I’m thrilled Leona connected me with Shin Yu Pai for this written Q&A piece for TaiwaneseAmerican.org centered on her work as an artist, writer, and podcast host. As two podcasters, Shin Yu and I naturally gravitated to talking live after the initial Q&A. I found our conversation to be soul-enriching for those consciously on a healing journey. To listen to the audio interview, check out the podcast episode on TaiwaneseDiaspora.com (available on all major podcast apps).
Shin Yu Pai (白 欣玉) is a Taiwanese American poet, essayist, editor, photographer, podcast host, and visual artist. She is currently Seattle’s poet laureate (Civic Poet) and host of NPR/KUOW’s “Ten Thousand Things: Artifacts of Asian American Life.”
Cynthia: You are an artist working in a number of art forms. Can you introduce yourself and tell us more about all the amazing work you do?
Shin Yu: I’ve been an artist for about three decades now. I started as a poet, and centered text, writing, storytelling, and poetry in my practice. I’ve also done performance work, installation, public art, and many different kinds of ways of expressing poetic language in the world.
C: I can see that in the opening line in your LinkedIn profile, which reads “I do many things well.” Where does that confidence come from? If that boldness isn’t something that came naturally for you, how did you cultivate the ability to own it and sell it proudly?
S: My professional experience has been really eclectic. I’ve had very non-linear creative and career paths… placing myself in various environments has also given me the gift of knowing myself better – my strengths, my passions, and my abilities to be logical, intentional, strategic, and tactical, while also being deeply creative.
I spent the early part of my professional career working for ad agencies, as a journalist, and teaching poetry at universities. These were roles in which I could use my skills and abilities with language to make an income and pay my bills. I spent a lot of time thinking about what kind of organization and culture I wanted to be a part of, and what kind of role within that might suit me. Where there could be personal and professional mission alignment. In my 30s, I decided to strategically formalize some of my professional experiences working in the arts and cultural sector and went back to school for a graduate degree in Museum Studies.
C: What are some poignant memories or moments that galvanized you to transition from full-time employment at various arts organizations to now orchestrating your own work (and being able to make a living from it)?
S: I worked as an events producer and public programs curator for two decades. During the pandemic, I burned out on public events – I questioned how I wanted to serve the community and contribute to its well-being, and whether or not producing public programs was the best way to do that. The rise in anti-Asian hate crimes also called me to focus my own work on the AAPI community, versus the broader kind of racial equity work that I was building into my public programs. I do continue to work full-time, but now I work in a role with a municipal government agency where I use my writing and storytelling skills in a role that serves the public in a different way than my previous work in the arts.
And so that has really expressed itself through this podcast I’ve been doing for KUOW and NPR, called “Ten Thousand Things.” It’s a show about Asian American stories and the things that we want to carry with us in terms of objects and heirlooms that reflect our cultural and personal values.
I am all about creativity and working with communities and centering the stories of communities that you don’t usually get to hear.
C: What draws you to use writing, editing, photography, and podcasting as your preferred forms of self-expression and of engaging with the world? Are there other mediums you’ve tried in the past or are curious to try? What inspires your work? How do you stay balanced?
S: My core practice is as a writer and storyteller – whether I’m working in poetry, personal essay, radio scripts, or photo essays. Language has also been very central to my sense of identity because there was a language gap between myself and my immigrant parents. Language is a way to speak the world into being – the world that I want to live in. I’ve conversant in many mediums – among them letterpress printing, bookbinding, and singing. These forms all deal with words and the voice in some way. I’m inspired by the idea of aesthetic attitude, or that the line between art and life are permeable. All things have artful possibility within them. I’m always working on being better balanced. I go running a few times a week and I spend as much time outdoors as possible. I also have a relationship with plants. And I hang out with my kid whenever I can.
C: You’re also currently Seattle’s Poet Laurate. The arts are imperative activators for social change. Poet Laureates build awareness and appreciation of poetry through public readings, workshops, lectures, and presentations in culturally and geographically diverse communities. What issues are you focused on during your tenure?
