Writing towards utopia: An Interview with Sun Yung Shin

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Photos by Uche Iroegbu

I caught the final reading for the 2014-2015 McKnight Artist Fellowship for Writers recipients early in September, as this year’s fellows – Susanne Aspley, Susan Power, Shannon Gibney and Josh Ostergaard for creative prose and Kelly Barnhill for children’s literature – have begun to hold readings as fellows as part of the Loft’s McKnight series.

Two facts stood out to me about the 2014 fellows: they – Carolyn Williams-Noren, Danez Smith, Sierra DeMulder, and Sun Yung Shin – were all poets, and they all were marginalized voices, if not in terms of gender, then by race or sexual orientation or multiple intersections.

I had the opportunity to sit down with Shin.

Some background about her work: Shin’s pieces takes the forms of lists and entries, poetry that is formal to the point of being disorienting. I first prepared by reading her poetry to see what the written word captures that the spoken word could not. I found poems shaped to resemble dictionary entries or other factual things, poems with shapes a reader could feel. Brackets, columns, dashes or dashes mark off the unusual space these poems occupy, spaces with unusual rules. Some cultural references, like workings of the Korean writing system, are explained. Others are not.

When we met, Shin welcomed me with a gift of three books (her two poetry anthologies “Rough, and Savage” and “Skirt Full of Black,” and the occult fiction anthology “Penumbrae”). She had for her own reading a different experimental novel. She invited me to share a little of my own history as a young writer and Givens Foundation fellow, explaining that she wanted to encourage other young writers. I spoke about my views on master’s degrees in fine arts, namely to pursue one or not. I was also eager to talk about intersectional representation in the poetry or literary world, as well as her unique brand of experimental poetry.

Beck: I want to ask all of the McKnight Fellows and about what what’s it like to be a marginalized writer. One thing that interests me is whether demographics have changed. I’m interested in the VIDA count, where VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, an organization that promotes women writers, literally counts which magazines are publishing and calculates what percentage are male and what percentage are female. It’s inspired other similar data-based investigations into literary representation, but as far as I know, the only count to determine disparities in race/ethnicity is the work-in-progress Women of Color VIDA Count, which shows very dismal results, unreflective of the racial and ethnic makeup of the country.

I’m not sure if anyone has done that for the McKnight Fellowship, so I’m going to try and do that myself. What I’ve noticed is that this year, there are none of the classic image of writers — no straight, white men among the fellows. They all have some sort of marginalized identity.

Shin: I think it all comes down to who is managing the grant program, and who they ask to be a judge. Nikky Finney was the judge for our cycle, and that was just a great stroke of luck that she appreciated our work.

Beck: There was something I saw on the VIDA count page — no, it was something else — but it found that women tend to win more awards when they write from a male perspective, write about men. So I’m wondering just what there is in how you write that makes people think it’s a good work. It might be really simple things like the kind of descriptions you have, the weight you give to emotions. I’m just really interested in that. Would you say you write in an especially feminine or especially Asian-American or Korean-American way, and do you think that makes you more creative or sets up barriers, or…?

Shin: I don’t know that I would be a writer if I weren’t an Asian American immigrant, and a person of color raised in a white family. Because growing up and still now, there’s no language to express my experiences. I don’t see my values or political commitments depicted in mass media or visual culture. I feel very invisible. But I think that the erasure and silence can be a really powerful ongoing force for writers and artists because we want to create something out of all that.

 

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Shin spoke a bit about a reader who deemed her book, “Rough, and Savage,” “masculine” because of its epic nature — an impression I also had because of its references to Dante and other (straight, white, male) greats from the Western canon. This topic would come up several times, whether one can define “masculine” writing versus “feminine,” whether such a distinction even matters. Shin said at one point that she was fine with some praise that labeled her work masculine. “Ambitious” was another kind of praise she’d received with component of  gender to it. Did the reviewer view it as ambitious for a woman to attempt?

Shin: I definitely have a conscious sense of gender, literary history through a gendered lens, how women are reviewed or not reviewed, how women of color are mostly just negligible to mainstream audiences or exoticized or pigeon-holed.

That’s the great thing about poetry. People don’t really do it for money, so there’s no sense of having to please anybody. It feels more that it’s purely about language as an art form, and not so much about narrative or representation.

 

 

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We talked about the draw of speculative fiction to us and other writers of color. She said was inspired by international writers such as Jorge Luis Borges and Franz Kafka. Taking from both of those writers, Shin crafts a story inspired by the myth of the Minotaur that was included in the “Penumbrae” anthology. Both of us agreed that there was something freeing about work that didn’t have to conform to reality.

