Sun Yung Shin
In Conversation With Vi Khi Nao
신 선 영 Sun Yung Shin was born in Seoul, Korea, during 박 정 희 Park Chung-hee's military dictatorship, and grew up in the Chicago area during the Daley/Washington/Daley political era. She is the editor of A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota, the author of poetry/essay collections Unbearable Splendor (winner of the 2016 Minnesota Book Award for poetry and finalist in Poetry for a the 2017 PEN USA Literary Award); Rough, and Savage; and Skirt Full of Black (winner of the 2007 Asian American Literary Award for poetry), a co-editor of Outsiders Within: Writing on Transracial Adoption, and the author of bilingual illustrated book for children Cooper’s Lesson. She lives in Minneapolis. In this conversation, she discusses orphanhood, hospitality, and source of inspiration.
VI KHI NAO: When did you conceive of Unbearable Splendor? And, how long did it take you?
SUN YUNG SHIN: I started working on it about four or three years ago. I have been thinking about the epic. I have had this question of whether the epic can be a feminine form and a modern form. I started adapting The Odyssey (the Fagles translation). It is, understandably, repetitive and reuses a lot of language and imagery, e.g. the wine-dark sea. As I worked through several chapters I saw that it was really about hospitality in several ways. So I turned toward that concept—the politics of hospitality and guest/host relations.
VKN: The most interesting aspect of your Unbearable Splendor is its shape and texture. The book is defined as both poetry and essayish. But, it doesn’t seem to take the appearance of poetry and essay. Did you turn to certain text or feminine canon or literary influence to help shape your Unbearable Splendor? And, if the epic could exist in the feminine form—how happy are you with your meditation on it? And, has it manifested?
SYS: I had read Descent of Alette by Alice Notley a few years ago because one of my colleagues was teaching it, I hadn’t been familiar with Notley’s work, really. I was taken with it, and its consistency of form, something that continues to elude me. Really the main influences of the book are quoted as epigraph-type samples throughout Unbearable Splendor. I like to make the conversation I’m having in my mind transparent and accessible to “the reader,” should there be one. So, I had read Donna Haraway for the first time, etc. Also, for my second book, Rough, and Savage, I used Robert Pinsky’s verse translation as inspiration / conversation, because I was thinking about the epic then as well. I think you’re right that it doesn’t look like poems or essays! I don’t really know what to call them, but I also like to think of poetry as basically almost anything. I’m not really happy with my meditation on the epic, I don’t think I did much of it in Unbearable Splendor and maybe I need to give up my fantasy! I did really enjoy thinking about and writing about the condition of being a guest and basically who under what conditions is an acceptable receiver of hospitality. Of course the family, the house, the nation, narrative . . . one’s own body . . .
VKN: Please don’t give up your fantasy! Please tell me more! What is your fantasy? Also, if you were in exile and you were forced in a position of being a guest, what is the most ideal condition of hospitality you would like to receive? I do think Alice Notley’s Descent of Alette is quite feminine in its form: her eloquent, sexy use of excessive brackets.
SYS: Thank you for encouraging me! My fantasy is that I could write an epic poem that would have a great deal of force without being violent. Can the epic be decoupled from the masculine both as protagonist and antagonist? I know it’s an oversimplification to say that the antagonist(ic force) in DOAlette is masculine, but maybe not. I also wonder if the feminine can be decoupled from the cave/underworld (e.g. Antigone, Inanna). What is the feminine quest? Does it exist? Does it exist outside of mothering and crone-ing and serving the community, helping others’ develop? That’s what I’ve done my entire adult life as a teacher and a mother. What else is there? As a human being and as a poet. Not that teaching and mothering are small things—they’re very cosmic, but… what is the purpose of mid-life for women? What does gender have to do with it?
If I were in exile, I would want to be in the position of . . . basically not being a stranger. My utopia for right now is where no one is designated a foreigner or stranger. Against their will. I have learned a lot about hospitality from other Asians! Who will take you into their home like you are family, not be pretentious or self conscious as in middle class white society which so often feels cold and fake and concerned with appearances and costs, and feed you… I know I’m romanticizing here, but it’s been a stark contrast with white life as I know it. And I loved DOAlette I just knew since it had already been done I had to figure out something else! Her use of quotation marks to mark off rhythmic feet is so cool. I do think about her concept of disobedience when I remember to and think, shit, I’m too obedient.
VKN: If I were in exile and I were forced to be a guest, I would love to be housed in your last piece “My Singularity”—I felt so at home in this piece. It’s so poetic, heartful, scientific, and compassionate. I love your ability to convert or invert or make host and guest interchangeable, which I think is the most ideal form of homefulness in a place devoid of one. Due to your sharp, charged, brilliant storytelling, I was able to enter quickly the consciousness of Eugene. It’s the perfect piece to end the collection. I felt so euphoric after reading it and I felt I left this world to become part of the materiality of your work. What percentage of your existence as being a mother and teacher help shape this last piece? And, those left over percentage, what would you like to use it for?
