(photo credit: Tiffany Eng)
by Yvelette Stines
Kenji Liu is passionate about social issues. Born in Japan, raised in New Jersey, and currently based in Oakland, Liu’s writing arises from his work as an activist, educator and cultural worker. He uses his writing to examine connections between the personal and political.
“I’m often interested in writing about the mundane details of life that illuminate larger social and historical issues,” he says. “To me, a writer is also a public intellectual who has the responsibility to illuminate social issues. The trick is finding ways of doing it without hitting people over the head. That’s why it's called creative writing.”
Debut chapbook nominated for awards
With this passion, Liu wrote his first chapbook, You Left Without Your Shoes, which was published by Finishing Line Press last year.
In his debut, Liu explores the interweavings of migration, love, memory and mourning in an autobiography of poems spanning four years. Beginning with the untimely death of his mother, this collection contemplates the difficult task of transforming one's relationship with the dead and the renewal of life that can accompany it.
“The chapbook was a kind of exploration of my grieving process with my mother's passing in 2005. It took time to get to the manuscript point because it was ultimately important to me to distinguish between poems that were for the public and those that were just therapeutic for me," he says. "It was not conceived of as a book to start with, but when the Finishing Line Press chapbook contest came around I saw that the main theme tying much of my writing together was my mother. This is how it evolved.”
The collection has already been nominated for a California Book Award by Finishing Line Press’ editor, Leah Maines. In addition, his poem, “Poem to Myself as a Newborn,” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize by Kartika Review.
“I am excited to be nominated but am also moving forward,” he says. “Nomination just means that I will hold myself to high standards.”
Thanking Suheir and VONA
Liu gives much credit to poet, spoken word artist and long-time VONA instructor Suheir Hammad. “I give her credit for giving me a very essential push, by telling me I was ready to put a book together. That is when I started to take my writing more seriously, as something more than just a hobby. Having her as an instructor and knowing that we weren’t that far apart in age was also important. She is a great example setter.”
Along with Suheir’s encouragement, Liu appreciates VONA for allowing him to write the stories that are important to him while never letting up on quality-control.
“Where else can I insert Japanese and Chinese words and experiences into my writing and not have to defend those choices?” says the self-described “1.5 generation Japanese-born Taiwanese American expatriate of New Jersey suburbia.” He is also inspired by the selection of VONA instructors each year. “Where else can I get to know so many prize-winning faculty of color whose work I admire in one place?”
With all the excitement surrounding Liu’s writing, he is still honing his craft and embracing new experiences in his writing life.
“I’m slowly developing what will eventually be a full-length manuscript that combines poetry, prose, memoir and visual art. As both a writer and visual artist, I feel compelled to combine these parts of my life,” he says.
Liu’s writing has appeared in Tea Party Magazine, Kartika Review, and the 2009 Intergenerational Writer’s Workshop online anthology Flick of My Tongue. He was a presenting literary artist at APAture 2009, a multidisciplinary Asian Pacific American art festival held in San Francisco each year. Starting this year, he will be the new poetry editor at Kartika Review (where VONA alum Christine Zilka Lee is currently the fiction editor). A freelance graphic designer, Liu holds an MA in Cultural Anthropology and Social Transformation from the California Institute of Integral Studies.
To keep his writing process consistent, Liu participates in a writing group that meets once a month to write and offer feedback on one another’s work. He also free writes a couple times a week. Other influences that feed his writing include reading critical theory, creating or experiencing visual arts, and creating or hearing music, particularly jazz. “I often prefer to write where there are people around, like cafes.”
Liu says he is constantly digesting some sound advice he received about the writing life.
“Conceive of writing as practice rather than waiting for the thunderbolt of inspiration, which might never come. This takes writing from being a hobby towards being a life.”
For Liu, paying radical attention is a constant practice that feeds his writing, scholarship, activism and life in general. “To stay awake and present in the world is the hardest thing to do. But that's where my writing takes root.”
For more information about Kenji, go to his site at liusan.wordpress.com.
Yvelette Stines is a VONA alum.