I had the pleasure of meeting Isaac Yuen at a Climate Change and Storytelling panel in West Vancouver, which I sat in this year on Earth Day this year–along with author Claudia Casper and climate solutions educator Deborah Harford. Isaac runs Ekostories, a fascinating site that has a vast amount of essays written to reconnect humanity and nature. A first generation Chinese-Canadian, Isaac Yuen’s work has been published in Flyway, Orion, Zoomorphic, River Teeth’s Beautiful Things, Tin House Online, among others. He is the creator of Ekostories, an essay blog that connects narratives to themes of nature, culture, and identity. Isaac lives in Vancouver, Canada, on the unceded territories of the Coast Salish people.
Mary: Thanks for taking the time to chat. We met at a “Climate Change and Storytelling” panel on Earth Day this year. What did you think about the panel?
Isaac: I enjoyed the diversity of perspectives on that panel. I had met Claudia Casper, one of the panelists, a few weeks back at the Iceland Writers Retreat – she was teaching some of the workshops while I was an attendee. We got to chatting one morning and discovered we were both Vancouverites keen on the role of storytelling around environmental issues.
I also identified with the moderator Deborah Harford, Executive Director of the Adaptation to Climate Change Team at the school of public policy at Simon Fraser University. I did my Masters in Environmental Education and Communication, so I appreciated her take on the challenges of discussing complex topics like climate change. And then of course you, Mary, with all the work you do online at Eco-Fiction.com in highlighting and promoting environmental authors. It was a great mix.
The panel touched on a lot of things I’m interested in, particularly the ability for story to open doors for change. Preachiness is one of the major barriers to affecting change, but stories are a sly way to get around that, to get people seeing things differently, to embody the perspectives of others through exercises of empathy.
I also enjoyed the discussion around the need for both hope and despair in environmental narratives. My affinity for dystopian tales has grown in recent years, perhaps because those worlds so closely mirror the reality we increasingly find ourselves in. Yet in that bleakness there exist characters working in ways large and small to forge a better future. That’s inspiring to me.
As a writer, another takeway I got from the talk was the role of art as witness, of how the act of recording can stand for itself and serve as an imprint for the times we live in. That’s important, too, especially now.
Mary: You run Ekostories, a site with essays connecting nature, culture, and self. What is your background in writing, and when did you open this site?
Isaac: I started becoming interested in creative writing while working on my thesis–I found that I was doing an ethnographic study and I enjoyed the process of listening to personal stories and constructing a larger understanding around them. I started Ekostories in 2012 as a way to connect the stories I hold dear to themes of nature, culture, and identity. In 2013, I had the fortune of working alongside two local award-winning writers, poet Renee Saklikar and short fiction writer Maria Reva at the Southbank Creative Writing program. Since then I’ve tried to hone my craft by attending writing conferences and workshops, including Bread Loaf Orion in 2015 and the Iceland Writers’ Retreat this year, all the while working on Ekostories. I can’t believe it’s been almost six years since I started the site!
Mary: I notice you seem to be quite inspired by Ursula K. Le Guin. You also draw from the works of filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, and food and nature writer Michael Pollan. Why these three? And what other artists/authors are you inspired by?
Isaac: Le Guin’s stories, characters, and life philosophy have served as both beacons and anchors (in a positive sense) for much of my life. I was first drawn to her as a kid through her Earthsea series; they combined great worldbuilding with thoughtful explorations of big ideas, like acknowledging one’s shadow, or dealing with the responsibilities of freedom, or dealing with one’s mortality. As an adult, I discovered not only her science fiction worlds, which need no introduction, but also her essays and translations, which less people know about. Ekostories grew primarily out of a need I had to articulate, for myself and for others, why I love her work. There’s a sure grace in the way she weaves her tales that resonates with me; I am in awe of her care with language, never wasting words.
Hayao Miyazaki is another major childhood influence. I watched Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, which is a great environmental film, when I was five, maybe six. I remembered being moved for the first time, and that stayed with me. Twenty-plus years later, I discovered Miyazaki had penned a graphic novel series under the same name and was blown away by this huge sprawling ecological epic. So I began to delve deeper into his work, the themes he gravitates towards and struggles with. Interesting man. Complicated.
Pollan was one of the first popular nonfiction writers that got me thinking about the historical roots of nature and culture. Everyone loves The Omnivore’s Dilemma and his subsequent works, but what really inspired me was one of his earlier books titled Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education. It’s a very personal narrative; I identified with his exploration of the various connections humans had with nature, why they are the way they are.
As for inspiration from other artists/authors, it depends on my mood. If I’m looking for joy and wonder in words, I’ll go with Amy Leach and the late and great Brian Doyle. If I’m going for sheer imagination and flights of fancy, I’ll pick something fantastical by Italo Calvino or Donald Barthelme, because they know how to take an idea and soar with it. Orwell when I need courage and clarity. I also go back to some of the art and music I’ve written about on Ekostories frequently: Edward Burtynsky’s photographs on manufactured landscapes, Charlie Harper’s minimalistic animal illustrations, Christopher Tin’s music that combines language with water, and so on.
Mary: You do most of the writing on your site. Have you ever had guest authors? How often do you write, and are you working on any longer projects, such as a novel?
Isaac: Since Ekostories is my space to piece together the connections I have between story and idea, I tend to generate most of my own content. I do encourage comments of course, and I’ve had some interesting conversations from readers over the years.
I’ve been slowing down in terms of generating content for the site over the past year, partly because after a hundred plus essays, I need some time to recharge and find stories I’m genuinely interested in exploring on a deeper basis, and partly because I’ve been working on other creative projects. Besides essays and short fiction pieces for literary publications, I’m also working on a personal essay collection manuscript and a prose chapbook centered around the idea of giving voice in the non-human world. Novels aren’t my preferred medium as I love short and lyric prose, but perhaps one day.
Mary: As I pointed out to the readers earlier, we met in Vancouver earlier this year. I find that Vancouver is a good place to reflect on nature and our connection to it. I think partly it’s that the city is beautiful, with all the water coming in and out of it and the green places, such as Stanley Park. The beautiful cultural art of First Nations is all over the place. But it’s really when I get out of the city that I’m just overwhelmed with the sea, rainforest, and mountains. What are your thoughts on this, and what are some of your favorite nearby places to go to?
Isaac: Sometimes I feel undeserving of this incredible place I now call home. I grew up a few subway stops from Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong, which at one time had the highest population density in the world. Then I moved here to Canada by the ocean and the mountains and the park in the middle of the city and the seals swimming in the harbour. And I got used to it. It sounds so absurd, but it’s true. So sometimes I like to go away, to places without these qualities, so when I return that awe of the natural beauty that surrounds me every day can sharpen into focus again. That feeling doesn’t last though. I wish it did. So yeah, I don’t think I answered your question. The only thing I know is that I don’t deserve this, any of this. Yet it exists anyways, and that’s what I strive to be grateful for.
Mary: I think you do deserve it! Thanks again, Isaac, and best of luck in your future endeavors.