April 27, 2021
Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2021 graduates.
A combination of wanderlust and straight-up idealism led Arizona State University graduate student James Bennett to volunteer with the Peace Corps after earning his bachelor’s degree in 2014.
Advice from fiction writer and graduating ASU student James Bennett: "In order to be your best self and produce your best work, then step out of a place of fear and into a place of love."
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“Because I spoke Spanish, I was hoping to end up somewhere in Latin America,” he said. Instead: “I was sent to Mozambique to learn Portuguese.”
Unsurprisingly, Bennett’s time in Mozambique was a valuable and life-changing experience. A former Portuguese colony in East Africa, Mozambique has been sovereign only since 1975. It was then embroiled in a civil conflict until 1992 and experiences fits of political instability to the present day. Yet, the country is scenic, rich in natural resources and history, and biologically and culturally diverse.
Bennett completed his two years with the Peace Corps and then returned to the country on a Fulbright fellowship for another year.
“I love Mozambique and the friends I made there,” he said. “While there is much talk (rightfully) of the Peace Corps as a legacy of imperialism, I still stand by its stated mission of increasing mutual understanding and friendship. I never knew how to truly listen or to understand, respect and approach difference until I lived in Mozambique, and I made friends that will last my entire life.”
Bennett also discovered that he could incorporate what he was learning into his writing. After all, a well-traveled adage has that fiction is just another tool for mining truth.
“It is one thing to talk about creating change and decolonizing the world and another thing entirely to live in a country that was a colony less than 50 years ago,” he said. “Most of my writing and thinking now relates to Mozambique, the legacies of colonialism and my relationship to both.”
This spring, Bennett is earning a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing (fiction) from the Department of English and a certificate in translation studies from the School of International Letters and Cultures. His writing reflects his view of himself as a global citizen; among other projects, he plans to translate Mozambican authors into English.
Even as he was completing his degree, Bennett continued in his quest to increase mutual trust and understanding among cultures. Most recently, he worked as an English teacher for the San Diego Padres, which keeps a cohort of minor league players in the Valley of the Sun for most of the year.
“Many of these players are young men (ages 16-25) from Latin American countries like the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Mexico,” Bennett explained. “Less than 3% of these kids will become professional baseball players, which means that many of them are leaving their communities at a crucial life stage and will return with few skills other than paying baseball. English will, in theory, give them some kind of advantage towards advancing their futures when they ultimately do end up returning home.
“It's an interesting and little-known industry at the intersection of professional sports, language and social justice. It's a fun and dynamic job, working with a bunch of teenage boys, singing pop songs and playing any game whatsoever that will get them interested in language practice. Talk to [English’s Director of Internships] Ruby Macksoud about potential internships or job openings!”
Bennett defended his thesis project on March 30, an immersive “story-turned-novel” that takes place in Mozambique. Titled “What Goes Up Must Come Down,” it explores how “science experiments, hypertension, lonely expats, Brazilian telenovelas, American tourists, private security companies, Catholic archbishops, neoliberalism, “Higher Love” and miracles all coexist.” Bennett even curated a music collection from the perspective of two of his characters: “Pouco & Katie’s ‘Para o Céu’ [To the sky] Playlist.” An excerpt from the thesis earned Bennett third place in ASU’s annual Glendon and Kathryn Swarthout Awards contest this year.
We spoke with Bennett a bit more about his writing ethics and his plans for post-graduation, which include more Fulbright travel, this time to Portugal.
Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study in your field?
Answer: I had always received positive feedback about my writing growing up (my mom still has my third-grade creative writing "portfolio"), but in college I wanted to step away from writing towards areas with more definitive "hard skills" that created tangible outcomes in the world. After taking a wide variety of courses, it was actually in a religion course that I realized I was still being pulled in the direction of creative writing. At the end of the course we had to outline a coherent religion/worldview that addressed theological issues such as the problem of evil, etc. Instead of writing an essay, I ended up writing a 20-page story that showed the "evil" of illness in the form of a child who was dying from an incurable disease — because there are some things about living that simply cannot be rationalized or explained, only experienced.
Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?
A: In order to be your best self and produce your best work, then step out of a place of fear and into a place of love. As long as you are worried about how others will perceive you or your work, then you will be spinning around inside a self-fulfilling prophecy. But when your motivation for and engagement with your projects and others comes from a genuine place of love, compassion and celebration, then the work itself will be easier and the end result is far more likely to have an impact on the very same people you were previously worried about. When you operate from this place, you have no reason to doubt yourself and every reason to forgive yourself for the "mistakes" you make as you go along.
Q: Why did you choose ASU?
A: I applied to 10 MFA programs at the same time, and originally ASU was not on that list. It was only after an undergraduate adviser recommended the program that I included ASU in my plans. Out of 10, I was accepted into two programs, and ASU was one of them. In the end, ASU was the best location that allowed my partner to move to Phoenix with her job. Plus, quite honestly, ASU's grad programs offer highly competitive stipends for a city that is not quite as expensive as many others. In the end, it has been great to be at a large research institution like ASU that has so many resources to bring in visiting writers and scholars that often align with my own interests.
Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?
A: All of the fiction faculty in the MFA program. From [Assistant Professor of English] Jenny Irish, I learned that everyone needs someone to believe in them. From [Associate Professor of English] Matt Bell, I learned that reading, writing and living are easier when we give others and ourselves the benefit of the doubt. From [Professor of English] Tara Ison, I learned that fiction can teach us everything we need to know about making it through this life. And from [Professor of English] T.M. McNally, I learned that no one is ready until they are ready — and the universe will be waiting.
Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?
A: If it's feasible for you and your family, don't rush into a job after graduating. Look into volunteer programs (like Peace Corps) that will allow you to defer your loans and will cover your expenses for a while so that you can gain experience with yourself as a being in the world. Sometimes we Americans get so caught up in the "success sequence" that has been outlined for us (high school, college, job, marriage, retirement) that we never learn to truly be with ourselves and cultivate a sense of purpose and belonging in the world. The older I get, the more and more grateful I am that my early 20s were spent mostly on my own, learning who I am and cultivating a sense of resilience. The challenges will never stop coming; it's up to us to learn how to respond to them from our own places of love and commitment.
Q: What was your favorite spot for power studying?
A: I tend to work in silence and would seek out empty rooms in the English building [Ross-Blakley Hall] when I was on campus. The reading room (locked to undergrads ...) is generally the best. I have been working from home for the last three semesters, though, and that is where I feel most comfortable doing my creative work.
Q: What are your plans after graduation?
A: I recently found out that I was awarded a Fulbright grant to continue working on a novel in Portugal next school year. So I will be spending the summer in as much nature as possible (Arizona is one of the most diverse and beautiful states in the U.S. when it comes to the outdoors) and then, if all goes well, moving to Lisbon at the end of September.
Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?
A: While there has been much discussion about addressing the pandemic in the last year, there has been very little discussion of addressing the underlying health conditions that increase the severity of COVID-19, many of which — such as obesity, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, etc. — are driven largely by diet and lifestyle. Although it is common to view these through a lens of consumption patterns, the "epidemic" of chronic health conditions in the U.S. is truly a complex issue at the intersection of food systems, public health, social justice, climate change, politics and culture. Much of our food system was designed during the Cold War to increase production (and calories), to the detriment of nutrition and connection to food culture. Moreover, many low-income and BIPOC families seeking to change or even just preserve their patterns of consumption find themselves in "food deserts," where they're unable to access the kinds of healthy options they seek. I would start by looking at organizations like Soul Fire Farm in New York and other local movements, as well as figures like Dr. Mark Hyman, who are raising awareness of these topics. Starting with the U.S. food system, moreover, would have a ripple effect across the globe as imports and exports (like subsidized corn and soy) shift, ultimately creating an impact on communities in places like Mozambique.