BIOGRAPHY



After a Knox College BA (studied with Sam Moon, Hal Grutzmacher & Gogisi) and Iowa MFA (Donald Justice & Philip Roth) in the early 1960s, more than three-hundred-and-fifty of his poems, short stories, photographs and essays have appeared in magazines and newspapers, mostly recently in amerasia journal, Ploughshares, Piano Journal, International,short Examiner, Mascara7, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and Three Coyotes, and in anthologies such as Craig Lesley's Dreamers and Desperadoes, Ishmael Reed's From Totems to Hip-Hop, Mike Ingham & Xu Xi's City Voices, Alan Ziegler's short,  and Andre Codrescu's American Poets Say Goodbye to the 20th Century.

He has been an administrator and a teacher of writing, literature and cultural studies for fifty years at several American colleges and universities (from South Dakota State University to Roger Williams University to University of Colorado) as well as in China at Peking University, Beijing Forestry University, Jilin University, Fudan University and Hong Kong's Baptist University.

During this period he has received three National Endowment for the Arts awards, and grants from the United Nations and the Idaho Commission for the Arts for background research in China for his novel The Man Who Dammed the Yangtze.  In 1991-92 he taught in China as a Senior Fulbright Scholar, and in 1997-98 in Hong Kong as the Lingnan Visiting Scholar in American Studies.  He was awarded a Rockefeller Foundation Bellagion residency for 2003-04. In 2010 Knox College presented him with its Alumni Achievement Award.

He was Writer-in-Residence for Mercy Corps in 2002-03, and Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at Knox College in the spring terms of 2004 and 2009.  In an innovative move in 2008, Shanghai's Fudan University invited him to be its first Distinguished Writer-in-Residence.

He has worked and lived almost his entire adult life in the American West, beginning in 1956 when he worked fires in USFS's Region One.

His most recent books are Lipstick and Other Stories (2001) which received the American Book Award in 2002, Panda Diaries (novel/2006), White Jade and Other Stories (2008), A Chinaman's Chance:  New and Selected Poems 1960-2010 (2011) The Man Who Dammed the Yangtze (novel/2011), and My Private China, (essays/2013).

In May of 2012, he was appointed Adjunct Professor at Beijing Forestry University.




Al Young, Alex Kuo, Ishmael Reed*



A popular reader and speaker, he has performed at numberous festivals, conferences and on college campuses on both sides of the Pacific, including American Studies Association, Association of Asian American Studies, Bread Loaf, Bumbershoot, Centrum, Fishtrap, Modern Language Association, Hong Kong's Man International Literary Festival, Beijing's Bookworm International Literary Festival.

He has consulted for Seattle's Artist Trust, Idaho's Commission on the Arts, National Endowment for the Arts, Newport's Martin Luther King Center, Boulder's Native American Rights Fund, Philbrook Museum of Art, Washington State Arts Commission, and the Whiting Foundation.

Selected interviews: The Bloomsbury Review (November/December 1999), South China Morning Post (April 24, 2002), and The Asian Wall Street Journal (May 17, 2002), The American Quarterly (Fall, 2011).


 
Alex Kuo and Sherman Alexie**
His former writing students include Sherman Alexie, Brian Ames, Sue Austin, Taryn Fagerness, Kim Fay, Chris Forhan, Joan Fox, Joseph Hoptowit, Bette Husted, Isamu Jordan, Yvonne Higgins Leach, Paul Lee, Li Fuyin, Joseph McGeshick, Lee McGuire, Robert McRoberts, Sara Nickerson, Ted Palmenteer, Maggie Queeney, Margo Tamez, Earle Thompson and Valerie Vogrin

 

 

Born in Boston just months before the Wehrmacht’s Stukas dive-bombed Poland’s civilian targets in September, I spent most of the Second World War in Chungking and Japanese-occupied Shanghai.  Toward the end of the war, we were bombed almost daily by American B-29s, death and destruction by friendly fire.

On the early morning of August 6, I saw the reflection of history’s first deployment of a weapon of mass destruction on Hiroshima from a another B-29 piloted by Paul Tibbets, “an unearthly blue light throbbing in the distant sky beyond the east window, as if the sun for a few seconds had been displaced by a pale, blue sheen covering everything, everything.”

Over the long, eighteen-year circuitous journey from that Shanghai morning to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, I discovered that I wanted to be a writer.  With a Teflon pedigree from Loomis, Knox and Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop, I taught freshmen composition at a university in South Dakota, a state then governed by Joe Foss, a WW II Wildcat fighter ace whose patriotic retirement parachute included the presidency of the National Rifle Association and the first commissioner of the American Football League.   But it was not until the events that took place at Wisconsin State University-Oshkosh on Black Thursday, November 21, 1968--when the 104 black students who had demanded curricular reform were summarily jailed and then expelled without a hearing--that  I started to learn what kind of writer I wanted to be. 

