Sound & Vision: Seattle Poet Shin Yu Pai on Her New Book 'Enso', the Legacy of Pat Suzuki, Combatting Racism Amidst COVID-19

Interviews, Sound and Vision
05/28/2020
Emily Fox

Throughout the month of May, KEXP is joining the national celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (APAHM) in partnership with the Seattle Asian Art Museum. In conjunction, we’re spotlighting API artists as well as artists from Asian and Pacific Islander countries. Find out more here.


Shin Yu Pai is a poet and visual artist based in Seattle as well as the poet laureate for the city of Redmond from 2015 to 2017. She’s published eight books throughout her career, including her latest poetry collection Enso, which weaves together stories of love, loss, identity, and so much more.

Sound & Vision’s Emily Fox talks with Pai about Enso and delves into some of the particular stories she relates in the book. From the legacy of Seattle cabaret and musical theater singer Pat Suzuki as well as her own experiences with racism and micro-aggressions. Pai also reads a recent work she published on anti-Asian bias and racism during the current coronavirus pandemic.

Listen to their conversation or read a transcript below.

 

KEXP: So this month, KEXP is celebrating Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and we're amplifying the voices of Asian and Pacific Islander artists. And you kind of do the same in your book, 'Enso.' You explore the story of Pat Suzuki. Tell me more about Pat Suzuki and who she is.

Shin Yu Pai: So Pat Suzuki was a nightclub singer who came into her own or grew her reputation by singing in nightclubs in Belltown. Originally, she came to Seattle when she was on tour for a theatrical performance. It was at the Moore Theater and it was in for a show called 'The Teahouse of the Autumn Moon.' And she was cast in that show as a "minor Oriental." She ended up leaving and abandoning that show and singing in local nightclubs where she gained quite a reputation.

She was just this really incredible figure of an Asian-American musician who was making it and at one point, she was lured away to sing on Broadway. Rodgers and Hammerstein cast her in 'Flower Drum Song' and she was cast in that theatrical performance as a stripper. So she performed in that musical for, I think, a couple of years and ended up leaving Broadway because it wasn't necessarily the way in which she wanted to be seen or to perform.

I understand she then turned to cabaret. Where cabaret instead of Broadway, Broadway you're telling other people's stories or fictional stories, what have you. But in cabaret, you're able to tell your own story in your own voice, which is what she ultimately turned back to and I understand.

Yeah, I think it was a sort of turn towards a kind of performance style that would allow her to be herself versus to emulate roles or to serve in roles that didn't speak to who she was as a human. Her history as an artist was very interesting to me because, as a young person, she was interned as a child in Camp Amache, one of the Japanese internment camps that resulted from the Second World War. And I think that for her to have overcome that adversity and to have gone on to an incredible professional career really spoke to me about her resilience and her talent.

 

I think her particular story resonated a lot for me when the Rendezvous Theater came to me and asked me if I would write a piece for their history cabaret about local characters associated with Belltown history. They handed me this huge packet of information about all the different sorts of characters and people that had populated the neighborhood and of the hundreds of pages of research material.

It was Pat Suzuki's story that really stood out for me. And I think that's in part because, like her, I am an Asian-American woman. I thought really that there is something important about telling her story, embodying it and really reflecting upon it in terms of what it could, I think, reveal to me about maybe my own aspirations or the possibilities of my own career or practice.

Listen to Pai read 'Chibi' here at the 3:55 mark.

Going back to your book 'Enso,' you explore racism and biases against Pat Suzuki but you also explore racism and microaggressions of your own within this book. Tell me about the story of your neighbors you had in Texas and the story the Confederate flag that you write about in 'Enso.'

So I had just moved to a small town called San Marcus outside of Austin, Texas. It was either two or three days after moving into our apartment complex, our neighbors across the way put up a Confederate flag on their balcony. I found it absolutely appalling. But having lived in Texas before and traveled a little bit in the south, I know that there is a particular culture around these kinds of symbols that are somehow justified or made okay or acceptable.

And so I lived next door to a neighbor who proudly displayed this symbol of hate. I think it was something that I kind of turned a blind eye to until a very good friend of mine from high school had come to visit me. She happened to be African-American. And as we were walking up to the third-floor landing of my apartment, she caught a look at the Confederate flag and she really freaked out. And I had this realization – she doesn't feel safe, she's never going to come to visit me again, how is it that I don't feel that this is a huge problem?

So, you know, it was a complex issue because you want to get along with your neighbor and to be convivial or to get along or whatever. And so there is a point where I knew my husband and I would be leaving Texas for other opportunities. I had some long conversations with the apartment management company about that symbol and how it made me feel, because I'd seen other people of color in the apartment complex and I thought surely this must feel uncomfortable for other people besides myself. But the kind of reaction that I got, you know, they were pretty neutralized, biased types of reactions like, "It's just the flag. It's cultural. If we banned Confederate flags and we couldn't allow people to hang up national flags of Brazil and China or World Cup teams." This is kind of crazy rationale.

So when we were gonna move out from the apartment complex, I made one last attempt at trying to articulate my dissatisfaction with their response. And I don't know if my apartment manager had a conversation with my neighbors or how that all went down, but we had traveled out of town and while we were gone, I checked my work email at Texas State University where I was working as a curator and there was a very threatening email in my inbox from an email address that said like 'Confederate Flag 2009' or some weird anonymized type email that basically threatened my life. Somehow these neighbors or allies of theirs had found me and were telling me that I needed to stop complaining and talking about their Confederate flag or something would happen to me. It was a very sexist and threatening email that really made me feel terribly unsafe to come back to Texas.

So yeah, I filed a complaint with the police department and that didn't go really well. They took a very long time to follow up, maybe on the order of a couple of months. And when a police detective finally showed up at my door one day unannounced, [he] came in and told me that he had talked to my neighbors who [he said] seemed like really good old country boys and that they seemed pretty dumb in terms of that they probably weren't smart enough to send an email threatening me from an IP address that originated in California because we were in Texas. And that these "boys," these "country boys," were under great duress and stress because they'd been fighting with one another because they were not trusting one another and accusing one another of maybe committing this crime. And on top of that, it could mean that their education could be compromised and they could be kicked out of school.

So they were turning on each other. And then he went so far as to tell me that the Confederate flag just has a different meaning in those parts and that it just didn't mean the same thing to Yankees, basically. So I remember that detective very clearly. His name was Detective Poor Boy.

 

Throughout this book, there are also other instances that happened either in Redmond or in your life in and throughout the book, you kind of ask the question, "Is this a hate crime?" Or "Is this more than aggression?" Here at KEXP, we're currently celebrating Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and amplifying voices in the Asian Pacific American community and a big push for us is to focus on those voices right now because of xenophobia and hate crimes we've seen towards Asian-Americans during this Coronavirus outbreak.

When we think about some of the things that have happened locally or even nationally when it comes to hatred towards Asian-Americans, especially during this pandemic. I'm curious if you felt like you've needed to ask yourself the question, again, "Is this more than a microaggression" lately? Or "Is this a microaggression?" more lately than you have before in your life?

I wouldn't say more than other times in my life. I feel like the experience of racism and bias in Seattle is quite a bit more sophisticated and coded than it is in other parts of the country. In places like the South, super clear. Somebody who's got a Confederate flag or somebody spits in my direction. And that's a very clear aggression. I think that the kinds of things that occur in Seattle can be much more subtle and may, to a degree, draw upon the model minority myth or stereotypes about what Asian-Americans may be as upright citizens or certain kinds of erotic objects, for instance. So the kind of biases that are experienced here are quite different. Lots of microaggressions all the time.

I think more than that, on a personal level though, with the Coronavirus and the shelter in place orders, I think some of what we see playing out now are a lot of social impacts and economic impacts for communities like the International District. So the Association of Businesses closing or suffering and taking a huge loss in business, whether it's restaurants or small businesses in the Chinatown I.D., those come very directly from people's fear about the idea that the virus is associated with a certain ethnic group or a certain place.