SYS: Yay! I love to hear that. I did feel really emotional when I was writing that. A lot of longing. I think probably very little percent! I think when I write I am writing for all the lost, forgotten, abandoned children in the world, or who have ever existed, including myself. It can feel like wallowing in self pity, that’s for sure, but when I get out of myself—and maybe that’s where the parent/teacher mode kicks in—and I think about all the children who are forced to grow up this way or are not able to grow up at all because of war, abuse, neglect, hunger, disease… I would like to use whatever percentage I have to do something to help us look at the conditions that produce these children/individuals/collectives… and to write from that perspective so that adults who don’t know anything of abandonment as children or cultural expulsion or being reproductive surplus or unwanted citizenry… can understand how it feels and what an existential and psychic wound it is to live there. And how our greed and selfishness creates these situations. OK, that sounds moralistic, but, I think it’s true. And I’m not excluding myself from that. I live on and in the grid as much as anyone in my particular milieu (artist, working-ish class, vegetarian! etc.).
VKN: In the same percentage vein, I want to say how often I revisit the photocopy of the full, true and correct copy of Your “The Original Family Register” document on page 47. The piece is so intimate; it exceeds the realm of poetry—there is an ontological poise and intensity there, difficult to swallow all at once. It made me think immediately of the title of your collection: Unbearable Splendor. There is something unbearable about my readership of it. And, ALL the Splendor. What is the source of inspiration that compels you to include this private document and how do you feel about it being in the world?
SYS: The source of inspiration is, at its most basic, pain. Like, it literally hurts the center of my chest to contemplate all these things, to look at these papers. And so I wanted to see if writing about them and including them would help me understand their power over me, what they mean to me, why I fetishize them. I also feel a lot of what I would label “shame” at the status of being an adoptee. I’m always pushing into that because it bothers me. And so where my most intense feelings are is where it seems like there’s a bottomless hole of something. There is some language there but there’s also just some kind of sucking void, which is why I took to Kim Hyesoon’s work so easily! So many Korean writers (that I can read in English), including Han Kang, write work that is so melancholy, “grotesque,” “morbid,” and also deeply feminine. I think I would normally be a fairly private person, I’m not terribly confessional, but writing poetry makes you continually . . . attempt to be vulnerable . . . and then the work is a performance of among other things vulnerability. I think my adoption documents are performing this writing of an identity, using language and paper—not images, not magic or ritual or religion, but state documents. So it feels very vulnerable to put them into the world and to show anyone who looks that I sort of don’t exist and could be rewritten over and over again like some floppy disk . . . this is modernity, when the state owns our identities through a matrix of cross-referenced and self-referential papers with marks on them. They perform magic, essentially, while pretending to be merely bureaucratic or governmental. They “spell” who I am supposed to be. It was a way of laundering my mother—washing her of her status as my mother—assuming I don’t show up on her family registry—and of me. It’s just a classic way of surveilling and controlling human beings across and within borders. (Does surveilling have two ls? That looks weird.) It makes my former self a stranger to me, one I can never know—in terms of social and familial identity. Of course I have my body and the consciousness, personality, and memories it creates.
VKN: I admire your vulnerability—it ignites your text and makes it raw and devoid of remoteness. You have entered the other side of the maternal border, you are a mother now, if you were to write a letter to your child of your body, your consciousness, your memories, what would that letter be like? And, if your child were to read this book one day, what would you hope for him to experience or learn from you? I suspect that letter would be the antipode of your titled piece “The Error of Blood Relation,” which I love. I love its structure and your carnivorous deliberation on Antigone. Also, have you watched Park Chan-wook’s I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK? I didn’t associate your work with this film, but by association I inadvertently did.
SYS: I like the word “raw,” I think that’s right. I think of myself as kind of a feral writer, which is of course a pretension because I am “civilized” and “educated” but because I came to poetry later in my life compared to how a lot of white people come to be writers, and I’ve had a few mentors, but am mostly “self-taught.” In art history they call artists who didn’t go to art school “outsider artists.” Ha. How funny. Anyway, if I was to write a letter to the child of my body etc. it would probably be some kind of elaborately folded infinite piece of white paper . . . with rooms within rooms on the inside . . . could every language fit inside such a thing? I like the idea of a piece that is the non-error of blood relation. I long for a healing of discontinuities. I know that is sentimental nostalgia. Antigone—a figment, a mascot, a male-female.
I haven’t seen I’m a Cyborg, weirdly! But I wrote a long essay about Oldboy that I’m proud of but no one read.
VKN: Some of the best writers I know are not formally or academically trained. I think literary/ artistic talent is stemmed and born from knowledge and creativity not primarily learned within the rigid structure of the classroom or workshop. I would love to read your long essay! I have seen Oldboy and loved it. What did you do before you became a writer? On page 18, you write, “Koreans, according to their creation myth, are descended from a male god and a female bear.” Could one say, without provoking ire from the literary police, that your Unbearable Splendor is created from a self-taught female body and a female bear? If this comparison isn’t fitting and to extend the creation metaphor, what creation myth would be most fitting for your Unbearable Splendor?
SYS: Lol. The literary police. Before I became a writer I was a full-time accidental technical writer/business analyst in the information technology field and did that for ten years until I started teaching high school full time in 2005. But I started writing poems while I was in graduate school for my teaching license and Master’s of Teaching, at night, in 1997 or 1998. I love the idea of the self-taught female body and a female bear as the source of Unbearable Splendor. I think of Antigone as kind of a wild animal. Although as a human being she has painted herself into a corner with her own rigid morality. Other animals don’t do that, but, who knows, maybe they do! I’m interested in how our ideas of the afterlife coerce us in this life. E
VKN: Your life must have been so rigorous during 1997 or 1998. I am profoundly moved by your energy of growth. I have been told that poetry is mathematical equations written in words. So perhaps you have found a way to invert your analyst mind so that math could look at itself through language. Do you feel that your former vocation is an afterlife and that it has coerced you into this new poetry/writing based life? I wish there was an instrument that could measure our time on earth. I feel memory, which you explored deeply in Unbearable Splendor, is so vaporous and fugacious and it fails to create a stable landscape where any soul could return to without being orphaned in the process. Do you think poetry/writing is the best instrument to measure our time on earth? Or do you think bringing a cyborg into the world will do a better job?
SYS: I’m not sure if being a technical writer, which is all about economy/efficiency, affected my poetry writing, but working in corporate jobs for ten years has definitely influenced my politics and my writing themes in terms of machination, labor, objectification of the worker, depersonalization of work, offshoring, the rendering of the body as worthless in office work, constructions of authority and obedience, architectures and interior designs of power and subordination . . . industrial and post-industrial capitalism. I wish there was an instrument, too. Is the dream our only instrument? Maybe poetry is the best. It seems to expand and contract in a moment. Hm on the cyborgs. Such a big question. I have empathy for the cyborg although I fear being replaced by it.
VKN: What are you working on right now, Sun Yung? Will you tell me about it?
SYS: I’m working on some elegies about my (adoptive) father, who died on February 8. Just a few of those. I had already been working on a few poems about the underworld(s). I started reading a book Death, Mourning, and The Afterlife in Korea: From Ancient to Contemporary Times edited by Charlotte Horlyck and Michael J. Pettid from University of Hawai’i Press. I’m interested in learning more about funerary practices in Korea and elsewhere. I am learning more about social practice art and have been doing more writing collab things with art museums, and that is opening up new mental spaces for me in terms of thinking about what poems can do in the world—maybe. I also don’t think poetry needs more than it is or needs to prove itself in other domains necessarily, not any more than any other human activity. What could be more basic than language anyway? Gesture, the body, breath, yes.
I don’t have an overarching concept for a fourth book of poems but I am searching for it, or hoping it finds me. I feel adrift.
VKN: I love collaborating with others (humans primarily), but I have never collaborated with a building structure before. What is it like? I am sorry to hear of your father’s death. We missed you dearly at AWP. Was your adoptive father’s death sudden? Were you close to him? What is your relationship with your adoptive parents like? Also, what is your favorite food? And, do you cross-country ski? I like vampires on skateboards and poets/writers as bodybuilders. I find your work very difficult to pin down—I love how hard it is to define & how smart it is & I love how many access points there are to entering your work. I could read it backward and feel like I am moving forward. What is the hardest section to write from Unbearable Splendor?
SYS: It was exciting because I got to be a participant in Ojibwe artist Andrea Carlson’s project titled Let, which she said was an “act of reverse incorporation” project. We community participants were tasked with writing new labels for art objects in the museum. I took the entire museum, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, as the object and wrote a label for it in which I tried to explore, briefly, its colonizing presence on indigenous land.
Another exhibit I was involved with recently was L.A. artist Ken Gonzalez-Day’s film/photography exhibit on lynchings in California at The Minnesota Museum of American Art—I got to curate books for the reading room and also give a reading there.
My father’s death was not completely sudden; he was in the hospital for about a month before. He had had a heart attack and then his kidneys weren’t doing very well, so they couldn’t investigate his heart issues without making his kidneys go into failure. He had significant comorbidities, as they say, because he had COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) for decades as a result of being a heavy smoker since he was a teenager. So over the years he had several leg surgeries due to poor circulation from the COPD and ultimately was a double amputee. I spent about a week with him a couple weeks before he died, and he also had “hospital psychosis” which he’d had the time before he was in the hospital for an extended period during which I visited two years ago. Hospitals are such fascinating, strange, alienating places.
We weren’t close per se; we were estranged for about ten years between 1995 and 2005, because I couldn’t get along with him about anything. But we reconciled and had a mostly peaceful if somewhat distant relationship. He lived in Chicago and I am in Minneapolis. I felt close to him in certain ways. And he’s been either trying to contact me or I’m just having sensations that I’m supposed to call him, and then I remember that he’s not alive anymore.
My favorite food (yay, food) is probably white rice, but also avocado, mango, coffee…
I have cross country skied!
Vampires on skateboards sounds really great to me.