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What We’re Reading: Books for Our Current World

2016 July 28
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What We're ReadingLife, am I right? It’s been especially catching up to many of us lately in all of our spheres: National. Global. Local. Personal. With so much heartache, I am struggling to find a way through it, to a better place. We all have our own way of dealing with struggles, and soul-searching. My way of soul-searching? Reading, of course. Here are three books that we at Hazel & Wren have reviewed in full before, but are finding new meaning and urgency with recent events. There are so many more, and I hope you’ll share with us what you’re reading in these troubling times.

citizen cover

Citizen by Claudia Rankine

Full review here. As reviewer Timothy said, “This is poetry as documentary, as news story. At worst, poetry like this can feel dated, but Rankine has a knack for highlighting the stories that need to be remembered and turning them on us so that we see them differently.” Rankine focuses on microaggressions of racism within these pages, and again, Timothy said it best when he wrote: “This is the power of literature, to distill a lifetime of small frustrations into one body that will carry and enact those frustrations on the page.” It’s powerful language, that puts all of the things we hide underneath the surface on the page, where we can’t ignore it.

Tiny_Beautiful_Things_book_coverTiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed

Full review here. I’ve been struggling in my personal sphere lately, and this book is one I go back to often to gain some perspective, levity, and understanding. It’s a collection that Cheryl Strayed penned under the column “Dear Sugar” for The Rumpus. Sugar responds to life’s chaos and universal questions with zinging humor, brutal honesty, and heartaching clarity. I found it refreshing to bounce between the different columns and questions, between dark depths and light-hearted sass. Each of Sugar’s responses is a glimmering gem that is so spot on that it’s hard to look straight at it without wanting to melt into a puddle of YES. As reviewer Taylor put it: “It is a rare and special feeling when a book can both fill you up and cleanse you.”

truthA Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota edited by Sun Yung Shin

Full review here. This collection of essays from writers of color in Minnesota hits home yet again with the murder of Philando Castile in our state. Please read this, and listen to the human stories told by these talented writers. Absorb the different perspectives, and own up to your own prejudices that arise while reading them. Own up to them, so we can change that way of thinking. From the review: “Each writer is telling their own individual story, and as a composite, this collection provides a larger, more honest and complex picture of race in Minnesota, which we as the reader, start to see with more clarity through each essay.”

Which books am I missing? (There are so many!)

What We’re Reading: A Good Time for the Truth

2016 May 26
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What We're Readingtruth

A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota edited by Sun Yung Shin (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2016)

I don’t have a smooth introductory paragraph for this one, so I’ll just jump right in: this book is so very important, and I hope you read it.

Editor Sun Yung Shin has curated a powerful collection of essays from writers of color living in Minnesota. While experiences within the state of Minnesota is the core of this book, these stories should resonate across the country, where racism is on the minds and tongues of our nation. However, these essays aren’t told by mainstream media outlets or political candidates. These essays are personal stories. This is the crux of why this book left such an impact on me. It’s not a media outlet that I have to consider what their source is, or what their unintentional biases are…this is straight from writers who have experienced racism first-hand, have had to grapple with the complexities that is race and identity and culture. Each writer is telling their own individual story, and as a composite, this collection provides a larger, more honest and complex picture of race in Minnesota, which we as the reader, start to see with more clarity through each essay.

In the introduction from Sun Yung Shin, she writes:

It is hard to talk about race across racial lines. Race is ingrained in societal systems and institutions, conferring a system of advantages upon members of the dominant group. This means that people’s realities, their lived experiences, differ. Race is often invisible to those who benefit, willingly or unwillingly, knowingly or unknowingly. It is entirely visible to those who do not benefit.

