Wrapped up in words
● By J. Chambless
Shanyn Fiske: 'I really believe that using these physical objects allows us to revisit a time when the work ethic and the idea of creating things to last was commonplace. It’s a value system I’m nostalgic for.' (Photo by Jie Deng)
By John Chambless
When Shanyn Fiske arrived in America in 1980 in the aftermath of China’s Cultural Revolution, she didn’t know a word of English. She has made up for that since, spending decades surrounded by words in her own writing, in her teaching and, for the past two years, in the dozens of typewriters she has collected as mementoes of the past.
“My mom got a scholarship after the Cultural Revolution to study at Wellesley College. I came here when I was 6,” Fiske said. “I joined her two years after she started at Wellesley. I’m actually writing a book about my family’s history, because there’s an interesting relationship between my family and Western intellectual history and its relationship to China, before, during and after the Cultural Revolution.
“Before the Cultural Revolution, there was quite a bit of an open door between West and East in terms of literary dialogue. And then during the Mao years, everything shut down. Then the open door policy of the ‘80s allowed that to open up again. One of the things I’m working on for the book is the story of how my young mother joined renegade literary folk directly after the end of the Cultural Revolution and tried to revitalize the translation of Western literature in post-Mao China.
“My grandfather was educated at Harvard, and for a while after he returned to China, he was head of the Beijing Education Bureau. He and my grandmother were put under house arrest, and all of my aunts and my mother were sent off to the countryside for Mao’s whole re-education program,” Fiske said. “Because of my family’s connections with the United States, he managed to help get my mother a scholarship to Wellesley to study English literature. I joined her and lived in the dorms with her for about four years.”
Raised in a family that loved literature, Fiske said her mother admired the works of the Bronte sisters, as well as a range of 19th-century British literature. “It’s probably no surprise that I’m a Victorianist in my field of study,” she said.
With her limited grasp of English and her precocious love of words, Fiske said she spent a lot of time alone when she was young, lost in a world of great books.
From Boston, Fiske wound up in Philadelphia in 1997 as a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania. “I got my Ph.D. in English and landed a tenure track job at Rutgers Camden,” she said. She currently teaches two classes per semester at Rutgers University (Camden) as Associate Professor of English, and on July 1, she will take the helm of the Master’s in Literature program.
She is the author of the book Heretical Hellenism: Women Writers, Ancient Greece, and the Victorian Popular Imagination (2008). Her articles, book chapters, reviews, and fiction have been published in a variety of academic and literary journals.
“I wanted to be a fiction writer as a kid,” she said, “but my mother wanted something more practical for me and pushed me toward academia. I did end up majoring in comparative literature and classics. Academia has evolved in the past two decades that I’ve been doing it. I believe in academia as a place to foster ideas. But in the past seven years, and more urgently in the past two years, I see the necessity of a very porous boundary between what constitutes academia and what constitutes the real world.
“My larger agenda for the Master’s degree program is to steer it more toward social justice issues, more toward civic engagement issues, so that I can recruit people to go out into the job world and work for nonprofits and work for NGOs and work for organizations that need those critical thinking skills. I really see academia as a place to develop the ideas that you will use to change the world. I know that sounds grandiose, but I believe in it.”
Fiske’s life took a turn in the fall of 2016, with a relationship breakup that left her in turmoil. She and her young son were living in Kennett Square, where they still live, when Fiske saw an ad for an electric Smith-Corona typewriter on Facebook Marketplace. It was $15. Something drew her to it.
“At the time, I had stopped being able to write,” she said. “I went and picked up this typewriter, sat down and immediately, something unblocked. It was an epiphany. I guess I posted a picture of this typewriter on social media and my friend Cathy saw my post and said, ‘If you want typewriters, I’ve been trying to get rid of these three that I have.’ I got her typewriter from college, and she gave me her husband’s typewriter, and a giant Underwood from the late 1930s that had been sitting in her attic. She said, ‘Here. Just take these.’ Suddenly I had a collection.”
The Underwood antique one was frozen, and Fiske wondered if she could learn how to make it work again. “So I joined a Facebook group dedicated to collecting and repairing typewriters. It was an amazing group. There were people on there that know every single cog and screw and spring in every possible make and model.
“I had zero ability to fix these when I started,” she said, laughing. “I mean zero. But when I got the 1938 machine working, it was almost like fixing these machines was about fixing myself.”
