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This year marks the 30th anniversary of ASU's MFA program in creative writing.
The ASU program's focus on nurturing "artist-citizens" sets it apart.
Students in the ASU Creative Writing MFA Program work one-on-one with faculty.
November 2, 2015

This year marks the 30th anniversary of ASU's distinguished MFA program in creative writing

Some of us are Type A people; we plan our days down to the minute and make decisions based on a practical system of weighing pros and cons.

And some of us are daydreamers.

Alberto Rios falls into the latter category.

“I got busted for daydreaming in elementary school. The egregious second-grader crime,” he said of the moment he knew he wanted to be a writer.

“I retreated to my imagination, and that was the beginning of my writing.”

Alberto Rios speaking at podium

Regents’ Professor and Katherine C. Turner Endowed Chair in English at ASU Alberto RiosAlberto Rios is a Regents’ Professor and the Katherine C. Turner Endowed Chair in English at ASU. speaks at an event celebrating the Creative Writing MFA Program. Photo by Bruce Matsunaga.


Fitting, then, that he should one day help found the Creative Writing MFA Program at Arizona State University. The program, which is part of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.

“It’s a mark of some distinction,” said Rios, who in 2013 was named Arizona’s first poet laureate.

He began teaching at ASU in 1982, shortly after winning the Walt Whitman poetry award and being subsequently recruited to the university by ASU Regents’ Professor Norman Dubie, whose own poetry has appeared in The New Yorker and “The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry.”

Around that time, a crop of fresh, hungry English faculty was beginning to materialize on campus.

Current director of the program Cynthia HogueCynthia Hogue is a professor of poetry and the Maxine and Jonathan Marshall Chair in Modern and Contemporary Poetry at ASU. called their serendipitous congregation a “critical mass of talent” that soon attracted a wave of students — Hogue herself had come to ASU to study under Dubie in 1978.

man writing

ASU Regents’ Professor Norman Dubie. This photo (© Rebecca Ross)
is part of the "Write Now: Celebrating 30 Years of Creative Writing at ASU"
exhibit on display at Hayden Library through Nov. 14.

Other members of that faculty group included the poet Rita Dove and the artist and former program manager Karla Elling.

Recognizing the need to meet student demand and eager to foster the growing community of serious writers at ASU, they determined it was time to establish a bona fide MFA program in creative writing.

In the 30 years since, the program has stood witness to a faculty that has received national and international recognition, garnering Guggenheim fellowships, NEA fellowships and several Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award nominations. As well, its students have gone on to win multiple prizes, Guggenheim and Fulbright fellowships; publish books; and secure university teaching positions.

What sets it apart from other creative writing MFA programs, said Hogue, is “the element of the artist-citizen.”

“To be an artist is to be involved in the world in various ways. And we do that really consistently, and we also model a mentoring relationship,” she said, noting how each student in the program has the opportunity to work one-on-one with members of the faculty on their work.

Jennifer Irish, assistant director of the program, reiterated what she sees as the extraordinary nature of the program.

“I have the experience of having been part of several other programs and I have never been in a program or worked with a program that has such a true dedication to its students — at all levels," she said. “We have an amazingly committed faculty here who care about their students’ growth as artists and as people.

“And again, it goes back to that idea of the artist-citizen, that we are training artists who are going to go out and do good things in the world.”

One example of that intention realized is Poesía del Sol (Poetry of the Sun), an ASU Project Humanities partnership with the Mayo Clinic Center for Humanities in Medicine and the Creative Writing Program, led by Ríos.

Poesía del Sol pairs ASU MFA students with palliative-care patients at Mayo Clinic Hospital in Phoenix. The students interview the patients and their families, then create poems based on that interview. The poems are printed, framed and presented to the patients and their families as a gift and a celebration of life.

portrait of a woman

Cynthia Hogue, professor of poetry and Maxine and Jonathan Marshall Chair in Modern and Contemporary Poetry at ASU. Photo © Rebecca Ross


Another example of being involved in the world is ASU’s Prison English Program, which allows students to not only edit the writing of inmates but also to teach in person at prisons in Arizona, helping educate those members of society who might otherwise not have such an opportunity.

Third-year creative writing master’s student Jacqueline Balderrama is one of the students who has done so. Her focus is poetry because, she said, “It belongs to the moment and to the image. It is concise, purposeful, and having an eye for poetry, I think, allows writers to perceive the world with an openness that invites meaning into the ordinary.”

Balderrama also serves as a poetry editor for Hayden’s Ferry Review, a semiannual international literary journal that showcases emerging talents in the literary community.

A small portion of the publication is solicited from established authors, but the majority of contributors are chosen from the thousands of manuscripts received each year. Each issue includes poetry, prose, translations and visual art.

Hayden’s Ferry Review editor-in-chief Chelsea Hickok, who will graduate from the Creative Writing MFA Program in May 2016, relishes the position it has afforded her.

“I’m coming out of this program with three years' teaching experience, two years editing a literary journal, connections in the industry, publications and a confidence in my writing I didn’t have before,” she said.

Balderrama agreed about the importance of creative writing, saying, “Fine arts are critical to our humanity.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley delivered a Marshall Lecture on Oct. 7 at ASU in which she spoke on the importance of art in teaching us empathy and helping us to understand what it is to be human.

Reflecting that is a favorite mantra of Rios’: “Say it, and I will understand it. Say it well, and I will feel it.”

ASU’s Creative Writing MFA Program 30th-anniversary celebration continues next with professor of English Melissa Pritchard’s telling of the story of the Afghan Women's Writing Project and the Ashton Goodman Fund from noon to 1:15 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 4, in the Memorial Union Gold Room on the Tempe campus.