S: I’m focused on platforming poets from the larger Seattle community, across age and ethnicity, and perspectives. I’m also committed to surfacing and cultivating new and emerging AAPI voices in poetry. I’m thinking a lot about safety and belonging, inclusion, and civic participation and dialogue. I’m also interested in Seattle’s role as a UNESCO City of Literature and what kind of dialogue we can have with other UNESCO cities around literary culture, history, and heritage.
C: I’m really encouraged by AAPI representation in recent years, especially through the arts. How did you get started with the podcast? I listened to the episode about Congressman Kim, who cleaned up after the riots at the Capitol.
S: I’ve been writing personal essays and non-fiction type work for a while. It was during the pandemic, after the insurrection and after the Atlanta Spa shootings where I felt really down about the kinds of stories about Asian American representation that I was seeing in the news.
The local public radio station KUOW put out a call inviting community members to pitch them with ideas for podcasts that they might want to make with the radio station. And I had an old contact at the radio station, Jim Gates, that I had worked with before on a storytelling project related to a different podcast that he produced about animals in the wild and conservation in nature.
And because I’d had this really positive experience with this podcast producer and editor, I said to him, “You know, I’m just kind of feeling out an idea that I have about something I wanna do related to Asian American stories that is very reflective of the time that we’re living in and the need for narrative change and positive stories. And this is a handful of stories I’m thinking about. Should I bother to work up something larger? What do you think?” He was totally encouraging and said, “Yes, I would love to see a pitch.”
And so then I built it out and I sent it in. It went through a competition process and went up against probably about 80 other applications. Out of those 80 applications, seven were selected for a pilot process. Basically, they paid me and paired me up with an audio producer and editor to make the pilot as a test, a proof of concept. And so we made one episode based on the story of Byron Au Yong, a Chinese American compose, who inherited this Chinese-English dictionary from his father who passed away from cancer.
Based on that story, the radio station decided that they wanted to commission an entire season, which ran last year. We are now in our second season, and will be publishing stories every Monday through the end of June.
C: How do you pick the topics and people you interview? Are there a specific list of heirlooms you’re focused on?
S: In that first season, I turned to my immediate community, which is largely artists and activists here in Seattle. I wanted it, for the most part, to be very Seattle-centric because its the community in which I live.
But the story that you listened to is more broader and national in that it was a story about Congressman Andy Kim and this blue suit that he had worn on the day of the insurrection that became a part of the collections of the Smithsonian Museums in Washington, DC. They had asked him to donate that suit as an artifact that could tell part of the story of that day of January 6th.
That story and that image of him cleaning up the Capitol Rotunda after the rioters cleared the building just was so striking to me. Seeing an Asian American public servant picking up the trash that other people had caused – many of them white people. Just the kind of humbleness in that image and this idea of just carrying on, and doing what needed to be done. And it was so striking to me, as well as thousands and thousands of other people that wrote to Andy Kim, about how beautiful that gesture was and just what that image meant to them.
So in that first season, I wanted to tell stories about Leadership and ways of being Asian. And this idea that there was no one right way to be Asian. And so I think those stories [had a] compelling quality that artists have in inventing and reinventing the world, as well as people who think very creatively about what leadership is and what it can be.
In the second season, my podcasting team wanted to see from me the ability to push myself in having conversations with people that weren’t part of my immediate community. Talking to strangers and people across different generations. For example, a community-based bike club for Asian American and Pacific Islanders. For the last episode of this season, I interviewed Alice Wong, this incredible disability advocate and activist in San Francisco, who no longer has a speaking voice. And so we wanted to take things in some new directions.
As for the objects, oftentimes I am thinking about a kind of story or emotional mood or tone that I want to tell or build a story around. And then the object kind of surfaces from that, like a constellation of possible stories.
It isn’t always necessarily a really concrete object. In the first season, we did a story about a record player, a story about a dictionary. This season we have a story about a bike, [and] about a Japanese American novel.
I think as somebody who comes from a poetic sensibility, I love the idea of abstraction and a broader idea of collections of objects. So when I was building the record player episode, I actually started with the idea of a song as an object that we carry within ourselves. And this idea of the abstractness of objects is important to me. Like the notion of a voice – that we can lose a voice. I like trafficking in those squishy gray areas. The first episode of this season was about name and a name change.