This gets right to the heart of it. I am in a class right now for my graduate program on diversity in the workplace, and this Tedx Talk from Dr. Helen Turnbull on blind spots was brought up in our last class session. As a white, straight, middle-class woman, the more I grow as a person the more I see blind spots that I didn’t even know I had. It’s horrifying and disheartening to discover the blind spots that mainstream white culture, and our own complacency, has sneakily bred into so many U.S. citizens, myself included. And it can be even scarier to talk about them openly when conversations about race can be so charged. This collection of essays opened my eyes to many subtle but deeply embedded blind spots, for which I am grateful. I am a firm believer that while admitting mistakes or blind spots can be incredibly scary and vulnerable, that recognizing, apologizing, and correcting for those mistakes is what triggers growth. Growth is what makes us more human, and allows us to connect to our fellow humans on a deeper level. This collection opened up countless opportunities for me to learn, listen, and grow.

Shannon Gibney‘s essay “Fear of a Black Mother” is the first one in the book after the introduction, and immediately opened my eyes to blind spots. I am not a mother, but it’s something I can see in my future and have had frequent conversations about with my partner. Realizing what Gibney has to think about with her son as a black mother is something I didn’t even consider having to discuss with my future child.

[…] My child is six and a half now, thoroughly engrossed in Rescue Bots and Ninjago and bugs, but I am already getting twitchy about the upcoming talks that loom large, talks about holding himself in the classroom, engaging with his teachers and peers, and, most of all, making sure he is giving no one, especially white people, any extra reason to view him as a Problem or Threat. As a mother, I know it is my duty to protect him. As a Black citizen in a country that has never viewed Black bodies as worthy of protection, I know I cannot.

I fell in love with Kao Kalia Yang‘s storytelling previously with her first book, The Latehomecomer, and recently again after hearing her read from her brand new second book, The Song Poet. Her essay about the complexities of identity and racism while being in an interracial relationship points out yet another facet that isn’t easily seen at first glance. Venessa Fuentes‘ essay starts from the perspective of her childhood self, and the moment when she started to see her identity through the eyes of the white surburban culture she grew up in, and even in the eyes of those closest to her. Bao Phi‘s essay grapples with the perception of some that Asian Americans are less discriminated against than other people of color when his own experiences contradict that. All of these individual experiences grouped together show just how complex race and racism are.

But I don’t want to keep talking. These aren’t my stories, and you’d do better to listen to these writers’ stories yourself. They are all very talented writers, and in their deft writerly hands, listening isn’t very hard. Please read this book, reflect on it, and really, truly listen. It’s a conversation that has to happen, and one that mainstream white culture needs to listen to more than speak, if we are going to find any equity in this world. As Sun Yung Shin writes in her introduction,

A society that systematically suppresses the stories and wisdom of certain groups cannot make the best decisions for a shared future. We need a future in this state that leaves no one out. We are interconnected, we are interdependent. In the long run, on our earth, we will thrive or fail together. Those of us who have not always had places at the table, so to speak, want to be heard and understood.

This book is one very important step in that direction.

What other writers are opening up space to tackle complex, emotionally charged, and/or difficult subjects?


The Writing Life: An Interview with Sun Yung Shin

2012 November 16
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Editor’s Note: Sun Yung Shin‘s second collection of poems, Rough, and Savage, was published last month by Coffee House Press, who also published her first collection, Skirt Full of Black, in 2006. Sun Yung was kind enough to answer a few questions about her work and process. Timothy’s thoughts on Rough, and Savage appeared yesterday in the What We’re Reading column.

Timothy: I was struck by your use of academic research to craft the poems in both Rough, and Savage and your first collection, Skirt Full of Black. Can you talk a little about research as it relates to the process of writing your poems? How do you integrate found text with your own?

Sun Yung Shin: It’s an approach I first learned from the labor poet Mark Nowak, who has been focusing on the cost of the coal industry on its workers, here and in China. His latest book is Coal Mountain Elementary, also from Coffee House Press. I also have learned a lot from the work of Korean-American poet Myung Mi Kim, who teaches at SUNY Buffalo. Research, or really I would just call it reading, is important to me because I see writing as inherently collective and I try to foreground that in a lot of my work, for a variety of reasons. As far as integrating other text, I would say that the integration is really a conversation or dialectic between myself and the text, or between a multiplicity of voices I might attempt to bring into the forum on the page. The original text is often a place where I start; it might be something that I’ve read as an adult or something that has lived within me since childhood, such as a fairytale. Could you say more about what you were struck by?

