Featured Nonfiction Writer-Isaac Yuen
Updated: Mar 14, 2019
Hello bone friends! We're super excited to announce our first featured nonficton writer, Isaac Yuen. If you haven't gotten a chance to be wowed by his moving tribute to Ursula K. Le Guin, make sure to check it out here. Our nonfiction editor, Ashely Adams, sat down (metaphorically, through email) with Yuen to dig a bit deeper into Le Guin, names, and maybe also bones?
Ashely Adams: One thing we loved about this essay is the personal glimpse it gives us into the narrator’s connection with Ursula K. Le Guin’s writing. Could you tell us more about what inspires and draws you to her writing? Why write this piece now?
Isaac Yuen: Ursula was the reason I became a writer—full stop. I didn’t grow up writing and came to it late, but I did grow up reading, and reading her books especially. There’s a quote from an essay she wrote for Harper’s called “Staying Awake” that comes to mind:
"…If a book told you something when you were fifteen, it will tell it to you again when you're fifty, though you may understand it so differently that it seems you're reading a whole new book.”
I did that with her novels. I started listening to audiobook versions of Earthsea in my twenties and realized just how much I missed as a kid. Returning to those books was like visiting a new country and learning a new language. In hearing her work spoken aloud I learned how good writing should sound, and how prose can be lean and sinuous and musical and profound, all at once.
I started this essay a few months before Ursula passed away in January 2018. It was a big blow, losing a literary parent of sorts, and I shelved the piece for a while to work on more elegiac stuff. When I came back to it months later, I wanted to tie the piece to notions of passing on and legacy and most importantly, gratitude. Luckily, those heady themes were all there in the books she penned and the worlds she charted; I just needed to find and point to the thread of them.
More than any author, Ursula’s writing opens doors for me. Even now I know there are works of hers I’m not ready for just yet. In time.
AA: Much like the Earthsea series, this essay ponders the power of names. What do you think draws us as writers to names over and over?
IY: Naming offers us some measure of certainty and control. If we can name something we can condense it, delineate it, even master it. But what Ursula did so well always is in questioning foundations, even ones she herself constructed. Sometimes the act of naming can implicate, impose, and erase; sometimes it’s not a good thing.
There’s a scene in one of the Earthsea short stories called “Dragonfly” where a wizard attempts to control a woman by speaking her true name. But the woman is not only a woman, and her true name is not her only name. So she shrugs off the magic, transforms into a dragon, and withers the wizard to nothing but dry bones. I always got a kick out of that.
As someone who also pens fiction I need to be mindful not to try to control my creations too much. Naming is useful for charting and sounding, but it’s not the end-all and be-all to knowledge and understanding. Mysteries abound.
AA: I was really drawn to the structure of the essay. What was your process in creating this essay?
IY: I'm pretty lazy, so I usually need a compelling way into a piece before I’m willing to commit any energy poking around, which one needs to do for an essay. My exchange with Kim at the framing shop provided that entry point—even someone who knew nothing about this weird map of islands was spellbound by it. From there I felt there was a way to write outwards, for others who may not know Ursula's work, and for those very much in the know, like you Lammergeier editors.
The scenes came one by one, sometimes by book order, sometimes by personal experiences. Once I was inside the piece I was able to get a sense of what I was trying to say and how I wanted to say it. Next came the ordering, the transitions and interludes, and all the figuring out of ways the piece could go or needed to go. That’s the fun stuff.
I learned from a good writer friend that penning an essay is like holding a faceted gem up to the light, and turning it to see all the refracted paths leading to some core truth.
AA: A question I love asking writers—what are you reading right now?
IY: I’m trying to figure out a short story right now, so I’ve been rereading a few works I love for inspiration in atmosphere, dialogue, and rhythm: Sam Shephard’s “Indianapolis (Highway 74)” from The New Yorker, David Naimon’s “Acceptance Speech” in Boulevard, and appropriately, Le Guin’s “The Bones of the Earth.” That last one kills me everytime.
On the nonfiction side, I’m digging this beautiful hardcover book I won from a Twitter contest called The Antarctic Book of Cooking and Cleaning, by Wendy Trusler and Carol Devine. It’s about the first civilian environmental cleanup expedition in Antarctica, told through a unique blend of personal stories, journal entries, archival photos, and trip recipes. It’s a fascinating read for both its topic and structure.
AA: All right, the vulture team needs to know, what’s your favorite bone?
IY: I volunteer at a biodiversity museum with tons of specimens, so my answer to this changes on a regular basis. Right now it’s the nasal turbinates of a leopard seal. It’s this bone honeycomb inside the seal’s nose that helps regulate airflow moisture and temperature. Wild stuff!