C: I am so inspired by all of this– in your ability to do storytelling and to write and be in this gray space of abstraction. I’m saying this as somebody who’s very black and white and I’m trying to get into the gray zone. I just came back from my walk on the Camino and have been doing a lot of self-reflection. I’ve spent the last couple of years doing a lot of work on myself: self-love, self-compassion, et cetera. There’s this part of an artist, when you see true artistry come out, is when they really relate to themselves.
How did you do the work on yourself to be able to share what’s on the inside, and then be able to share what’s in the community?
S: That has been a long, long process. Coming from an immigrant family with very Confucian values, and ideas of what women can and should be. What is a good daughter? What is a good wife? What is a good mother? I mean, there are a lot of different layers of social and family conditioning to undo, which is a lifetime of work.
For me, from a young age, being able to turn to the arts was really important. As a young person, I was always very invested in singing and music, as well as writing and poetry – so these kinds of practices that are about claiming a voice. I will say at the same time that it took a very, very long time to find that authentic voice or to allow myself to really come forward in a way, and I’ll come back to that.
I think this idea of how we uncover our true selves is a long, long walk that happens in community with others. I grew up in a community where there were really no Asian Americans for a long part of my life, until probably junior high or high school. And I didn’t always find those Asian Americans relatable for class reasons, or relationship to culture and history.
Even the identity of Taiwanese American is so complex depending on whether or not your parents are pro-KMT or pro-democracy, or what generation they came from, and if they were working class or academics. I mean, it is so complex.
So, I think that it took me a long, long time, and it wasn’t until I actually came to Seattle in my thirties when I decided to study anthropology at the doctoral level. I started reading about things like power, politics, and positionality. And really began to fill in gaps in my creative and artistic education. My early training was very much English literature, poetry, writing, a little bit translation, and these fields that were really about like craft and aesthetics.
And there was this whole other part of the perspective that was missing for me in these mostly all-white art programs, where you didn’t really think about what BIPOC identity was 20 years ago. Or of power and privilege.
And so in that way, I think it was like a long walk towards understanding the ways in which my identity is not adjacent to white people as an Asian American woman. And it is very complex because it’s not adjacent to BIPOC exactly either. But we have a very distinct experience as diasporic children of immigrants. So, I think really learning about power and privilege has been really helpful in understanding where I fit into society.
Also, having a very strong spiritual practice has been very important to me. You spent this time walking on the Camino, which I have heard from friends as a very, deeply spiritual practice of letting go of a lot of things.
Since my twenties, I pursued a path of Buddhist study very much in tandem with my literary studies. I went to this Buddhist college called Naropa University that was founded by Tibetan Lama and Allen Ginsburg and Anne Waldman. And my own sort of personal orientation was always this idea for myself or this aspiration of bringing together the spiritual and the sacred alongside the artistic and literary.
And that’s never been something that I’ve veered from since the early twenties. So the work that I’ve had to do to become more clear-eyed has had to do with deeply reflective internal practices that also look very deeply at how I want to be in community with others, how I serve others.
And coming back to the idea of how I tell these stories of vulnerability: Poetry is this interesting abstract kind of form in that there are lots of poems and poets who don’t say a whole lot about anything. And maybe there were times in my early career where I was more interested in the playfulness that was possible in language and not necessarily being very direct.
And I think that has been something that I’ve had to work against now in my older life. It’s a pattern, you know? And it’s a kind of code switching, trying on different kinds of language. And you can get stuck in the code. You can get stuck in the mask.
And I feel that in myself. And it’s been in these last few years of writing personal essays and non-fiction that I have had to come forward, to be more direct about what my personal traumas have been to let them go and to put them down. And in the stories that I tell, with Ten Thousand Things (used to be called Blue Suit, so I switched back and forth between them).
I hadn’t thought very much until Season Two when I started building stories that there’s a tremendous amount of trauma in these stories. They’re often about racism and bias, not being seen, and loss of culture, cultural grief, and racial grief.
