Living Writers Series Fall 2017

Beyond the Wall: War, Refuge, and Home

Humanities Lecture Hall, 206

Thursdays, 5:20-6:50 PM

All Readings are Free and Open to the Public 

Contact: Karen Yamashita (

October 5: Michael Arcega

October 12: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o

October 19: Viet Thanh Nguyen (at 7:10 pm)

October 26: Renee Tajima-Peña

November 2: Sesshu Foster

November 9: Toni Jensen

November 16: Dorianne Laux

November 30: James Janko and Ellen Greenblatt

December 7: UCSC Creative Writing Program, Undergraduate Student Reading

This event is co-sponsored by the Siegried B. and Elisabeth M. Puknat Literary Series Endowment, Porter College George Hitchcock Poetry Endowment, Laurie Sain Creative Writing Endowment, Women's Center, Morton Marcus Memorial Literary Lecture Series, Oakes College, Asian American/Pacific Islander Resource Center, American Indian Resource Center, African American Resource and Cultural Center, El Centro, History Department, Bay Tree Bookstore, Film & Digital Media Department and Social Documentation, and Literature Department and Creative Writing Program. This event is also supported in part by Poets & Writers.


  • Michael Arcega

    Michael Arcega is an interdisciplinary artist working primarily in sculpture and installation. His research-based work revolves largely around language and sociopolitical dynamics. Directly informed by Historic narratives, material significance, and geography, his subject matter deals with circumstances where power relations are unbalanced.

    As a naturalized American, his investigation of cultural markers are embedded in objects, food, architecture, visual lexicons, and vernacular languages. For instance, vernacular Tagalog, is infused with Spanish and English words, lending itself to verbal mutation. This malleability result in wordplay and jokes that transform words like Persuading to First wedding, Tenacious to Tennis Shoes, and Masturbation to Mass Starvation. His practice draws from the sensibility of the insider and outsider- jumbling signifier, material, linguistics, and site.

    Michael has a BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute and an MFA from Stanford University. His work has been exhibited at venues including the Asian Art Museum, Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego, the de Young Museum in San Francisco, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the Orange County Museum of Art, The Contemporary Museum in Honolulu, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Cue Arts Foundation, and the Asia Society in NY among many others.

    Arcega’s work has been discussed in publications including Art Forum, the New York Times, Art Practical, Art News, X-TRA, SF Chronicle, Artweek, Art Papers, and Flash Art among others. He is a recipient of an Artadia grant, Joan Mitchell MFA Award, Murphy Cadogan Fine Arts Fellowship, among others. He has been an Artist in Residence at the 18th Street Art Center, Montalvo Arts Center, Headlands Center for the Arts, the Fountainhead Residency, Artadia Residency at ISCP, Bemis Center for Contemporary Art, Al Riwak Art Space in Bahrain, and the Recology Artist Residency Program. He was awarded a 2012 Guggenheim Fellowship in Fine Arts.

    Michael was born in Manila, Philippines, and migrated to the Los Angeles area at ten years of age. He relocated to San Francisco to attend college. He currently lives and works in San Francisco, California where he is an Assistant Professor at San Francisco State University.

  • Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

    Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, novelist and theorist of post-colonial literature, is currently Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine, USA. He was born in Kenya, in 1938 into a large peasant family. He was educated at Kamandura, Manguu and Kinyogori primary schools; Alliance High School, all in Kenya; Makerere University College (then a campus of London University), Kampala, Uganda; and the University of Leeds, Britain.

    Ngũgĩ burst onto the literary scene in East Africa with the performance of his first major play, The Black Hermit, at the National Theatre in Kampala, Uganda, in 1962, as part of the celebration of Uganda’s Independence. “Ngũgĩ Speaks for the Continent,” headlined The Makererian, the Student newspaper, in a review of the performance by Trevor Whittock, one of the professors. In a highly productive literary period, Ngũgĩ wrote additionally eight short stories, two one act plays, two novels, and a regular column for the Sunday Nation under the title, As I See It. One of the novels, Weep Not Child, was published to critical acclaim in 1964; followed by the second novel, The River Between (1965). His third, A Grain of Wheat (1967), was a turning point in the formal and ideological direction of his works. Multi-narrative lines and multi-viewpoints unfolding at different times and spaces replace the linear temporal unfolding of the plot from a single viewpoint. The collective replaces the individual as the center of history.