For a full list of anniversary celebration events, visit

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Viewing photography through a prism of change

Photographer Nadia Sablin shares view of her two Russian aunts.
How did Nadia Sablin become a photographer acclaimed by the New Yorker? ASU.
October 30, 2015

ASU alumna Nadia Sablin uses her camera to share small, personal stories

Editor's note: Leading up to Homecoming, we'll be running several stories a week on ASU alumni. Find more alumni stories here.

Nadia SablinPhotographer Nadia Sablin calls her time at Arizona State Univeristy “one of the most productive periods” of her career.

Sablin says the support she received from the faculty and her colleagues in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts allowed her to try new approaches to her craft without worry.

Today, she’s putting her Master of Fine Arts in PhotographyNadia Sablin received her master's from the School of Art in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. to good use, having recently been featured in The New Yorker for her photo series “Aunties,” which includes the photo above and details the day-to-day activities of her father’s two unmarried sisters at their home in Alekhovshchina, Russia.

Sablin herself was born in Leningrad and moved to the United States as a child. She currently resides in Brooklyn and will be releasing a book based on the photo series this November.

She recently took time to talk with ASU Now about her favorite aspect of being a photographer and how she thinks the power of photography can influence society.

Question: Why did you choose to pursue a career in photography?

Answer: When I was in high school, I found out I could take community college classes for free. I took a bunch of photo classes on a whim and really got into it. I was spending more time in the darkroom than my official classes, so I thought I wanted to do more of that.

Q: You were recently featured in The New Yorker for your photo series “Aunties.” How does it feel to have such high profile acknowledgement?

A: I’m so glad that such high caliber publications are interested in small personal stories, such as “Aunties.” It’s a different way of understanding the world, through individual lives rather than big political movements. That’s what I’ve always been most drawn to, and I’m happy to see that acknowledged and many years of my work validated in this way.

Q: How does photography have the power to impact society?

A: I think we’re already used to understanding history through images. Can you imagine the Great Depression without seeing “Migrant Mother” by Dorothea Lange? Or D-Day without Robert Capa’s images? More recently, however, photography is how we experience the present, often initiating an activity in order to record it, not just for its own sake. With everyone always having access to a camera on their phone, we’ve become voracious consumers and indiscriminate producers of photographs. This is certainly changing our perception of individual pictures, and I’m curious to see what we’ll do with that change.

Q: What is your favorite part of the work you do today?

A: I photograph people primarily, and I meet a wide variety of strangers, forming relationships with them and learning about their lives. I hear all kinds of stories and see people’s faces change as they begin to open up to me. I love the moment when we connect — it’s a very powerful experience to receive the gift of someone’s trust.

Q: What advice would you give to someone looking to pursue a career in the arts?

A: Read a lot and work really hard on your art. Be happy about the process, and don’t expect validation. 

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

A: I have a book coming out in November with Duke University Press. I would love for you to buy it. Or look at it at the library once they receive a copy. The title is “Aunties: Seven Summers with Alevtina and Ludmila.”

Emma Greguska

Reporter , ASU Now

(480) 965-9657

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October 27, 2015

ASU team taps into expertise of food 'citizen-scientists' as way to engage community in gathering knowledge

Valley newcomer Stacey Kuznetsov recently discovered a rather unconventional way to meet new people: fermented salsa parties.

“All my friends brought whatever ingredients they had in their homes, and we just blended everything and made fermented salsa,” she said.

The idea came from a transdisciplinary research project Kuznetsov, an assistant professor in the School of Arts, Media and Engineering at Arizona State University, conducted along with grad student Christina Santana and associate professor Elenore Long, both of ASU’s Department of English.

Their findings, which they wrote about in a paper titled “Mindful Persistence: Literacies for Taking up and Sustaining Fermented-Food Projects,” were published this month in Community Literacy Journal.

As the lead researcher for ASU’s Social and Digital Systems (SANDS) Group, Kuznetsov was interested in pursuing a project that looked at the phenomenon of so-called “citizen-scientists” or “DIY-biologists” — people who are not professional scientists but who experiment and gather knowledge based on their personal interests.

“I thought food was a really interesting domain for that,” she said, as nearly everyone can say they have played the role of “citizen-scientist” in the kitchen at least a few times.

“I think it’s a pushback against traditional top-down ways of disseminating scientific information.”
— assistant professor Stacey Kuznetsov

Santana saw Kuznetsov’s budding project as an opportunity to delve deeper into her area of interest in community literacy by engaging local community members in research that relied on their expertise.

“What drew me to Stacey’s project was that, here’s an opportunity to get outside of ASU and … be the bridge and bring people in and create opportunities for people to experience some of the things that only our students get,” said Santana.

Over the course of several months, they spent time recruiting, interviewing and workshopping with members of the local community who regularly engage in experimentation with edible materials.

They met people who make homemade beer, forage for grasses, ferment fruit and vegetables and even one woman who practices human placenta encapsulation as a dietary supplement for new mothers. And they were invited to participate in a group workshop where they would demonstrate and speak about their methods.

Community fermentation workshop

A piece of SCOBY culture
(symbiotic colony of bacteria
and yeast) is added to tea to
ferment it.

Photo courtesy Christina Santana

“They were teaching us the skills as opposed to us coming and observing something that is already well-understood,” Kuznetsov said. “To me, that’s an example of community literacy, where I’m studying the practices of a community that’s clearly a lot more expert in a domain than I am.”

Following the initial food demonstration workshop was a co-authoring workshop, wherein the community members shared their ideas about their work and helped draft portions of the research paper. It was also at this time that Long came on board to assist with the writing.

“We wrote in lots of different ways. We had questions and then filled up the whiteboards with responses. And then we took sticky notes and people just consolidated their own themes. … And then we developed sets of patterns across the sticky notes, and then people wrote sections in teams,” Long said.

