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Graduate Student Spotlight: Ching-In Chen

Ching-In Chen

Fifth-year PhD student in Creative Writing

Dissertation: Recombinant

Update: Congratulations, Ching-In! They are now an assistant professor in the Department of English at Sam Houston State University.

Recombinant is a hybrid collection of poems that investigates female and genderqueer lineage in the context of labor smuggling and trafficking. In this book-length project, I examine the challenges of communal memory by juxtaposing voices from Asian, African and indigenous communities in the Americas. Set in a speculative future, these voices simultaneously inhabit their own spaces and share pathways, a theme developed through manipulation of white space on the page.

The narrative speculates about the origins of M. Lao, a snakehead matriarch who has created a business empire from a fictional edu-tainment park, CoolieWorld, which traffics in the history of coolie labor. In the narrative, M. Lao is forced to confront her troubled relationship to her gender-non-conforming child who has disappeared as she considers her own history of migration, trauma, survival, self-invention and complicity in the trafficking of migrants.

These writings force voices from various communities to interact with each other through the poems’ innovative graphic and representational practices. Rajagopalan Radhakrishnan asserts that “diasporan realities do show up the poverty of conventional modes of representation with their insistence on single-rooted, non-traveling, natural origins. But this calls for multi-directional, heterogeneous modes of representation.” By drawing on Radhakrishnan’s ideas, I create a diasporic poetics that contains multiple voices within a single space on the page.

Poems that attempt to make sense of historical remnant share space with M. Lao’s fragmented narrative. I also blend historical incidents such as the 1899 anti-Chinese Milwaukee riots with the speculative realm of Coolie World, and in doing so think about how a city renegotiates its identity during long periods of constant redevelopment. To this end, I utilize historical artifacts including photographs, newspaper articles, maps, city directory listings, and records of immigration, birth and death, as well as scholarly research and archaeological records. These kinds of materials contain the shared memory of a community, and by juxtaposing, re-mixing, re-combining and erasing these found texts, Recombinant examines both the erasure and reconstruction of community history.

In addition to my creative dissertation, I am working on a critical introduction that draws upon my research in diasporic literatures, speculative poetries and queer and trans literatures. In the introduction, I trace the lineage of Recombinant by considering “genre-queer” texts including Cathy Park Hong’s Dance Dance Revolution; Sharon Bridgforth’s performance novel Love/Conjure Blues and M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! These books, and many others, share an interest in communal trauma and in the ethical dilemmas that narrating horrific events entail.