The Willson Center for Humanities and Arts, in partnership with the UGA Graduate School, UGA Arts Council, Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, and Flagpole magazine, has awarded 34 micro-fellowships in its Shelter Projects program. The $500 fellowships support graduate students and community-based artists and practitioners in the creation of shareable reflections on their experience of the current pandemic through the arts and humanities.
Statement by Kuo Zhang: As a poet-researcher and a PhD graduate in Language and Literacy Education, my research interests include poetic inquiry and arts-based research in education, linguistic anthropology, and intercultural discourse studies. I have a bilingual book of poetry (Chinese & English), Broadleaves (Shenyang Press). My poems have appeared in The Roadrunner Review, Lily Poetry Review, Bone Bouquet, K’in, DoveTales, North Dakota Quarterly, Literary Mama, Mom Egg Review, Adanna Literary Journal, Raising Mothers, MUTHA Magazine and elsewhere.
In my Shelter Project, I wrote 15 poems to reflect on the response to the COVID-19 pandemic from the perspective of an international graduate student from China, a mother of two little boys, a PhD graduate, and an Asian under the BLM movement. I hope my personal experience and voice can provide a special lens to examine the issues of origin, culture, language, race, power and politics behind the pandemic.
Flagpole: When did you first realize the severity of the coronavirus outbreak? What was your reaction to finding out about early cases popping up in the U.S., after having already heard so many accounts from friends and family living in China?
Kuo Zhang: I first realized the severity of the coronavirus outbreak when Wuhan lockdown started on January 23, 2020. It was very shocking to get to know that Wuhan—and then the whole Hubei province—was locked down, as Wuhan is the capital and largest city in Hubei, and also the most populous city in Central China. The city’s population was 11.08 million in 2018.
Honestly, I was not surprised at all as early cases started popping up in the U.S., because the whole world was connected. In addition, it was during the Spring Festival holiday in China, so more people in China traveled everywhere in the world than usual. My first reaction was that it was finally here. But I didn’t expect that the pandemic would become so severe in the U.S. later.
Flagpole: Both the pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement have made us collectively readdress how racism continues to be perpetuated against Asians and Asian Americans, and several of your poems— “Quarantine,” “If I Get Kicked Out Overnight,” “A Story Shared by My Taiwanese Friend,” “U.S. Taboos”—explore these nuances. What are your thoughts on the recent increase of xenophobic attacks, as well as on the myth of the “model minority?”
KZ: I think my poems answer this question better than my words can do. It is challenging to find an appropriate lens to talk about BLM due to my identity as a “model minority.” It is so easy to re-traumatize my African American friends and readers. The pandemic and the BLM both pushed us to critically reflect on the explicit and implicit bias, stereotypes and racism everyone has in our mind, which was from and reinforced by our family, education and the larger sociocultural and sociopolitical contexts in the world. There is no single correct answer to solve the systemic racism, xenophobia and the myth of the “model minority.” I hope heteroglossic voices on these topics can be allowed to make the dialogues and discussions ongoing instead of shutting down all the voices of disagreement.
Flagpole: In 2018, you were selected as the presentation winner at 4’33″, an annual contest during UGA’s Spotlight on the Arts festival that highlights academic research in the arts. What was your ethnographic study for this competition?
KZ: I was very honored to be selected as the presentation winner at 4’33’’ contest. My presentation was a part of my dissertation—”Learning the ‘Language’ of Motherhood as International Graduate Students: A Poetic Ethnography.” [Read some of Kuo’s poems on motherhood here] As more and more international students enrolled in U.S. universities, their role as students tends to be the single identity that is overtly judged by other people. However, their social and personal experiences are often out of the radar screen of higher education and the mainstream academic research. My poetic ethnographic study provides a dialogic and evocative interpretation of the lived experience of international students who become first-time mothers during their programs of study in the U.S., especially how they learned the new “language” of motherhood as non-native speakers of English in various social settings. The aim of my study is to contribute to the understanding of international student mothers’ experiences as a social, cultural and educational phenomenon.
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