I was born in China and came to the U.S. in 1986. My publications include American Visa (short stories, 1994), Foreign Devil (novel, 1996), Of Flesh and Spirit (poetry, 1998), The Magic Whip (poetry, 2003), The Last Communist Virgin (stories, 2007), All Roads to Joy: Memories along the Yangtze (forthcoming 2012), all from Coffee House Press. Hanging Loose Press published New Generation: Poetry from China Today (1999), an anthology that I co-translated and edited. I co-translated with Ron Padgett, Flash Cards: Poems by Yu Jian, published in 2010 by Zephyr Press. Aching for Beauty: Footbinding in China (2000, University of Minnesota Press) won the Eugene Kayden Award for the Best Book in Humanities, and in 2002, Random House published it in paperback. The Last Communist Virgin won the 2008 Minnesota Book Award and Asian American Studies Award. I have had two photography and multi-media exhibitions, "Behind the Gate: After the Flooding of the Three Gorges” at Janet Fine Art Gallery, Macalester College, 2007, and “The Steel Dragon” at Banfill-Lock Cultural Center, 2008. I collaborated with the British filmmaker Isaac Julien on Ten Thousand Waves, a film installation that premiered in London about illegal Chinese immigration. I have been the recipient of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, New York Foundation for the Arts, New York State Council of the Arts and the Minnesota State Arts Board. I have received the Bush Artist Fellowship, Lannan Foundation Fellowship, and the McKnight Artist Fellowship. I teach creative writing at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
I was born at the mouth of the Yangtze—Shanghai, and grew up on an island in the East China Sea that is fed by the Yangtze River.
In 1986, I moved to New York City and lived between the Hudson and East River for thirteen years.
In 1993, I made a trip to Tibet, and found my spiritual home.
In 1998, I moved to St. Paul, living across from Fort Snelling, at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers, on the land of the great prairie that was once a sea.
The river has been the focal point of my research interest and scholarship.
Since 2003, I have returned to the Yangtze every year like a migrating bird, collecting stories and images from the people, the land, and the river. My obsession led me to the Three Gorges area in 2006, three days before the Three Gorges Dam was completed.
In 2007, I had a multi-media exhibition at the Janet Wallace Fine Arts Gallery: “Behind the Gate: after the Flooding of the Three Gorges Dam.” That year, my book of short stories (many of which took place along the Yangtze) was published and won several awards.
In 2008, I had my second multi-media installation on the Tibetan Railroad.
In 2012, my book of photos and creative non-fiction, All the Roads to Joy: Memories along the Yangtze, will come out from Coffee House Press. Many of the stories from the books will be part of the gifting and installation project.
Since 2004, I’ve been traveling along the Yangtze, mostly focusing on the river's end (Shanghai) and its middle (the Three Gorges Dam area), and its headwaters, collecting stories and images of the people and land and documenting the impact of industry and climate change.
Teaching Rivers at Macalester
In 2006, I started bringing the Mississippi and the Yangtze Rivers and related environmental issues into my teaching. I created “Environmental Writing: Introduction to Creative Writing” for my first-year seminar. I invited prominent environmentalists, artist and poets who are concerned about such issues for lectures and workshops. I took students camping in the state parks along the rivers. We did research on the urban and river systems for sustainability. Such activities provided the students with the rich first-hand experiences and materials for their writing.
In 2008, I got the Mellon Grant to create “Where the Rivers Gather and Waters Meet: Projects of Writing on Minnesota’s Three Rivers.” This interdisciplinary course used the Minnesota, Mississippi and St. Croix Rivers as the sites for field trips, research and interviews with the Native American communities for writing projects. I took the class out for a three-day canoe trip on the Minnesota River, which provided the students with first-hand materials for writing, music, and arts. The class produced the most amazing writings. The students commented that the trip changed their lives.
In 2009, I team-taught “Rivers, Humans and Environmental Justice” with Prof. Martin Gunderson. Again, the Minnesota, Mississippi and St. Croix Rivers provided the context for this class. We began the course with a three-day canoe trip with Native American guides from the Healthy Nations. The trip gave the Native American perspectives on the three rivers. Such perspectives raised questions of ownership and property rights and led to consideration of environmental justice as well as the environment as a human rights issue. The students wrote excellent poems, short stories and reflections about the rivers. They also produced excellent philosophical essays dealing with conceptual analysis and arguments for ethical and political positions related to environmental justice and human rights.
In 2010, I developed another new course “Pain and Healing through Action of Words,” and taught it as a first-year course as well as a poetry/prose craft workshop. This workshop is a journey between the body and mind, self and community, writing and healing through the river and words. I took the two classes out to the Mississippi and we rowed from Minneapolis to downtown St. Paul through the three dams, the Mississippi Gorge, the historical Fort Snelling and the Pike Island where the Dakotas were imprisoned through the winter of 1826 before they were banished from Minnesota. It was indeed an eye-opening trip. The reflection papers revealed so much emotion, deep thinking and good writing. Again, the river served as an ideal bridge. The classes ended with a joint reading with Ramsey Junior High students and a joint reading with the Native American writer Allison Hedge Coke at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.
Nov. 12, 2010: Professor Rosalie Phadke and I were on the same panel "From Local to Global: Dams as Issues for Communities and Nations," for the University of Minnesota's conference of “Experiments on Rivers." This conference proves that my research and teaching on rivers have gone beyond the Macalester campus. And the responses I got from the audience (scientists, policy makers, educators, and writers) were overwhelming. Everyone reached out to me and wanted to be part of this project.