On writing, funding effects and activism
Part 1 of 2
By Heidi M. Pascual
The University of Wisconsin-Madison has a great reputation that draws a large number of international students
every year. Many end up working as university faculty or in private firms doing business globally, and making
Madison their new home. This is especially true for international students pursuing engineering, IT and other
technological or scientific courses. For those pursuing other fields, the demand might not be as great; nevertheless,
working or teaching at UW-Madison has always been an attractive option.
Ray Hsu, a Toronto-born Ph.D. student at the UW-English Department, might do exactly that, luck permitting,
primarily because of what he has invested so far in terms of his collaborative work with different local communities
outside the confines of academia.
"I've never been to a town that's smaller than Toronto, because I've lived in Toronto my entire life," Hsu said in an
interview with Asian Wisconzine. "I wanted to be in a different kind of place, not necessarily a metropolis, but also I
wanted to see what it's like to be in the U.S. Of course, Madison is not necessarily representative — politically
speaking — of the rest of the U.S. … but I really wanted to see that, too. And I think that it's one of the wisest things
that I did."
Describing himself as a "writer, a poet, a scholar, an intellectual," Hsu thinks that it would be incredibly enriching to
have a community of writers who are actively doing collective literary work. "Here in Madison, there's not necessarily
the population to support that active community," Hsu observed. "A lot of the writer-power is tied up in the
university, which allows these writers to do really great things, but it means that you don't really have an active kind of
'critical mass of the indigenous writer community,' which is the case in Toronto. A lot of people here are kind of
transient; they come and go if they're writers. So, what do you have in terms of indigenous writing community? Not
Hsu thinks a lot of this has to do with funding support for local writers. Hsu's dissertation is devoted to the
question of how funding affects researches and writers. "Writers in the 1930s had tons of state support for nationwide
projects under the Works Projects Administration," he said of his study. “In the post-Depression era, writers didn't
have any work so they complained, 'We need work,' so then they were put on this huge nationwide writing project. I
thought, how does something like state funding, public funding, private funding, corporate funding, and philanthropy,
affect the ways in which we write, affect the ways in which we create ideas?"
One of Hsu's professors reportedly told him that his dissertation was actually autobiographical. "Well, why did I
even get here in the first place? I'm applying for funding, and I've seen all my colleagues and friends struggle to make
ends meet while they're busy writing," Hsu explained. "So how is that not just a distraction? Because oftentimes I hear,
'If I can only have this funding, then I can finally focus on my writing, I can focus on my ideas.' In fact, even having to
do that is an important part of the ideas. They might not admit it; they might be in denial about it, but am I also
affected by that entire system?"
While Hsu admits that money can come with strings attached or with mainstream popularity and circulation, he
wonders how money affects the way people write. "Are we writing in order to get funding?" he posed the first
question that his study seeks to answer. "Does funding allow us to do certain types of writing? What does it allow us
to do? What does it keep us from doing?" In the conclusion of his dissertation, Hsu said he puts other writers’ funding
situations under a microscope, then turns on himself and asks, “OK, why is it that I'm even worrying about these
things, because if I didn't worry about these things, then I probably wouldn't have these questions?"
Hsu became actively involved in the group Voices Beyond Bars, an activist group of community organizers, many
of whom are formerly incarcerated and trying to understand and fight recidivism. His participation came as the result of
a colleague's work on an anthology of formerly incarcerated writers' stories and memoirs about the first 29 days out of
prison. "They were really welcoming to me as someone who really had no experience working on these issues," Hsu
said in gratitude. "They made me feel as if I were actually part of the community, and I thought that was really
generous of them."
After asking some of his colleagues who had previously worked in the prison system, Hsu decided he wanted to
start a creative writing community in the prison system. "I didn't know that there was a need for a GED essay writing
help, because the two hardest things to teach for GED correctional educators is: one, math, and two, essay writing," he
explained. "The thing is, prison education budgets are being cut over time at the same time that security spending is
going up. So there is that kind of imbalance in the prison system, so the prison administrator said to me, 'Well, … you
could help with the GED essay writing because we don't have the support staff for it.' So that's how I ended up doing
that two-part project: one was doing what I wanted to do, the creative writing part; and two, doing something that was
really needed. I ended up learning from the prison system community."
Hsu was not necessarily new to working with projects like this. He was involved in the Inside Out Prison Exchange
Program in Philadelphia, which is an integrated classroom, composed of "Inside Students," who are incarcerated, and
"Outside Students," who are campus students. "That integrated classroom, where you teach both classes together, is
really radical," Hsu admits. "The service learning model that we have is one in which we spend most of our time with
campus students and then we go out and we help the so called 'community.'"
When he proposed a similar kind of integrated classroom here, Hsu received this reply from the local prison
administrators, “Where's the rest of the funding coming from? You know, you don't have people paying like campus
students would pay tuition. But will incarcerated students be able to?”
"And so, because of funding, because of money, I ended up having to privilege campus students over a different
population," he lamented. "You can see how state funding in a sense shapes the way in which I had to privilege one
group over another, which is the reason why I talked about this in my dissertation: how funding affects writers, then I
talked about how the dissertation process itself and the public scholarship that I'm doing are shaped by state funding. I
have to privilege some people over others even though I would love to be able to change that."
Hsu found many creative folks in the prison community, but the environment doesn't allow much of this creativity
to flourish. "It's hard for many people to quite understand the depth of creativity that runs in this community because
communication is very controlled within the prison system," he said. "For example, mail. How do they publish pieces
in a magazine? Well, you would need someone like me, for example, to get approval, to get permission, and all those
bureaucratic stuff. Let's say I managed to help a writer publish his work in a magazine. So let's say there's a copy of the
magazine with the work in it, and I'm trying to give it, or the magazine is trying to give it to the writer. Well, it has to
go to the mailroom and people supervising the mailroom are okaying or not okaying the mail that comes in through the
prison system. And it's very difficult to know because there are personnel changes week to week. So whoever is in
there decides what gets approved and what doesn't. Even though, of course, there are ways in which people try to
bureaucratically standardize it, it still very much depends on the person (making the decision in the prison system). So
the writer may never get his writing that has been published. It's one of those things where there's so many bureaucratic
questions that in the end —and it's a system-wide thing — deny people their voice. And so a lot of us are privileged to
be able to even put our writing in some publishable form."
Next issue: Ray Hsu's plans for the future.