I haven’t thought about them as being framed around trauma in a way, because I’m not into trauma porn. This is not what this project is about for me. But in conversations I’ve had with a really unique colleague here who is a dancer and choreographer and has a somatic practice – we’ve had some really great conversations about what trauma is.
I’ve been exploring this idea that a stage of trauma and processing it and letting go of it is actually making a trauma public – speaking it and letting it go. So I think that these stories, while framed around very complex notions of identity, which often includes some kind of cultural trauma or historical trauma, are also about that transformation of trauma.
If I’m asking for these kinds of stories from my storytellers and from my guests, then it’s absolutely critical that I also step up in this way and allow myself to be vulnerable and to come forward. And in that way, making these stories and exploring these voices as well as my voice alongside them, has been very healing. And help me to go farther and deeper in my own voice towards telling different stories.
This new episode that’s gonna come out on Monday, Memorial Day, is a really complex story of grief and personal loss about my experiences of having a miscarriage. And about a particular religious object called a Jizo Bodhisattva that was used in a ritual that really helped me to move through a very deep grief that had stayed with me for many years.
C: Given that this healing is a life-long process. Have you felt your work transform in tandem or in sync with the different phases?
S: Yeah. These last 10 years have been a period of integration for me. My son was born in 2013, so just about 10 years ago. And I think as that process of becoming a mother, it is about also looking at these different past identities and selves that maybe haven’t been properly integrated or brought in.
For instance, I think there was a large part of me that had an internalized misogyny towards myself, largely probably due to Confucian parents and certain beliefs about what women should be or what they can do. And I think that there was this time when I finally had to reckon with that.
There’s tremendous power in really looking at what it is to be a mother, to mother oneself, and to facilitate the healing and the love that maybe never came through my parents. So it’s absolutely imperfect. It’s a slippery slide backwards at times, but I think that focusing on that aspect of who I want to be as a complete and whole person has been very formative to being able to integrate that identity into the artwork that I make and some of the stories that I tell.
Transformation and healing. It’s an ongoing process, I would say. My work, especially in poetry and now in non-fiction and podcasting, has had a deep pivot. In the work that I do now, it’s much more attuned to listening to myself and looking at the experiences of community versus maybe in my younger work being more about reflection and a little bit of navel gazing.
For me now, there’s this consciousness that in this lifetime, I was born a human and I get to have a voice. And to not use that voice seems to be such a deep waste.
So the healing journey is a very long one. It feels sometimes like it’s never ending and that the wounds are ruptured over and over again. But I think this practice of self-love and self-compassion also comes through these stories, in telling stories about not being alone, even as we feel so deeply alone.
C: You’ve published 11 books and have new poetry books coming out this year from Empty Bowl Press and Blue Cactus Press. Congratulations! How can people follow, engage, and support your work?
If you want to listen to the podcast, “Ten Thousand Things: Artifacts of Asian American Life” is available on all the major podcast apps. You can also go to NPR or KUOW.org. I hope you’ll listen along with me.
I have two books of poetry that will be out later this Fall. One is a book of Haiku comics that is illustrated by a Oregon-based Latinx artist named Justin Roof. And also a new full-length collection of poems that will come out with Empty Bold Press in September.
C: Any last words of encouragement or comments you’d like to share with the Taiwanese-American community?
S: We live in a time where there is a vibrancy of Taiwanese-American writers writing and publishing new work every year. There are so many expressions of Taiwanese-American identity and diasporic identity – I hope that readers will take the time to explore TaiwaneseAmerican.org’s Bookshop (https://bookshop.org/shop/taiwaneseam_org) to support the breadth of creative voices that we can claim as our own!
Cynthia Lin (林欣岫) is the Creator and Host of Taiwanese Diaspora Podcast
Shin Yu Pai (白 欣玉) is a Taiwanese American poet, essayist, editor, photographer, podcast host, and visual artist. She is currently Seattle’s poet laureate (Civic Poet) and host of NPR/KUOW’s “Ten Thousand Things: Artifacts of Asian American Life.” You can follow and support her work at https://shinyupai.com/