T: I think what struck me was how far outside the traditional lyric academic research seems to me. Your method seems to be a balancing act between Wordsworth’s “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” and the more rational examination of fact. Is this tension—if tension is the right word for it—something you’re conscious of?

SYS: Tension is a nice word for that. I think so. I’ve always been kind of cerebral and analytical, but not very linear or logical, I’m very associative, so I think it—the inclusion of fact—just comes naturally. And, a part of my longer-term project as a writer is to continue to exorcise the male, pseudo-objective, pseudo-scientific voice from so much of what I consume, just as an American in daily life, let alone as a reader and writer. That comes from a very deep emotional well of feeling subjugated, silenced, of living in a society in which almost always what is male and what is white valorized, normalized, made heroic, made interesting. So there’s a real violence, a purging, going on as well. It’s sort of like being in a kind of hell and trying to navigate through it without being burned continually.

I’ve just started reading Kafka: A Minor Literature by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (1974). They adopt a tetralinguistic model by Ferguson, Gumperz, and Henri Gobard, which has been very interesting to think about lately, and I realized I often try to mix all four within one poem, to include many registers, to sometimes comment on a variety of readings of a certain sp(l)ace (such as the DMZ along the 38th parallel) or event. The four types are, and here I’m quoting an online article by Jana Evans Braziel, Assistant Professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at University of Cincinnati:

  1. The vernacular language, also referred to as the maternal or territorial language, functions within the rural realm (and is a language of territorialization);
  2. The vehicular language operates within the urban, governmental or commercial realms (Deleuze and Guattari argue that is “a language of the first sort of deterritorialization”) (23);
  3. Referential language is the language “of sense and of culture” and entails “cultural reterritorialization” (23);
  4. Mythic language, also a language of reterritorialization, is involved in the spiritual and the religious.

I think for me, the emotion often gets expressed through mythic language, through working with archetypes.

T: Many of these poems are set in contemporary Korea, but many also hearken to a pre-colonial Korea as well. Aside from your role as poet, do you see your role as primarily an ambassador, documentarian, historian, or some combination of those, or as something else?

SYS: I don’t really see my role as any of those things, although a poet may of course embrace many of the tasks or opportunities of the roles you mention. I see part of the project of the book as being a way to enter into the beginning of human inhabitance on the peninsula…the colonial period was really so short and in the 20th-century and Koreans have been on the peninsula for thousands of years, so I would probably frame anything before 1910 as the dynastic period, pre-dynastic, etc. Does that answer your question? The question of the role of the poet, or how I see my role as a poet, is so huge I’m not quite sure how to begin without launching into a gigantic poetics digression!

T: At the risk of sounding ignorant, I suppose I’m thinking of a reader like myself whose knowledge of Korean history and culture is fuzzy at best. If you’re using the poems as an entrance to the beginning of Korean history, then I found myself following behind, entering Korea through your poems in a way that is obviously much different than your experience. I suppose my question is more about the way these poems serve as a guide, a Virgil, through a time and space I don’t know much about. Do you have the, let’s say uninformed, reader in mind when you’re writing?

SYS: Well, I think I actually have myself as a reader in mind for the first draft—like a lot of writers I think I write what I need to read, what I think hasn’t been written. But, that said, I do think of outside readers because I do want to communicate, and engage in a conversation, or bring something useful (or canny, or hallucinatory) to others. I am trying to invite others into an experience, a question.

So to answer your question, I think a person wouldn’t need to really know anything about Korea or Korean history. I think its history is part of a much larger human history of going from hunters and gatherers to clans to countries. And that history becomes riddled with war once metal was discovered and once trade was created. Then wealth was created, then striations appeared in societies, then contests over space and resources intensified. And our morality has continued to develop. And is still very much developing. It often feels that our morality as a species is quite primitive. It seems like we’re waking up to some new things as a group, though—such as factory farming being a disgrace, being torture. That’s something that I woke up to in high school and wasn’t sure if I’d ever see become part of a mainstream discussion in this country. But here it is. Due to years of activism by others.

