SFU alumnus and author Mercedes Eng launches 2022 writer-in-residency

August 22, 2022

As a former SFU student, Mercedes Eng turned to many of the previous Ellen and Warren Tallman writers-in-residence for advice on her work. She describes their guidance as “pivotal” in terms of her development as a mixed-race writer. Now, she’s returned to follow in the footsteps of her mentors as the Department of English’s latest writer-in-residence.

However, long before she was an SFU student, Eng embarked on her journey as a writer. She first began writing poems as a teenager while living in Medicine Hat, Alberta.

“I started by writing poems about my fear of a nuclear war,” Eng says. “Because in the ‘80s, it felt like that was going to happen. I think I stopped writing because my home life was pretty dysfunctional, and I ran away from home several times in my teenage years. Quitting writing poetry was about needing to get out of the place I was at and being able to survive.”

Eng was now living in Vancouver. However, she didn’t write poetry again until she was in her 30s. When she did renew her writing practice, this time her poems focused on the experiences she’d had working as a sex trade worker in the Downtown Eastside.

“It was exciting to start writing again, empowering to be writing about what I was writing about even as I was, at that point in time, not able to publicly speak to my experience in a way that I am now,” says Eng.

In the 2010 and 2011, she wrote two chapbooks and then followed with Mercenary English (2013), a poetry collection that discusses surviving sex work in the 1990s while a serial killer was at large. It also focuses on the gentrification of the neighbourhood and the effects of colonialism.

As the tenth anniversary of the book’s publication approaches, Eng compares her thoughts about the Downtown Eastside then to the state of the neighbourhood today.

“I don’t think I have ever seen the Downtown Eastside as bad as it is now,” she says. “I do think that the encampments on Hastings that were just cleared by the order of the fire chief were a hazard, but I also think that the situation unhoused people face in Vancouver is a hazard. The failure to provide them with housing, healthcare is something that the City of Vancouver’s statement addressed in a perfunctory way.”

Eng’s second poetry collection, Prison Industrial Complex Explodes (2017), also sees her addressing personal issues as well as exploring larger social problems. In this award-winning text, Eng looks at her father’s incarceration in the Canadian prison system. She also confronts the increasing rate at which Indigenous people and people of colour are incarcerated.

“In my work, I use the micro as a way to address the macro,” says Eng. “I see that happening with my yt mama (2020) as well, thinking about race and colonization, on the Canadian prairies, thinking about my experience as a woman of colour, coming to understand race in a very problematic and limited way.”

During her writer-in-residence term, Eng will be working on a prison anthology of writing by women and girls, femmes, non-binary, and two-spirit people about carceral systems.

“I’m wanting to gather writing that already exists that demonstrates really solid, astute analysis,” she says. “The texts will speak to different kinds of incarceration because I think people’s sense of what incarceration is needs to be expanded to include other systems, like the foster care system and psychiatric institutions where people are often held against their will.”

Eng is also looking forward to consulting with the SFU community and the public and giving them feedback on their creative writing.

“I’m very excited to engage with writers at whatever stage of writing they are at,” she says. “I very much want to affirm what writers of colour, queer writers, disabled writers are doing, but also think that feedback on structure, on the craft of writing is really important.”

To book a consultation with Mercedes Eng, visit SFU English’s writer-in-residence page for more information.

An announcement from the Department of English about an official launch event will be forthcoming.