:: Interview with Shin Yu Pai
By Dominique McCafferty, Librarian
Shin Yu Pai is a poet, photographer, editor, teacher, and student of anthropology. Born in Decatur, IL in 1975, she completed graduate level studies at The Naropa Institute and her MFA degree from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She lives in Seattle with her husband and is currently pursuing a PhD in Sociocultural Anthropology and Museology at The University of Washington.
As of this writing, Shin Yu learned that she was the recipient of the 2008 Jeanne Lohmann Poetry Award from the Olympia Poetry Network for her poem "Footprint."
Visit her website at www.shinyupai.com.
DM: You grew up in Riverside.
SP: Yes, Highgrove to be exact – a small town which borders Riverside and San Bernardino Counties. The town hasn’t changed much over the years. Orange groves and open land have disappeared to be replaced by cookie-cutter housing developments.
Whereas there’s been recognizable growth in Riverside, especially around UCR and the Riverside Plaza area, the town of Highgrove has experienced relatively little economic development. This is apparent when driving up Center Street, past the old Dixie Cup factory down on Iowa. The lumberyards, orange groves, and citrus processing factory are the same as they were 20 years ago, but there is a new firehouse up the road from the railroad tracks.
DM: What was it like growing up for you?
SP: There were a few families with children from Hispanic and Caucasian backgrounds in the neighborhood. My parents were concerned about negative cultural influences from the outside, so much of my childhood was spent at home reading books under the unattentive eye of my mother. My father worked very long hours. My mom, my brother and I each had our own television set, which we watched in our own separate rooms and were on constantly. I mention this not to highlight our consumer or viewing habits, but to make a comment about what it felt like to occupy a space together. Three television sets for a nuclear family is excessive – after leaving Riverside, I went for 15 years without owning a television set, until very recently inheriting one.
My dad was into urban farming and grew vegetables, fruit trees and strawberries. My folks owned a series of small businesses (a gift shop, a home-imports business, and a mushroom farm) which also differentiated us from other families. From a young age, I worked for these businesses, answering telephones, filling orders, and packaging shipments. To this day, I have a strong aversion to cardboard boxes – assembling them, breaking them down, throwing them away…
Education and intellectual achievement were strongly emphasized by my parents as markers of success. It sounds like a stereotype – but I competed in spelling bees and followed in my older sibling’s footsteps as an academic achiever. By the age of 13, this sort of performance for teachers, peers, and relatives became deeply dissatisfying and I began to resist following this circumscribed path – I had no interest in matching my brother’s academic abilities and focused my energy on language and the creative and performing arts. While these pursuits were never actively discouraged by my parents, their concerns were for college. They thought I would make a fine nurse, a good school teacher, or a high-powered attorney. These careers were totally arbitrary and were no reflection of my actual interests or abilities. Like many other children of immigrant parents, I struggled to explore and assert my own identity, while simultaneously attempting to live up to cultural expectations and act as a cultural bridge for my parents; these competing roles often created a tension and burden that I think is characteristic of the second-generation experience.
Identity and the imagination have always informed much of my work, as well as my current research interests as a student of anthropology. My current work at the University of Washington focuses on the phenomenon of Japanese hikkikomori – adolescent youth who shut themselves away from the rigid educational, societal, and economic pressures placed upon them by literally refusing to leave their rooms [in their parents’ homes]. I am interested in how these displaced youth imagine the world and their futures in it, while passively resisting participating in acts of social reproduction. This interest is an exploration of experiences in my own family and an attempt to complete a wound, to understand too how structures of oppression create circumstances that allow for these fractures.
Mental health in Asian families has always been a very taboo subject --though it becomes more and more relevant and timely as we look at incidents like the Virginia Tech shooting.
Did you happen to read or hear about the UCR bomb scare that happened last year? An Asian student who was afraid to tell his mother that he flunked out of college sent a bomb threat to UCR in the hopes of canceling graduation.
DM: Yes, he took desperate measures!
You mentioned that much of your childhood was spent at home reading books.
SP: We spent a lot of time at the local library, and I buried myself in books like The Great Brain and the Encyclopedia Brown series. I took reading cues from my brother – world folk tales, mythology, C.S. Lewis books...as a pre-teen, I read a lot of trashy bodice-ripper romance novels, which colored my ideas of romantic love. I loved British music magazines, Spin, and Rolling Stone and developed a deep love for the photography of Annie Liebowitz and Anton Corbijn.
I also spent a lot of time at bookstores. When we couldn’t go to museums, we went to bookstores, where my mother would always head straight for the art section. As kids, we were left to browse alone and rewarded for our patience with one new book of our choice. Around high school, my interests shifted towards poetry – Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs, etc.
DM: Didn’t you love spending time in bookstores? My parents took us to bookstores all over Southern California.
SP: Bookstores remain one of my greatest joys – particularly used ones. Bookstores and libraries were my family’s inroad into culture, fashion, literature, and art – we were armchair travelers. One of my favorite shops in Main Riverside on Main Street had a great selection of Beat books – first editions by Ginsberg, Kerouac – these were special
DM: I first became acquainted with your work at a reading here at the Riverside Public Library, and was so impressed. You give excellent presentations, and I gather you enjoy doing readings.