Beck: I have noticed that a lot of the writers who work in the area of prose are drawn to creative nonfiction because that’s a way to get your story out. Fiction to me is sort of hiding things, so it’s less about your voice and your story and more about entertainment, I suppose. It’s more on the entertainment side, escapism.

Shin:  My next book is more essays, but I’ve got short stories, and I’ve got stuff that’s like poetry, prose poems or whatever. I do want people to understand people like me, whether that means other dislocated people or other people who’ve experienced some form of exile, but I want to do it through form as well as through story.

Shin’s work strikes me as more cerebral than lyrical. I wondered if that might make it hard for others to recognize it as poetry — poetry, after all, brings up rhyming, pretty images, love and flowers. Her definitions, explorations and deconstructions seem to defy that expectation. Even her less experimental work, to me, has a prose quality of fragments from old myths.

Shin explained some of her methods and her aims. She said it was never her intention to be opaque. Her redaction poems, for example, take entries from the online CIA Factbook on South Korea and North Korea. They look like ominous word clouds hinting at buried military histories. Erasure — the act of taking words out of existing texts — is a common literary techniques, but Sun Yung Shin uses the technique to hint at the erasure of people’s histories.

Beck: I also got this impression from your poetry that you had to be doubly well-versed in the history of poetry and literary history. It got me thinking about how in general, marginalized writers have to be more knowledgeable about the writer of their identity, which are sort of glossed over by the mainstream, which they also need to be knowledgeable in. What’s your experience having to know twice as much — or is that not the case for you?

Shin:  No, I think that’s true for a lot of postcolonial writers who have been schooled in the dominant language or class. So even if I had stayed in Korea and was raised by my Korean family, either I or my kids now [would] all be trying to learn English as well because of its dominance as a language. So the dominance of English is something I’m always about.

Even the word “women” comes from the words “wife of man,” or “wifman.” So it’s sort of a challenging medium to center yourself in as a woman. Actor/actress. Princess/princess. So I just use the masculine. If I were an actor, I’d just say, “I’m an actor.” I would not say, “I’m an actress” And then I think of actor as neutral, rather than just masculine. But to be a woman who doesn’t want to be limited by what the patriarchy needs us to be to maintain the patriarchy, is there something essentially feminine that’s important to our survival? Not just survival as a species, but our spiritual survival.

Beck: That’s a good question.

Shin: I don’t know if I’m ever going to answer it, but I’m always thinking about what that is. I think I’m always looking for a utopia.

 

 

 

Sun Yung Shin

 

We chatted what a utopia means — in this case, if we’re headed towards a utopia. Shin has invoked the argument that our weapons are grower deadlier but more focused and precise: There are unmanned drones completed airstrikes on single targets, rather than hundreds of bodies engaged in wars, so one could argue there’s overall less violence in the world.

We also spoke about the power of language to create that utopia, and I brought up a friend’s Facebook post that uses presidential candidate Ben Carson as an example of someone who studied science but not the humanities. Shin agreed and suggested that without poetry, we would be more susceptible blindly following market capitalism or using engineering without spirit.

Shin: I really want there to be a Minneapolis poet laureate. I sent an email to Mayor Hodges’ office, so that’s going.

Minneapolis was just voted the most literate city in the country. D.C. is usually first, but Minneapolis just pushed them out of first place. Because of people like Bao Phi, because of all these people who come for that — and all of us who are continuing the activity of community building — I came to think, why don’t we have a poet laureate? It would be a great way to make poetry part of civic life, and life in general, so it’s not just an ivory tower thing or a fringy activity.

I admittedly don’t know much about poet laureates. There is a U.S. poet laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera. There is a state poet laureate for Minnesota, Joyce Sutphen. The poet before her, Robert Bly, set the tone for a lot of Minnesota poetry and was involved with the mythopoetic men’s movement, a reaction to feminism which sought to investigate and redefine masculinity by looking at myth and culture.

Poetry, Shin explained, is unique as a literary genre because poetry can be anything. A story — especially a short or experimental one — can also be a poem. You can make a novel out of poems but not the reverse. Poetry is also song. Poetry is neither fiction nor nonfiction. Poetry is like stem cells, she explained, universal and full of potential to become anything.

I asked about how else she was helping unrepresented voices enter the literary field. In addition to the teaching and advocacy she explained, Shin is curating an upcoming anthology of personal essays featuring some of the most illustrious and involved local writers of color, including David Mura, Andrea Jenkins, Shannon Gibney and Bao Phi. The anthology, “A Peculiar Price: New Writing on Racial Realities in Minnesota,” will be coming out in early 2016 through Minnesota Historical Society Press.

