An interview with Shawn Wen


Image by Amanda Leiba - 2004 Fall Festival in Duluth, Georgia. Licensed under Public Domain

Shawn Wen is a writer, radio documentarian and multimedia artist.

Her essay, ‘Disappearing in Duluth’ examines the disturbing case of Jennifer Wilbanks, who vanished from the city of Duluth, Georgia, on an evening run in the days before her wedding. The article appeared in Issue 27 of The Lifted Brow, excerpted from n+1’s City by City: Dispatches From The American Metropolis.

City by City is a collection of essays about how cities and towns in the US have changed in the last five, ten, and twenty years. In the introduction, Keith Gesson and Stephen Squibb state: “we offer this collection to our contemporaries and to the future so they can know how it was here, between the day of the Lehman bankruptcy and the shooting of Michael Brown.”

I talked to Shawn about the process of writing her essay, being an Asian woman from the South, and the unsettling racially charged ramifications of the facts behind Jennifer Wilbanks’s disappearance.

– Mia-Francesca McAuslan

The Lifted Brow: What prompted you to write this work?

Shawn Wen: When I moved to the New England for college, I often introduced myself to a stranger, only to have her say to me, “Oh, you’re from the South? You don’t seem like you’re from the South!” It was usually conveyed as a compliment, which was a surprise to me. Where should I be from?

Over time, I came to realise that many Americans view the South as something akin to a third-world country. More surprisingly, I felt compelled to explain the South, to defend it, to apologise for it, to complicate other people’s idea of it. My time growing up was spent pushing back against its dominant culture: its chauvinism, its piety, its xenophobia and racism. But after I moved away, I felt haunted by the place where I had grown up, beholden to it, while still trying to get away.

I came to realise that many Americans view the South as something akin to a third-world country.

My friends now often ask me what it was like to grow up as an Asian girl in Georgia. It’s a perfectly reasonable question that I’ve never found a satisfying answer to.

I’ve always felt like racial issues are more on the surface in the South. Everywhere you see reminders of the violent history of slavery, the Civil War, and Jim Crow. (Whereas racial injustice is so often buried under class differences in other parts of the country). And yet—although the history of slavery is impossible to ignore—to the best of my memory, present-day racial issues are almost never discussed. As if racial injustice is safely locked in the past, and to bring it up now is rude, trouble-making behaviour.

So what happens when everyone is avoiding something that’s impossible to ignore? Well, it creates a strange cognitive dissonance, which makes itself felt in other ways—in people’s behaviour.

I do want to mention that the events of this essay take place during the early aughts, at the time of the second Bush administration and the Iraq War. This was written before the Black Lives Matter movement. We speak about race much more plainly now. And rightly so. The unrelenting police murders of unarmed Black men is an emergency that demands our attention and our voices.

TLB: Why was Jennifer Wilbanks a vehicle to speak about race?

SW: All over the South right now, you’re seeing small White towns rapidly diversifying. At the time that the events in this essay took place, Duluth, Georgia was about to change from a majority-White town to a racially pluralistic town, or as some like to call it, a ‟majority-minority” town.

But the people in charge to this day—the police chief, the city council, the school board—are overwhelmingly White. They neither represent their constituents, nor do they have their constituents’ best interests in mind. In fact, given the shameless voter suppression in Georgia, it is not a stretch to say that the local government actively fears its constituents. Last year, forty thousand voter registrations were reported missing in Georgia. A lawsuit filed by a national organisation, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, against Georgia secretary of state Brian Kemp was thrown out by a Georgia judge.

Jennifer Wilbanks so perfectly embodies the values of those who possess power in the South.

Jennifer Wilbanks so perfectly embodies the values of those who possess power in the South. She’s White, religious, and on the verge of getting married and starting a family. And it certainly helped that she’s photogenic and thin. So when she disappeared, the town, the police force, the local government, and the news media collectively freaked out.

TLB: How do you think Jennifer Wilbanks’s disappearance and essentially ‘crying wolf’ affects the issue of women’s testimony being taken seriously?

SW: I’m ambivalent about the fact of Jennifer Wilbanks’s dishonesty. Wilbanks received a lot of blame and anger for ditching her wedding and claiming she was kidnapped. I think she was publicly shamed because those in positions of power were embarrassed by their own hysterical response. Their natural reflex was to punish her.