    In 1967, Ngũgĩ became lecturer in English Literature at the University of Nairobi. He taught there until 1977 while, in-between, also serving as Fellow in Creative writing at Makerere (1969-1970), and as Visiting Associate Professor of English and African Studies at Northwestern University (1970-1971). During his tenure at Nairobi, Ngugi was at the center of the politics of English departments in Africa, championing the change of name from English to simply Literature to reflect world literature with African and third world literatures at the center. He, with Taban Lo Liyong and Awuor Anyumba, authored the polemical declaration, On the Abolition of the English Department, setting in motion a continental and global debate and practices that later became the heart of postcolonial theories. “If there is need for a ‘study of the historic continuity of a single culture’, why can’t this be African? Why can’t African literature be at the centre so that we can view other cultures in relationship to it?” they asked. The text is carried in his first volume of literary essays, Homecoming, which appeared in print in 1969. These were to be followed, in later years, by other volumes including Writers in Politics (1981 and 1997); Decolonising the Mind (1986); Moving the Center (1994); and Penpoints Gunpoints and Dreams (1998).

    The year 1977 forced dramatic turns in Ngũgĩ’s life and career. His first novel in ten years, Petals of Blood, was published in July of that year. The novel painted a harsh and unsparing picture of life in neo-colonial Kenya. It was received with even more emphatic critical acclaim in Kenya and abroad. The Kenya Weekly Review described as “this bomb shell” and the Sunday Times of London as capturing every form and shape that power can take. The same year Ngugi’s controversial play, Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want), written with Ngugi wa Mirii, was performed at Kamirithu Educational and Cultural Center, Limuru, in an open air theatre, with actors from the workers and peasants of the village. Sharply critical of the inequalities and injustices of Kenyan society, publicly identified with unequivocally championing the cause of ordinary Kenyans, and committed to communicating with them in the languages of their daily lives, Ngũgĩ was arrested and imprisoned without charge at Kamiti Maximum Security Prison at the end of the year, December 31, 1977. An account of those experiences is to be found in his memoir, Detained: A Writer’s Prison Diary (1982). It was at Kamiti Maximum Prison that Ngũgĩ made the decision to abandon English as his primary language of creative writing and committed himself to writing in Gikuyu, his mother tongue. In prison, and following that decision, he wrote, on toilet paper, the novel, Caitani Mutharabaini (1981) translated into English as Devil on the Cross, (1982).

    After Amnesty International named him a Prisoner of Conscience, an international campaign secured his release a year later, December 1978. However, the Moi Dictatorship barred him from jobs at colleges and university in the country. He resumed his writing and his activities in the theater and in so doing, continued to be an uncomfortable voice for the Moi dictatorship. While Ngũgĩ was in Britain for the launch and promotion of Devil on the Cross, he learned about the Moi regime’s plot to eliminate him on his return, or as coded, give a red carpet welcome on arrival at Jomo Kenyatta Airport. This forced him into exile, first in Britain (1982 –1989), and then the U.S. after (1989-2002), during which time, the Moi dictatorship hounded him trying, unsuccessfully, to get him expelled from London and from other countries he visited. In 1986, at a conference in Harare, an assassination squad outside his hotel in Harare was thwarted by the Zimbwean security. His next Gikuyu novel, Matigari, was published in 1986. Thinking that the novel’s main character was a real living person, Dictator Moi issued an arrest warrant for his arrest but on learning that the character was fictional, he had the novel “arrested;” instead. Undercover police went to all the bookshops in the country and the Publishers warehouse and took the novel away. So, between 1986 and 1996, Matigari could not be sold in Kenyan bookshops. The dictatorship also had all Ngugi’s books removed from all educational institutions.

    In exile, Ngũgĩ worked with the London based Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners in Kenya, (1982-1998), which championed the cause of democratic and human rights in Kenya. In between, he was Visiting Professor at Byreuth University (1984); and Writer in Residence, for the Borough of Islington, London (1985) and took time to study film, at Dramatiska Institute, Stockholm, Sweden. (1986). After 1988, Ngugi became Visiting Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Yale (1989-1992) in between holding The Five Colleges (Amherst, Mount Holyoke, New Hampshire, Smith, East Massachusetts) Visiting Distinguished Professor of English and African Literature (Fall 1991). He then became Professor of Comparative Literature and Performance Studies at New York University (1992 –2002) where he also held the Erich Maria Remarque Professor of languages, from where he moved to his present position at the University of California Irvine. He remained in exile for the duration of the Moi Dictatorship 1982-2002. When he and his wife, Njeeri, returned to Kenya in 2004 after twenty-two years in exile, they were attacked by four hired gunmen and narrowly escaped with their lives.

    Ngũgĩ has continued to write prolifically, publishing, in 2006, what some have described as his crowning achievement, Wizard of the Crow, an English translation of the Gikuyu language novel, Murogi wa Kagogo. Ngũgĩ’s books have been translated into more than thirty languages and they continue to be the subject of books, critical monographs, and dissertations.

