Vision Quest: An Interview with Yi Shun Lai by Jen Michalski


Yi Shun Lai is a columnist for The Writer magazine. She teaches in the MFA programs at Bay Path and Southern New Hampshire Universities. Her debut novel, Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu, has been in its fourth printing forever. Her lastest is Pinups, a longform essay forthcoming by Little Bound Books.

Jen Michalski: Congratulations on Pinups—I really enjoyed it! I’m always interested in a book’s journey. Can you tell us about how the manuscript came together and how you landed with Little Bound Books?

Yi Shun Lai: This is one of those books that knocks around in your head for years before you actually do something with it. And then, when you’re ready to write it, the backbone of it kind of slithers onto the page pretty quickly.*

I’ve been noodling over the subject itself for the better part of fifteen years: What is my relationship to outdoors sports? If there’s no big race to train for, why do I sometimes struggle to get outside? Am I one of those who always needs a group to hang out with? Why do I experience ambivalence around exercise sometimes? And yet—why is exercise, and the outdoors, always on my mind?

Over the years, as I understood better my place in America as a minority (I think for a long time I really really thought I could be white) and read more about women and our struggle to take up rightful space, those questions became better formed, and the pieces of the puzzle started to come together into something I needed to articulate.

(*and then there is revising. So, so much revising.)

JM: The book is an usual length—too long for a conventional essay but not quite long enough for, say, a memoir. So how did the final format come about?

YSL: Funny you should say: In my first-ever editorial job I worked with Pat Crow, who was John McPhee’s editor at The New Yorker. He told me that back in the day, it wasn’t uncommon to see articles that were 17,000 words long. Holy buckets, right? I’ve been thinking about that a lot—but not necessarily in relation to Pin Ups. Sorry, I’ll get back to that now. I’m one of those who writes to suit the story and then worries about where to place it. So I basically wrote until I had told the story and filed some brain flotsam and the gerbils in my head had stopped yammering and gnawing holes in my sleep; and then I looked for a place to pitch it.

I thought about pitching it to Longreads, but it didn’t feel like it would be a good fit. Then I thought about one of the Sunday magazines, but by then I had decided I wanted it to have more longevity than a periodical might grant it. I knew of two venues that take longer essays and publish them as discrete volumes. One was Little Bound Books.

This market is getting bigger. Somewhere in my files there is a printout with a good list of places that publish longer essays in book or booklet form. Personally, I love the idea of these little books full of singular stories and lives that still have impact despite their brevity.

JM: I really love the line in the beginning of Pinups, in which you dream of being “One of those who was at home no matter what the condition.” It definitely creates a connection not only to the outdoors but to identity, specifically being Taiwanese-American and wanting to find a place in which you feel you belong. Was this the impetus for the Pinups? How did this essay become, in essence, what it was?

YSL: You know, that line happens at the beginning of the book, but it was a long time before I could work my way to everything it encompasses; the more layered meanings of it. As with all essays, I had to look at what was sticking out and pull at the pokey (poky???) thing until I understood that it touched on something else, at which point I’d start unraveling that thing and following those lines of thought to the end.

At some point while I was writing this, I lamented to a friend of mine that everything I write seems to be about trying to find belonging. My first novel, Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu, was about that; a lot of the ensuing essays I’ve written have been about that; now this is about that. I began to feel like a one-trick pony. But really, that identity has led me to so many different connections; it’s made me realize that all my experiences have this lens on it, so I’m willing to go with it and see what doors it opens up.

Side note: I have a pair of down pillows I bought at TJ Maxx. The ticking on them is super, super low-quality—inevitably, the quills of the feathers poke through. I have a terrible habit of running my hand over the pillow, looking for quills, and when I find one, I pull. The delight I get at seeing what kind of feather emerges from that tiny tiny hole isn’t entirely removed from the joy I get at pulling at a particular narrative thread until I see what kind of thing outs. Could be an ugly toad; could be a feather. Who knows?

JM: Don’t get me started about picking apart things! Anyway, I totally relate to your experience with ‘Teen Magazine, in which you were “more interested in cutting out the articles about the girls who raced BMX bikes, or the ones who played powder puff football.” I remember reading Seventeen and falling in love with an article about surfing—I never read the articles about guys or makeup, either! I was grateful for those small openings afforded to us, as unconventional girls, in popular culture. Did that experience in any way shape your going into publishing, being an editor, ie, creating similar “openings” for other readers?

YSL: No.* You are giving me way too much credit as a human being, but I’m going to wear this pretty hat you have given me all day long.

