By Nina Huang
Northwest Asian Weekly
Texas and Arkansas aren’t known for their Asian Americans populations. Working and living there can be eye-opening experiences, as it was for Seattle-based writer Shin Yu Pai, whose latest poetry collection, AUX ARCS, releases in July. The collection encompasses her experiences living and working in the two states, spotlighting the strangeness and also the wonder and discovery, of the situation.
Her ninth collection of poetry, completed after two and a half years of work, AUX ARCS follows Adamantine, which was published in 2010 and inspired by Seattle and the Pacific Northwest.
Similar to her previous poetry collections, Pai continues to explore the Asian-American identity, including the East–West dichotomy, religious and philosophical overlap, and the relationship between visual arts and poetry.
Fittingly, the title is based on Pai’s departure from the South.
“AUX ARCS” is an old French way of saying “of or from Arkansas.” As Pai was leaving Arkansas to return to the Pacific Northwest, she passed road signs reading “Aux ARCS,” referencing the Ozarks Mountains.
“I began to feel this shifting of attention in which it became clear to me that there were subjects that I hadn’t given myself permission to write about when I lived in Arkansas and Texas,” Pai said, regarding her desire to write the collection.
Several of the central themes in Pai’s work center upon her experiences and perceptions of identity within a given place. Her work also focuses on timely and past historical events that have engaged her imagination. The 2008 China milk scandal makes an appearance in her poem “Milk Crime” and the silences around a legacy of violence appear in “Tienanmen Square, 2009.”
Spaced between the poems in the collection are a series of photographs. Dark and somber, they reflect the challenges Pai faced during her time spent in the South. They visualize what her poems communicate textually: that the cultural identity challenges that we may face help to shape who we become, and help define our individualism.
“Much of the collection relates to place-based writing but this doesn’t necessarily limit itself to the geography of the South, the book is also about the desire and longing to expand beyond the boundaries of place,” she said.
Also present in the collection is a more tender perspective, owing to the more personal poems, including “Six Permissions,” dedicated for her mother, and “Crater of Diamonds” for her husband, Kort. Pai appeals to the senses as she guides the reader through the memories of watching her mother sun dry homemade delicacies; reflecting upon her mother’s creative and innovative spirit. Pai tracks how her mother “coaxes blooms out of orchids / a woman who has never spent a second / of her being on the World Wide Web, / passes her days painting the diversity of / marshland, woodland, & shorelines.”
In addition to evoking imagery of and from Arkansas, “Aux Arcs” also suggests “a bend in the [Arkansas] river.” Pai saw her time living and working in the South as “something of a detour – a bend in my own trajectory or river.”
“It’s about coming to terms with living in a challenging place, and being open to the lessons that are available in any given time or environment,” Pai explained. (end)
Pai will be hosting a reading of AUX ARCS at the Hugo House on Sept. 4 and at the Wing Luke Museum on Dec. 5. For more information, visit www.shinyupai.com. To purchase AUX ARCS, visit www.laalamedapress.com or www.spdbooks.org.
Nina Huang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.