Scratching Until You Find the Itch: A Conversation with Yi Shun Lai


In the new memoir Pin Ups, Yi Shun Lai writes about her early search for belonging, identity, and community. With humor and candor, Lai examines her unique path to outdoor sports, pushing against the lack of diversity, cultural, and gender norms.

Along with Pin Ups, Yi Shun Lai is the author of the novel Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu. She teaches in the MFA programs at Bay Path and Southern New Hampshire Universities. She has her certificate in diversity and inclusion studies. You can find her on the web at thegooddirt. org, and on Twitter at @gooddirt.

We spoke recently about Lai’s journey to writing Pin Ups, representation in sports and literature, finding your voice, and early inspirations.


The Rumpus: Pin Ups began as an essay; can you talk about the genesis of the idea?

Yi Shun Lai: The book starts in high school. In college, people were introducing me to the mountains and outdoor sports and took me up Mount Baldy when I had no idea what I was doing. Meanwhile, I was faking it the whole time. I didn’t understand where I got this urge to explore because it wasn’t encouraged by my family.

It was just so odd for me to keep on trying to explore and fail and explore and fail. You could say it’s twenty years in the making. It wasn’t until I heard about [my friend] Erik doing a solo canoe trip down the Mississippi and got angry over the fact that he, a white male, could take a trip I’d be interested in taking if I weren’t an Asian female. That’s when I realized that’s what this is about. [Laughs] Maybe the reason that I keep on seeking these things is because it’s something I’m not supposed to do. It was about being irked or piqued by something and not knowing quite where to scratch, and then scratching and scratching until you find where the itch is. Then pursuing that until you get to the bottom of the matter. Not so much an idea, more like a long process.

Rumpus: What’s interesting is that you kept with it.

Lai: There is a theory out there that your brain doesn’t hand you something to handle until it feels like you’re holistically ready. When it came to sport, it found me when I was needing to find some grounding in my life. I gravitated to it when I became a young adult. The people around me all happened to be a part of that world. I stuck with it because I enjoyed the feeling of, not so much the feeling of preparation, but race day itself. I love the sentiment of everybody getting together, moving towards a single goal, and celebrating the same thing. That kind of unity is fantastic. It’s not something you get very often in everyday life, is it?

Rumpus: Did you think this project would become a book?

Lai: I thought I would go for a well-known publication [for the essay], but it became a little bit more precious to me than that. It became a thing that I felt people would enjoy passing on and holding.

It was very much a piece of me. I heard from one woman who’s the Imam at her mosque. She told me that my book is the first they’ve read in the mosque book group that’s not by a Muslim author and has inspired the women in the mosque to go out and find their own outdoors, even if they’ve never been on a bicycle before.

Have you read Angela Duckworth‘s Grit perchance?

Rumpus: I haven’t.

Lai: She won a MacArthur Fellowship for her work on Grit. Grit, in her world, is the single best predictor of success in any way, shape, or form. The book talks about the factors of grit, one of which is having a higher purpose. She says, this book is the best way I know of taking you out for coffee and telling you everything I know. When I think about Pin Ups, that’s what I’m trying to give to people. The sentiment that they’re not alone and to give them a semi-permanent form they can take and literally stick in their pocket or handbag and carry around with them all the time.

I have two goals with Pin Ups: The first goal is to get people pointing at the lack of representation in the outdoors. I don’t want you to necessarily have to do anything about that. It’s a huge problem. I’m working with some guys on diversity and inclusion right now in the outdoor industry. They don’t know how to explain it to other people who aren’t working in this world, that the outdoors is a really, really white space and that’s frustrating to them. But if they can take this book and say, read this, here is one woman’s idea, then at least that way you can get people thinking about it. Just pointing at it and saying this is a problem, and how do we fix it?

The other thing I wanted to do was to get people to see that the world of literary nonfiction is not inaccessible. It is the best and cheapest way to get to know somebody else’s experience. It’s also the most enjoyable. So, for all of those reasons, book form was what it ended up being. [Laughing]

Rumpus: In Pin Ups, you wrote about Mole from The Wind in the Willows and how that character resonated with you because you were sort of lost, looking for home. You were searching, like Mole. What is important about seeing yourself in literature? Was Mole one of those moments for you?

Lai: I think voice is something a writer finds their way around to. I’ve heard of writers finding their voice by engaging in some copy work of authors they like and admire. Eventually, when they step away from that work, a kind of amalgamation appears of those voices they’ve been copying, and then something entirely their own appears. Reading, intaking, absorbing—these are all parts of finding one’s own voice. It’s a huge process. As we learn, our voices shift to accommodate that learning, too. I’m not sure it remains static for very long.

As a consumer, Mole definitely was the first character that I identified with. I felt lost and wanted a cool friend, like Ratty. I was also thinking about Jo from Little Women, who loved to read and was always a little rough-and-tumble.

For a long time, I really thought I could be a white writer. It was, for me, that old refrain of I don’t want people to look at my ethnicity. I want them to look at my work and want them to believe that I can be measured along with the same yardstick as all those other people. And, all of those other people were white. It was about subject matter. It’s not so much that I didn’t see myself on the shelves. I didn’t see representations of Asian American authors on the shelves.

It’s more like no situation truly described my own situation. When I was about seven, I told my mom I wanted to be on the masthead of Vogue. She said, oh, at some point in time I wanted to be a writer, too. But that’s just a pipe dream, it’ll never happen, writing is too hard of a career. I was seven, so everything felt possible, and I just remember feeling so crushed that she had this other life, this other desire.

I knew I always wanted to be a writer, so I never really shifted from that. But I didn’t think about writing characters other than people who looked like Jo March or like Mole until The Joy Luck Club came out. Then it was, Oh, these are stories! [Laughs] These are the things that make novels! I thought I was always going to have to write in this other space that I didn’t really know where people said rather all the time and they went inside for a spot of tea and everybody wore winter clothes all the time and ice skated.

So then, after The Joy Luck Club, it was Amy Tan, kind of. This is a person that has done what I’d like to do. So, it’s a bit more nuanced than I didn’t see myself on the shelves. But the whole oh, I can’t be a white writer thing is something that I’m continuously grappling with.

Rumpus: Your recent article, “From the Front Lines: Wanna Write More in 2021?” gave writers pointers on how to do just that. What other advice can you share?

Lai: I just learned a new technique from Twyla Tharp, a choreographer. She’s won a Guggenheim Award for her choreography. And, she’s written a book called The Creative Habit.

When she gives talks, she will often start by rummaging around backstage for a random piece of anything like a found object, and she’ll bring it up on stage and set it in front of the audience and say, you have two minutes to come up with sixty uses for this stool or matchbox or whatever it is and the audience has to come up with ideas.

What she said is that inevitably the first ten or fifteen uses are always very mundane and boring. By the end, they’re coming up with more and more creative uses for these things. So sometimes I’ll do something similar to that, where I’ll look at an object. I keep a bunch of random objects on my desk. I have a stack of rocks I’ve collected from places. This one has a hole in it. So, my way of doing the Twyla Tharp exercise is to look through the hole in the middle of this rock and hone in on one object and see what I’m actually seeing. So, I tend to zero out all the other stuff. 

I’ll try to think of different uses for different objects and see where that goes and that will often spin me in a different direction. But most often I will get up and go to my drafting desk and doodle something and that helps. To be able to force your brain to see things in a different way is really useful.

The best tip I can give to people who are stuck is to confine yourself, find some way to constrain yourself so that your brain isn’t wandering everywhere. The other piece of advice is totally, completely opposite. It’s just to let it go. Right now, we’re in 2020, the dumpster fire of a year. Things are going very, very badly. What I have found recently is that I have been reaching for the low-hanging fruit, the stuff that’s easy. I have not been able to find the wherewithal to do the things that take a lot of deep thought. That’s okay, for a while. Your great idea probably isn’t coming to you because you’re holistically not ready to handle it right now. Something in your life isn’t ready for you to sit down and take three hours to bang something out.

I think it’s important for us to be in tune with why we may be reacting the way we are. Stalling takes a lot of different forms for a lot of different people. For me, it consists of writing new queries or, tinkering endlessly with something that doesn’t need tinkering. Revisiting old writing and getting angry over it. [Laughs]

The two objects are completely different. You either constrain yourself or you let yourself go. You just have to be cognizant about what you’re doing with your time and how you’re feeling. Those two things are pretty important for me to be aware of.

