Mary Routt Chair of Writing R.O. Kwon: Making Space for Women Writers of Color in the Literary World

By Rachael Warecki ’08

A black and white headshot of a young Asian woman with long black hair and black eyeliner.
PHOTO: Smeeta Mahanti

When bestselling author R.O. Kwon came to Scripps as the 2020 Mary Routt Chair of Writing, she knew she wanted to bring other women artists to campus, especially women writers of color. The need for more inclusive literary representation is a value that’s reflected in her upcoming Scripps Presents conversations, as well as in her course syllabus on what she calls “eye-opening writing,” which features work by Shirin Neshat, Frida Kahlo, Susan Sontag, and Maggie Nelson.

“Inclusion is something I think a lot about,” Kwon says. “Even now, it’s still so easy for someone to go through an entire education, including high school and college, reading books written primarily by dead white men. It’s important to me, especially at Scripps, to show our students that there are women and nonbinary writers of color at work.”

The Mary Routt Chair of Writing is named for journalist and former College trustee Mary Patterson Routt, whose generosity allows the Scripps College Writing Program to invite a nationally recognized professional writer to serve as visiting faculty each spring. Kwon is the author of the critically acclaimed novel The Incendiaries, which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times First Book Prize and was named a best book of the year by more than 40 publications. Previous chairs have included Rachel Kushner, Danzy Senna, Helena María Viramontes, Sandra Tsing Loh, and Pulitzer Prize-winner Andrew Sean Greer.

Kwon, who was born in South Korea and has lived most of her life in the United States, discovered writing through her early interest in reading. In college, she took writing classes every semester. But she couldn’t imagine herself making a living as a writer, she says, because she didn’t know of many writers who were modeling what that life might look like for an Asian woman. So, she majored in economics at Yale, then worked in management consulting before ultimately earning a Master of Fine Arts in writing at Brooklyn College.

“I was obsessed with an art form in which I did not exist,” she says of the books on her high school and college syllabi, which did not include Korean writers. “I love Henry James, but in his world, I wouldn’t have been allowed into the parties.” When she first started reading books that included Korean characters, she wished she would have seen those representations in her assigned reading for school. She hopes that her semester as the Mary Routt Chair of Writing and her partnership with Scripps Presents will help provide a broader spectrum of representation for Scripps students.

Public humanities programs like Scripps Presents, Kwon says, help the next generation of readers and writers encounter working critics and authors with whom they have more in common, demographically, showing them that life as a writer is possible. Kwon will speak about her love of reading with NPR book critic Maureen Corrigan on February 15; she will host New Yorker essayist Jia Tolentino on February 24 to discuss Tolentino’s collection Trick Mirror.

“I haven’t regretted trying to make a life out of writing,” Kwon says. “And I think bringing living, working writers and artists to campus will be as exciting and perspective-changing for Scripps students as it would have been for me.”