VOICES Reading Series: Paul Hanstedt

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Hong Konged: One Modern American Family’s (Mis)adventures in the Gateway to China

On Thursday, February 19th St. Mary’s was visited by Paul Hanstedt for the VOICES Reading Series. The 30-year-strong program is headed this year by Professor Jennifer Cognard-Black, and brings poets, writers, and thinkers to campus for personal readings. On Thursday Daugherty-Palmer Commons was surprisingly packed with students and staff who had trekked out the evening after the snowstorm that cancelled classes.

Hanstedt is a lauded professor of English from Roanoke College, known for his academic writings as well as his short stories and fiction. But Hanstedt’s  work that he came to VOICES to share is something of a different venture: a travel memoir of the year his family spent in Hong Kong, while he worked with the Fulbright program.

Dr. Cognard-Black introduced the visiting speaker, someone she has known professionally and personally for years. Hanstedt reportedly describes himself as something of a jester as far as his writing goes, but JCB described his good humor more as a form of optimism, which can be seen both in his creative works and in the way he approaches teaching. “He believes in the good of the human,” JCB said, calling Hanstedt’s brand of humor a “form of truth telling.”

A penchant for truth telling is a good quality to have in a memoirist, and perhaps is what let Hanstedt draw insightful stories out of his travels.

Hanstedt said the memoir came out of the near thousand pages of reflection he recorded during his time abroad, stemming from the terrible moments, as well as the good, and the euphoric. At the time he was publishing each anecdote on a blog, the first post made during a peak of frustration. Upon arrival in Hong Kong, Hanstedt’s wife learned of her father’s death, and flew back the States. This left him and their three children under the age of 10 (the youngest barely more than a toddler) to wander around a foreign and chaotic city.

From there Hanstedt recorded moments of triumph, of anxiety, of discovery, going off on tangents and sharing vivid details. At the reading he shared a few passages from the memoir, which had been compressed from the thousand or so pages of text he’d had after the year was over. Poignant moments stuck out: a distant relative dying a continent away, bullying at his child’s school, trying to feed a 3 year old noodles at the top of a mountain.

And there was comedy of course—the impact of which Hanstedt seemed hyper-conscious of. In the middle of a story about feeding bills into an exchange machine, he quipped, “People ask me, how do you write humor? Badly.”

But you could feel that insight that JCB was talking about—the connections that Hanstedt made between different moments of human emotion, connections that darkened and deepened what would otherwise be a lighthearted story.

After his readings Hanstedt did a Q&A with the audience, which was filled mostly with English majors as expected. You could tell that he really knew how to communicate to a crowd of students—he knew what they were worried about and why they’d come to an event like this. He gave advice for students looking to get published (send out as much as possible, as often as possible) and more views on how to write comedy—for that he repeated what a student once told him, “If you want to make something funny, put it alongside tragedy.”

More advice for writers from Paul Hanstedt:

  • How to edit: “Type it all over again.” This one was met with groans from the crowd, but Hanstedt’s method of editing a work is to print the whole thing out, and type it again from the beginning. The theory is that you won’t want to type up anything that isn’t so good it can’t be thrown out.
  • “Write with no apologies.”
  • “Take your work seriously, don’t take yourself seriously.”
  • “After rejection, get back up and keep going. Just keep going.”

The next VOICES Reading visitor will be poet Francisco Aragón, on March 12th, 8:15 pm.

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