Shin: I think that this — even it’s not poetry, will lead to more curiosity about what we have to say in general — whether it’s visual art or fiction. And that people shouldn’t have expectations about what that art should look like.

Beck: Concerning marginalized writers in poetry or other writing, I’ve noticed this pattern where, let’s say, the head of the publishing house is the very traditional straight white man even if the other staff is white [women] or people of color or so on. So, I’m wondering if this mirrors your experience, and if you think there’s anything that can be done about it to get poets and other writers into tastemaker positions.

Shin: I think that we have to be either invested in presses that have shut down, as publishing has gone through all these mergers and acquisitions and as independent bookstores has closed down while Amazon or Wal-Mart are the biggest booksellers in the country, I think. Of course my work’s never going to be in a Wal-Mart.

But books are at Wal-Mart and commodified into something, like everything else at Wal-Mart: what can be gotten for the cheapest amount possible. Right?

Beck: Right.

Shin: For example, the press where I did my previous anthology, South End Press, was founded in the seventies by women of color, but it just recently dissolved because of the publishing environment being too difficult. And then my first children’s book was done with Children’s Book Press in San Francisco, which had been founded in the late sixties or early seventies by a woman of color and was the first bilingual press for young readers. They started with Spanish and English. And they were committed to only books by authors of color that were illustrated by someone within that same community.

Beck: So are they still doing well, Children’s Book Press?

Shin: It also dissolved in the last five years. But then, Lee and Low Books, which is in Chicago and also does only multicultural books and are committed to that same kind of integrity, picked Children’s Book Press’ books as an imprint. So it’s not books about brown kids by white writers. It’s books by people who share the identity of their characters. So that’s wonderful.

And I think that we ourselves, if we’re so inclined, need to get into publishing so that we can bring work that we value to wider audiences.

Shin spoke a bit about Coffee House Press beginning to pay interns as their way of eliminating a common barrier to entry for many who are underrepresented in publishing. Only the wealthy can afford an unpaid internship — which is the first step to entering publishing – and are encouraged to pursue intellectual labor.

We discussed about how social stratification and exploitation on a global scale affects who is translated and what we know of foreign writers. I named some of my favorite magical realist writers, and Shin pointed out that no women were represented in my list.

I confessed that my recent approach to books was to fight having an all-male or all-white to-read list. I had been caught up in reading what was “respectable” but and currently seeking overlooked writers that I nonetheless related to. I’m looking for writers than should be or should have been respected.

 

Sun Yung Shin

 

Beck: This is also something I’ve been wondering: I really love experimental fiction, but like you’re saying, there’s not many women doing it. So when I do something experimental, sometimes it seems like it’s wrong because I’ve never seen it done. Sometimes it seems like I’m doing it right, but it seems very masculine and then I wonder if I’m just perpetuating a status quo or something.

Shin: No, I know. Sometimes I feel like, “Am I just writing this way because I’ve been colonized? Am I writing this way because ninety percent of what I grew up reading is the male imagination?” But I’m slowly discovering other writers like Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. Every Asian-American female poet probably will mention her work as liberating because she broke so many rules.

We talked about experimental writers, and whether female experimental fiction differs from male. I also received some additions for my to-read list: the work of the female fabulist Kate Bernheimer and the magical realist novel, “The Famished Road” by Nigerian author Ben Okri. Shin suggested the need for more writers, more styles, more panels.

Shin: We just need more.

Beck: Across the board?

Shin: More across the board. And then I don’t think it’ll seem like masculine writing. Just because it’s not about the domestic or melodrama doesn’t mean it’s not feminine writing.

As the conversation wound down, I thought more about my duty as a young writer of color interested in publishing. I wondered the importance of knowing judges and their tastes when submitting to any literary contest. If and when I calculate the McKnight Fellows, I wonder what the years will reveal. Hopefully, things are growing more inclusive.

Editor’s Note: This article has been corrected to properly identify Sun Yung Shin’s poetry publications as volumes.

4 thoughts on “Writing towards utopia: An Interview with Sun Yung Shin

  1. Really great questions and answers. As a white man concerned and invested in ending exploitation of women and racism in all its insidious forms it is gratifying to see such intelligent, complex and honest discussions of these issues within the context of literature and all art forms, including the artist’s work and the systems within which they are judged, purchased and distributed. I especially appreciated how the interviewer and Ms. Shin related to each other as artists each in their own context of meaning and experience. A small item needs to be corrected though. Ms. Shin’s books of poetry, Rough, and Savage and Skirt Full of Black are not “chapbooks.” They are full-length volumes of poetry.

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