Arts & Culture / Mosaic / April 1, 2009

Examining culture in literature

When he entered Knox College as a freshman, Alex Kuo planned on being a math major. Then, one day he got the opportunity to eat dinner with Wallace Stegner, a writer visiting Knox for a week. That was when everything changed.

“It was over,” said Kuo, referring to his studies in math. He switched his focus to English classes and never looked back. “I liked the way [Stegner] looked at things in life. There seemed to be more flexibility in looking at things.”

Kuo returned to Knox as a Writer-in-Residence during this year’s spring term and gave a reading from his own work last Friday, sponsored by Caxton Club. After graduating from Knox in 1961, Kuo went on to the Iowa Writers Workshop, the first of many Knox graduates to do so. He received an MFA from the University of Iowa in 1963 before going on to publish more than 350 poems, short stories, and essays.

Kuo has been recently published in Amerasia Journal, Ploughshares, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Dreamers and Desperadoes and American Poets Say Goodbye to the 20th Century. His book, Lipstick and Other Stories, received the American Book Award in 2002. His most recent book, White Jade and Other Stories, was published in 2008.

“It’s good to be back,” said Kuo before he began his reading.

He started by reading poems about China during the 1940s, specifically centered around 1949, when China went from being a country to a nation-state. In addition to the poems, he read a piece about meeting and interviewing Professor Li, Mao Zedong’s confidante.

“As a writer, I was interested in the players who were less known. Most of the time, I don’t even know their names,” said Kuo.

Kuo then went on to read another short piece titled “The Rocket’s Read Glare,” which used all the words from “The Star Spangled Banner” within the prose. The story was about minorities, specifically Chinese and Native Americans, fitting into a prejudiced American society. Even though the story dealt with serious issues, several witty quips caused audience members to laugh throughout the piece.

After his reading, Kuo discussed his professional writing style with the audience. As an author of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction prose, Kuo offered his opinions on creative writing. Though he practices in many genres, he often does not work on two kinds of writing at the same time.

“There are periods when I write poetry and periods when I write prose,” said Kuo. “There are certain ideas you can explore better in prose and others in poetry.”

Kuo said he observes and experiences many things and often writes down single lines or ideas throughout the day to use in his writing later on.

“I think fiction writers need to see and remember everything. We never know when that is going to be useful,” said Kuo. “I don’t think people are really ever short of ideas.”

During his time at Knox, Kuo said he worked with several influential professors who inspired his future career as a writer.

“I felt I had a very good grounding here,” said Kuo.

Laura Miller

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