Features & Columns

SJSU MFA Program Hosts an
Open House for the First Time Ever

Andrew Lam joins San Jose State MFA program as author-in-residence
ART OF EXPERIENCE: Journalist and author Andrew Lam has been widely recognized for his moving personal essays. Photograph by Nicholas Demile

For the first time in human history, the SJSU Department of English and Comparative Literature, specifically the MFA program, is opening its house for the world to see. Since this valley is probably ripe with potential scribes, creative writers, poets, prose-masters or folks contemplating a return to grad school, Jan. 29 should be an awesome literary moment for anyone interested in what's going on at SJSU.

If you sense that your future, or the future of your offspring, includes a potential MFA in writing, now is your chance, for free, to stick your nose into SJSU's business and find out what's going on. Faculty will read from their recent books and will provide advice on how to qualify for the MFA program.

The open house unfolds in the Steinbeck Center on the fifth floor of the MLK main library, from 5 to 7pm. In and of itself, the Steinbeck Center is a rare gem, not like a museum, but more like a research facility for anyone even remotely interested in John Steinbeck. Loads of original editions, oddball papers, photos and ephemera occupy that room and it's a wonderful place in which to dig around.

What's more, the open house will also introduce this year's Lurie Distinguished Visiting Author-in-Residence for the whole spring semester, none other than Andrew Lam, the veteran Bay Area journalist and creative writer. His stories are possibly the most illuminating depictions of the Vietnamese-American experience in the Bay Area that I have ever stumbled upon. More on him in a second.

The Lurie residency at SJSU was established in 1999 and offers students a spectacular chance to study with nationally or even internationally renowned authors. Sometimes the visiting author teaches a few classes, or just one, but in any case, he or she adds a new component to the English Department. The first-ever Lurie visiting author was the famous science fiction novelist and poet, Ursula K. Le Guin. What a way to kick off a program.

That was 15 years ago and several notable characters have showed up to teach for a semester as a result of this program, including Simon Winchester, Ishmael Reed and ZZ Packer. In one case, the famed travel writer Tim Cahill even came to town to teach and hang out at Flames night after night. In another case, just a few years ago, the poet Kim Addonizio was here for a whole semester. I didn't take the class, but as a fan, I bought her stuff and it made me a better poet.

Next up is Andrew Lam, whose essays and short stories have appeared in dozens of magazines and anthologies. He helped start New American Media and regularly lectures at institutions around the world. He is the author of two nonfiction works, Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora, and East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres. His latest book, Birds of Paradise Lost, is a collection of short stories about Vietnamese-American newcomers struggling to remake their lives in the Bay Area. It is awesome stuff.

Lam says he wrote Perfume Dreams as a "collected work of personal essays, ranging from childhood remembrances to coverage of the refugee centers in Hong Kong, from travel writing to expository writing about identity and home." Now with 20 years of essays under his belt, he will teach a graduate nonfiction workshop at SJSU, a seminar in the art of the personal essay. "Hopefully students in my class can hone their skills and produce amazing works by semester's end," he says.

I asked Lam what it was like trying to balance his creative writing with his journalistic responsibilities. He said it wasn't easy.

"Sometimes it feels journalism to creative writing is a bit like architecture to abstract painting," he told me. "During daytime I build this structure that needs to stand and people will need to live in it, and at night or days off, I am exploring my own feelings and musings, dipping brush in paints on palette and practice strokes. I wish there is a balance but often creative work takes second seat to the news of the day. It takes some discipline to return to the dream world."

MFA Open House, Faculty Reading featuring Andrew Lam and the core MFA Program, plus former California Poet Laureate Al Young, January 29, 5-7pm, Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies, Fifth Floor, MLK, Jr. Library.