    Paralleling his academic and literary life has been his role in the production of literature, providing, as an editor, a platform for other people’s voices. He has edited the following literary journals: Penpoint (1963-64); Zuka (1965 -1970); Ghala (guest editor for one issue, 1964?); and Mutiiri (1992-).

    He has also continued to speak around the world at numerous universities and as a distinguished speaker. These appearances include: the 1984 Robb Lectures at Auckland University in New Zealand; the1996 Clarendon Lectures in English at Oxford University; the 1999 Ashby Lecture at Cambridge; and the 2006 MacMillan Stewart Lectures at Harvard. He is recipient of many honors including the 2001 Nonino International Prize for Literature and many honorary doctorates. He is also an Honorary Foreign Member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, 2003, and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2014.

  • Viet Thanh Nguyen

    Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel The Sympathizer is a New York Times best seller and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Other honors include the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, the Edgar Award for Best First Novel from the Mystery Writers of America, the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction from the American Library Association, the First Novel Prize from the Center for Fiction, a Gold Medal in First Fiction from the California Book Awards, and the Asian/Pacific American Literature Award from the Asian/Pacific American Librarian Association. His other books are Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (a finalist for the National Book Award in nonfiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award in General Nonfiction) and Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian America. He is the Aerol Arnold Chair of English and Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. He has been interviewed by Tavis SmileyCharlie RoseSeth Meyers, and Terry Gross, among many others. His current book is the bestselling short story collection, The Refugees. 

    Viet Thanh Nguyen is the Aerol Arnold Chair of English and Professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. He is the author of Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian America (Oxford University Press, 2002) and the novel The Sympathizer, from Grove/Atlantic (2015). The Sympathizer won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, an Edgar Award for Best First Novel from the Mystery Writers of America, the First Novel Prize from the Center for Fiction, the Carnegie Medal for  Excellence in Fiction from the American Library Association, a California Book Award, and the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature in Fiction from the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association. It was also a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction. The novel made it to over thirty book-of-the-year lists, including The GuardianThe New York Times,  The Wall Street, and The Washington Post. The foreign rights have been sold to twenty-three countries.

    His current book is Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of Warwhich is the critical bookend to a creative project whose fictional bookend is The SympathizerNothing Ever Dies, a finalist for the National Book Award in nonfiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award in General Nonfiction, examines how the so-called Vietnam War has been remembered by many countries and people, from the US to Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and South Korea. Harvard University Press is publishing it in March 2016. Kirkus Reviews calls the book “a powerful reflection on how we choose to remember and forget.” It has won the the John G. Cawelti Award for Best Textbook/Primer from the Popular Culture Association/ American Culture Association and the Réné Wellek Prize for the Best Book in Comparative Literature from the American Comparative Literature Association.

    His next book is The Refugees, a short story collection forthcoming from Grove Press in February 2017. He is a critic at large for the Los Angeles Times and has written for the New York Times, Time, The Guardian, The Atlantic, and other venues. Along with Janet Hoskins, he co-edited Transpacific Studies: Framing an Emerging Field (University of Hawaii Press, 2014). His articles have appeared in numerous journals and books, including PMLA, American Literary History, Western American Literature, positions: east asia cultures critique, The New Centennial Review, Postmodern Culture, the Japanese Journal of American Studies, and Asian American Studies After Critical Mass. Many of his articles can be downloaded here.

    He has been a fellow of the American Council of Learned Societies (2011-2012), the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard (2008-2009) and the Fine Arts Work Center (2004-2005). He has also received residencies, fellowships,  and grants from the Luce Foundation, the Mellon Foundation, the Asian Cultural Council, the James Irvine Foundation, the Huntington Library, the Djerassi Resident Artists Program, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Creative Capital and the Warhol Foundation.

    His teaching and service awards include the Mellon Mentoring Award for Faculty Mentoring Graduate Students, the Albert S. Raubenheimer Distinguished Junior Faculty Award for outstanding research, teaching and service, the General Education Teaching Award, and the Resident Faculty of the Year Award. Multimedia has been a key part of his teaching. In a recent course on the American War in Viet Nam, he and his students created An Other War Memorial, which won a grant from the Fund for Innovative Undergraduate Teaching and the USC Provost’s Prize for Teaching with Technology.