The theme of persistence revealed itself to the researchers over the course of the project as they worked alongside and listened to the experiences of local fermented-food experts who live by the mantra, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”

“The inquiry [into alternative food preservation] itself requires a kind of persistence because you’re constantly bumping up against things that you didn’t quite predict that in some ways trouble the project, but also make you a more expert person in doing that,” Long said.

Santana said the experience has given her an “access point” into a world she may otherwise never have known about.

“I think it’s helped me be less afraid of food. It sounds funny, but I’d never tried sauerkraut before, I would never have tried kombucha. … So I approach the kitchen differently in that I see potential or limit, and I think a little bit more about how I’m working with food,” she said, “but I still let my husband cook, mostly.”

Kuznetsov hopes their project will bring more attention to ways the community can be involved in research — “I think it’s a pushback against traditional top-down ways of disseminating scientific information” — and, “More sauerkraut!”


The School of Arts, Media and Engineering is part of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. The Department of English is a unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

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Urban Sol event charges ASU with electric creativity

Valley dancers and urban artists show their style at Urban Sol.
October 26, 2015

It still might seem like a strange partnership to some: a collection of the Phoenix Valley's street artists, dancers and musicians working with Arizona State University's Herberger Institute to create art.

But the Urban Sol program, which aims to bridge the street art world into the academic setting, continues to evolve with an electric appeal. The charge of creativity was on display this past Saturday evening as Urban Sol hosted its annual "MOVEMeant III" dance and art event at the Nelson Fine Arts Center plaza on ASU's Tempe campus. The night was filled with dancers of all ages and backgrounds stepping, flowing and spinning to the sounds of hip-hop and other dance music styles in front of a stand-room-only crowd. 

Some of the people were there to strut their stuff, others to show off their skills (like the ASU Hip Hop Coalition, pictured above). Together they were mass of movement and engagement as the lines between the crowd and the performers were blurred in a way that every great street performance knows so well.

For more information about the Urban Sol program, visit the Herberger Institute of Design and the Arts' website.

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October 21, 2015

ASU student builds dinosaur skull that allows people to re-create the beast's call; hear it below

Editor's note: This story is being highlighted in ASU Now's year in review. To read more top stories from 2015, click here.

During her road trip to start graduate school at Arizona State University, East Coast native Courtney Brown stopped at a dinosaur museum in Tucumcari, New Mexico.

Inside, she pressed a button at a sound exhibit to hear the simulated call of Parasaurolophus, a type of duck-billed dinosaur. The sound resonated with her.

“That was my favorite part of the exhibit,” Brown said. “But I also thought that the experience could be improved upon in a lot of ways.”  

Not long after that, the candidate for an Interdisciplinary Media and Performance Doctorate of Musical Arts did what any intellectually curious sound artist would do: She set about improving on the concept of a dinosaur skull that could make the noise of the dinosaur.

“I’d been doing new musical interfaces for a while, since 2006 to 2007,” said Brown, who earned her master’s degree in electroacoustic music at Dartmouth College. “I immediately thought of how that would go into my research. I wanted to have the feeling of being a dinosaur, I guess, and have it be this physical sensation … like being the dinosaur’s lungs.”

In ASU’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, Brown went to work with her adviser, Garth PainePaine holds a joint appointment as associate professor in the School of Arts, Media + Engineering and the School of Music., and later with Sharif Razzaque, her peer from the graduate computer science program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

They helped to create the prototype for a re-created skull of a Corythosaurus, another type of lambeosaurine hadrosaur (duck-billed dinosaur) — a cousin to the Parasaurolophus she’d encountered in New Mexico. The duck-billed dinosaurs were known for their head crests, through which they made their trumpet-like calls.

With her dual background in music and computer science, particularly with her experience in software development, Brown was able to build on her varied experience and hone her talent.

Corythosaurus 3-D models from CT scansThey were were shared by by Lawrence Witmer at Ohio University. provided the base for the skull, which was constructed with foam, coated in polyurea and pieced together with epoxy. The nasal passages were 3-D printed, along with the resonant passages of the interior of the dinosaur’s skull. Brown designed and built the larynx first, and then she and Razzaque used a Shopbot — a Computer Numeric Control (CNC) machine — to fabricate the skull.

Interestingly, the dinosaur skull crafted by Brown is an acoustic instrument.

“That was a really important aesthetic point for me,” Brown said, noting that she could have taken a hybrid/digital approach, but she was “interested in the poetry of the physical.”

To make the sound, people blow into a tube that pushes air through the skull to produce the extinct creature's call.

“I say this as somebody deeply involved in writing software, and I’ve been doing computer music for a really long time. But sometimes, as an engineer, you have to think, ‘What’s the best solution?’ And honestly, the easiest solution might have been having some kind of sensor that people blow into to create the noise, or somehow creating this larynx. I just wasn’t interested in that. I felt like it had to be physical.”

In her research, Brown passionately pursued the integrity of the Corythosaurus’ physical vocal mechanism. The obvious challenge, after 77 million years, was the lack of soft-tissue remains. From only the CT scan of the skull and dedicated, yet peripheral, research into the dinosaur’s cranial structural features, Brown had to divine an idea of the dinosaur’s physical larynges.  

“I did all this research. I was talking to [Ohio University's] Lawrence Witmer, and I asked, ‘So what do we know about Corythosaurus larynges?’ And he said, ‘We know nothing!’ That was a big blow,” Brown said. “I couldn’t absorb it. I kept thinking, ‘Maybe there’s something!’ Because I wanted it to be exact. It was about accepting the role of the imagination, which, in fact, is what makes it beautiful, in a way.

“When you blow into the skull, you can feel it in your lungs coming back to you, so there’s this physical sensation that’s just there. The whole point of the project is to give this physicality to the dinosaur sound. It becomes really important, I think.”

Paine emphasized this point, as well. “You can kind of embody the dinosaur by blowing into it, and then you can change the pitch by tightening and loosening the larynx,” he said. “Then those chambers all resonate like they would have done in the dinosaur.”

