Writing with kindness and confidence

U of W welcomes exciting new Carol Shields writer in residence

Souvankham Thammavongsa is the University of Winnipeg’s new Carol Shields writer-in-residence.

Sharing creative writing with others is a vulnerable but worthwhile step in the writing process. That’s why University of Winnipeg (U of W) students and community members might want to take advantage of the writer-in-residence program to discuss their work with an established writer.

Souvankham Thammavongsa started her residency on Feb 1. She has won acclaim for her poetry and short fiction and won the 2020 Scotiabank Giller Prize for her short-story collection How to Pronounce Knife.  

The writer-in-residence program exists to honour the late novelist Carol Shields and her commitment to mentoring emerging artists, allowing the resident author to both support local writers and work on their own projects. Previous writers in residence include Méira Cook, Garry Thomas Morse and GMB Chomichuk.

Jenny Heijun Wills, associate professor of English at the U of W, teaches creative writing and critical race studies. She is seeing a growing interest in creative writing from her Students of Colour, including Asian and Filipinx students, in particular.

It’s meaningful for students of all races to see accomplished writers and have generous conversations about how, despite coming from different communities, everyone shares commonalities, Wills says. 

Thammavongsa has been writing for more than 25 years, and people often asked if she wrote in English or asked why they hadn’t heard of her before. “I am hoping I don’t have to answer or explain ... things like that anymore, because a writer-in-residence position here speaks for me in powerful ways that I cannot,” she says.

“I think all of these things speak to a shift in the way that, as a whole, we’re all imagining what literature looks like.”

Thammavongsa’s professional success means she can offer guidance on “professionalizing and the publishing industry and ... publicity ... which is also a meaningful part of learning about this craft,” Wills says. She also notes that, as both a poet and prose writer, Thammavongsa can speak to writing across genres.

“Students often think they need help or advice for their writing,” Thammavongsa says, but with her own confidence and self-awareness as a writer, she hopes to help students value their work without feeling a need to ask for advice. 

Thammavongsa says even brilliant writers can go unnoticed but hopes to teach students to be kind to their art and “to make their art wherever they are, with whatever they have.”

As for the virtual nature of the residency, Thammavongsa only sees advantages. The flexible schedule allows her to read more students’ writing. There’s a paper trail for her conversations with students, and she can play the role of writer. 

“I like the distance between myself and the work given to me. It is just about the writing and not the person behind the writing,” she says.

Community members and U of W students can submit creative writing under 10 pages with a short cover letter to Thammavongsa by emailing [email protected]. Learn more about the writer-in-residence program at uwinnipeg.ca/english/writer-in-residence.html.

Published in Volume 75, Number 19 of The Uniter (February 25, 2021)

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