However, I do want to learn more history of my ancestors and I do want Americans to consider U.S. foreign relations in Asia and what all of our complicities may be, wherever the U.S. puts its foot down. It’s not that whatever the U.S. does is bad, and I hold so many things that we value as a people sacred (the First Amendment, for example) it’s just that the mainstream media, even public media, does not really go deeply into the impact on the people being occupied (militarily, economically, etc.) by the U.S. and other wealthy nations.

T: It seems to me that the fractured and layered nature of the poems parallels the fragmented history of Korea. This is especially apparent in poems like, “REDACTION: United States Central Intelligence Agency | The World Factbook | East & Southeast Asia :: Korea, South” and its sibling, “REDACTION: United States Central Intelligence Agency | The World Factbook | East & Southeast Asia :: Korea, North.” How does form and content interact? How conscious of this are you as you’re composing?

SYS: I’d say that I’m quite conscious of form/content when I’m composing, although first-draft writings are very intuitive or trance-like. To me, these poems are not fractured and the history of Korea is not fragmented. I would say that these poems are trying to highlight in/visibilities and erasures. Fragments mean pieces broken off a whole, and that’s not how I see these poems, but I can understand that type of reading or framing. I would describe Korea as divided (as opposed to unified). Fragments are generally not re-integrated into an organic whole—they might be foreign objects (e.g. shrapnel fragments…). But again, it’s easy to use those kinds of terms when considering Korea’s ongoing proxy / civil war.

T: I like the idea of erasure and visibility rather than fractured or divided. I was thinking of the gaps, especially in the two poems I mentioned, when I wrote fragmented. Are these poems, then, a way to try to reunite or expose?

SYS: Reunite or expose is a great way to put it. I was on a panel called Poetic Witness last night and Ed Bok Lee, who was also on the panel, said that he feels his job as a poet is to make the invisible visible, and the visible invisible. In those two poems I wanted to strange-ify these very strange documents—these Central Intelligence Agency dictionary entries. The sense of scale—two countries formerly one country—encapsulated into these two little blocks of text, written by some nameless analyst or technical writer or historian for the CIA. Surreal. How does one reconcile that with the living, breathing Koreas? And then visible white space in a poem is often a signifier of what is not being said, what is not told or exposed.

T: As an adoptee you’ve been very active in working for adoptee rights and the rights of parents who put their children up for adoption. You’ve also worked toward building community for adoptees within the larger community. Does Rough, and Savage add to the conversation about adoption and racism in Western culture? How so?

SYS: Thank you, but actually, I haven’t been all that active in the adoption realm. I did co-edit an anthology on the topic and have had many occasions to speak about adoption, but I don’t engage in much direct activism in the adoptee world, especially these days. I have been working on a media advisory regarding reporting on adoption. My co-editor Jane Jeong Trenka is doing tremendous public policy work with her organization TRACK in Korea. And many others are doing important work, for example organizations such as AKConnection and AdopSource right here in Minnesota. I did not grow up in Minnesota so it’s been a surprise and a marvel to witness the flourishing of all of this adoptee-led scholarship, social services work, art, and community building.

T: The title Rough, and Savage comes from Robert Pinsky’s verse translation of Dante’s Inferno, and each section of the collection features a quote from Pinsky. What drew you to Dante’s text and specifically to Pinsky’s translation when you were working on these poems? How familiar should the reader be with the structure and plot of The Inferno?

SYS: Pinsky’s translation is what critics call muscular—it’s very rhythmic and non-fussy, which really appealed to my sensibilities. I think he really exploits the resources of the English language with its Latinate and Anglo-Saxon wellsprings. It felt fresh and conveys the story as an urgent and also bewildering vision quest. The aspect of dual worlds (pagan/epic/Virgil and Catholic/medieval/Dante) coming together in these nine circles within the earth is so intriguing.

T: What other contemporary poets are you reading? What other writing and art is inspiring or obsessing you right now?