Fiske was fascinated by the mechanical nature of the old machines, and the tactile quality of creating words on paper. Each key hit the paper with a satisfying clack, and nothing was accidentally deleted by an errant keystroke. “That laptop over there,” Fiske said, pointing to a stack near her, “I got 11 years ago and it won’t work. It’s considered ancient. The 1938 Underwood still works beautifully. When you’re using one of these, you’re touching an object that was made to last. We’re living in an era now of planned obsolescence.”
The typewriters are lined up on stacks of books and other flat surfaces throughout Fiske’s living room, dining room and kitchen, with more upstairs.
“Maybe I think about this too much,” she said, laughing, “But I really believe that using these physical objects allows us to revisit a time when the work ethic and the idea of creating things to last was commonplace. It’s a value system I’m nostalgic for. These things deserve to end up in better places than junk piles and recycling.”
As the election of 2016 altered the national political and social landscape, Fiske said she was busily bringing typewriters back to life, either seeking them out at tag sales and online, or accepting donations from people who couldn’t bear to throw out the old machines.
“I was part of this online typewriter group, more than half of whom were the complete polar opposite of me politically,” she said. “But through all the political chaos, the group was just helping me fix typewriters. Politics didn’t come up. They would write long paragraphs about their stories and their introduction to typewriters, and they came from every angle of the political spectrum.
“So it’s about much more than a machine. It’s about what it enables. If we can all find a narrative, find a space where we can share each other’s stories, it can be so healing.”
Fiske sells a repaired typewriter occasionally, but only after she has restored it to proper working order. Surveying the size of her collection, she said, “I’m maxed out, actually. I will fix one occasionally now, but it has to call to me. They ground me still, and it’s nice to have them around. They seem like part of the family,” she added, laughing.
Fiske’s 12-year-old son and others his age enjoy the physical nature of the old machines, and typewriters are making something of a comeback, not just as antiques for display, but working machines that connect the writer to the physical page.
Fiske said she can’t think creatively when using a computer. “My mind goes completely blank,” she said. Her articles and book have been written on manual typewriters, or longhand, and are then retyped into a computer, she said. “For me, typewriters are good for drafting, because you can’t delete and start over again. They encourage me to make mistakes and get from beginning to end.”
Aside from her creative pursuits, Fiske has been an equestrian for the past decade, riding and competing regionally, and owning several horses. She now owns two. “I rode as a kid, and worked at a farm in exchange for lessons. I had to give it up during graduate school because I was poor and didn’t have money or time,” she said. “After my son was born, I started riding again. After my divorce in 2011, I moved closer to where my horses were, in the Kennett and West Grove area. I was competing, riding all the time. It was very necessary for me. I’ve never been a person who was able to do yoga, but my riding was my way to ground myself.”
Her teaching job works into her riding schedule, Fiske said. “I need to be busy all the time,” she said, smiling. “I just backpacked around the Isle of Wight, and my pack was 32 pounds. I brought my entire home office along with me. And while I was there, I landed a freelance article that I’m writing about the Isle of Wight coast.”
Fiske is also “deep into photography,” she said. “I do a lot of editorial photography, fashion, portraiture. It gives my mind a break.”
And there’s an ongoing commitment to working with people who have suffered trauma. “I run a reading group at the Coatesville VA for veterans in an in-patient PTSD unit, and it’s one of the most meaningful things I’ve ever done,” she said. “I’m starting to do a lot of work with imprisoned populations, helping with education in New Jersey prisons. I picked up the photography because it allows me to get away from the trauma and just look at the things that are beautiful.
“I have a personal history of trauma,” she said. “I went through a whole bunch of stuff when I was younger. So I’ve always been drawn to trauma studies. I just started working with veterans in the last year. I’ve been reading Homer’s ‘Odyssey’ with them. I run a classics reading group at the Kennett Library, and we started with ‘The Odyssey.’ I thought some of the insights were really cool. Working with the veterans has been an incredible experience.”
With a daily schedule that would swamp most people, Fiske smiled and said, “People do say I’m busy, but this is just life. This is how I give my life meaning.”
On a broader scale, Fiske said, “I think with the way the world is today, we’re missing the ability to share our stories. It’s not coincidental that support for the humanities has diminished in the last decade, at the same time the country has been divided and we’re not able to hear each other.
“All I’m doing,” she said, “is finding channels to help us listen to each other’s stories again.”
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email email@example.com.