In August, her research project “Rawr! A Study in Sonic Skulls” landed Brown an honorary mention in the 2015 Prix Ars Electronica competition, one of the world's most prestigious awards for media arts. Her project was shown at the Ars Electronica Festival, drawing more than a thousand visitors eager to make the skull sing by breathing into it. The Corythosaurus skull prototype was displayed as an interactive sound exhibit.

“Only a small number of people who got honorable mentions was selected to come to Ars Electronica and exhibit their work at the Ars Electronica museum in Linz, Austria, a very prestigious venue,” Paine said.

Brown was flown to the festival and hosted for two weeks while she exhibited the dinosaur in the Ars Electronica museum.

“She also did a concert,” Paine said. “That’s extraordinary exposure for her on the international stage at the highest possible level.”

Brown says that without the transdisciplinary opportunities available to her in ASU's School of Arts, Media + Engineering facilities, the project never would have happened. 

“I immediately thought, ‘Oh! There’s a fabrication lab here!’ Whereas if I was in a computer music department, that wouldn’t be something I’d think about. I saw the variety of activities going on here in AME, and we thought, ‘OK, we can do this!’ I learned a lot about digital fabrication. It’s not magic. It’s a lot of work.”

Paine said all of that work resulted in the recognition Brown received at the Ars Electronica festival.

“It’s a really good kind of transdisciplinary point at which these things come together. So nobody in the music school could do this … probably nobody else in AME would think about doing it … but when you get somebody who brings those things together, then you come up with these points of exploration that are kind of unique that people in those individual disciplines wouldn’t come up with.”

Brown’s work has already generated interest from academics, musicians and even from dinosaur scientists and natural history museums.

“Her work opens up all this outreach potential, and the potential for the artists to lead the scientific inquiry, to lead the engagement and really improvise,” Paine said.

Written by Kristi Garboushian
School of Arts, Media + Engineering

Provost’s lectures explore ecowarriors, philosophy and faith

October 20, 2015

Two prominent thought leaders and authors from Europe bring a close to the Provost’s Distinguished Lecture Series for 2015.

On Nov. 4, political philosopher Heinrich Meier speaks on “The Beginning of the Philosophic Life and the Challenge of Faith in Revelation: Reflections on Rousseau’s ‘Rêveries’.”  Heinrich Meier and Sir Jonathan Bate Heinrich Meier and Sir Jonathan Bate headline the Provosts Distinguished Lecture Series on Nov. 4 and Nov. 23, 2015.

On Nov. 23, British biographer, Oxford Professor and public intellectual Sir Jonathan Bate speaks about "Ted Hughes: Eco-Warrior, or Eco-Worrier?"

Developed with support from Interim Provost Mark Searle and College of Liberal Arts and Sciences’ Dean of Humanities George Justice, the provost’s series seeks to bring some of the world’s best poets, scientists, philosophers and authors of the human condition to ASU.

“All the challenges — and I mean all of them — faced in the contemporary world are human issues,” Justice said. “Reducing them to technical problems almost ensures that our efforts will fail as much as they will succeed.”

“Humanists, such as Meier and Bate, understand the range of human experience, human thought, human interest, and by including them in research and education we allow ourselves to learn from ourselves and our history,” Justice added.

Meier is the director of the Carl Friedrich von Siemens Foundation, a professor of philosophy with the University of Munich, Germany and permanent visiting professor with the John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought with the University of Chicago. His expertise ranges from philosophy to political science, sociology and biology. He is the author of eight books, including “Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss: The Hidden Dialogue,” “The Lesson of Carl Schmidt” and most recently, “Jean Jacques Rousseau.” With more than 30 years of the study of Rousseau at play, in his talk Meier examines the nature of the philosophic life and controversial writings on religion by Rousseau in his last work “Les rêveries du Promeneur Solitaire” (“Reveries of a Solitary Walker”). In addition to his talk, he will host a two-day workshop around the topic of “Social Contract and 'Nietzsche’s Zarathustra'." He will also tour facilities and attend meetings with ASU faculty, such as Pulitzer Prize-winner and Regents’ Professor Bert Hoelldobler and Provost Emeritus Robert E. Page Jr. Page, who launched the provost's series last spring, will introduce Meier at the Nov. 4 event at 4 p.m. in the Memorial Union's Pima Room 230 on the Tempe campus.

Bate is a biographer, critic, broadcaster and scholar. He is renowned in the field of ecocriticism, having published what is considered “the first ecological reading of English literature” — his “Song of the Earth.” Previously, in his “Romantic Ecology,” Bates articulated the conservationist influence of William Wordsworth’s poetry; the work has been enormously influential on later Romanticist work on literature and the environment. A provost of Worcester College and professor of English literature at University of Oxford, Bate is also a prominent Shakespearean, as well as public essayist that speaks to wider audiences on topics, such as “How books help us to be better human beings.” He was recently profiled on NPR for his newest publication “Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life” that explores the life of Ted Hughes, one of England’s most prominent poets, an avid environmentalist and husband of Sylvia Plath. The book has garnered high praise and is shortlisted for the U.K.’s Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction for 2015.

Bate will speak about Hughes at 6 pm. on Nov. 23 in Old Main's Carson Ballroom on ASU's Tempe campus. 

Meier and Bate are strong advocates for the importance of humanities education. Meier was awarded the Peregrinus Prize, given in recognition of outstanding work in the humanities, by the Bavarian Academy of Sciences in Germany. Bate was knighted for his service to higher education in 2015. In an interview published in British Academy Review in 2014, Bate observed: “One of the reasons for studying the humanities is precisely that the humanities draw our attention to big, valuable, important things that cannot be contained or constrained within a model of economic benefit. Beauty, truth — these are difficult, abstract concepts, concepts that defy quantification.”