But I am interested in how Wilbanks lied. By claiming that she was sexually assaulted by a Mexican man and a White woman, she perfectly demonstrated so many fears pervasive in the South as it changes: invasion, miscegenation, overtly sexual men of colour, and the contamination of White women.

TLB: How did you research this essay?

SW: I visited the Duluth Police Department and asked for the original police report, written the night Jennifer went missing. This helped make the night of the disappearance feel urgent and vivid.

A lot of suburban towns like Duluth feel strangely ahistorical. The downtown, which was constructed in 2003, was designed to look like a fantasy of the 1950s. So I visited the historical society because I wanted to see what Duluth wanted to preserve of itself, how it mythologises its own roots. The old newspapers, photographs, and names of early (White) inhabitants also give this little suburb more specificity.

Lastly, I visited city hall to meet with some people in the planning department and looked at a few crime maps. I wanted to see statistical evidence of the paranoia of kidnapping and violence. Is there pervasive gang violence in Duluth? Or is it just an excuse for police to harass young men of colour?

At every stop, I asked about Jennifer Wilbanks. Everyone remembered her. A few people knew someone who knew her. But they all said to me, “I wouldn’t go around asking about that if I was you. No one wants to talk about it.”

TLB: Why did you choose to structure the essay in a narrative style?

SW: In this essay, I left a few things conspicuously missing. I don’t give a full explanation of what Jennifer did, thought, or felt during her disappearance—apart from her own superficial explanation. I don’t attempt to articulate Jennifer’s reasons for blaming an interracial couple for her kidnapping. I don’t identify my own race as the narrator, or my opinions of Duluth’s changing racial demographics.

In a piece of writing, what you omit is as important as what you include.

In a piece of writing, what you omit is as important as what you include. The woven narrative allowed me to leave some very noticeable absences, giving the reader space to speculate.

TLB: In your essay ‘The Ladies Vanish’, you wrote about the erasure of women from certain spaces. Missing women is a theme that emerges in your writing: the women behind the Mechanical Turk industry; the lack of representation of women in Hollywood block busters; and in ‘Disappearing in Duluth’, the literal vanishing woman, Jennifer Wilbanks. Why is the missing woman a subject you are drawn to?

SW: That’s funny. I didn’t realise this about my writing, but of course you’re right. I mean, half of the human population exists as second-class citizens. It’s a damned compelling topic, right?

I can say that, from a practical point of view, writing in the margins yields a lot of material. Once you go looking, there’s so much to say about the invisible and the missing.

TLB: Where and how do you write?

SW: I’m not too particular about where I write. For the past two years, I’ve been writing at my dinner table, because I worked from home. And now I mostly write on a streetcar, because I have a long commute.

Not being too fetishistic about the trappings of writing has been liberating for me. Writing became much easier when I stopped thinking about it as an issue of my identity and started recognizing it as work.

TLB: You are a cross-disciplinary artist, experienced in video and radio. How does your relationship with the aural and visual affect your writing craft?

SW: Audio, video, and writing directly inform each other. These are all media that we experience over time. Their building blocks are cadence, silence, and texture. Of course, they have material differences. But practice in one medium will hone your sensibilities in another.

I’m a glutton for sensory stimulation, so I love writing and radio and video. But I’m capricious, too, so I take turns hating each, mostly after I’ve overindulged. I will say that with radio and video, you get to start with some raw material, which is nice. You go out, collect tape, and sculpt it. There’s not really the same terror of looking at a blank document.

TLB: What are you working on right now?

SW: Right now I’m finishing revisions on my first book, A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause, which will come out in 2017 with Sarabande Books. It’s a novella-length lyric essay about the French mime Marcel Marceau. The project started as a joke: I wanted to make mime radio. I travelled around France and Germany, interviewing Marceau’s former students and observing mime performances. But after I started reading Marceau’s interviews, I found him to be an astonishing speaker. He’s verbose, clever, pompous, contradictory. He was so eloquent, even as he actively distrusted words and refused them in his work. The inherent questions and complexities in this piece began to build, and eventually it became a book.

I still actively write articles. Some make clear arguments; others are more winding and lyrical. I like immersing myself in new ideas and generating fresh sentences.

Mia-Francesca McAuslan is a writer of non-fiction, fiction and memoir. She has interned with The Lifted Brow and is co-founder and editor of Alien She Zine. In September 2015 her unpublished manuscript was longlisted for The Richell Prize by Hachette Australia. In October 2015 she was shortlisted for The Overland VU Short Story Prize for New and Emerging Writers. She is currently based in Montreal.