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Combining the artistic space of a traditional residency with the teaching and professionalization of an academic fellowship, the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing at Arizona State University is proud to announce the Virginia G. Piper Fellow-in-Residence: a new, yearlong, full-time, benefits-eligible position presented in partnership with ASU’s Department of English and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences’ humanities division.
The inaugural Virginia G. Piper Fellow-in-Residence is Bojan Louis, an indigenous writer and Arizona native who graduated from the MFA program in 2009 with a focus in fiction.
As a writer, educator and community organizer, Louis is uniquely qualified to serve as the center’s first fellow-in-residence. Widely published in multiple genres, Louis’ debut collection of poems, "Currents," received the American Book Award in 2018. Louis also has diverse and comprehensive experience in the classroom, having taught across the Valley since 2012. Throughout, Louis has given back to the community through extensive volunteer and organizing work, playing foundational roles in journals like Waxwing and RED INK while connecting and advocating for indigenous writers in the state of Arizona and the national field.
While the position has some analogues and other points of reference in the academic and creative writing fields — the Stegner fellowship at Stanford University for one — the Piper fellow-in-residence is unique in spirit and design, reflecting and embodying the values of outreach, inclusion, public service and social embeddedness that distinguish ASU and its creative writing program.
Over the course of a year, the Piper fellow-in-residence will teach one creative writing course a semester to undergraduate students through the Department of English and present talks, readings and other programs for the public through the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing. Candidates for the fellowship are drawn exclusively from alumni of ASU’s MFA in creative writing program.
“The English Department is delighted to welcome Bojan Louis as the inaugural Piper fellow-in-residence,” said Department Chair Krista Ratcliffe. “His teaching will support our creative writing students interested in writing poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction.”
Louis’ class, “The Narrative and Poetic Forms of Work and Apprenticeship” is a multi-genre creative writing and English literature undergraduate class exploring the narratives, themes and poetics of what it means to work. In modern society, Louis explains, it’s easy to forget the people who build and design the products and experiences we enjoy.
“So the texts I had in mind are these people who are involved in work and have sort of vainglorious dreams of becoming something more, or not. Maybe they don’t want to, or maybe they’re just stuck. The poetic stuff is getting into the language of work and how we use terminology and words, (and) how they affect not just the person working with them but the audience or people they’re directed at. So through this I want my students to then become apprentices of taking apart these stories to sort of write their own.”
As a nontraditional student from a working-class background — Louis spent years working as a general contractor and electrician before entering the MFA program at the age of 26 and continued with the profession throughout graduate school and his own teaching — he hopes the class will create a haven for people who may not feel comfortable in academic spaces.
“There’s such a disconnect between this working class and intellectualism,” Louis said. “Especially with this sort of presidency, this divide has gotten really big. Sometimes we throw all of these terms around in the academy like equity and unity and diversity and intersectionality, and at some point it stops meaning anything once you get outside of the academic circle.”
While Louis is still thinking about his programs, he’s already figuring out ways to empower young people, particularly those who come from community colleges or are otherwise nontraditional students.
“How do we create conversations with people who might feel invisible?” he asked. “And before that, how do we get to students who are interested in community college and don’t know what to do? A lot of this comes with self-reflection, so giving them a moment or a workshop where they can self-reflect, so it’s not me telling them what to do or being all motivational, but asking them who they are and what they see.”
Louis is also thinking about a translation project with the Navajo Nation as a way to continue and advance his work with Native American communities.
Whatever they end up being, Louis’ programs will be developed organically as the fellowship unfolds, as Louis and the center assess various community needs.
“His initiatives are by purpose designed to be new to the world,” explained Alberto Ríos, a Regents’ Professor of English who directs the Piper Center. “They’re going to, I hope, startle us in the obviousness of how good they are — they’ve been right in front of us all this time, and now we get to act on them. It’s rare today to be able to get the wherewithal to do something that isn’t already being done. They’re going to take some thinking through.”
Jeffrey Cohen, dean of humanities in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, is excited about the new fellowship's possibilities.
“I believe that the best future for the humanities involves working to ensure that the field better resembles and resonates with the students attending universities like ASU — students who represent the future of the United States,” he said. “They deserve a humanities that attends to them — and talented writers like Bojan Louis are creating exactly that.”