“Humanities is about the human experience past, present and future. Sometimes the breadth and understanding of what humanists do get buried in the painstaking research on seemingly narrow topics pursued by our world-leading faculty,” said Justice, who is also a professor in ASU's Department of English. “These speakers coming to ASU to deliver provost’s distinguished lectures broaden our range of thinking, synthesize broad research areas and tackle major issues in research. They invigorate our scholarly community, and we find meaning in our lives through the works of culture that humanists preserve for humanity.”

More information about this series can be found here.  

Margaret Coulombe

Director, Executive Communications, Office of the University Provost


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Exhibit shares little-told tale of Jewish refugees' time in China

Holocaust survivor shares her tale of being a refugee in Shanghai
ASU exhibit focuses on the stories of Jewish refugees who relocated to Shanghai
October 18, 2015

The interesting thing about this Holocaust story is that it’s rarely been told.

The account centers around Irma Glahs Gottlieb, a 95-year-old Scottsdale woman who survived the Nazi purge of Germany in the 1930s by moving to Shanghai, China.

While much of the Jewish diaspora connects survival stories to relocations in North America or other parts of Europe, the Holocaust’s connection to Shanghai is a lesser-known chapter of this tragic history.

Gottlieb’s bit of the narrative is something she has only told a handful of people up to this point, and only in bits and pieces to her children over the years.

“Actually, I didn’t want to talk about this but my children think I should talk about it,” Gottlieb said. “Why should they hear about all the hardships we had because eventually we lived a normal life? That’s what we called it — a ‘normal life.’ I felt the past was the past.”

Gottlieb has opened the past and shared her story publicly for the first time as part of the “Jewish Refugees in Shanghai” exhibit, which is currently up and running through Dec. 15 at the Cutler-Plotkin Jewish Heritage Center in Phoenix and at ASU’s Hayden Library on the Tempe campus.

Irma Gottlieb

Irma Gottlieb is one of many Jewish refugees
who resettled in Shanghai during the 1930s
while Jews were still allowed to leave Nazi Germany.

Photo and video (below) by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

The exhibit is sponsored by ASU’s Confucius Institute, Center for Jewish Studies, and the Arizona Jewish Historical Society, and will feature artifacts, photographs, documents, and personal stories, like Gottlieb’s. Planned events throughout the exhibit’s run will include several lectures, a film screening and a book discussion.

“It’s a story we need to pay attention to because it’s still so relevant,” said Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, director of the ASU’s Center for Jewish Studies in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “We are in the midst of a major migration crisis in our country and Europe. It begs the question, what is our obligation to people in duress who have no other place to go?”

Gottlieb, who hailed from Succow, a small farming community in Germany, said hers was the only Jewish family in the town of 900 people.

“My first years were very, very playful and I had everything I could ask for. I’m an only child so needless to say I was very spoiled,” Gottlieb said. “The only time I knew I was different than the other kids is when the Jewish holidays came. Then my parents took me to a synagogue in the next town.”

By 1933, the atmosphere for Jews in Germany had become troublesome as persecution and violence became more commonplace. Gottlieb said it was a slow boil that started with being ignored by classmates while others taunted her. It became unbearable when her instructor refused to teach her.

So her parents, who owned a general store in Succow, sent her to a finishing school in Lehnitz, which was a donated mansion just outside of Berlin. The school was started by the Jewish community so that children and teens who had been excluded by their communities could continue their educations.

“During the morning and day we’d have lectures and I’d work on several languages (she is fluent in German, French and English) and in the afternoon we kept house,” Gottlieb said. “We’d clean, iron and peel potatoes in the kitchen, and every Friday night we’d have a rabbi who’d come to the house and hold service. That was the first time I actually felt comforted.”

That comfort didn’t last long. On Nov. 9 and 10, 1938, a wave of anti-Semitic violence took place throughout Germany, Austria and areas of Czechoslovakia in what historians describe as Kristallnact (“Night of Broken Glass). The name depicts the act of Hitler Youth and SS officers smashing the windows of synagogues, homes and more than 7,500 Jewish-owned businesses, burning many of them to the ground. Jewish cemeteries were also desecrated.

It was a clear sign to Gottlieb’s father, and many other Jews, that they needed to leave the country. But it wouldn’t be easy.

According to Gottlieb, the German government forced her family to sell the general store “for a song” and departing Jews could only leave the country with 10 marks in their pockets.

At that time, there were only a handful of countries that would take in Jewish refugees. Gottlieb’s family was originally going to flee to the United States, but visa restrictions were difficult and required an affidavit, a sponsor, and a waiting period because of a quota.

They didn’t feel like waiting was an option. Gottlieb's father had already been picked up by the Nazis and then released because he'd been a decorated World War I vet.

But Shanghai was an open city, with no visa requirements — though some form of documentation was required to exit Europe.

Jewish refugees obtained documentation in various ways, including through the aid of relief organizations. But a significant number of them received the necessary documents through the efforts of He Feng Shan, the Chinese consul in Vienna who is often described as the “Chinese Shindler,” and Sigihara Chiune, the Japanese consul in Kaunas, Lithuania.

As a result, Shanghai became a modern-day “Noah’s Ark,” accepting some 18,000 Jewish refugees and offering them shelter.

Gottlieb and her parents fled Germany by taking a train to Genoa, Italy, where they boarded the SS Victoria, a small luxury cruise ship.

“Suddenly I could talk and dance,” said Gottlieb, who was 18 when she boarded the ship. “I didn’t have to watch what I said and nobody was stopping me. I still have the tickets.”

But that trip was the first and last taste of happiness she experienced in years. Gottlieb said the four-week journey became surreal — many of the young men on the ship had been released from concentration camps and were either bald or shaved.

And when Gottlieb and the other refugees eventually disembarked in Shanghai, she received a cultural and economic jolt.

