and lawyer and arts administrator. How do all these roles inform each other? What is helpful? What isn’t?
Being a poet and a lawyer is an exercise in fusing alchemical opposites and I think the anti-genius, the literary flatness of legal writing has helped me make my poetry stranger. There is one poem in my book that is a logic problem about love and was partly inspired by the LSAT.
In terms of running the AAWW, I’m constantly running back and forth between trying to invent new things (poetry) and having to sustain the limited capacity we already have (law). I do a lot of public-facing creative/curatorial work, but I spend a lot of time doing unglamorous things, like changing the toilet seat, analyzing our restricted assets, and writing infinity grant proposals. We have a smaller staff than most larger organizations’ marketing departments, so it’s a constant war between possibility and the finitude of nonprofit capacity. One of the thrills of my job is strategic creativity—how to hustle up a solution and a new direction for the organization from these confines.
Are you excited or disappointed by Steven Moffat’s departure from Doctor Who? If you could cast the next Doctor who would you choose?
Doctor Who! I love Doctor Who! So, Steven Moffat’s era on Doctor Who will go down as the show’s Golden Age, a run of intellectual ambitious and often frustrating episodes that did things the show never did before while also resetting it to a prior, almost conservative state. (He is the Obama of Doctor Who.) His run somehow juxtaposed structuralist experiments with time and narrative, meditations on memory and the nature of fiction, screwball sex comedy, and the preexisting kitschy rubbery alien monsters. I love Capaldi as the intense current Doctor: he’s probably the best actor to play the part ever and possibly the first new Doctor whose loneliness does not feel totally as though it needs to be solved by the emotional labor of his companion? I think part of the charm of Doctor Who is at first hating and then falling in love with the new Doctor, something that would be lost if I had the power to cast the next one.
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