Joanna Chen Explores Landscapes of Dislocation

Joanna Chen’s studio wall is covered with an installation of post-it notes, photographs and scraps of paper. Like many other VCCA Fellow writers before her, she has mapped out her book in this way. It’s a great organizational method, but it also has a visual impact that Joanna admires. “One of the great things about being here is all the visual artists also in residence. It’s brought all this out,” she says. “You could use Scrivener and all sorts of programs on your laptop to work out what your book is, but here,” she point to the wall, “is the book.”

A poet and journalist from Israel, Joanna came to VCCA with the intention of finishing her memoir. “It’s about the search for home when there is no home and what happens.

“It’s my life story, but I want it to be everybody’s life story. I’ve always been really hesitant, wondering am I deep enough or important enough. Everybody has a great story, why would anyone want to read this? I think the reason will be that it touches other people’s lives.”

Joanna was born and raised in England. At the age of 16, after the death of her brother, her parents sent her to boarding school in Israel. Moving to a different culture and different landscape—exchanging the Yorkshire moors for the Negev Desert—after such a tragedy was traumatic, creating a lifelong sense of dislocation.

Not surprisingly, landscape whether physical, political or social, is a major theme of Joanna’s memoir, which she hopes to be about the people of the Middle East who suffer from this same dislocation. “Everybody in the world is looking for home. Working as journalist privileged me to people’s homes in the West Bank and Israel. I’ve been in those belonging to very far right Israeli settlers and on the other side, very extreme Hamas supporters. They all want the same thing in the end: they want home. They want to sit down with their families and break bread. What’s so difficult about that? But, it isn’t happening.

“My first day in the studio, I put the bag down and I wrote the two titles of the book:
What the Trees Reveal and Checkpoints: Landscapes of Dislocation. The latter one’s more for me. It’s a little academic sounding, like a paper for a conference.”

Having worked for Newsweek for 15 years, Joanna knows what a checkpoint is and how to go through it, at least as a journalist. She calls each chapter a checkpoint and each checkpoint has a trigger: what happened because of this and where (i.e. the landscape) exactly did it happen?

Joanna began at Newsweek at the bottom and worked her way up, doing everything from running the office to translating and eventually reporting. The challenges of working in such an embattled place finally got to her. “I couldn’t do it anymore; I couldn’t see where it would end. It’s not going to end; it’s just going to keep going on and on and on.”

Thereafter, she wrote poetry and did literary translation. Then, almost two years ago, the war in Gaza happened. “Knowing both sides so well, I felt, I can’t just be here like this and not say anything or do anything, and I began writing essays. I started to see a thread running through them of myself, of this search for home and sense of dislocation and displacement.

“I write mostly in the present tense because it’s energetic and immediate. A lot of my essays are braided, weaving together two stories. One was on the death of my mother from ALS. (Joanna’s parents moved to Israel a few months after she did.), She died within months of her diagnosis. “I was with my mother every single day,” she says. “I promised myself, I was going to do everything for her because I knew she was going to die. For that one year, I went every Friday to demonstrations against the construction of the separation barrier between Israel and the West Bank. I wanted to immerse myself in other people’s sorrows, and I kept going back again and again. I wasn’t going there as a supporter or opponent of the wall, I just came to witness what they were going through.”

Joanna is in residence at VCCA for six weeks. When she got the acceptance notice she couldn’t remember applying for six weeks. With three children (28, 25, 16) and a husband, it didn’t seem feasible. But her husband urged her to go. “The first time I came into my studio, it felt like my space immediately. I thought, yeah, this is why I came here.”

But she had had her doubts. The night before she left Israel, sitting in her garden with Virginia a distant unknown, she was plagued with doubts. “I have a really pretty garden and a lovely house in the country.  I have a dog and a cat and it’s all very nice, and I thought, why do I have to go all the way over there to write about what’s happening here. Why would I do that? I was sitting up at 2:00 am thinking I’m such an idiot, why get on a plane and go all that way?  And now I know. Sometimes you have to go far away to see things close up. Plus you get this incredible dialogue with the other Fellows in residence.” 

Joanna originally thought she would finish up her residency with her memoir completed. Now, she hopes to leave VCCA with a strong book proposal and overview.

Of her residency Joanna has nothing but praise: “It’s been amazing; you cannot imagine what a treat it is to be here and have almost every night this very stimulating conversation and these wonderful presentations. While I have my own English writing community, it’s small.  So I’ve been like a kid in a candy store. Being surrounded by visual artists and the composers it’s been fantastic to see how we create in similar ways. I’ve made good friends here. And, I don’t have to make an effort to look for women because they’re all over this residency, which is really, really nice.“

An incident occurred that demonstrated powerfully to Joanna the very obvious respect for the Fellows’ work that is a central element of the VCCA culture. She needed to return a key to the office and mentioned that she would forgo her planned walk in the woods in order to get it there before the office closed at 5:00 PM. A staff member overhearing this said, “No, you must go for a walk. It’s okay; you can give the key back tomorrow. If you need to go for a walk and think, or take photographs, of course you must go.”

A simple thing that many take for granted about VCCA, but which Joanna relishes is its sense of security. “I live on the edge of a forest, I don’t ever walk there on my own because of where I live. I‘ve been to some tough places in my time working for Newsweek, but I would never walk in the forest alone. And here, I can do it. I wake up really early, no one else is around and I have my door open and I sit outside and I’m not at all afraid.”

Living in Israel she says, you’re always slightly looking over your shoulder. “I say that as somebody with both Palestinian and Israeli friends. I am dedicated to doing whatever I can to show the real faces of people who live there and ignore all the clichés that you read about, but it’s very difficult to live there. If it weren’t for my parents sending me there and then meeting my husband, I wouldn’t be in Israel, but on the other hand, it’s given me an amazing opportunity to go places and meet people. I want to know what they have to say, and I want other people to know, too.”  

In an ironic twist, Joanna’s 16-year old son goes to a school in the exact same place where she went to school. (It’s not the same school as hers, which was English speaking; his is Hebrew speaking, but the landscape is the same.) “He fought to go there. I told him over my dead body. Then one day in the kitchen, he said—it’s your trauma, not mine. He just loves the desert and wants to be there.”

Joanna’s clearly been making the most of her residency, reveling in her surroundings and the other Fellows she has met, and getting important work done. In addition to her memoir, Joanna has been blogging about her experience at VCCA for Garnet News, turning in weekly posts that have consistently been the most popular for the online publication. And with good reason. Joanna’s wonderfully evocative vignettes are both highly personal and yet widely appealing. “I hope that it comes out in the series how crucial having this mental and physical space is.

“I didn’t know before I came here exactly what to expect, but I didn’t apply anywhere else. I saw VCCA’s website and looked at some of the photos and there was something about it and I said yes, I want to do it.


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