“We went from luxury to nothing in one day. We didn’t really know what to expect.” Gottlieb said. “They put us in back of a truck and brought us to a refugee camp in Hongkew. Men were placed in one section, women in the other. We slept in bunk beds.”

Almost 77 years later, Gottlieb can still recall their inaugural meal in a large dining hall with a long wooden bench and table: a hard-boiled egg, a piece of bread and cold tea in a tin cup. Before anyone took a bite, an angry refugee rolled his egg down the table and tossed the piece of bread to the floor. Through clinched teeth, he announced the meal wasn’t fit for a dog. Gottlieb said silence engulfed the room.

“That was the hardest moment. It was very sad and sadder even now when I think about what my parents must have felt,” Gottlieb said. “I think I realized for the first time … I think I cried.”

But at least they were out of Germany.

“As bad as things might have been in Shanghai, they weren’t half as bad as for the Jews in Europe,” said Robert Joe Cutter, director of the Confucius Institute. “Had they stayed in Europe, about 90 percent of them would have been dead. It did save their lives.”

The Glahs' eventually moved into a dilapidated home, purchased by a Jewish family who rented the family a room. The room had no hot water, kitchen or for that matter, a bathroom — only a bucket.

Gottlieb’s father made daily trips to the camp to bring back their daily ration of soup, which is what they existed on for several months.

Life eventually got better over time. Eventually a container filled with some of the Glahs' home possesions arrived.

However, they were forced to sell many of these creature comforts for food and money.

“My mother would say, ‘Today we eat a chair. Tomorrow we eat a desk.’ It was basically whatever my dad sold that day,” Gottlieb said.

The Jewish refugees eventually settled into their new surroundings and created businesses, bakeries, schools, synagogues, grocery stores, restaurants, bookstores, boutiques and clothing stores. Musicians played concerts on a rooftop garden, acting troupes entertained the refugees, and sports — boxing, football, tennis and table tennis — became popular diversions.

So did the movies. Gottlieb recalled seeing a screening of “Gone With the Wind” in Shanghai for a dime. For four hours, the Hollywood classic gave her a temporary distraction.

“We all tried to live as normal as we could. We had school, our own teachers and the people were just angels — the people who donated money so we could have food and schools and concerts,” Gottlieb said. “For me, everything was wonderful because I didn’t have to wonder who was behind me and could say things freely. I looked at it differently, like a young person would.”

Gottlieb’s teen years gave way to adulthood when she met her husband Erich at a summer camp created for refugee children who needed a respite from the trauma of their forced exits back home. He wanted to marry her on the spot, but her parents said no. He had a job with the Chinese Salt Administration and her parents feared he would take her into the interior of China and they would never see her again.

“My parents said, ‘If he feels the same way about you when he comes back, then you can get married,’ ” Gottlieb said. “So he did.”

Erich returned two years later and in June 1941, they were married in front of the German consulate at the insistence of her parents, who wanted it to be legal in the eyes of the German government.

Gottlieb instantly recognized the act as ironic, given the fact they were stateless. And there’s also that reminder of why they left.

“My marriage license has a swastika,” Gottlieb wryly said.

Old wedding photo

Irma Gottlieb is seen in a wedding photograph with her husband when they married in Shanghai in 1941. Deanna Dent/ASU Now

When World War II broke out in 1939, Erich and Irma safely made their way to Chungking, China, where they lived for the next few years. She didn’t see her parents for four years and only had contact with them through two letters, delivered by the American Red Cross.

After the war, Gottlieb found her parents in a Japanese ghetto in Hongkew. Later they all moved together to the United States, eventually settling in the Chicago area, where Irma and Erich raised a family and finally returned to a 'normal life.'

Gottlieb’s daughter Evelyn Simon, who was born in Shanghai, said her mother has left out many of the darker details of her ordeal, but that the light outshines the darkness.

“There is a lot of dysfunction and trauma that goes from generation to generation in regards to the Holocaust, but that wasn’t totally the case with us,” Simon said. “My parents didn’t want to color our vision of the world growing up. A lot of this information hasn’t come up until recently.”

Gottlieb’s vision of the past remains mostly positive and agrees with Holocaust historian David Kranzler, describing the relocation as “The Miracle of Shanghai.”

“I am very, very lucky to be here because all of my friends have passed away from not enough food, medicine and illnesses,” Gottlieb said. “Our life was saved by going to Shanghai whereas every other country had the doors closed. I definitely see Shanghai as a haven.”

Reporter , ASU Now


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ASU MFA student puts contemporary design spin on classic "Streetcar" story.
October 16, 2015

Wyatt Kent is quite aware of the difficulties in producing a classic play and the expectations that follow, especially one that also made it big in Hollywood.

But this master's in directing student in ASU’s School of Film, Dance and Theatre doesn’t shy away from a challenge. Even when that classic work is the iconic “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

The play, which opens Friday as part of the school’s 2015-2016 MainStage season, tells the story of Blanche DuBois, a southern belle who moves in with her sister and brother-in-law in a small New Orleans apartment to escape financial ruin. Conflict ensues as the three characters navigate their individual dramas and the physically restricting space of the apartment.

Written by Tennessee Williams in the 1940s, the play is considered an essential piece of the American literary canon.

“One of the things I find exciting is taking plays that people feel like they know and engaging with them from the ground up,” said Kent, who is directing “Streetcar.”

actors rehearsing for ASU Streetcar Named Desire performance

Directing a classic

Director Wyatt Kent checks with a stage hand
during a rehearsal of Tennessee Williams’
“A Streetcar Named Desire” at ASU's Lyceum
Theatre, on Wednesday, Oct. 14.

Charlie Leight/ASU Now

For this production, that meant finding new ways to incorporate contemporary theater practices into the show, particularly media design, while still honoring Williams’ timeless story.

