As a nonbinary Taiwanese American professor and rhetorician, Vox Jo Hsu challenges stereotypes and questions social norms.
By Nicco Pelicano, Photo by Riley Reed
As an only child to Taiwanese immigrant parents, writer and assistant professor Vox Jo Hsu grew up in Phoenix, Arizona, and majored in creative writing at Rice University. “When I applied to my MFA program,” Hsu says, “I was a queer, transgender, noncomforming, Taiwanese American child of immigrants, and I was writing stories about cisgender heterosexual white people because that’s what stories were about.”
There is so much more power and influence in fiction than what people normally perceive. “We tell these stories that end up orienting us to certain goals, communities or certain visions of the world,” they say. “I think that as much as people tend to dismiss stories as fairy tales, they are very much how we come to shape our values and the communities we want to be in.”
A Love of Storytelling
While they were studying for their MFA, Hsu was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for a nonfiction personal essay. The essay was based on their experiences during the seven-month gap between college and grad school while living with their partner in New York City. “We didn’t quite have the vocabulary to grapple with the histories that affected our relationship in that moment,” Hsu explains. “We were breaking from those expectations and being queer kids who wanted to be artists. So that was one of the first times that I was grappling with that in nonfiction form.”
Hsu determined not to get into research when they began their Ph.D. program in rhetoric. But they found that it interested them and also complemented their love of storytelling. “What I do as part of my job is sort of a marriage of those interests, in that I think critically about storytelling,” they reveal. “So how storytelling shapes the ways we interpret the world. The ways we encounter other people and how it can be used both in ways that are restrictive and ways that are liberating to push against our normative expectations of people or groups or nations.
“When you grow up, you don’t spend a lot of time encountering stories about people like you,” Hsu explains. “Stories are social training in that way, and it’s not that certain things are inherently good or inherently bad. It’s that we have distributions of access to stories of the worlds we want to be in. The ways that we can be in the world.”
Representation creates norms while simultaneously creating those who feel like outcasts. Who do not have a platform to exist comfortably in society. “It’s not that norms are inherently bad,” they insist. “It’s that we should constantly be questioning them. ‘What are the exclusions of this; what are the limitations of this? How do we create more possibilities out of this; how do we always keep growing?’
“One of my big things in my research and my writing is exploring how our experiences are interrelated,” Hsu continues. “With the principle of intersectionality, if you begin there, if you begin with the experiences of Black, Indigenous, trans people, you will necessarily create systems that can alleviate the struggling of a lot of other people along the way.”
Although not visible to everyone, the normalized “structures of harm we’ve built” in society are felt by the people who reside in the “intersection of vulnerability and marginalisation,” Hsu says. Elaborating on Kimberlé Crenshaw’s view of intersectionality. “For me, intersectionality is based in not only exploring the interrelations of race, sex, gender, ability, class and how those identities structure the ways that we interact with different people. But always trying to figure out who is most affected by these structures. And how do we do right by them.”
Reflections on Writing
When reflecting on what they want to accomplish in their writing, Hsu responded, “How do I write in a way to mitigate harm or to address the harms that we’ve inherited? How do I write in a way that both takes responsibility for the worlds that I live in, benefit from and am complicit in, but also reveals to others how they are also linked up in this system?”
As a nonbinary writer and assistant professor at UT, Hsu breaks social expecations that shape a more predjudiced way of thinking. “One of the challenges of being a structurally marginalized person is that you’re constantly running into these expectations that people have,” Hsu says. “There are challenges, but I know that I am incredibly fortunate to have this position.”
Hsu’s unique journey and adoration of words has led them to successfully write a manuscript for a book. (They anticipate its publication in fall 2022.) “The project looks at how queer and trans Asian Americans use storytelling to create a sense of collective identity. And also to shift expectations about who belongs in the United States and how that belonging looks,” they explain. “At the center of that is a response to the model-minority myth about Asian Americans.”
By defying social expectations in both their identity and writing, Hsu brings awareness to the power that storytelling has and illuminates that it can be used as a catalyst of change in a prejudiced society.