SYS: I’ve been reading a Korean poet Kim Hye-soon and her translator, an American poet Don Mee Choi. I also just bought a copy of Road-side Dog by Czesław Miłosz. I’ve just taught The Metamorphosis for the umpteenth time and became obsessed with it all over again. I just ordered Deleuze and Guattari’s books Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature and Difference and Repetition so I can further my obsession. This weekend I watched Mother by the Korean writer/director Bong Joon-ho—and I highly recommend it. If you take three of his movies, Memories of a Murder, The Host, and Mother, together you have a very revealing glimpse of contemporary Korea.


What We’re Reading: Rough, and Savage

2012 November 15
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What We're Reading

Check back tomorrow for an interview with Sun Yung Shin in The Writing Life column!

The poems In Sun Yung Shin’s second collection, Rough, and Savage (Coffee House Press, 2012), are more focused and more ambitious than her fascinating and strong debut, Skirt Full of Black (Coffee House Press, 2006). Revisiting many of the themes from Skirt Full of Black, Shin takes us further into the realm of myth, exploring the history of Korea and the people who have inhabited and ruled it. Blending academic research with her own composed text, Shin calls our attention to the erasures in history—erasures both deliberate and unconscious.

Shin moves past the traditional lyric and into mythic realms almost immediately, opening the book with an epigraph from Robert Pinsky’s verse translation of Dante’s Inferno. In fact, the epigraph contains the title of Shin’s collection, placing the book squarely in Dante’s shadow. The first line of the opening poem, “Beggar } Chooser { Beggar” begins the journey-epic: “Was the first to cross over a woman, curious, or alone[.]” The line launches us into a collection full of divisions and crossings over. Each subsequent section of the collection begins with a further epigraph from Pinsky’s Inferno translation, moving the epic through the geography, both literal and figurative, of Korea and Shin’s experience of Korea. In the context of The Inferno, Shin is our Virgil, albeit a guide who is exploring and questioning even as she explains.

The lyric poem is not forgotten in Rough, and Savage despite how indebted the collection is to epic and journey poems. A lyric poem can highlight gaps in a narrative and focus on single images in ways that an epic cannot and those gaps are never more apparent than in the pair of “REDACTION” poems from the fabulous sixth section of the book. In both of the poems, Shin cuts words and phrases from the CIA World Factbook entries on North and South Korea leaving huge blank spaces on the page. This act of erasing further divides the countries within themselves, not just from one another. The eight poems that follow are Shin’s attempt to fill those gaps, highlighting spaces and places, in contemporary Korea, especially women in those spaces, and how the spaces and people interact with history.

Shin interacts with that history in a slightly different way throughout the book, pulling quotes and text from a variety of sources as an entrance into Korea. If Shin is our guide then research is her compass. Poems such as “American Missionary,” “Best Protect: Clippings,” and “Coal and Iron and Gold” have other sources woven so expertly into them that picking out the fragments is difficult, if not impossible. Only when Shin quotes directly does the reader realize that there are, indeed, outside sources. Take, for instance, the opening of “The Labor of Childhood”:

“The passage of the threshold is a form of self-annihilation.”

Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces


dream, arrival, a fist filled, the tools of one’s future—

ink stamp, coin, horsehair brush.

A full page and a half of endnotes follow the collection, including links to online articles the reader can access on their own to illuminate the book further.

Towards the end of the collection, Shin quotes Percival Lowell, “a counselor and foreign secretary to the Korean Special Mission to the United States,” as he is described in Shin’s acknowledgements. Lowell, writing home, says, “Even as I write, Korea has ceased to exist.” For Shin, however, Korea is still very much alive. Shin’s ambitious and complicated text takes on the complexities of Korean history, exposing what was hidden and, in doing so, exposing the fact that much more has been erased and obscured. While cerebral and dense, Rough, and Savage features moments of lyrical intensity and beautiful images that make Korea come alive for the reader, despite what Percival Lowell wrote on the subject.


Editor’s Note: Today is Give to the Max Day here in Minnesota! Consider giving a little to your favorite Minnesota-based literary organizations even if you don’t live here: