Best of 2021 Q&A: Nicholas Hune-Brown

Nicholas Hune-Brown appears on our Best of 2021 list for the piece “The Shadowy Business of International Education.” You can read it at The Walrus.

GCL invited writers on the list to answer a questionnaire to give us further insight into their work. The following are Nick’s answers:

How did you start working on this story?

I pitched The Walrus a story in 2018 that was supposed to be about students from China. 

How long did it take to write this piece?

I worked on this on and off for three years before it was published. Over those years I’ve had to reimagine my feature over and over again, as the facts on the ground have changed and COVID upended the world I was writing about. 

What was the most challenging part of writing it?

The tricky things with this piece were pretty much the tricky things about any complicated story. First, just talking to enough people and doing enough reading to figure out *what’s going on*. And then working out how to tell readers what’s going on in a way that’s dramatic, true, interesting, affecting, etc. It took a long time to find the characters that would sit at the centre of the story.

Do you have a particular writing ritual you follow?

I had two young kids at home in the middle of a pandemic, so I’m not precious! I just write from wherever I am, whenever I can.

What did you find different about writing during a global pandemic?

See above, but also trying to create scenes, etc, when just about all of my reporting was done over the phone and Zoom.

What was the most surprising thing you learned about your subject (or in the case of a personal essay, yourself) during the process?

I knew the broad outlines of this story—the millions of dollars at stake, the huge shifts in global migration—but the specific details of people’s experiences struck me most during my reporting.

What sort of reaction has your piece received from readers?

The response has been really positive, which is a huge relief. I am forever terrified I’ve just got my story completely wrong (not that I’ve screwed up the facts, but that I’ve somehow missed something enormous and fundamental that changes how I should be thinking about the subject). But after publication I heard from a whole bunch of grateful international students, as well as college faculty, who said my story matches their experience.

For any fellow non-fiction writers reading this, do you have a favourite writing tip to share?

I really have no tips, unfortunately. I find the whole process difficult and mysterious

What writing projects are you working on currently?

A bunch of stories that are too delicate and unformed to risk talking about!

Find Nick on Twitter: @nickhunebrown

This Q&A may have been edited for clarity and length.

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Why It’s so Hard to Actually Work in Shared Offices

“Jarred was trying to sell me on more than just aesthetics— he was offering a utopian vision of community. My future co-workers, he said, would be fascinating. They were startup founders and young creative types. A tequila company had rented office space and wanted to host tequila Tuesdays. He opened the WeWork app on his phone, and I watched as a cascade of posts from my soon-to-be colleagues and collaborators flew past. ‘I’ve heard from people who have tried other co-working spaces and…the other ones aren’t bad,’ Jarred said with an exaggerated pause. WeWork was just that much better. ‘We know your name, we remember your birthday, we remember your dog’s birthday,’ he continued. I don’t have a dog, but I appreciated the sentiment. I signed up on the spot.”

Nicholas Hune-Brown – The Walrus – February 2018

The Verdict

Nicholas Hune-Brown – Toronto Life – April 2018

Selling China by the Sleeve Dance

“A few years ago, during the final days of a road trip with friends between Memphis and Toronto, I made a quick stop in a town in rural Kentucky. Bardstown is a tiny spot that’s picturesque enough, though the enormous placard announcing it had been voted ‘most beautiful small town in America’ felt perhaps overly boastful. There, in a store selling bourbon-scented soap to tourists, someone had laid out a neat pile of pale blue pamphlets. Even in a town with an Asian population that needs to be rounded up generously to reach one percent, the image was instantly familiar: A Chinese woman floating through the air, dress billowing out behind her, with the caption: ‘Shen Yun. 5,000 Years of Civilization. Live on Stage!’”

Nicholas Hune-Brown – Hazlitt – October 2017