    Renee Tajima-Peña is an Academy Award-nominated documentary filmmaker whose work addresses Asian American and immigrant/diaspora themes.  She gives her films a populist veneer to infiltrate a marginalized culture into a mainstream consciousness by appropriating narrative conventions: the murder story, the humor of a road trip, the melodrama of a family reunion.  It is a strategy of necessity, providing audiences multiple points of entry into themes of class, race, migration, the construction of masculinity, and family.  The narrative structure of her work is cumulative, with a dense construction of text and subtext, visual and cultural references, that build over time.  These documentaries are often feature-length, which she likens to the construction of a novel that is accessible, and at the same time, traverses the complications of social and political terrain.  This stragegy allows the arc of the character's stories to evolve, sometimes collide, and makes possible the corollary thread of multiple texts conveyed through the prisim of their lives.  Some are ghost stories.  A murdered young man is the central figure of ther first film, Who Killed Vincent Chin?; in her latest, Calavera Highway, it is her husband's mother, Rosa Peña.  Vincent and Rosa were/are both dead, but they inhabit each frame.  Similarly her road movies have moved across these haunted landscapes, locating the interstital, but essential, stuff of the human condition that exists outside the grasp of empirical knowledge or language.  

    Tajima-Peña is currently in production on Mas Bebes?, which investigates the history of Mexican-American women who were sterilized at the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center.  Her latest work, Calavera Highway, follows her husband, Armando Peña and his brother Carlos as they carry their mother's ashes back to South Texas and uncover their family's strangely veiled past.  Calavera Highway aired nationally on PBS's "P.O.V." series in 2008, and is the winner of a Golden Gate Award from the San Francisco International Film Festival, the Silver Hugo Television Award for Best History/Biography, and other prizes.  Her previous films have screened at the Cannes Film Festival, London Film Festival, Museum of Modern Art, New Directors/New Films, Redcat, San Francisco International Film Festival, Sundance Film Festival, SXSW, Toronto International Film Festival, and the Whitney Museum of American Art Biennial.  In addition to the Academy Award nomination, she has been honored with the Alpert Award of the Arts for Film/Video, a Peabody Award, the James Wong Howe "Jimmie" Award, the Justice in Action Award, a Dupont-Coloumbia Award, a Cine Golden Eagle and an International Documentary Association Achievement Award, and she has twice earned Fellowships in Documentary Film from both the Rockefeller Foundation and the New York Foundation on the Arts.  Her documentaries have been broadcast around the world, including BBC, CBC Canada, SBS Austrailia, Tokyo Broadcasting System, VPRO Netherlands, ZDF Germany, ABC, Home Box Office, Oxygen, Lifetime Television, the Sundance Channel, and PBS.  Last year retrospectives of selected works from her career were screened at the Flaherty Film Seminar and Virginia Film Festival.  

    Tajima-Peña has been active in the independent film community for numerous years.  She was the first paid director at Asian Cine-Vision in New York, and served on the juries of the Sundance Film Festival Documentary Competition, the boards of the Media Alliance in New York, the Deep Dish Television Network, and the National Asian American Telecommunications Association (Center for Asian American Media), and the PBS National Program Service Advisory Committee.  She was a featured filmmaker in the book, Creative Filmmaking from the Inside Out.  As a writer, Tajima-Peña was a film critic for The Villiage Voice, a cultural commentator for National Public Radio, the editor of Bridge: Asian American Perspectives, and associate editor of The Independent Film & Video Monthly.  

  • Sesshu Foster

    Poet, teacher, and community activist Sesshu Foster was born and raised in East Los Angeles. He earned his MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and returned to LA to continue teaching, writing, and community organizing. His first collection of poetry, City Terrace Field Manual (1996), celebrates the neighborhood Foster grew up in. He has said that representing his community as one of his central tasks. He is the author of American Loneliness: Selected Poems (2006). His third collection of poetry, World Ball Notebook (2009), won an American Book Award and an Asian American Literary Award for Poetry. Foster is the author of the novel of speculative fiction Atomik Aztex (2005), which won the Believer Book Award and imagines an America free of European colonizers. 
    Craig Santos Perez said, "Foster's work exists at the intersection of writing the continuous present and capturing singular moments within the flow of life.” Foster’s encyclopedic impulses chronicle and explore the specific geography and culture of Los Angeles. In a profile of Foster, E. Tammy Kim described Foster’s ongoing collaboration with artist Arturo Ernesto Romo-Santillano as “a multi-genre assemblage.” The project is premised on a fictional corporation, East Los Angeles Dirigible Transport Lines, and includes a “faux-tourist website, letters, advertisements, interviews, drawings, complaint forms, doctored photos, commercials and mail catalogs stamped with the company’s oblong seal.” According to Kim, “It’s a thought experiment and travelogue through a real, imagined, lost and found East LA.”
    Foster’s work has been published in The Oxford Anthology of Modern American Poetry (2000)Language for a New Century: Poetry from the Middle EastAsia and Beyond (2008), and State of the Union: 50 Political Poems (2008). He coedited the anthology Invocation L.A.: Urban Multicultural Poetry (1989). Foster taught in East LA for 25 years as well as at the University of Iowa, the California Institute for the Arts, Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, and the University of California, Santa Cruz. He lives in Los Angeles.

