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Reading series brings Shawn Wen to campus

The fall 2017 Fresno Poets’ Association Reading Series concluded last Thursday with a final reading featuring multimedia artist and radio producer Shawn Wen.

The reading series, which is hosted by the creative writing program, brings creative writers to campus every semester to share their work with the community and read their poetry and prose.

Wen read from her first nonfiction book, “A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause,” which is a lyrical essay documenting the life of famed mime Marcel Marceau.

Fresno State English department faculty member Randa Jarrar also read sections from the perspective of Marceau himself.

Wen said she first heard of Marceau through a New York Times obituary.

“I went into the project knowing probably as much or as little about him as anyone does,” she said. “I’ve seen cartoons of anvils and safes falling and [crushing] mimes, but that’s about it.”

The reading included multiple anecdotes detailing Marceau’s life, beginning with his father leaving for Auschwitz and his subsequent name change from Mangel to Marceau. The audience learned of the rumor that he was a deaf-mute, which he debunked by coming on talk shows like Johnny Carson.

Wen also read about Marceau’s relationship with Michael Jackson, who modeled the moonwalk after the mime’s “walking against the wind” bit, she said.

What began as a radio piece with interviews from mimes in France who had been in Marceau’s acting troupe turned into a text-based piece as Wen began archival research. Newspapers and older interviews with Marceau revealed another side of the performer, she said.

“What I found was this incredibly articulate, verbose, tortured, contradictory, preachy and didactic figure,” Wen said. “And that was when I realized that it couldn’t be a radio piece, at least not [from] a radio producer of my capabilities. There was no way I could figure out how to do it without it being hokey.”

Wen’s reading was paired with instrumental music and a video of shapes moving to form abstract images accompanying the stories read aloud.  

She told of Marceau losing his family during the Holocaust and how he worked as a forger with the French resistance to take children to Switzerland.

“That was really interesting to me, the idea that he had a life that was so split, that there was this whole other existence before he went on to become the greatest mime of all time, the most accomplished performer within this very, very narrow focus,” Wen said.

Two students from the MFA Creative Writing program, Bethany Hazen and Javier Lopez, attended the event after reading Wen’s book in their nonfiction form and theory class.

“We were really interested to see how she presented a book whose subject was silence,” Hazen said.

Lopez said the poetry and structure of the book challenged the conventions of nonfiction writing and highlighted the abstract idea of mime performances.

“Given that she’s a radio producer, and to see that she has her own little artistic video and portrayal and background imagery for the book really encapsulated at least a lot of what the book is talking about, as well,” he said.

Hazen said that Wen’s presentation of Marceau was creative.

“I loved that she gave him his own space because he was so talkative and articulate, as she said,” Hazen said. “I think that was really smart to lend him his own voice so that he has these moments of first person.”

Hazen said Wen’s reading was especially interesting after reading the book in class.

“Having her explain her process and everything, as students, it’s really good for us to have a product like this and have her kind of discuss the how-to behind it, what she was thinking [and] how the process went.”