Genderqueer SHSU professor Ching-In Chen merges art and activism.
By Kim Hogstrom
As a child of Chinese immigrants, Ching-In Chen was the only Asian-American in an elementary school in Massachusetts.
“The other students in school could never remember my name,” Chen says. “They called me things such as ‘Chicken Wings,’ ‘Chop Sticks,’ or ‘Chop Suey,’ so when I was in second grade, I asked my parents if I could change my name as my birthday gift. My mother and father agreed, and I chose Elizabeth. I remained Elizabeth until my early 20s.
“As for writing, I had always told myself stories to help me get through the day, to get me to the last school bell of the day,” Chen adds. “I didn’t realize these were the seeds of a writer sprouting, I just thought I was a weird, lonely kid.”
Today, Chen is a 39-year-old professor of creative writing at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville.
Chen, who identifies as pansexual and genderqueer, is also a multi-talented artist and author with a long résumé of community activism and an indomitably forward-looking vision.
Chen, who goes by the pronouns “they, them, and theirs,” is the author of several books of poetry, including The Heart’s Traffic and recombinant, as well as academic studies such as “The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence within Activist Communities.”
Chen’s “moment of transformation” as a writer came during a poetry workshop in college.
“In the workshop, I voiced my self-doubt, confessing that I thought my poems were worthless. The instructor immediately kicked me out of class for saying that,” Chen says.
“Then the instructor came after me,” Chen adds. “In the hallway, she told me that I could never again say that my writing didn’t have value. Then the instructor changed the workshop format. Instead of having me present my poems and asking my peers to critique them, she asked me to read them, then go around the room and ask each person what each got out of them. Everyone said something different, but the one common word shared was love.”
After graduating from Tufts University in Boston, Chen earned a master’s degree in creative writing and writing for the performing arts from the University of California, Riverside, and then a doctorate in creative writing from the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee.
In college, Chen found an organizer’s passion and has since amassed a stunning portfolio through work in the Asian-American communities of San Francisco, Oakland, Riverside, Boston, and Milwaukee, with a concentration on immigrant rights and racial justice. Chen has expertise in coalition-building with communities of color, as well as anti-war organizing and, significantly, LGBTQ activism.
“Even as a community organizer, I always practiced the arts on the side,” Chen explains. “At one time, I was organizing in California full-time when I discovered I could write poems on the train while commuting to and from work. Normally, poetry includes a lot of different voices, but there were very few queer women’s voices coming to the table then. We wanted to change that, and it seems to have worked. Recently, there has been an explosion of genderqueer voices in poetry. It’s wonderful.”
Chen, who lives in Houston, serves as poetry editor of The Texas Review and committee chair for SHSU’s LGBTQ Faculty and Staff Network.
Chen and a partner of five years had been living in Wisconsin when Chen was offered the position at SHSU.
“When we first arrived, there was no group at Sam Houston advocating for LGBTQ faculty and staff, so I asked the president for permission to launch one,” Chen says. “The president agreed. Now we have a big, active group.
“My plan is to organize an [SHSU] Pride Month in October of this year in conjunction with National Coming Out Day,” Chen adds. “It’s taking some effort, but I think we’ll get it done.”
For more info, visit chinginchen.com.