Photo courtesy of Daniel Carrillo.
Ballard poet Shin Yu Pai.

Ballard poet Shin Yu Pai finds home in Seattle, nominated for The Stranger’s Genius Award

By Emile Monte

The Stranger is notoriously supportive of the arts, profiling up-and-coming artists and putting together a schedule of the entire city’s events related to local artistic production every week. This attention culminates in their annual Genius Awards, in which the arts are divided up into 5 categories—Visual Art, Performance, Literature, Music, and Film—and the pool of talented local artists is identified and painstakingly narrowed to just 15. Ballard lays proud claim to Shin Yu Pai, the one and only poet to be nominated this year.

Pai is not originally from the Pacific Northwest, but Southern California. School and work took her across the United States and the world—she’s lived in Madrid, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Taipei, and Seattle. The experiences she’s accumulated during these various relocations have inspired her work. Where her themes were first ideas about identity, spirituality, and the intersection between visual art and poetry, later her work evolved toward social engagement and current event. The poem “Burning Man” from Adamantine is a good example: a bloodless protest / to awaken the heart / of the oppressor … the orange-robed / arhat folded in / the stillness / of full lotus / his body withering / his crown blackening / his flesh charring / his corpse collapsing / his heart refusing to burn / his heart refusing to burn / his heart refusing to burn …

Pai agreed to meet between her 9-month-old son’s feeding schedule at Café Fiore, the organic coffee shop a short walk from her home in downtown Ballard. Since becoming a mother, Pai’s life as a writer has undergone yet another evolution. For starters, she recently chose to return to the Pacific Northwest and settle into “home.” In all her travels, Pai has found that her work has been embraced in Seattle faster and more extensively than in any other city. Hugo House provided her with a venue to read and teach, For Culture provided her with funding, The Stranger’s book editor, Paul Constant, “has been very supportive and encouraging,” and often drops her name in his articles. But beyond the culture of acceptance and encouragement that she’s encountered here, Pai chose Seattle because she wanted to raise her son here. “I am in an interracial marriage and I wanted to be in a community where my children could feel accepted for who they are.”

Her time to write, like everything else, now falls between her son’s feeding and napping schedule. Going out in the evenings to give readings is problematic for the same reason. But more than anything else, motherhood is turning Pai’s poetic attention back on her personal experience. “I’m working on a manuscript that will either be called ‘First-Born Son’ or ‘Birth Order.’ In traditional Chinese culture, women occupy a very low status, while boys, particularly first sons, are elevated to a revered position in the family. There have been many times in my life, when I took on male traits and responsibilities that were rejected by my older brother. From a traditional perspective, when I married, I severed ties with my family of origin and became a part of my partner’s family. When I gave birth to a first child and son (who is also the only grandchild for my folks), my status as a woman instantly changed in the fulfillment of a filial duty and role, in becoming ‘mother.’ Women don't become mothers by simply giving birth. I'm interested in turning traditional beliefs about gender on their head and think a lot about the ways in which I hope to raise a son to fully respect and value women. I want to explore these ideas in my work.”

Pai is up against graphic artists Gary Groth and G. Willow Wilson in the Literature category. Never having met either rival competitor, Pai is familiarizing herself with their work and only has complements to dish out: “I hope to read the work of the other Genius nominees before the awards ceremony in October. I came to know Gary's work with Fantagraphics through the work of David B, whose graphic novels I deeply admire. Gary seems incredibly brilliant and I’m inspired by the range of work he supports. I know that Willow has written a memoir and work for young adult audiences.” They will meet head-to-head to present their work and be interviewed by Paul Constant on August 27 from 5:30-8:15 p.m. at the Frye Museum. It will be the second installment of the Five Nights of Genius showcases taking place August 20 through September 17. A winner from each category will receive a $5000 prize. Tickets may be purchased at http://fryemuseum.org/program/genius.

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