10 Questions for Amy Yee
- By Edward Clifford
Inside was an older Asian man of medium height and build. His head was shaved to a salt-and-pepper stubble. Square, silver-rimmed glasses perched on his gentle-looking face. He wore a white tank-top undershirt and a dish towel thrown over one shoulder. The man was busy cleaning up after cooking what smelled like cabbage soup. . . I realized that Mr. S, the guesthouse owner, had shut the kitchen door to block out the smell — and the sight of this man making his lunch.
—from “Searching for Walter,” Volume 61, Issue 1 (Spring 2020)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
I took a creative writing class as an undergrad at Wellesley College. I was honored when a couple of my short stories won college prizes. One of them won a national short fiction prize from SUNY Stony Brook. I had sent the story to the contest as an afterthought, forgot about it, and was floored when I won. In addition to a generous cash prize, I flew to SUNY Stony Brook on a little prop jet and gave a reading. Looking back, I’m amazed they did this for college students since that treatment is reserved for select literary celebrities. This happened long before social media and I didn’t know then how to sustain that momentum. But it was huge personal validation that kept me going for years. I am grateful for SUNY Stony Brook, donors and organizers of contests for providing these sparks. That helped me during the bleak times that ensued.
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
I will deliberately select works across genres—from literary journalism to travel writing, from historical fiction to narrative poetry—to recognize work beyond literary circles.
For narrative nonfiction, Ryszard Kapuscinski’s Shadow of the Sun, blew me away. His essays about Africa are based on 40 years on the continent as a journalist. They are lyrical in thought and style, and timeless. I wish more magazines and literary outlets published this kind of literary journalism but most nonfiction tends to be personal essays. I enjoy those types as well, but the world is literally on fire, so it’s remiss to not have creative nonfiction that explores the challenges of the external world.
Peter Hessler’s book River Town beautifully captures China with complexity, empathy, and humanity. It showed me the enormous potential for blending sociology, history, and personal experience to bring people and places to life.
Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer is a nonfiction masterpiece. I read an interview with Krakauer about his copious notetaking while reporting Into Thin Air, and read the same about Hessler’s diligence. I started to see my on-the-ground experiences as having value.
The Places in Between by Rory Stewart is a striking narrative about walking across Afghanistan. But it thankfully veers from the mold of stereotypical travel books by white men with colonial mindsets belittling other cultures. In that same vein, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families by Philip Gourevitch is a stunning example of narrative journalism. It combines incredible reporting about the Rwandan genocide with artful writing. I don’t know if these last few examples influence my writing, but I aspire to write with that same balance. And they showed me the possibilities of narrative nonfiction and the potential for impact.
I would like to see more literary nonfiction with an international or travel bent by women. For example, Cheryl Strayed tops my memoir list. I first read an essay by her in The Sun. I didn’t know who she was but was stunned by her writing. Turns out that piece in The Sun was an excerpt from Wild. I started reading H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald and, impressed by her elegant explorations of interiority, I discovered (perhaps unsurprisingly) that Macdonald is also a poet. I also love This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff – another masterpiece of a memoir that Abby Erdmann, my other stellar high school English teacher, introduced to me. Looking at narrative nonfictions, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is also an impressive blend of narrative nonfiction, social justice, science writing, history and more.
I read The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B DuBois in a high school class taught by my stellar English teacher Beth Thompson, and his seminal concept of “two-ness” still influences me today. That foundational idea of two-ness was enriched when I read Fernando Pessoa in a class with Honor Moore. Pessoa’s concept of heteronyms was the foundation for my (unpublished) collection of poems. I read other poets who have learned their craft under teacher extraordinaire Donna Masini at Hunter College where I received my MFA in Poetry. I was struck by Philip Levine’s focus on labor and respect for the working class. Levine’s poem “They Feed They Lion” is breathtaking for its visceral power and language. Another masterpiece, this time in one page.