SP: I do very much enjoy giving readings, as it gives me the opportunity to refine the articulation of my aesthetics. Since a lot of writing is typically quite solitary and you don’t necessarily know who’s reading or buying your books, it’s an ideal opportunity to have a conversation with the audience.
I’ve been doing reading/slide-show talks since 2003, as the nature of my work lends itself very much to a conversation about the visual influences and applications of my poetics.
Recently, I’ve been rethinking how I can bring more of who I am into my readings – it can be a fine line between revealing the personal, and performing ethnicity which ultimately leads to a self-tokenizing effect – I have resisted being more forthcoming about the specificity of my experience for these reasons. But if the story stays static without self-reflection, then you end up with a mythologizing effect which is another type of performance/persona. I recognize that sharing certain aspects of my process or experience can be valuable in giving an audience a sense of the integration and intersection of my creative practice and life – to make clear that my poetry, even when I am at my most abstract, political or irreverent, is not an empty intellectual exercise for me, but always a deeply personal act that derives from lived experience.
DM: How did you become interested in photography?
SP: My Dad gave me my first camera when I was about 8-years-old. It was a Minolta AutoPak camera which took square photos. I used the Autopak throughout my childhood and still use it today. When the film-advance mechanism finally broke, I kept the camera and my husband bought parts to refurbish it and had it fixed for me. I got my first SLR in college, a Minolta X-370. That’s the camera that I’ve stuck with consistently and is the camera that I use for most of my work.
I’ve done work with Holgas and also like the low-fi quality of Polaroids which I have been returning to recently. I’m interested in different printing and image transfer processes and have experimented with Polaroid transfer, cyanotypes, Van Dyck printing, xerox transfer and encaustic.
DM: What do you think of the electronic tools used nowadays?
SP: I own a basic digital, but regard it as a tool to gather information. I would like to work with medium format film-based cameras, as soon as my budget allows. I don’t have a lot of patience with learning new technologies, the old analog ways appeal to me.
DM: Who are some of your influences, your favorites?
SP: I love the work of Mike Slack – an L.A.-based artist who has produced several beautiful books of contemporary Polaroid images. Most of his images are simple shots of objects and scenes – though when people do enter his photos, the images are reminiscent of Gerhard Richter paintings. Recently, I’ve also gotten more interested in the video essay as a creative genre – work by filmmakers like Chris Marker and Agnes Varda.
DM: Would you talk about your poetry? How do you think your poetry has evolved?
SP: My early work is very lyric, concerned with notions of beauty, reconciliation, and wholeness. Everything that came after Equivalence took on a very different tone – I moved cities several times and went through different crises that produced a different voice. The narrative “I” stopped appearing in the subsequent series (Unnecessary Roughness, Love Hotels, Nutritional Feed) and I became very interested in observing and critiquing the world(s) around me, asking certain questions about power and representation. The poems became more experimental in their form and more complex in their relationship to one another.
My current project, Adamantine, looks at the notion of “personal disarmament, ” while returning to some of my early interests and poetic style. There has been a gradual shift in my work towards the anthropological, and a return to the spiritual – Buddhist concerns in particular. Many of the new poems are drawn from global news stories. The interest in art and object-based poems are part of this new manuscript as well, but I also turn to nature as a subject, everyday objects and experiences.
DM: I’m interested in how you balance your relationships and your art.
SP: Since childhood, it’s been a necessary imperative to fight for survival to become exactly who I needed to grow into as an artist and human being, independent of the cultures and the environment in which I grew up – to make my creative work a priority in my life and to be vigilant about conflicting distractions and influences. As I’ve gotten older and my practice has matured and taken root – I’ve reframed the cultural values and behaviors that I’ve inherited and discarded what no longer fits, tried to remove the external armor to let myself be in the world more fully. This is the real work.
As my interests continue to grow, my priorities will inevitably change and shift focus. I’ve recently switched disciplines and begun study in a PhD program in Sociocultural Anthropology at the U of W, which involved a major cross-country move for the seventh time in 10 years. I try to make calculated decisions that lead me closer to a deeper understanding of what I’m trying to work out in my writing and art. Also, I’m very lucky to be supported in a relationship with a life partner who is committed to increasing the enlightenment and wellbeing of others through his own work and his spiritual and creative interests.
DM: Last question, Shin Yu. Twyla Tharp (who was born and lived in Quail Canyon in San Bernardino through her senior year of high school) said something interesting in an interview regarding over-achievers: “I don’t believe in that concept. There’s achieving and not achieving. But, in any case, so-called over-achievers pay for it personally.”
The reason I mention this is because I suspect that you’ve been accused of being an over-achiever as well.
SP: Yes, absolutely. I believe in doing the work. Doing the work is a kind of play – which is above all, a gift.
The labels of over-achiever and perfectionist have no resonance for me – I am not interested in living an average life in any sense, though I can and do appreciate the “ordinary,” because there is always a quality of the extraordinary in the everyday.