Author Q&A: Yi Shun Lai and “A Suffragist’s Guide to the Antarctic”

I was so pleased to read an advance copy of Yi Shun Lai’s forthcoming A SUFFRAGIST’S GUIDE TO THE ANTARCTIC, a young adult novel constructed as the diary entries of Clara Ketterling-Dunbar, who has somehow maneuvered her way into an otherwise all-male Antarctic expedition. None of the other crew members know the full truth about Clara: that she is just eighteen and American, or that she’d been an outspoken suffragist with the Women’s Social & Political Union. Still, they are wary of her, bumbling between treating her with contempt, paternalism, bemusement, and, increasingly, glimmers of begrudging respect.

Reading A SUFFRAGIST’S GUIDE TO THE ANTARCTIC was immediately reminiscent of the Dear America and girlhood-centric diaries I loved as a younger reader. It’s such a brilliant format for revealing the interiority of girl protagonists, and Lai’s precise prose imbued Clara’s voice with such sharp originality, spirit, and moxie. Our conversation below further elevated the heart of this book; it does not contain spoilers, but makes for an even more compelling case to read A SUFFRAGIST’S GUIDE TO THE ANTARCTIC as soon as you can – it’s out February 13th!

L: Thanks for taking the time to chat, Yi Shun! I actually read the Author’s Note before the book itself because I had so many questions about why this expedition, this character, and this story. I love what you wrote here:

“I wrote this book to shed a light on the crew. On the work they had to do; on the small actions of support they made toward one another; on the tight, interpersonal relationships it takes to pull something like this off… I also wrote it to pay homage to the women who were also explorers, the women who did not go out and find sponsors and publicity for the cool things they were doing, because that would have put them unfavorably in the spotlight, where they would have been branded as doing what they were not supposed to do.”

But I’d love to hear more – when did you first learn about this expedition? 

Y: Oh, gosh. I learned of it over 20 years ago, when an exhibit on it came to New York, where I was living at the time. But I wouldn’t know until much later why it affected me so much. The answer is that I’m obsessed with what makes a person a great leader. What makes them dynamic, what makes their ideas stick. What makes people want to rally behind their causes. 

I’m equally interested in exploration, and in deserts in general, and, specifically, in the inherent drama that comes with the desert: life and death; making hard choices, whether it’s plant, animal, or human. So the story of the Endurance was natural bait to me. 

L: Right, so what inspired you to pull on the threads that would lead you to less-visible narratives like those of Clara and the crew? 

Ernest Shackleton was a leader, for sure. But as the years went by and I learned of many more great leaders out there, I began to wonder whose narratives were missing from the story. 

L: How do you even begin to find something or someone who is “missing” from history?

Come with me now to The Ship’s Inn in Mousehole, Cornwall, where I drafted the first versions of this book. On the wall of the bar there is a newspaper clipping of two girls in a rowboat. They are in bikinis, and they are standing next to a huge dead shark, which presumably they have fished for and caught. I immediately fell in love with these girls. Where is their story? Where did they get their cojones, their chutzpah? 

Obviously there were no bikinis in 1914. But there were women who had bikini-spirit, and I also knew that women had applied to go on expeditions like the Endurance expedition, and indeed had applied to go on the Endurance expedition itself, and were turned down just because they were women. I  had, by then, as you’ve read, learned about the many women who had been adventurers, but who had been brushed aside. And I was mad.

I wanted to rewrite that history for them. 

L: I love that so much, and especially that you restore their place in such an honest way. The most powerful way to correct their erasure is to tell the whole truth about them, even if some of it isn’t perfect or even flattering. This book is such a testament to the complex legacy of suffragists, and I love that Clara is passionate but lucid about the messy work of organizing and articulating a new body of politics. When did the connective tissue between suffragists and Antarctic expeditions become irresistible to you? 

This is so embarrassing: It happened really, really late in the process, like draft 3 or 4. Years went by in between. I don’t think I understood how close in time the Golden Age of Exploration and the fight for women’s rights were. I think I was too fixated on the expedition. Once I figured out the fact that the women’s movement in England had to be temporarily silenced so suffragists could support the WWI effort–well, it was like a runaway truck. I couldn’t stop writing. 

L: What are the lasting implications of their work for young women and voters today?

I genuinely believe that what folks draw from these historical events is so subjective. Even if you’re an expert on these things (I read all the crew diaries I could get my hands on; I went to Antarctica; I have been on teams in bad situations with men who thought they knew best) you can’t ever know everything. There’s always some factoid out there that might change your mind.  And anyway, what you draw from it depends on who you are, and what your personal history is. 

So I’ll speak for myself: “Don’t do nothing. Do something.”

L: What surprised you the most throughout the course of your research? Was there something fascinating that ultimately couldn’t be incorporated into the final novel?

In retrospect, learning about the grit of the British suffragists was a high point. Learning about how hard it was for women of color to gain a foothold in the American suffrage movement–how hard they had to work just to be included–was a rough blow. And learning about the origins of the American suffrage movement, and its ties to the temperance union, was a thing that made me wonder if I needed to re-craft parts of the story. 

In the end, everything that needed to be included in this particular work fit into its scope. The rest of it is for another book. 

L: I’m trying so hard not to prompt any spoilers, but I thought Clara’s relationship with her mother was such a powerful example of how progress can evoke both estrangement and empowerment between generations. Why did you include this tension and why is it salient to reflect on today?

I’m so glad you called this out. I’ve written about the mother-daughter dynamic in other works, although in those works, it’s a matter not just of generational divide, but also of cultural divide. 

In this particular work, the tension was a late addition: Clara originally had no beef with the way her mother chose to exempt herself from the vision of suffrage. But that version, which made it easy for Clara to leave and seek her own equity, wouldn’t be true to life: We need something to fight for, yes, but we often only can see that clearly when we can find something to fight against. 

This will be true to the end of time. It will be true intergenerationally, interculturally; from one generation of immigrant to another. Our search for understanding will never be complete unless we can fully understand what the other side is fighting for, and against. 

L: And what does that look like for you? 

In my own family, for instance, my parents were staunch Republicans for a long time. As the rift between America’s political parties grew ever larger over the past eight years, I wanted to understand why. It wasn’t enough for me to hear my parents say that Reagan was a “real man,” for instance. Digging deeply enough, I began to understand the opinion that Democrats would never see Taiwan as a real country–that it was Republicans who had taken the first steps to recognizing Taiwan back in the 1960s and 70s. 

This kind of understanding is nuanced. It isn’t ever perfect. But it’s important to know why. 

Writing the generational rift more clearly into the book is my way of underscoring the importance of these conversations. 

L: I loved your book, and this conversation, so much. Thank you, Yi Shun.


About the Author: Yi Shun Lai lives in Southern California, and she can talk to you forever about plants and animals and deserts both hot and cold. She volunteers for ShelterBox, an international disaster-relief organization, and was once invited to be a crew member aboard an Antarctic cruise line. She’s the author of novels Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu and A Suffragist’s Guide to the Antarctic and memoir Pin Ups. You can read her essays in Shondaland and Brevity. Find her on the web at

Read more by Yi Shun Lai:

“I Thought This Memoir Wasn’t “Taiwanese Enough”—Because That Was My Fear About Myself” – Electric Lit

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