Michael Bateman, a master's in interdisciplinary digital media and performance student and the show’s media designer, took an understated approach to the design, which will primarily involve projecting imagery onto set pieces, while taking cues from Williams’ original words.

“When you hear about ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ you might think about standard American drama in a box set sort of space, but Tennessee Williams really writes poetry in his script,” said Bateman. “He talks about these lurid shadowy reflections on the wall that engulf Blanche in their horror, and that’s all in the script. These very vivid images written by Williams typically don’t get addressed in most productions, where her psyche is fracturing and reality around her is breaking. We are using media to show that reality fracturing around her, especially later in the script when she is really breaking down.”

For Vickie Hall, the master's in performance student who plays Blanche, the media design is an exciting element, but the story itself still has a very real relevance today.

“Theater is a living, breathing thing,” said Hall. “What’s amazing about our craft is that you can reach back and find a play from the ’40s and there are still themes and situations in the play that are just as relevant to us now.”

Hall mentions universal concerns, like identity and societal pressures, as keys to this work, but she says that the text retains importance on a more literal level as well.

“Blanche is a bit of a racist so there is that element of the culture that is in her; that’s how she grew up, that’s how she knows how to interact with the world. And I think that’s still absolutely going on today, and it’s something that needs to be addressed,” Hall said. “Theater can address those things through story form. Sometimes I think that’s how we learn best.”

Lance Gharavi, assistant director of theater and creative director of the MainStage theater season, says that the impulse to do this work really came from the student body. The cast, director and designers for the show are all current students at ASU.

“I was hearing from a lot of students a desire (if you will) to wrestle with a big, important, monumental work, a classic that has endured the tests of time,” Gharavi said. “There are few U.S. playwrights, very few works of U.S. theatre that carry more gravity than Williams or ‘Streetcar.’ I was excited by the prospect of opening a season with this work. And, of course, we’re closing our season with the world premiere of a new play. The old and the new bookend our season. I’m thrilled to give audiences a glimpse into the brutal, sexy and unforgettable world that Williams created. There’s a reason it’s a classic. “

“ ‘Streetcar’ is terrifying, it’s a monster,” Kent said. “It’s a long play full of complicated questions and no simple answers. I feel really lucky to get to engage with those things at ASU.”

“A Streetcar Named Desire” will be on view at the Lyceum Theatre, 901 S. Forest Mall on ASU’s Tempe campus:

7:30 p.m., Oct. 16-17
2 p.m., Oct. 18
7:30 p.m., Oct. 22-24
2 p.m., Oct. 25

Tickets cost $16, $12 for ASU faculty, staff and alumni, $12 for senior citizens or $8 for students. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling 480.965.6447.

Communications Program Coordinator, ASU Art Museum


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Collaboration, creativity craft ASU Hispanic Heritage mural

October 16, 2015

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of stories to mark Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs Sept. 15-Oct. 15. 

Above: Students pass by the Hispanic Heritage Month mural on ASU's West campus on Sept. 30. The theme of the fourth annual Hispanic Heritage Month mural is South America’s cultural heritage represented with icons as well as visual elements for each of the countries.

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YA author and ASU alum on online bullying, writing for teens

Tom Leveen uses his books to address topics like online bullying
ASU grad becomes YA fiction star, despite not trying to be
October 15, 2015

Editor's note: Leading up to Homecoming, we'll be running several stories a week on ASU alumni. Find more alumni stories here.

Young adult novelist Tom Leveen stumbled upon the genre quite by accident.

"When I wrote my first real full-length novel, it was my first year of college, so I was writing about things that were happening to me and my friends. When I got my first agent with that novel, I was told it was ‘young adult,’ ” said the recent Arizona State University graduate, who lives in Scottsdale. “I didn't plan it that way; it just sort of happened.”

Leveen also didn’t plan on majoring in family and human dynamics in ASU’s T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics, but that’s where he found himself after considering how closely the school’s subject matter aligned with his own fictional work. He graduated in May.

Leveen is a frequent speaker at teacher and librarian conferences and conventions, bringing 22 years of theater experience to his presentations. Most recently, he traveled to Germany in September to speak on the dangers of online bullying, the subject of his book “Random.” The book is based the real-life story of a teenage girl who committed suicide, with the district attorney arguing that her classmates had bullied her to death.

Leveen also serves as faculty for the “Your Novel Year” certificate course through the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing Family at ASU. You can catch him Oct. 16 and 18 at the Comic & Media Expo in Mesa, where he will speak on several panels. He will also be teaching a writing class at 5:30 p.m. Nov. 3 at the Peregrine Book Company in Prescott.

Leveen took some time to discuss his work, his opinions on online bullying and what it’s like to live the young adult novelist’s dream.

Q: You recently graduated from ASU with a bachelor’s in family and human development, yet you are a writer by profession. Was there a specific reason you chose to major in family and human development instead of writing?

A: I was accepted into ASU’s creative writing bachelor program, but then switched to family and human development for a few reasons. One of which was I felt it might be more attractive to schools and social-service-type conferences and organizations because one of my favorite parts of my job is speaking to students, particularly high school and junior high students. Also, I felt like I had a lot more to learn from sort of a psychology and sociology perspective about adolescence, since that was my target audience for most of my novels.

I definitely enjoyed and got a lot out of the creative writing program while I was there, and I think it’s fantastic that ASU has a four-year offering in it, but my career was starting to grow in directions other than just writing, so that helped me change my mind.

Q: In what ways has your time studying at ASU influenced your work?

A: Tough question because there are so many. I enjoyed the upper-division work I got to do in my sociology classes for sure; studying adolescence in a more scientific or clinical manner than merely by anecdote has helped inform my work, I think. Then there are the contacts I’ve made, such as learning under Dr. Jim Blasingame, who is one of, if not the, top minds in young adult literature. Knowing him and getting to walk among some of the biggest and best writers of YA lit today has given me a new appreciation for the craft of writing as well as the responsibility we have as writers of and to young adults.

