Visiting Writer Series: Janine Joseph

Photo by Cheyenne Cole
Identity and Immigration: Poet and Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at OSU Janine Joseph reads a selection from her award-winning collection "Driving without a License." Joseph spoke at the Department of English and Foreign Languages Visiting Writer Series at 7 p.m. on Oct. 27 in the Wichita Room.

Cheyenne Cole
Managing Editor

The Department of English and Foreign Languages continued the Visiting Writer Series at 7 p.m. on Oct. 27 in the Wichita Room.

Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Oklahoma State University Janine Joseph read poetry and essays, including selections from her collection “Driving without a License.”

The collection is a 2014 Kundiman Poetry Prize winner and a finalist for the 2017 Oklahoma Book Award. It was inspired by Joseph’s experience growing up as an immigrant in the United States.

In 1991, Joseph’s family moved to Southern California, and she felt confused about her label as an immigrant—a status she shared with Mexican immigrants in the area.

Before reading “Between Chou and the Butterfly,” Joseph said the poem drew on language from immigration paperwork and L.A. Times articles about Mexican immigrants.

“It was a really confusing time for me because I understood myself to be someone who was undocumented,” she said.

“And yet all of the stories I was reading involved people who were undocumented but coming up from South America or coming up from Mexico. … At a certain point, I really had to just write myself out of the desert.”

She also said the poem originally began with an epigraph, which is excerpted from the Chinese philosopher Zhuang Zhou’s book “Zhuangzi.” However, her editor removed it.

“I literally wrote it [the epigraph] in pencil into this book,” she said. “I really can’t let it go. … The epigraph itself is the source of the title of this poem, which is maybe why I love it so much.”

The epigraph reads “He does not know whether he is Chou who dreams he is a butterfly or a butterfly who dreams he is Chou. Between Chou and the butterfly, there was necessarily a dividing. Just this is what is meant by the transformation of things.”

Joseph said “Driving without a License” started as a summer project right after she graduated from high school as a way to gain a sense of control.

“Pretty much anything in the arts,” she said, “you don’t need anyone’s permission to do, right? You don’t need to show anyone your social security number. You don’t need to make copies of your driver’s license. You can make art.”

For Joseph, revision is an important part of the writing process. She said she recently completed a poem she worked on and revised for seven years.

“That was an early fear of mine,” she said, “that I would write a draft and that it was completely pure and completely perfect in that particular state, but there’s a lot of magic that happens in revision.”

Senior English and business major Zoie Timothy is a member of Sigma Tau Delta, the English honor society that co-sponsors the Visiting Writer Series. She immigrated to the United States from Dominica in 2011.

Timothy said she is currently in the process of becoming a U.S. citizen, so she related to Joseph’s writing on a personal level.

“I thought the way she addressed the naturalization process was really interesting because I’m going through it right now,” she said. “And she’s right. It’s really terrible and tedious.”

Timothy said it is important to hear the perspectives of people like Joseph because it helps the general public better understand the struggles immigrants face in the U.S.

“The more people like her write about their experiences and talk about it,” she said, “the more humanized immigrants will be and the better the debate will be.”

Joseph is currently working on her second collection, which is about her U.S. naturalization and how a recent car accident affected her.

“It took me a while to remember what I did,” she said, “but I did remember that I was a poet, and it was all I needed to keep going.”

“Driving without a License” is available on and at Barnes and Noble.

For more information about the Visiting Writer Series, contact the Department of English and Foreign Languages at (580) 581-2272.


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