“The world is not an easy place, and sometimes it is scary, and in order for stories to have staying power, they must be true enough to reflect that complexity and darkness, out there and in ourselves.”
Isaac Yuen is a prolific writer of short stories and personal essays that explore nature, culture, and identity. His work has been published in Ricepaper, Schema, Alternatives Journal, Flyway, Zoomorphic, Hippocampus and Orion. In 2017 he was nominated for TNQ’s Edna Staebler Personal Essay prize for “Notes from the Shire”—a personal essay that weaves together a two-decade absence from a beloved childhood place with a return to J.R.R. Tolkien’s fictional Middle-Earth.
I first met Isaac in June 2016 when he hosted the Southbank Reading Series the night I was the featured reader. After the reading we talked about some of our favourite CNF writers and journals (Brenda Miller! Brevity!). Among other intersections it turned out we both lived in the same neighbourhood when we were younger and even attended the same school. “So you know the ravine and the field I keep writing about!” I laughed, delighted by the coincidence.
Isaac is a kindred spirit, someone I can go deep talking writing with, and I’m a true fan of his work. Interviewing him about flash essays, compression, and his piece “Rhythm” for my CNF Outliers ecourse was one of my favourite parts of developing the course, and it’s the interview I always get the best feedback on.
I’m so glad to be talking writing with Isaac again, this time on the subject of truth, myth, and metaphor.
NB: As an environmental scientist and a writer, how do you think contemporary “inconvenient truths” are most effectively delivered to an audience?
IY: I’ve spent a lot of my professional and academic life trying to answer that question, and while I think a diverse range of approaches is needed to affect lasting change, storytelling is what works best. Providing information and providing solutions has its limits—they address issues of “what” and “how”, but not the “why”. Human beings are at heart creatures moved by stories. I’m not talking about parables, which are constructed around specific messages. I’m talking about stories that exist as sound and well-told tales first.
NB: I wonder if you agree with writer Kim Stanley Robinson when he says science fiction is the best genre to write realism about our time “because we’re living in a big science fiction novel now that we all co-write together.”
IY: That’s an interesting comment. I agree to the extent that I think sci-fi is unfairly marginalized in favour of “realistic” stories in the literary community, and KSR is an extraordinary, intelligent author and a great champion for science-fiction. His worlds are always grounded in such a way that the science and predictive component doesn’t overwhelm the human and character component. That said, I don’t necessarily think that sci-fi is the best or the only way to write about our situation. I’m sure there are many many stories out there that deal with ideas (such as climate justice, food insecurity, consumerism to name a few) without employing defined sci-fi tropes.
NB: I was struck by your blog post about children and environmental tragedies. In it you quote Ursula Le Guin:
The young creature does need protection and shelter. But it also needs the truth. And it seems to me that the way you can speak absolutely honestly and factually to a child about both good and evil is to talk about himself. Himself, his inner self, his deep, the deepest Self. That is something he can cope with; indeed, his job in growing up is to become himself.
The quote is taken from “The Child and the Shadow”, an essay about the importance of myths, fairy tales and coming of age stories—how sharing truths that may be too scary to deal with can work as metaphor, digested by the young if we help them face their own shadows.
Do you think contemporary storytellers can use mythic narratives to share hard truths without simplifying complex issues or becoming a morality tale? Do you have any favourite writers who do this?
IY: Oh yes. One of the things about traditional myths, fairy tales, and coming-of-age stories is that they are often dark and grotesque. I’m not talking about dark and edgy. I’m talking about truth. The world is not an easy place, and sometimes it is scary, and in order for stories to have staying power, they must be true enough to reflect that complexity and darkness, out there and in ourselves.
That is what really drew me to Le Guin as a kid. Her Earthsea books are technically young adult fantasy, but they deal with very adult ideas—the need to acknowledge our shadow selves, the burden and responsibilities that comes with freedom and knowledge, the eternal struggle of having to face one’s own mortality. I read a lot of stuff as a kid and have forgotten most of what I’ve read. The Earthsea trilogy stayed with me always and has shaped who I am and what I do today. I still get a lot out of rereading those books.
NB: Who are your favourite writers and what do you most admire about them?
IY: It depends on my mood. My go-to, of course, is Ursula Le Guin. As I mentioned, her stories, characters, and life philosophy have been anchors for much of my adult life. If I’m in the mood for joyful and luminous writing, I’m going to go with anything by the late Brian Doyle. He loved life and all its wonders and it showed in every word and on every page. If I’m going for sheer imagination and flights of fancy, probably Italo Calvino or Donald Barthelme—they really know how to take a concept and fly with it. Orwell for his eagle eye and ugly sensory descriptions. He’s the best at describing smells, by the way.
I have others that I love but I haven’t read enough of their works to call them favourites.
NB: I contacted you this summer because my ten year old daughter was panicked after seeing something on the web about humans becoming extinct in twenty years. I knew you would be able to recommend a book for her (and you did! We love Elin Kelsey’s Not Your Typical Book About the Environment).
As someone who writes about environmental concerns, is it difficult to maintain hope when you know what the research tells us about our devastating impact on the planet?
IY: 2017 has been especially hard for sure. It’s been hard to be optimistic in such a climate. But I think I gain solace and strength in just being a witness. Whether we are faced with a personal tragedy or a planetary one, I think to learn to look into the darkness and endure it, to write through the grief and to express it in the closest and truest way we can, is a very powerful act. That in itself can be a solution, especially if we can tell that story in a way that hits home.
NB: Do you have any techniques to share with writers who worry that telling a difficult truth may bog down a piece or make it “too much” or “too heavy” for a reader to want to stay with?
IY: I think to get at a difficult truth is often why writers write. Obviously if you’re writing for children that might be a bit different (David Sobel, a renowned environmental educator, has a saying of “no tragedies before nine”). Other than that, give your reader some credit. If that hard truth needs to be told, then your job as the writer is to build around it in a way that is impossible for the reader to put down.
Orwell is actually a great example of an author who tells hard truths in an unflinching manner. “Shooting an Elephant” explores so many uncomfortable things but is absolutely spellbinding to read. It’s probably one of my favourite personal essays of all time.
The day after our chat Isaac sent along this link to an interview with Christopher Merrill on the role of writers when it comes to climate change. Thank you, Isaac!
I’ll be sharing one more conversation about truthtelling with brilliant writer (and former CNF Outliers student!) Karen Zey very soon, and have an exciting theme in mind for my blog next month. I hope you’ll stay tuned!