Q: Online bullying is the focus of your book “Random,” which is based on a real-life story. What about it inspired you to write the book?

A: The real-life story was inspired by the tragic and very public events surrounding the suicide death of a teenager in Massachusetts back in 2010. The website did a long series of articles about the case, written by Emily Bazelon, which followed the story of how several students were accused of essentially “bullying her to death.” It became a national story because at the time, the prosecutor seemed to want to make an example of these students. Well, unsurprisingly, those students in turn got bullied by people angry at them, so this vicious anger cycle just went on and on. I was curious about what might make an otherwise normal kid suddenly end up on the front page of newspapers for being a bully.

Q: Do you have any personal experience with online bullying?

A: I don’t have a lot of personal experience with online bullies, though I’ve certainly seen them at the worst on a number of sites. Reputable places, too, not those “dark web” sites. The things people feel they can type on a message board are just disgusting sometimes. I wonder if we as a species were ready for the Internet, because it often doesn't feel like it. Many years ago I got into an online exchange with someone where I spouted off “common knowledge” designed to shut down his argument. And I got “schooled” by (gasp!) actual facts. I made my apologies and slunk away, and since then have not made it a habit to engage on message boards or comments sections.

Q: Do you think online bullying is worse than in-person bullying?

A: The question of whether online or in-person bullying is worse I think underscores the basic problem with both: People who do it online don't seem to think it “counts,” or that typing is somehow less damaging than speaking (or hitting, etc.).

It’s a flawed logic to say there is a difference between something happening online and something happening in real life. I’m on the computer, I’m thinking of things to say, I’m typing them, I’m reading people’s responses … that’s all very real. Just because someone is an [expletive] on a comment section or social-media site doesn’t mean they’re not an [expletive] “IRL” (in real life). So I don't personally see a distinction between the two. Both are dangerous, and both need to stop.

Q: Why is spreading awareness about the dangers of online bullying important?

A: The so-called “digital natives” don't get a break. I read somewhere that back in the good old days, if you were being pushed around at school, at least you got a break from it when you went home. Now we can carry our bullies around in our pocket. They can reach us 24 hours a day, if we let them. Advice to young people to “just turn off your phone" is absurd. How many adults can and do turn theirs off? Exactly.

Furthermore, why punish the victim and take away his smartphone when it's someone else being antagonistic? Bringing the consequences of online bullying to the table is crucial because it’s one more piece of the puzzle that is leading to suicide and other violent acts. They are not “just words.” Words are always, always, always the first step toward physical violence. The good news is, they are also the first step toward peace. That’s why the conversation is important, to me anyway.

Q: What drew you to want to write for the “young adult” genre?

A: I like to tell people that my adolescence had its fair share of drama — heartache, loneliness, fear of the future, all the usual stuff. But the truth is, I had a great experience in high school. I think of junior high and high school as our “origin story,” like how Peter Parker became Spider-Man. In those years, we are learning our powers. We’re learning our weaknesses. We’re becoming who we’re going to be, and that’s interesting to me.

I don’t write about things that happened to me, but I do write around them. I might use a detail or two that is true, or base a scene off an emotional memory, but nothing that's flat-out autobiographical.

… I found out that being a YA author means meeting a lot of young adult readers, at school visits or libraries, that kind of thing. And you know what? All these years later, teens are asking the exact same questions we did when we were their age. “Does she like me? Does anyone care? Am I alone? When will I see Mom/Dad again?” And suddenly, the bad stuff — the real, legitimate bad stuff me and my friends faced back then, not the fun drama stuff — all came back, and I wanted to help. I wanted to make sure no teenager ever had to feel the way I felt or be treated the way I was treated at home, or school, or church or anywhere. That’s my heart now. Our kids deserve better than a lot of them are getting.

Q: How does your background in theater inform your roles in life as an author, a man, a father, a teacher?

A: I started acting in eighth grade, was very into drama in high school, and by a couple years after graduation, had started my own company in my backyard. That company, Is What It Is Theatre, lasted for thirteen seasons. Then we opened up Chyro Arts Venue in Scottsdale for three years. Then it was time to step back and raise a family!

I've been in about 30 productions over 22 years, and directed more than 30 shows on top of that. I encourage all fiction writers to spend a season with a theater company, because watching how actors and directors build characters with words only really helps add to the writer's tool kit. You learn a lot about dialogue, which is my strong suit as an author. You learn new ways to build characters and structure plots. I never made a living doing theater, but I never set out to. I was more interested in telling good stories and working with good people, which I did. Theater folks are a close family (sometimes too close, in all fairness), and there’s a shared history and work ethic among them that is first-rate.

Q: What is it like being a faculty member for the Your Novel Year certificate course? What is your favorite part?

A: The best part of being on the YNY faculty is reading manuscripts from unpublished writers who are learning faster than I ever did. There have been a few already that I've read and thought, “Well, in a perfect world, this one’ll sell quickly.” And it's a pleasure to be a part of that.

Dr. Paul Cook, who also teaches at ASU as well as for Your Novel Year (his science-fiction class is excellent, by the way) says that new or younger writers are apprentices. He’s absolutely right. The YNY students are always hungry, always anxious to take their craft to the next level, and serious about this art and this business. So being able to share the things I’ve learned is not only fun, but I end up learning more about my own craft while doing it. Like they say, there’s no better way to learn something than to teach it.

Leveen’s sixth and seventh novels, “Shackled,” and “Violent Ends” (an anthology), were just released. His eighth novel, “Hellworld,” will be coming out in 2017. For more information, check in with him on Facebook at or on his website,

The deadline to apply for the 2016 "Your Novel Year" certificate program is Oct. 31. Find out more information here.

Emma Greguska

Reporter , ASU Now

(480) 965-9657