Many Voices: Sun Yung Shin

Many Voices: Sun Yung Shin

This is the third installment in a column highlighting Asian American writers/books. It is important that we start acknowledging that Asian American experiences are the stuff of literature, of music, of movies, of culture, and that we start supporting those efforts and spreading word of those efforts far and wide. I read hardly any Asian American writers when I was in elementary school, or middle school, or high school, and it was only in college that I found voices that spoke for the importance of minorities, that made me understand that my experiences were worth something.

Rough, and Savage book cover

Born in Korea and raised near Chicago, Sun Yung Shin is the author of Rough, and Savage­currently a finalist for The Believer Poetry Award, and Skirt Full of Black, winner of the Asian American Literary Award for Poetry in 2008—both published by Coffee House Press. She co-edited Outsiders Within: Writing on Transracial Adoption and authored Cooper’s Lesson, a bilingual children’s book. She is working on a third poetry book with the working title Our Golden Automata and a non-fiction book with the working title . She lives in Minneapolis.

Rough, and Savage is Shin’s second collection. In this inspired follow-up to Skirt Full of Black, she presents explosively imaginative poems that are never untethered from experiential reality. It’s Shin’s genius to seamlessly wed the imaginary, the dream-wrought, and the mythical with the historical, the hard and factual. Shin is a collagist by nature, and her poems include redactions from the Metamorphoses and the CIA’s World Factbook alongside references and excerpts from histories, fairy tales, and religious texts. Her poems animate the elements of the epic poem and Korean history across a dystopian dreamscape of fairy tale and folklore. Filled with pithy observations and striking lyrics, this collection explores alienation, moral isolation, and nationhood. 

Sun Yung Shin is an adoptee writer. I am an adoptee writer. I exchanged several emails with Shin before I was able to meet up with her at the beginning of March.

I WENT TO A READING the night before a writers’ conference to see Sun Yung Shin and some other adoptee poets read from their latest books. I had read Shin’s collection Rough, and Savage with great interest a couple of months before. The book is structured around bits of Dante’s Inferno, as translated by Robert Pinsky. It is a book, in many ways, about language, about how language is not a constant, is something that makes us as much as it is something that we make. It had been a long time since I had read poetry of ideas (more so than narrative), and I struggled to understand the impact the book had on me. This feeling seems common to my experience reading Shin’s poetry, and would be the same when I shared some conversation with her after her reading, in the upstairs of a bar in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The reading was to celebrate several recently released books and was hosted by Lee Herrick, another adoptee poet and author of Gardening Secrets of the Dead. Shin was the last poet to read before Herrick capped the night. He introduced her as “the one and only Sun Yung Shin.” Most of the audience seemed familiar with her work. It was the most diverse audience of any of the readings I would go to over the next three days of the writers’ conference, including my own book launch.

Shin began her reading by asking people to stand and stretch, something I had never seen a reader do before. “Humor me,” she said. The crowd did, though I stayed seated in the back, taking notes. She was giving the penultimate reading of a 13 or 14-poet line-up. We were in an old building that, I believe, belonged to Harvard, and we could hear the rain pinging against the fireplace outside. The walls were thin and let in drafts, and people wore coats. Shin read in a black coat and a bright green scarf with big shiny earrings. She looked cold, but warm. I, not a poet, kept thinking of the title of her first book, Skirt Full of Black, which won an Asian American Literary Award for Poetry in 2008.

She read first from a poem “just finished.” She showed the pages to the audience, which makes sense: form is important to Shin’s poetry, and it is important to be able to see the shape of her poems on the page. Her website proclaims her “a collagist by nature.”

She asked if the audience could hear her, and I felt she must be considerate—I connected this question back to the stretching. I noticed that she does not lilt when she reads, that she reads in a “natural” voice, without what the prose writers at the conference like to call “poet voice.” Sometimes, she seemed to sigh as she read. “Our bones like a second person inside us.” “Our bones like a cabinet locked secret inside us.” “Our bones will harbor a fire like a second person inside us.” Image after image, relentless, in her quiet voice, keeping the crowd rapt.

I could hear the complexity mounting as it does on the page, but in the reading, I could also hear more of the rhythm, the logic of the poem in its sound and repetition.

When Shin moved on to poems from Rough, and Savage, she talked for a moment about Dante and the use of those snippets from Inferno as “little doorways into the next room.” She said she likes to sample “documentary methodology.” She seemed humble, almost embarrassed by the hush and thrall of the crowd, by the long round of applause. She walked away with a brief goodbye.

After the reading, I followed the adoptee poets to the bar next door and spent a while meeting writers I had never met before. Shin was drinking in another part of the bar, and it wasn’t until later that we got the chance to speak in depth. I had emailed her with a number of questions in the weeks after I read the book, but I had found it hard to squeeze answers out of her.

Sun Yung Shin 2013When I did, she would send me beautiful, fragmented thoughts, like this answer to the question of intent: “I’m very interested in moral systems, crime and punishment, and earnest diagrams of the cosmos—like in The Divine Comedy. I find them so strange and nightmarish and naive and kind of magical. The World Tree in Norse mythology. The rope to heaven in Korean folktales. The way we concretize and spatialize the realm of the spirit, the cosmic.” I asked Shin about poetry as activism, as her books have been important in the adoptee community and she is the editor of an anthology of transracial adoptee writing, Outsiders Within, the introduction of which is one of the most amazing adoptee texts I have ever read. (“Poetry can be a very pure (relatively non-commercial, for one thing) forum for the language, the enacting of ideas. Ideas are dangerous. Poetry should be dangerous. Dangerously free!”) I asked her about the way her self is expressed in her poetry. (“My whole life until I became a writer I felt I was renting a room in the house of the white male mind.”) But what I really wanted to ask about was adoption. (“It means a lot of things . . . I hesitate to generalize . . . I don’t think I can generalize very well . . .)

In the bar, after most of the group had left, I cornered Shin and we talked for a while before the last train. I asked her my questions, and I found myself telling her about my life. She spoke about being a parent, the genetic realizations, gestures of hers that her children had from birth. I am a new parent, new to that rabbit hole of adoption and progeny, of generational trauma. I told her about arriving in America unable to walk or talk, about my parents, about my adopted siblings who are each struggling in their own, mostly unspoken ways. She told me about her attraction to wounded men, and for the first time, I realized that I might have a similar attraction. It almost didn’t matter what exactly we said—though it did, deeply, matter that we were talking about adoption. It mattered that the level we were talking on was going so deep into the things that matter to me (and to her and her poetry), the things that I’ve only recently realized matter so much. A level in addition to the words. I felt as if she understood more than what I was saying, and I realized that this was the feeling I had reading Rough, and Savage.

About Matthew Salesses

Matthew Salesses was adopted from Korea at age two, married a Korean woman, and writes about marriage, fatherhood, adoption, and race for The Good Men Project. His new book is I'm Not Saying, I'm Just Saying. Other work has appeared in The New York Times Motherlode blog, Hyphen, The Rumpus, Glimmer Train, Koream, and others.