  • Toni Jensen

    Toni Jensen’s first story collection, From the Hilltop, was published through the Native Storiers Series at the University of Nebraska Press. Her stories have been published in journals such as Ecotone, Denver Quarterly, and Fiction International and have been anthologized in New Stories from the South, Best of the Southwest, and Best of the West: Stories from the Wide Side of the Missouri. She’s working on a collection-in-progress, called Cowboyistan, about fracking and the sex trafficking of Indigenous women. She teaches in the Programs in Creative Writing and Translation at the University of Arkansas. She is Métis.

  • Dorianne Laux

    Dorianne Laux is the author of several collections of poetry, including Awake(1990); What We Carry (1994), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; Smoke (2000); Facts about the Moon (2005), chosen by the poet Ai as winner of the Oregon Book Award and also a finalist for the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize; and The Book of Men (2011). She has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, and has been a Pushcart Prize winner.  

    Laux’s free-verse poems are sensual and grounded, and they reveal the poet as a compassionate witness to the everyday. She observed in an interview for the website Readwritepoem, “Poems keep us conscious of the importance of our individual lives . . . personal witness of a singular life, seen cleanly and with the concomitant well-chosen particulars, is one of the most powerful ways to do this.” Speaking of the qualities she admires most in poetry, Laux added, “Craft is important, a skill to be learned, but it’s not the beginning and end of the story. I want the muddled middle to be filled with the gristle of the living.” She was first inspired to write after hearing a poem by Pablo Neruda. Other influences include Sharon OldsLucille CliftonAnne Sexton, and Adrienne Rich.

    Laux has taught creative writing at the University of Oregon, Pacific University, and North Carolina State University; she has also led summer workshops at Esalen in Big Sur. She is the co-author, with Kim Addonizio, of The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry (1997). She lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, with her husband, poet Joseph Millar.

  • Ellen Greenblatt

    Ellen Greenblatt’s work as an educator has often focused on teaching literature in the context of social and historical issues. She met and became friends with James Janko when he appeared several times as a guest in her course about the American War in Vietnam, a course which included the voices of American, Vietnamese, and Vietnamese-American speakers and authors. As a result of that course, Ellen became part of the Veterans Writing Group started by Maxine Hong Kingston. 

    Ellen’s writing work includes creating educational materials for television documentaries and for teachers of literature, and she has developed a literature-based approach to teaching about conflict and its aftermaths. Ellen has worked with teachers throughout the US and internationally, and she has been an on-stage interviewer for City Arts and Lectures in San Francisco, conducting literary interviews before a live audience.

  • James Janko

    In 1970, James Janko refused to carry a weapon while serving in Viet Nam as a medic in an infantry battalion commanded by Colonel George Armstrong Custer III. His medals include the Bronze Star for Valor, which he returned to the U.S. government in 1986 to protest their involvement in wars in Central America. In 2008, Janko gave away other medals to Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange: Mrs. Dang Hong Nhut, who suffers from thyroid cancer and has had numerous miscarriages, and Ms. Tran Thi Hoan, who was born without legs due to her mother’s exposure to Agent Orange.

    Janko’s novel, The Clubhouse Thief, won the AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) Award for the Novel and is forthcoming from New Issues Poetry and Prose (Western Michigan University) in January of 2018. An earlier novel, Buffalo Boy and Geronimo (Curbstone Press), received wide critical acclaim and two awards: The Association of Asian American Studies Prose Award and the Northern California Book Award for Fiction. Janko’s short stories have appeared in The Massachusetts Review, The Sun, and numerous other magazines. He won a 2002 Illinois Arts Council Award for Fiction.

    Janko has been a flower vendor in New Orleans, a strawberry picker in Oregon, a night watchman on Alcatraz Island, a truck driver during a Nebraska corn harvest, a cab driver lost in a big city (Chicago), a door-to- door carpet-cleaning salesman, a teacher at City College of San Francisco, and so on. He lives with his wife, Uong Chanpidor, in La Salle, Illinois.

    Janko has a Bachelor of Science in Conservation of Natural Resources from UC Berkeley and a Master of Arts in English from San Francisco State University. He has practiced Buddhism for almost 30 years.