Rumpus: Respecting whatever way you’re going.

Lai: Tracking back to Grit, Angela Duckworth talks about one of the key components of grit being purpose. That purpose is something that is beyond yourself. You’re not writing the book just to make yourself feel good. You’re writing it because you think it will give somebody else a new perspective or it will help someone to feel better or something.

For whatever reason, there is some kind of external thing that is attached to the work that you’re working on, which is one thing that people overlook when they think about their goals. We think about goals as in I’m going to make a concerted effort to support a great many more not-for-profits this year. That’s fine as a goal. But it’s the interstitial goal. Because there’s an overarching goal on top of that.

So, look for that higher purpose and if you can nail it down and find it. We’re not going to say that goal is never going to change. If you can find that higher purpose, that will allow you to move on from whatever position you’re stuck in.

Rumpus: In the past year there seem to be more calls for work from BIPOC creators in publishing, and more opportunities for submissions and manuscripts. When the Diversity Baseline Study was done in 2019, there didn’t seem to be a real change in publishing as far as the industry’s whiteness. Do you think this year has made a difference? Will things look different next year?

Lai: Change is slow, right? That survey, basically, detailed the people who are working in publishing. It doesn’t talk about the number of books that have been published in only one demographic just yet. 

I think the proof will be in the pudding. I have a friend who lives in England, and she asked me why it was that folks were so upset about there not being enough persons of color in sport when all she sees on the playing field are people of color. I said that’s a really, really good question. Because what you don’t see is where the money is. The people who are in power are the ones who make all the decisions. They’re effectively moving around all these persons of color, just like they did in the olden days. And really nothing has changed because the power is in the upper echelons. One of the major publishing houses has hired a person of color as their CEO. And that’s fantastic.

More and more, you do see more persons of color in editorial and gatekeeping positions. At the end of the day, we’ll have to take a look at the types of books that are coming out. More calls for marginalized narratives are fantastic. It’s what happens at the end of those calls. When you get the influx of a lot of marginalized perspectives—and let’s be very clear here, we’re not just talking about ethnicity and race, right? The number of disabled writers who get told no. The number of LGBTQ writers who get told no. It’s not just the writers themselves. It’s subject matter. It’s the people who are living these lives, who get told that their narratives are unbelievable, who get told that their narratives are undesirable. That’s what’s damaging.

I just picked up this great feature in the New York Times. It’s a breakdown of the persons of color versus the white people who are in power. These are police chiefs in the United States, of the biggest cities, because you can see there’s a really strange number of white chiefs proportionate to persons of color. So, why is our policing a problem?

The reason I point this out is that even though you have people of color who are in positions of power here, this is the policing system. This is a system within which we have a lot of problems here in the United States when it comes to diversity and inclusion. It is possible that a number of these people have bought into the narrative of white superiority and who can’t see around the cultural smog that is infiltrating our lives. I know I grew up believing that white was better in some way, shape, or form. 

Even though we’re doing better at calling for narratives by writers of color, we still have people in power who might believe that these narratives are a little bit too out there for the general public, either because they’re not going to make money or because they’ve never seen these narratives before. But I know that my own reading list is way more diverse since I started paying attention to it.

We’re making progress, but I’ll be eager to see what’s on the publishing lists, who’s on the frontlist in 2022, 2023, when these books start getting published. I do think it’s getting better because at the end of the day we all need to feel like our stories are worthwhile. When we see more calls for our work that makes us feel good; it makes us feel that there’s room for us.


Photograph of Yi Shun Lai by Mimi Snow.

Tamara Jong (she/her) is a Montreal-born mixed-race writer/cartoonist of Chinese and European ancestry. Her work has appeared in Anomaly, Carte Blanche, Room Magazine, The New Quarterly, Invisible Publishing, and Body & Soul: Stories for Skeptics and Seekers. She is a graduate of The Writer's Studio (Simon Fraser University) and is working on a memoir. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram as @bokchoygurl. More from this author →