Faculty of the Fortnight: Cathy Linh Che
New visiting professor incorporates her unique past to interest students
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Greeting Sierra Nevada College’s campus with her cheerful spirit is our new Distinguished Visiting Professor and Writer in Residence, poet Cathy Linh Che. Despite her outward youthfulness and easy laughter, Che’s poetry is highly emotional and filled with heavy personal experiences.
Che’s writing career began with a love of reading. She says she always had a curiosity for beautiful language.
“Poetry is something I always understood. I was a voracious reader. I didn’t always know why I was reading, but with poetry I knew. Instinctively I got it,” said Che.
Her parents are Vietnamese-American, which she says was an advantage to her as a young writer because her parents did not read English.
“Writing was a safe space to express myself because it was just between me and my teacher,” Che said. “I never worried that my writing would get back to my parents.”
Che has written about her personal life and experiences with sexual assault. She says it is not a subject people like to talk about. “When sexual assault is addressed, the vocabulary is always coded and not even coded in a way that is clear or represents the real experience,” Che said.
When she was younger and would write about her experiences, no one would ask about the content of her work. It wasn’t until she was older and began talking about it directly that people began to ask her questions and talk openly with her. Che’s first career was not as a writer, but as a high school English teacher.
“It’s something that I’d always wanted to do, and I thought I would do it for all of my life,” Che said.
Starting at the young age of 24, she taught ninth grade English in the Los Angeles public schools, a job that proved to be very challenging.
“I had a broad spectrum of students who were around 13 to 14 years old. Some were still watching kid cartoons, and yet some of them were addicted to meth,” Che said.
After three years, Che started to realize “how exhausted I was and how much I missed being a writer. I missed sleeping regularly and writing poetry.”
That inspired her to apply to graduate school. At 27, she was accepted into the MFA program at New York University, but making the transition wasn’t easy. She was ambivalent about leaving her home in Los Angeles for New York, and she had to spend the money she had saved for buying a house to pay for living costs during graduate school.
“It was scary to give up all of my savings,” Che said. “I was always writing about myself because I felt I needed to. I lived in the big city with no family close by, so being on my own made me vulnerable and put my writing in an emotionally vulnerable place.”
Che says she didn’t know if her writing was appropriate to show others because it was so personal and raw. But thanks to having “amazing professors,” she was given a safe space to present her writing. She was able to start “writing beyond the risk of getting it wrong or beyond what other people thought as inappropriate. It helped me to move forward, cross boundaries, and have breakthroughs,” Che said.
Currently, Che wants to record her parents’ stories about the Vietnam war and its aftermath. Her parents escaped Vietnam in 1975 and ended up in a refugee camp in the Philippines for 11 months. While there, they were cast as extras in the Francis Ford Coppola film “Apocalypse Now.”
“Coppola took these Vietnamese people from the refugee camp and cast them back into the war they had just escaped,” Che said.
Che finds this family history hard to write because most Americans understand the Vietnam War only from an American perspective.
“History has so actively minimized and erased my parents’ voices, and it was such a big part of their lives,” Che said.
Che is the winner of the Kundiman Poetry Prize, the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America, and the Best Poetry Book Award from the Association of Asian American Studies. But despite all these accolades, writing doesn’t always come easily to her.
“I am not disciplined in any kind of way. I have zero discipline,” Che said.
When dealing with writer’s block, Che has a few tricks to keep herself working. “Sometimes I write with other people because there is peer pressure when sitting with wsomeone. If they’re writing, I won’t be on Facebook or checking up on the election polls,” Che said. “I’m going to do what the space asks of me.”
But when Che feels strongly about a poem and its language, she usually finds the discipline to finish it, polish it, and publish it.
“I’m a sensitively attuned emotional person, and if a poem has a way of moving me, I’ll want to share it. I want it out in the world,” Che said.
Before coming to SNC, Che was the executive director of Kundiman, a non-profit organization that served Asian-American writers. While meeting with other heads of poetry organizations, she discovered that the Poetry Foundation’s website gets 50 million unique visitors to their website yearly.
“So despite what some people claim, poetry is not dead. It is still widely read,” Che said, “just in different formats.”