And so can one say that that is anti-Asian? Yes, absolutely. But I think it sort of takes a more sort of critical ability to think about why it is these communities that may be suffering more than others.

You actually wrote a poem about the Coronavirus lately. Could you read that for us?

Yeah, absolutely. If I could just also say a little bit about kind of how the Coronavirus is impacting Asian-Americans. I do feel that there is a lot of fear and anxiety that that Asian-Americans are carrying right now, this feeling of deep alienation. Having to look at the fact or the reminder that we're constantly reminded that we don't fit in, that we're foreign in some way.

So I think that that is a kind of experience that results in a deep racial grief, to be honest. And that is something that's hard to explain in some ways. I mean, on one hand, you can talk about fear and you can talk about anxiety and the sort of tangible kind of felt experience of being in fear or experiencing a hate crime. But something like racial grief, that's a little harder to unpack.

But I think that the poem that I wrote, 'upaya,' I think does attempt to look at that in some ways. Upaya is a Buddhist term that means expedient means and, said another way, the idea of expedient means is a kind of idea of right speech or that a teaching has to be framed or delivered in a way in which the listener can receive the teaching or the lesson.

So it is a poem about how we communicate and it is a poem about compassion and how we love others during this time of coronavirus. And I can talk a little bit more about it after I read it.

Listen to Pai read 'upaya' at the 15:50 mark here.

What inspired you to write this poem?

The circumstances of my domestic life [laughs]. I think we were maybe a couple of weeks into the coronavirus and negotiating, my partner and I, who's going to the grocery store [laughs], who is running this errand. And I have a lot of anxiety right now about being out in the world and my safety. And I don't always speak it or say it but I think my husband certainly knows that I'm consuming a lot of negative mass media. Some of the stories that I have shared with him about a stabbing of family in Texas, the acid attack on an Asian-American woman in Brooklyn. My husband reads in between the lines.

I think that this time of coronavirus is also a time of moving more deeply into loving and appreciating one another. So there was this moment in my marriage where my husband could have just taken away my agency and said, you know, "I'm going to the grocery store." But instead, he did this thing, it was really skillful, where he said to me, "I'm really worried about you." And, you know, my mind is always running around, so I'm like, "I have no idea what you're talking about. You worried that I'm going to contract coronavirus or that I've got like a sketchy immune system? What are you talking about?" And he said he was worried about my safety.

He is not Asian-American, correct?

Yes. He is not an Asian-American. He is Caucasian. We are a mixed-race family. And he intuited or knew enough from how I behave or the things that I say or don't say that I was carrying enormous anxiety. But instead of taking a little my choice, he let me know how much he cared for and loved me. And there was a lot that was unsaid. But there was this moment for me of my seeing and appreciating his love and action.

So there is something powerful to me about the way in which he chose to communicate with me. And I think likewise there is a communication in the poem that takes place with my son, who is 6 years old. So at an age where the line "I am so bored" actually comes from my son because he is tremendously bored during this time [laughs]. But he's in this stage of childhood development where it doesn't all make sense logically what we're going through and all of the different dangers that are out there besides coronavirus.

My son, for the most part, can pass as white, but when he's with me, his Asian features are much more pronounced and obvious. He takes pride in being Taiwanese or Chinese and that's important to him. He has a Taiwanese or Chinese name as well. And I think that there was this time where in thinking about his own safety and about bullying and about the kinds of things that are happening to young people right now because they're hearing messages from their parents or from our president about where this virus comes from and who has it and what's causing it, that there's a lot of bullying going on right now.

And so I think that this message that I am trying to communicate in this poem, it's a kind of lovingness towards my son in terms of wanting him to be careful about his own safety. But there is this kind of turn in the poem too because it's also me talking to myself about the need to hide one's own identity in a very hostile time, which is a very complex issue. To erase oneself is to do violence to oneself, for sure. But there is this sort of complexity right now where it's not safe to be who you are.

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