For about a decade up to that point, I had been playing the role of the writer:  publishing here and there in “littles,” writing easy, obscure poems of no particular significance or of any personal interest to me, making things up, as it were, and the brutal exploitation of technique, technique, technique, as if I had to repeatedly demonstrate a technical confidence that I could write about anything at all.

This realization that I really wanted to be a different kind of writer started about a week before Black Thursday, when one of my composition students asked me to be the faculty advisor to the Black Student Union with its 130 members, about 1.86% of the 7,000 student body.  Joyce had asked me because, as she put it, “You’re the closest to being colored” among the faculty.  That made me different, an outsider, and I learned quickly that that essential difference is what writing is all about.

Bye-bye to the assimilation model.  I refused to be obscured and protected by the American academic life, the institution that had been both a prison and bane for Chinese thinkers and writers and artisans for more than twelve centuries, a location that ultimately compromised them and turned them into intellectual grifters, con artists running elitist scams.

Somewhere in here I must have understood what kind of writing I was about to do, because I started taking pages and pages of field notes of Oshkosh, its culture and its politics, archiving documents, and paying attention to everything happening in front of me and trying to remember everything as it was without changing a word of it, just in case it might be useful later, even when I didn’t quite understand what I was witnessing at the time.  That included this reply at the Howard Johnson’s bar in response to a cracker’s celebration of the black students being expelled from the university:  “Silent hunks of people, displaced or not, from Belgium, Holland, Russia, and always Germany, the first illegal aliens, uninvited, who didn’t know the language, religion or customs.  These translucent men came in unending numbers, their wide-chunked bodies filling their halls, social clubs and churches.  Always good with their hands, they now chisel their epitaphs in agonizing alphabets and serve fresh bear stew to everyone up at Fuzzy Thurston’s Left Guard Restaurant in Green Bay when the Chicago Bears come to town.”   

Somewhere here in the late 60s, I started to write fiction, perhaps influenced in part by Vine Deloria Jr and Luisa Valenzuela’s argument that fiction is a more effective political instrument, and realizing after reading such books as Melville’s startling political novel, Moby Dick, Griffin’s A Chorus of Stones, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Malraux’s Man’s Fate, Swirszczynska’s Building the Barricade.

After resigning from Oshkosh on the same day that I received my tenure notification the following spring, my writing turned more and more to fiction, as if there were a connection, at least a determination.  It wasn’t until I finally retired from university life [the first time] and Boulder, Colorado, that this determination resulted in completed work, written on the old Lexitron VT 1303 a set of four stories published almost immediately in the Chicago Review while I was teaching in Beijing right after the Tiananmen Square incident.  That semester I saw the willful, ideological distortion by American journalists reporting on the events of that political spring, especially that iconographic photograph of the Tank Man waving a bag in front of a column of four Type 59 tanks, who Time magazine later elevated from a heroic student to one of the most important people of the 20th century no less, when in reality he was a senior security agent tasking these tanks.  That’s the story I had to write, how American journalism faithfully perpetuated the one-hundred-and-eighty year history of seeing and reporting on China through self-serving and myopic narratives. 

I was disturbed by my country’s racist coverage of news events in the country of my parents, and tried to resolve it by affirming that fiction, literature, art, has to provide a critical and counter voice to that late-capitalistic perception of the world, and proceeded to write short stories, novels and essays about the lives of the people in Beijing, their dreams, wishes, lies.  And I did not make up anything, unless it’s true, as in my novel The Man Who Dammed the Yangtze based on the Oshkosh’s Black Thursday, in which I, like Dante and Joyce,  did not change any of the participants’ names.

I continue to write in this way, trying to write only of things that are important that I care about, and to satisfy my personal curiosity.  In this process my work has earned the admiration and respect of some of my friends, agent and publishers, but sometimes I can hear them whispering “that’s not commercially viable,” while other friends pretend they do not know I’m a writer.  I cannot think of another life that I would want to have pursued. 

 


May/2007, in front of Fudan University's White House built by his father Z.Y.Kuo (Guo Renyuan) in 1924 to launch the first psychology program in a Chinese university

*



The original set of Alex Kuo's papers--including correspondence, notes, drafts, proofs/galleys, contact sheets, copies of all publications and original manuscripts--is collected at Knox College's Seymour Library.

* photo credit: Zoe Filipkowska
** photo credit: Bob Hubner