(*I…maybe? No, no, I don’t think so. I was talking to Angela Lam Turpin the other day [she’s a writer who works in the field of forest bathing when she’s not writing], and our conversation opened up the possibility that the pictures had more to do with the settings of these pictures than the activities themselves. I do edit expressly to make space for others now, but I don’t think I went into publishing because of it.)

JM: I love the line “This is, potentially, why sport is so attractive to me. If you are successful in sport, it’s likely not because you’re a token—it’s because you’re just good at what you do.” However, later you acknowledge that the equality achieved in these “controlled” environments doesn’t always translate when it meets the real world, ie, in the rural towns in which you’ve participated in adventure races. What can allies do to support people of color in their journey? My partner is Vietnamese-American, and I guess I’ve always handled representation as not drawing attention to it, ie, “well, of course you belong—me bringing attention to it implies you don’t.” But my responsibility to equality is more than that, and I want to be supportive and accepting in a way that isn’t also perpetuating the “other” at the same time. What are some steps we can take as writers and citizens to promote inclusion in a way that doesn’t isolate?

YSL: When I matriculated college, back in the 1990s, there was this whole thing about community. Like the RAs and the dean of students and everyone in between was all like, “Hey, man, we’re all in the same boat.” But we weren’t, were we? Some of us were legacy admissions; some of us would graduate with no debt; some of us would hate college from day one. And, probably most important, some of us didn’t grow up with college as being a sure thing in our families. It wasn’t a part of the narrative. And when colleges overlook those differences among students, those students have a smaller chance of succeeding. (You can read more about it in this piece on Vox.)

I think the thing you’re describing is parallel. We already know that it’s obvious we are not the majority; your claiming to not “see” it—which I know is not exactly what you are saying, but stay with me for a while here—is a little bit absurd.

For this immigrant, I like it when people ask me questions about my experience and how it might shape my life. I don’t mind doing what is commonly termed these days as emotional labor on that front; it helps to remind me of my rich heritage, and encourages me to stay curious about other people’s heritages. The fact that we are different isn’t something to sweep under the rug.

But you are referring to something slightly different. You are referring to belonging. We want to belong; who doesn’t? The difference comes when folks starts seeing belonging/not belonging as a hierarchy: Just because we do not fit the majority, it should not mean we are any lesser. When we can get to that point—where “different” does not somehow denote lower in status than the majority—then I think we will have made some progress. (We only have to look at the fight for suffrage for some clues to this.)

(Incidentally, “lower-status” groups is very much a thing in social and organizational psychology. Everyone knows it. Remember that clip where the white educator asks a room of white people to  stand up if they’d trade places with their black fellow citizens? Not a single person stands up, and the educator calls it a win for racial education: she says this is proof that everyone in the room knows the terrible injustice black people live under, and that we still withstand it. I think this is a gross oversimplification. There are lots of reasons one might not want to trade places with another, first and foremost of which is ignorance: what the hell does a white person attending a racial-bias seminar know about a black person’s existence? But the educator’s final point is still salient: There are people who get categorized into higher-status sectors in society and people who belong to lower-status sectors.)

Finally—everyone knows this by now, but let’s just say it for good measure—no single ethnic group is a monolith. Some people may not take to doing any emotional labor, and that is entirely their right. Some have done too much of it and are pooped. But we all will probably ask you to do your homework before you come to us with questions.

JM: I love this, and I love the emotional labor you do with your readers. I love the connection you make with your activity posts to the Strava app and how you hope that young girls might be inspired to clip your posts and paste them to the wall, much the way you did growing up. But even when having role models, sometimes it still takes a long time to reach the stage where you are your own role model. I was reading an interview with Brittney O’Neill, the star of the comedy/drama “Brittany Runs a Marathon,” which is about a theater producer in New York who trains for a marathon so that she can look good in the dress she’s wearing to the Tony awards, and there’s some discussion about “the line between self-improvement and self-acceptance.” I see a lot of similar parallels in Pinups. You conclude, at the end, that self-acceptance for you is feeling “normal,” not being “a woman or an ethnicity or a minority.” Feeling, you imply, simply human. So with this newly afforded perspective, what are you writing/working on now?

YSL: That’s a great interview; thanks for pointing me to it!

I’ve just wrapped a diversity, equity, and inclusion workbook for literary magazines, with a version for membership and volunteer organizations, and another for better hiring. I’m working on trying to find the best ways to disseminate those now. I’m in the last few weeks of my certificate in diversity and inclusion from the online branch of Cornell University.

I have a new project called Reads & Eats. It’s a newsletter by which I am trying to become the Dave Grohl of the literary world: he invites a random person up on stage to perform with him every once in a while, and I want to share my platform like that. You can learn more about that here. I’m putting together my third issue, so please sign up.

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