—Isaac Yuen on reading for Tahoma Literary Review, writing narratives for lasting change, and creating his essay collection Utter, Earth
I first met Isaac Yuen through TLR’s submissions queue. His flash essay “Lodestone” is an affecting snapshot of a time and a place and a family. Since then, Yuen has become more than a contributor. He has become part of the TLR staff as associate fiction editor. The lead essay in his debut nonfiction book Utter, Earth (West Virginia University Press, fall 2023) just won a Pushcart Prize. He’s got a lot going on.
-Ann Beman, Co-Publisher & Nonfiction Editor, July 2022
What do you look for when reading fiction for TLR?
Confidence in vision and execution. If you want to pen a quiet, understated story, make sure it is as intimate and nuanced as it can be. If you have a story based on an absurd premise in mind, lean into the ridiculousness and take things as far as they will go. Commit fully. Write with joy and follow that flutter in your heart.
The general advice to writers is to focus on strong openings and closings, and that is of course sound. But the more I read submissions, the more I find how tricky and interesting it is to construct a strong middle. Usually these stories involve some form of reconfiguration—a veering off, a deepening down, an expanding out—that surprises and stays with me.
I had the great privilege of reading and selecting for publication your essay, “Lodestone,” for TLR’s Issue 13 (fall/winter 2018). Thus, you started your journey with TLR as a contributing essayist. Tell us a little bit about your different phases of TLRness.
I had been a fan of TLR for some time prior, having been drawn to the publication’s commitment to compensating writers and providing instructive feedback. I still remember former editor Yi Shun Lai and you providing me with some much needed encouragement to continue submitting. (Fourth time’s the charm!) Writers so often send work out into the seeming void; that little bit of validation goes a long way.
I also had the pleasure of meeting the TLR crew at AWP Portland in 2019, having been invited to do a reading of “Lodestone.” That was really fun. Later, when current fiction editor Leanne Dunic approached me to come aboard as an associate fiction editor, I was glad to accept. Leanne and I had plans to collaborate on another literary venture years back that didn’t pan out. This second chance seemed like the perfect opportunity to finally work together.
I’m grateful to TLR for the chance to contribute to the literary community. It’s amazing how much creative energy there is in the writing world. Reading a great submission is rejuvenating. Flipping through the latest issue, I find that I still get a thrill at seeing stories I loved in the Submittable queue realized in print.
What incited you to write Utter, Earth?
The germ of Utter, Earth came while I was volunteering at the Beaty Biodiversity Museum at the University of British Columbia. I was putting together an impromptu presentation for visitors and wanted to tell the stories of organisms that have gone relatively unchanged for a very long time. From the lab cabinets, I scrounged for specimens that fit the theme—a coelacanth cast, pressed gingko leaves, fossilized shark teeth—and tried to link their histories through storytelling.
It was important to keep things light since the presentation was for a broad demographic; that sensibility carried over when I decided to turn it into an essay. Eventually the piece morphed into “Life Lessons of the Odd and Ancient,” which was published by The Hopper, an environmental literary magazine managed by my friend and fellow nature writer Jenna Gersie. Later on at a writing residency through the Jan Michalski Foundation, I had time to delve into this tone and decided to work on a full collection.
At what stage in the publishing process with the book are you right now?
I’m currently working on the first draft, with an intention of completing the manuscript by the fall. Publication is scheduled for the fall of 2023.
What would you like readers to take away from Utter, Earth specifically?
Utter, Earth is an attempt to convey the riotous wonders that abound on this planet we call home—its life and multitude of lifespans, all their comings and fadings. I like to pitch the collection as a kind of “earth jazz,” riffing along the boundary between the human and natural world, improvised through wordplay and earthplay.
My intention with the collection is to weave and juxtapose discoveries with language; literary devices with pop culture references; absurd scenarios with poignant takeaways. The title was inspired by Speak, Memory, the memoir of novelist and entomologist Vladimir Nabokov, hinting at a similar occupation at the intersection between science and art.
What are Ekostories?
My website Ekostories began both as a writing practice and as a way for me to connect the stories I loved with ideas around nature, culture, and self. After finishing my Master’s in Environmental Education, I came to the conclusion that narratives are instrumental for affecting lasting change. I began penning essays to explore the stories across a wide range of media that held special significance to me (I began to term them Ekostories), all the while trying to keep to a regular publication schedule.
The project was and still is dear to me. There are now over a hundred essays on the website, and today it serves as an archive both for those past explorations and my current creative work that have found home in other places.
What is “Crafting with Ursula”?
“Crafting with Ursula” is part of Between the Covers, a Tin House podcast hosted by David Naimon. The series invites authors to engage with the late author Ursula K. Le Guin’s work in relation to their own.
I’m a lifelong Le Guin fan (a large segment of Ekostories are devoted to her stories), so when David approached me to explore three of her lesser-known short stories through the lens of nature writing, it was a no-brainer.
Our conversation revolved around various modes of embodying nature, on centering the focus on the more-than-human world while appealing to human minds, and on wielding language to showcase new and old ways of being on this world that is not so destructive.
Readers can listen to the amazing literary interviews David has done over the years HERE.
You have roots in two cities—Hong Kong and Vancouver. How have these places shaped your writing, and your perception of nature?
I am fortunate enough to recall two distinct childhoods in two different places. I find that having grown up in an urban environment, where pollution and degradation are woven into part of everyday life, provides me with an interesting perspective as a nature writer.
Everyone has their unique histories, rooted in place and life experience. To be sure, elements of loss, nostalgia, and displacement pop up from time to time in my work—“Lodestone,” for example, touches on all of those—though I feel there are many authors out there that explore these themes much better and in more depth than I can.
How would you characterize your writing?
I’m not sure! This might be a question that is better suited to others who have read my work. I would be very interested in their answers. The only thing I can say with some certainty is that rhythm is essential. The Virginia Woolf saying about the importance of finding “that wave in the mind” rings true for me.
From my perspective, I try to change things up from project to project, driven perhaps by the freshness of new readings or boredom of existing approaches. The notion of writing something that feels “right” in tone, idea, or shape is still nebulous to me. Maybe it will become clearer as I continue to write, but I also am quite content to live with that mystery.
What’s next? For this book? For you as an author?
Several of the essays I hope to include in Utter, Earth have been published in literary journals, so if you want to get a sneak peek of the book, feel free to check them out! (https://ekostories.com/tag/utter-earth/)
I’m currently co-authoring another essay collection titled, The Sound Atlas: A Guide to Strange Sounds across Landscapes and Imagination, with my partner Michaela Vieser. It’s going to be a book about the stories of unusual sounds—their natural and cultural histories, their bizarre origins and lasting impacts. We both love the style of The Atlas of Remote Islands by Judith Schalansky, so that would be a good comparable.
After these projects, I would really like to delve back into the fiction world and work on a short story collection, tentatively titled Our Museum of the Future, and Other Stories, that has been on the back burner.