Monday, October 23, 2017

Sung Yim interview with T Clutch Fleischmann

Below is the next installment in a series on writing, gender, and genre, this time with Sung Yim. Sung’s first book, the memoir What about the Rest of Your Life, is forthcoming from Perfect Day Publishing (order a copy here), and their essays and poetry have appeared in The James Franco Review, Contrary, Kweli, Crab Fat Magazine, and in a chapbook from Ghost City Press.

What about the Rest of Your Life is an inventive, surprising, and deeply meaningful encounter with the writer’s life and thinking. Below, we talk of the book and of the landscape of nonfiction writing today.

Also, check out some recent interviews in the series with Cameron Awkward-Rich and Trish Salah.


T Clutch Fleischmann: To start off, could you tell me a little about your relation to genre? Your book is categorized as memoir by the back copy, and is clearly working in and influenced by some traditions of nonfiction writing. How important was genre to the writing of this text? When you set to write something new, how much does genre figure into your thinking and your process?

Sung Yim: I really don’t think about genre in the writing process. When I was just starting out as an undergrad, I hopped from fiction to poetry to nonfiction as I tried to find my niche. Studying fiction writing taught me how to build scenes and characters, poetry taught me the elasticity of language and form, nonfiction taught me to be accountable to my persona on the page and seek broader truths with whatever I create. I think we can and should try to imbue everything we write with poetry. It would be wasting a great gift not to.

I’m not a poet or essayist and my poetry probably sucks. I’m just a writer. I want to create meaningful work that enriches people. The biggest way that genre figured into the crafting of What About the Rest of Your Life was making decisions like whether to change dates and names, whether or not to revise found material, and whether or not things were truthful according to my ethics, which were informed by studying memoir. I was driven by subconscious instinct, which, granted, is informed by influences such as Joan Didion and Kiese Laymon, whose work reflects many quintessential traditions of memoir writing.

Somewhat related, how important are other sorts of categories, and in particular identity categories, to your work? Do you think of the book as existing in broader contexts of, for instance, trans writing, Korean American writing, writing of PTSD, or other conversations? 

I consider those categories only for their pragmatic application. How they can serve my writing, and how my writing can serve them. If being received as “Korean-American writing” helps nurture a canon that I feel is under-served, that’s great. If being received as “trans writing” broadens the idea of what kind of lives trans writers lead, great. We all embody many “categories” of identity, and to fracture ourselves in favor of one or the other is damaging. I’m just being myself in a publicly available way. What the world does with what I offer, I have no control over.

One thing I really appreciate about your book is that it writes outside of a lot of the assumptions often associated with memoirs, especially the idea that writing memoir should have some sort of inseparable link with healing. You write about finishing this book, for instance: “I am embarrassed that I still have problems. That I’ve written a memoir without even getting over these problems.” I like the possibilities that open up from that, the potential of what else writing can do if we allow ourselves to be writers who are (still) in pain, (still) figuring things out. We get this especially in the Letters to the Publisher that recur in the book, where you make explicit some of these questions-- “It’s just i’ve been real fucked up since revisiting this manuscript and it’s probably why the book is still unfinished,” you say in one. 

Could you talk about your relation to this process? Of writing and revisiting the past not from a place of cohesive and total stability, but allowing instead that “the writing itself is fine, it’s just my brain is scrambled and i can’t get my story or feelings straight right now.”

Writing this book was painful and perhaps even detrimental to my well-being because, contrary to popular belief, writing isn’t necessarily therapy. Just because you’re processing trauma doesn’t mean you are healing from it. But if I had waited to write “from a place of cohesive and total stability,” I would never have survived, let alone the writing. I would have destroyed myself. This is how I coped with turmoil, by compartmentalizing it as an art object—I couldn’t fix my problems, but I could keep making the writing sharper, more effective. I lacked stable access to treatment and had no other recourse. The book exists because it had to. I just happen to be lucky enough that people wanted to witness it.

I can’t help resenting what feels like a superhuman expectation often placed on writers. It’s unfair to that expect writers be sage and perfectly knowing, to shut up and put up until you look like a success story. The fact is that I’m a sick person. There is no cure for bipolar disorder. My reality may never look like the glossy after picture, and there should be space for that in art. I might not have “healed” or “recovered” through the process of writing, but I do know I grew immensely on the page. My hope is that people reading my work will find comfort in seeing what that growth looks like—painful, humiliating, paradoxically cyclical, and achingly normal.

Maybe related to that, you have a few moments throughout the memoir where you mention your academic experience, and the reactions of peers/teachers to your work. Now that you’re out of the academy for a bit, could you tell us how this book formed in relation to writing workshops? How does your memoir, for instance, depart from the ideas you encountered in the writing classroom?

One thing I was taught by various instructors was to write seamlessly—if I can’t remember some detail within a memory, invent it to serve the scene. Treat the writing of scenes from my life like an exercise in world-building as you might with fiction. It would be lying to say I eschew this method entirely, but I wanted to depart somewhat from that in my memoir. Trauma, psychotropic medications, drug abuse, all these things have addled my memory. There are big chunks of my life missing. I also think erasure is a significant part of the diaspora experience—there are so many stories I cannot access because my entire extended family is an ocean away. There are things about my parents’ childhoods I’ll never know because they’re too painful to talk about. That lack of information isn’t something I wanted to hide, but rather consciously unpack.

My writing style has radically changed outside the academy. We mostly studied and worked on long-form essays in classes, which produced a good bulk of this book. But writing in solitude forced me to get inventive and weird, which produced some of my favorite pieces. My process is wilder now, more whimsical. I’m driven by instinct and obsession. I’ve embraced the miraculous potential of the fragment. I couldn’t have grown in this direction in an academic setting. Not to knock workshop. It just can’t be the only place where you’re developing as an artist. Workshops taught me a lot about writing, but the most valuable lesson I learned from them was how to say no. How to resist. How to push back and handle outside pressure. Relying on critique won’t help your voice flourish. It’s your voice and you have to learn to protect and listen to it.

The way that you frame the book, as a text that shows growth as “painful, humiliating, paradoxically cyclical, and achingly normal,” is one of the things I most appreciate about it. That achingly normal, especially—when I read, I’m not reading with the expectation that the writer will provide some sort of magical solution, but rather that we’ll have the opportunity to join together and to grow together, which is a messy and real process. It’s all a much more exciting way to meet a book, and much more valuable, I think.

Could you tell me some about the writers (or artists, activists, etc.) that you turn to for this experience? If you were going to chart some influences for this book, who would jump to mind?

Probably my biggest hero is Toni Morrison. Her book Beloved taught me everything I needed to understand about the inner workings of trauma, how it functions within a person and their family, how it fractures and binds us at once. It taught me what forgiveness means and where it slips between the cracks. It gave me an emotional rubric to work with.

In the later stages of writing my book, as those previously mentioned “letters to the publisher” suggest, I hit a dry spell where I wasn’t sending new pages for weeks. So I started reading to get out of my own head.

Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking became a great source of inspiration to me. Didion has a way of tracking the ephemera of her grief-struck everyday, with such a sense of immediacy. She doesn’t write solutions, she writes equations. She doesn’t construct meaning, she conjures it. She is living on the page after the loss of a life, capturing what that looks like in real time. It’s a book whose prose reveals a deep reverence for a moment, a story, a life. And in that reverence I found an enviable sense of trust in the process of writing.

I also picked up a copy of Bhanu Kapil’s Ban en Banlieue, which is such a strange and entrancing book. Kapil writes about many things I also touch on with my work—power and its intrusions on the body, the body as an immigrant’s, the body as a citizen’s, the body as a target for violence. But the approach is radically different from anything I’ve encountered before. Kapil’s formal experimentation is so intense and dazzling, there was this sense that the book was a living, breathing thing, that one had to give oneself over to it, and in that sense it embodied exactly the sentiment of growing together with a work. Becoming not a reader versus the work but a third and separate entity as a result of the work. I was deeply shaken by this book.

Experiencing these texts made me feel freer. I could allow my process to guide the work, and meaning would blossom of its own accord. There were no rules. No order. I was encouraged to trust my own instincts, which meant harnessing chaos rather than struggling against it.

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