Wendy: Why did you decide to submit “Calligraphy,” your winning piece, to the contest? Did you see it as a good fit for Solsticelitmag and our diverse voices theme?
Shanyn: “Calligraphy” is one piece from a collection of related stories that I’m currently writing. The collection focuses on the four Yu daughters as they grow up and struggle with cultural, generational, and personality divisions. That being said, I don’t really think about issues like diversity when I’m writing fiction. Academic writing is all about navigating the politics of discourse, and there’s a certain pleasure to engaging in that kind of thinking. But writing fiction gives me a break from that world and balances me out creatively. It’s nice to be able to tell a story that I feel needs to be told and just allow the narrative to go where it will.
One thing that has struck me about the movement toward diversification is the way that categories intended to mark difference can actually encourage monolithic and segregational thinking. Asian-American literature, like many hyphenated sub-genres, has become bracketed within a certain set of terms and conventions that can become restrictive. I think it’s important that formulations of difference do not end up mandating homogeneity within their boundaries and that these boundaries remain fluid enough to accommodate individuality of experience.
The fact that the Yu family is Chinese is important, certainly, but not more so than the story of a mother trying to come to terms with having a child who is so different from herself. Difference and diversity, therefore, exist on a number of levels in this story, and I was really gratified to have that recognized by the editors of Solsticelitmag and the contest judge.
Wendy: You teach literature at Rutgers. In your story, you explore the theme of a “gifted” student, or at least one who doesn’t fit the norm. Does any of this come from your experience as a teacher? What was your inspiration for this piece?
Shanyn: My field is actually nineteenth-century British literature (Dickens, the Brontës, Eliot, etc.), but I do have some training in ancient Greek literature, and I’m lucky enough to teach at a university that welcomes such a wide range of interests. I have definitely had a few students come through who are talented in their writing and critical thinking capabilities. In addition to my university teaching, I’ve tutored gifted high-school children as well as spent a number of years leading outreach and enrichment programs for underprivileged students. I have encountered a number of inspiring individuals – students as well as teachers and administrators – through those experiences, and I can honestly say I cannot imagine a writing life that doesn’t involve teaching.
But my inspiration for this story comes from a different place. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of genius; of being extraordinarily gifted in one way or another, possibly because I’ve always felt myself to be painfully mediocre. Anyway, I’m always toiling away at one thing or another, and I frequently fantasize about being able to accomplish my goals instinctually and effortlessly. This story, I think, may have been an effort to disillusion myself of that conceit.
Another inspiration for the story may have been my effort to understand the irreconcilable differences that can exist between parents and children. I’ve certainly struggled with this issue with my own mother who is, like Meilin, very Chinese in her ways, and I am now experiencing similar challenges in relating to my son, who is very different from me personality-wise. So this story comes from all of those experiences and questions and probably more of which I’m only dimly aware.
Wendy: What other topics or themes factor into your writing?
I would honestly say that everything I think or observe or do factors into my writing. Right now, I’m working on a number of different projects. Besides the collection on the Yu family, I’m plotting a novel that uses the Cultural Revolution as a backdrop for a love story that spans several decades. I’m also working on an academic book that explores literary relations between China and England in the nineteenth century. I have several projects on the back burner that have nothing to do with China or Chinese history at all and come from other research interests. For example, I’m teaching a class on Homer right now and thinking about the ways that the Homeric epics align with contemporary theories about the ethics of combat and the psychological repercussions of war. Those thoughts are going to manifest in a series of essays and, I think, a collection of monologues. And on a completely different track, I’m making notes about a group of short stories about horses, which are another huge part of my life.
Wendy: How did you transition to writing fiction? Or have you always been a writer? Who or what influences your work?
Shanyn: I’ve always written stories, but becoming a fiction writer never presented itself as a viable career option for me. So I followed my love of reading and writing down the academic path. Scholarship has an appeal for me that is distinct from but probably equal in weight to that of writing fiction, and at this point, I need both to feel completely balanced. For the past decade or more, I’ve had to devote most of my time to my academic career, and it’s only been in the last year or so that I’ve had time to write fiction and take it seriously.
In terms of literary influences, I would say I’m a very slow but very voracious reader. I like writers that make me pause to roll their sentences around my mouth like really great food. Marilynne Robinson is good for that. I recently finished the novel The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin and admired the simple, quiet force of her writing. My occupation necessitates reading the same books over and over again, so I teach texts I don’t mind spending a lot of time with. Homer still gets me every time, and I actually can’t get through Toni Morrison’s Beloved without choking up, which is actually a bit embarrassing when I’m reading a passage aloud to students in class.
Wendy: Can you tell us a little bit more about you? Your history or hobbies outside of writing?
Shanyn: I think the thing that would interest or even surprise people is the polarities that structure my life. I own two horses. It’s an indulgence for me, and in order to afford their keep, I work for my trainer. So for half the week, I’m lecturing about Homer or working on a manuscript and for the other half, I’m schooling horses or mucking stalls, covered in straw and manure. I’m sure my colleagues at school have a hard time imagining me as a barn girl and vice-versa, but I find the contrast invigorating.