Published on September 8, 2013 by Amy
William S. Penn (born 1949) is a mixed-race Nez Perce author and English professor at Michigan State. His work explores the issues his father faced coming to terms with his Indian heritage. His work may be classified as magical realism. He has also written a nonfiction work, All My Sins are Relatives about his mixed-blood family life.
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William S. Penn is an urban mixed-blood Nez Perce. Born and raised in the West, he has lived in many different regions of the United States, as well as in England. He was educated at the University of California at Davis and at Syracuse University. He has previously taught at the State University of New York at Oswego and at Hostos Community College in the South Bronx. Recently awarded the Distinguished Faculty Award by Michigan State University, he teaches courses in the oral tradition, comedy and cultural survival, the literatures of the Americas, and creative writing.
Penn uses his writing to explore and reconcile his mixed ethnic heritage, writing fiction, essays and reviews. His works have been included in Antaeus, Missouri Review, Quarterly West, Stand, and Southern Humanities Review, Guest Editor for Callaloo.
He lives in East Lansing with his wife, Jennifer, and their two children, Rachel Antonia and William Anthony. He is working on a new novel-in-five-essays titled, The Death of Consuela.
“I write to amuse and entertain, but I write from a center I take seriously, a center given to me by my grandfather, encouraged by my sisters, and nurtured by my wife and by my daughter and son with whom I tell stories. Indeed, All My Sins Are Relatives is dedicated ‘For Grandfather, who knows / And Rachel and Willy, so they may.’ Thus, I would say that much of my work is so they—the children, not just my own—may know my attempt to bridge the gap between the urban mixblood and Euramerican worlds to which I belong.”
He currently teaches fiction and non-fiction writing at Michigan State University. On his first day of his creative writing class in 2013 Penn drew controversy by informing his students with politically charged comments such as “If you go to the Republican convention in Florida, you see all of the old Republicans with the dead skin cells washing off them” and “They are cheap. They don’t want to pay taxes because they have already raped this country and gotten everything out of it they possibly could.” Additionally, Penn described Republican intentions towards minority education by commenting “They don’t want to pay for your tuition because who are you?”. Referring to Republican efforts to reform voting laws, Penn also told students “This country still is full of closet racists,” … “What do you think is going on in South Carolina and North Carolina. Voter suppression. Its about getting black people not to vote. Why? Because black people tend to vote Democratic.” “Why would would Republicans want to do it?” he asked. “Because Republicans are not a majority in this country anymore. They are a bunch of dead white people. Or dying white people.”
These controversial statements, according to the group Campus Reform, prompted Michigan State University (MSU) officials to investigate Penn’s anti-Republican comments. “At MSU it is important the classroom environment is conducive to a free exchange of ideas and is respectful of the opinions of others,” wrote Kent Cassella, an MSU spokesman. “We will be looking into it,” Cassella added. He has been suspended from teaching for the rest of the semester, and will be reassigned to other activities.
Penn was awarded the Stephen Crane Prize for Fiction at Syracuse University in 1977 and 1979. He received a Yaddo Fellowship to the Yaddo Writer’s Colony to work on his novel, The Absence of Angels. He also received a supporting grant from the Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, Inc. in 1985, an All University Research Initiation Grant from Michigan State University, a New York Foundation for the Arts Prize in 1988, and a Michigan Council on the Arts Grant in 1990 to help in completing this book.
In 1991, Penn was a Resident Writer at the Banff Center for the Arts. He received the North American Indian Prose Award from the University of Nebraska Press in 1994 for All My Sins Are Relatives and an All University Research Completion Grant from Michigan State University to complete the work. In 1996, All My Sins Are Relatives received the Critic’s Choice Award for the Most Acclaimed Books of 1995-96.
Penn was named Native American Writer of the Year in Non-fiction by the Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers in 1997. In 1998, he was named Native American Editor of the Year by the same organization. His book The Telling of the World: Native American Stories and Art was named to the list of Best University Press Books of 2000, and in 2001 he received the American Book Award for Literary Merit for Killing Time With Strangers.
Penn received in 2003 the Distinguished Faculty Award from Michigan State University. He was named a 2002 Wordcraft Circle Writer of the Year in Creative Prose: Fiction for Feathering Custer.