I admire Kenneth Koch for his humor and new ways of considering objects and experiences and Elizabeth Bishop for her sharp details. I have tried to write poems emulating her. I also love Gerard Manley Hopkins for his gorgeous language and adoration of the world.
Finally, the ghazal is my favorite poetic form.
Some fiction highlights: I read Cynthia Kadohata’s novel Floating World in college and was amazed by her lyrical, poignant writing. In 2018 I stumbled across Kadohata’s young adult book Kira-Kira in the library of my friend’s school in Kampala, Uganda. That book brought me to tears. It was intriguing to learn that Kadohata had crossed genres and now writes young adult books. Lois-Ann Yamanaka’s novel Heads by Harry and her poems in pidgin beautifully let new voices and stories be heard.
I was awed by Life of Pi by Yann Martel. When I finished it, I thought, ‘This is what a novel is meant to do.” I admire writers who use their imaginations to create new worlds. Snow Falling on Cedars is an impressive contemporary epic novel. At a reading with author David Guterson many years ago, I admitted I was wrong for presuming that a non-Asian could not write about the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War Two.
What other professions have you worked in?
I’m a journalist most of the time. For most of the past decade, I’ve been writing articles from India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Africa after many years in New York City. I specialize in writing about solutions to social problems, such as climate change, reducing deaths of children from disease, creating jobs to reduce poverty, and more. (No pressure.)
I was also an English teacher at a college in China, a research assistant to a professor who is now the president of Morehouse College, and communications advisor to the founder of a microfinance company in India. My very first jobs as a child were dog and cat sitter and babysitter (full-time during summers!) In high school I worked for a fruit store and memorized scale/cash register codes for fruit: 103 for clementines, 66 for navel oranges, 1 for MacIntosh apples, etc.
In college I worked in the bursar’s office and got a crash course in talking on the phone and dealing with people who were angry or stressed about money. I also worked in a cheesecake shop and as a teaching assistant at a summer school. I wrote my first journalistic articles during an internship at the Wellesley Townsman when local newspapers were common instead of endangered. I interned at various publications in the Boston area, including The Atlantic. I scooped up free review copies of books that no one wanted, of which many of the remainders were by Asian-American authors. The food editor had a weekly supply of comp biscotti delivered to the office.
What inspired you to write this piece?
Mr. Wang (a pseudonym) was such an unusual and unexpectedly inspiring backpacker. He was 61 years old, spoke zero English but was traveling solo in Serbia and Bosnia to fulfill a childhood dream to see Sarajevo. The reason he was enchanted with the city was so moving and told a poignant story about the turmoil of China’s Cultural Revolution. Multi-cultural Sarajevo, with its population of Muslims, Catholics and Orthodox Christians, is a crossroads. But the unexpected element of it becoming a crossroads for people from mainland China was endearing and timely.
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
I’ve been traveling a lot in recent years (18 countries in 2018) and have written while on the move in so many places. My favorite place to write was a gazebo overlooking the turquoise Indian Ocean of Kenya on one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. I unexpectedly lived at that beach for three months but was incredibly productive and healthy.
As for a place that influences my writing – place figures very prominently. A lot of my poems are set in New York City where I was living during my MFA, though many are also set in places I traveled to: Peru, Hawaii, Cambodia, Maine, etc.
I lived in India for seven years, one of those in Dharamsala. I wrote an (unpublished) nonfiction book about Tibetan refugees whom I met in that Himalayan hill town and India are in a big chunk of my nonfiction writing.
I wrote a novel, half of which was set in Nanjing, China where I lived for two years. That novel is also unpublished.
Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
When I was writing fiction, I sometimes wrote to classical musical. Until a few years ago, I could write journalism and nonfiction while listening to public radio (NPR or WBEZ in Chicago). That seems so alien now. Now I need silence. I prefer working in libraries. Cafes are too loud. Poetry is the only writing I find enjoyable and not excruciating. I can write scraps of poems almost anywhere because they are shorter, like sprints, rather than long-distance running that requires mental stamina.
Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
First, I procrastinate by reading news, emails, checking social media etc. Social media is the worst because it is endlessly distracting. Then I make a cup of strong black tea with milk. Then I bite my fingernails. I would love to get into a routine where I don’t use the internet until 12 pm after a few hours of writing. I can write articles and in my journal in all kinds of conditions. For long narratives, though, I need silence, space, and time.
If you could work in another art form what would it be?
I would love to be a musician. I am in awe of people who can sing or who can pick up an instrument and transform moods and transport people. Music is so universal.
I love the sound of the cello but if I had to choose an instrument it would be guitar, portable and egalitarian. I have a lot of memories of sublime guitar singalongs on an island in the Nile River, terraces in New Delhi or a bar in New Hampshire. My vice is watching videos of pop/rock musicians over and over.
What are you working on currently?
Most of my creative writing has been on hold this year during an intense master’s program in public policy. I should be working on editing and finishing a long narrative non-fiction piece about saving sea turtles in Kenya, where I was embedded with an environmental conservation group on the Kenyan coast for five weeks. I witnessed some truly remarkable turtle rescues and incredible work. But there just aren’t many outlets to publish a piece like this, which is one reason I’ve been procrastinating for so long. What happens after a piece is finished is another uphill journey.
What are you reading right now?
I re-read some essays in Shadow of the Sun, to get inspired to work on my turtles non-fiction piece. I recently saw the writer Ha Jin, whom I met ages ago. He is a lovely person and so prolific. His novels War Trash and Nanjing Requiem, set in the college where I taught English in China, are on my list. I have never read Walden in spite of growing up nearby, so this is the perfect time to read it.
I also recently finished a couple novels while recovering from Covid and pneumonia. I read People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks because I was writing an article about the Sarajevo Haggadah and interviewed her.
Then I read her novel Caleb’s Crossing, inspired by the first Native American to graduate from Harvard in 1666. I haven’t read much historical fiction, so I was surprised that I really enjoyed being transported back centuries – 15th century Spain, 18th century Venice, 17th century Martha’s Vineyard, etc. I was impressed by how characters in these distant eras came to life. I became addicted to returning to those other worlds to escape from the stress of reality.
During quarantine I re-read Seventh Son, the first book in a fantasy series by Orson Scott Card that reimagines colonial America infused with magic and supernatural forces. It amazes me when writers can use their imaginations to invent new worlds and realities. Genres like fantasy get overlooked in literary circles.
I’ve been struck by Kevin Prufer’s otherworldly poems. I bought his book at a reading in January at the Grolier Poetry Book Shop in Cambridge, Ma. The tiny poetry bookstore was so jampacked the windows fogged up. Seems like a distant world.
I heard Marilyn Chin perform her poem “How I Got That Name” from memory at my first AWP conference in 2019 and was awed. It was also so special to hear Maxine Hong Kingston read a poem she wrote as a child in Chinese. I heard Diana Khoi Nguyen read her striking poems – literally breathtaking - at AWP. Just before lockdown I heard Ocean Vuong beautifully read poems at Harvard Art Museum. These poets will be on my list for next visits to the Woodberry Poetry Room at Harvard, or the Poetry Foundation library in Chicago, or Poets House in New York.
I look forward to the day when we can once again travel and enjoy, in-person, libraries, book stores, readings, conferences and participate together in literary life.
AMY YEE is a writer, journalist and poet. In 2019 she was a fellow at the MacDowell Colony and the Logan Nonfiction Program, where she wrote "Searching for Walter" in a room with a view of snow-covered trees. She has had three Notable Essays in the Best American Essays and poems in Salamander, Memoir, Bayou, Tiferet Journal, Santa Ana Review, and Fourth River under a pseudonym. Her poetry collection was a semi-finalist in the 2019 Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize and the 2019 Crab Orchard First Book Award.