An Interview with Sun Yung Shin
신 선 영 Sun Yung Shin was born in Seoul, Korea, and was raised in the Chicago area. She is a poet, writer, and cultural worker. She is the editor of What We Hunger For: Refugee and Immigrant Stories on Food and Family (2021) and A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota; the author of the poetry collections The Wet Hex (2022), Unbearable Splendor (finalist for the 2017 PEN USA Literary Award for Poetry, winner of the 2016 Minnesota Book Award for poetry), Rough, and Savage, and Skirt Full of Black (winner of the 2007 Asian American Literary Award for poetry); the co-editor of Outsiders Within: Writing on Transracial Adoption; and the author of the bilingual illustrated book for children Cooper’s Lesson. She lives in Minneapolis where she co-directs the community organization Poetry Asylum with poet Su Hwang.
“Sun Yung Shin calls her readers into the unknown now-future of the human species, an underworld museum of births, deaths, evolutions, and extinctions.
Personal and environmental violations form the backdrop against which Sun Yung Shin examines questions of grievability, violence, and responsibility in The Wet Hex. Incorporating sources such as her own archival immigration documents, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Christopher Columbus’s journals, and traditional Korean burial rituals, Shin explores the ways that lives are weighed and bartered. Smashing the hierarchies of god and humanity, heaven and hell, in favor of indigenous Korean shamanism and animism, The Wet Hex layers an apocalyptic revision of nineteenth-century imagery of the sublime over the present, conjuring a reality at once beautiful and terrible.”
-Coffee House Press
The Wet Hex is available for purchase from Coffee House Press here.
Brett Hanley: The destruction and violence of whiteness and forefathers feel pervasive in my reading of The Wet Hex, but there’s also a powerful undercurrent of hope from the foremothers, castaways, and seventh children. Do you see foremothers and castaways as a solution to the major issues that come up in the book?
Sun Yung Shin: I do think that if we put vulnerable children first in our society, which would mean also centering their caregivers, many other things could follow rather organically. I think in general a world that would be good for children would be good for everyone. Borrowing from The Combahee River Collective statement: “If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.” A world that is good for children would mean a world that was good for the global majority, Indigenous people, people of color, etc. If, in the U.S., we were able to turn our attention from celebrities (or at least more of our attention) and put it toward the castaway, abandoned, missing, and disappeared among us, we could move toward more wholeness and safety.
BH: Oh, absolutely. The Wet Hex powerfully seeks to destroy systems of oppression in each of its poems. It feels like such an important book in that way to me. Related to forefathers, how did you choose the source texts you subvert in the book, specifically Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Moby Dick, and Columbus: The Four Voyages 1492-1504?
. . . as a naturalized U.S. citizen, I see it as my obligation to understand the origins and workings of empire.
SYS: I’ve quoted from Ovid and Melville in previous poetry books; those are texts that have been with me since I was an adolescent, and the Greek myths in general since I learned to read at an early age. So they feel like a part of me. The Columbus journals are newer to me as a source text; I started The Wet Hex with the working title Utopias of Descent, and I wanted to bring in more language from Charles Darwin about race and evolution and human skulls as well as its complicity in colonialism. Asians and Asian Americans are often portrayed differently in journalism, with “of Asian descent” being a popular descriptor, when of course white people are never described “of European descent,” and I started thinking of the Descent of Man and other ways the term or ideas of descent circulate in our culture.
I can’t remember why I started looking at the journal of Columbus, other than I am always trying to get closer to events of the past, and I wanted to read what he wrote (or reconstructions of what he wrote). I see part of my job as an (involuntary) immigrant and settler as working to understand the mechanisms of colonialism; as a naturalized U.S. citizen, I see it as my obligation to understand the origins and workings of empire.
BH: It’s interesting to learn Utopias of Descent was th