ROAR Spotlight #5: Yi Shun Lai

Yi Shun Lai is an editor and writing coach based out of Southern California. Her debut novel, Not a Self-Help Book: the Misadventures of Marty Wu, is in its fourth printing from Shade Mountain Press. She is the nonfiction editor for the Tahoma Literary Review.


ROAR: Who is a feminist you wish the world knew more about?

YI SHUN: Can I have three? Here are some women I believe are doing, or did, important things:

Michelle Nijhuis’s daughter thinks Bilbo Baggins is a girl. So Michelle ran with it. And why not? This is one of those things I wish people would do more of. Asking “why not?” and seeing where that takes you is one highly effective way to show activism. Plus, Michelle is a powerhouse in the world of science and nature writing, where I always want there to be more women.

Phoebe Snetsinger was a birder. I found out about her via a Google Doodle, I think, and have had her in the back of my head since then. She was highly privileged (the daughter of advertising powerhouse Leo Burnett) but she used her privilege to crack a field that was dominated by men: birding. Sure, it’s a leisure activity, so why do I feel she’s a feminist? Mostly because she did what she loved to do, despite terrible things like a melanoma diagnosis and birding being a man’s world back then; and also, because she died doing it. See? It’s easy to be a feminist. Just close your eyes and ears to everyone around you and do what you love. Riiiight. (c.f. Nellie Bly; Margaret Mead; Jane Goodall.)

One more, okay? Madame Felix Mimose is a woman I met while on deployment to Haiti on behalf of a disaster-relief agency I volunteer for. She stayed behind with her father when the rest of her family decamped to the United States; she learned everything she could about farming; she later worked for the Ministry of Agriculture, and now she has a not-for-profit called GRAPHES. It feeds her local community, and has provided lunches for 80,000 local schoolkids. It also teaches women how to be carpenters. Before that, it taught women to be construction foremen, but then Mimose realized people don’t like women to be construction foremen, so she rolled with that punch and taught women a skill-set that would jive with the culture of her community. Her not-for-profit doesn’t have a web site. I wish it did, so I could ask you all to donate.

ROAR: What does activism look like to you?

YI SHUN: Asking “Why not?” as the women I list above have. Trying something new and different, regardless of calcified knowledge. The bar is low, I know. But people forget about these very human, very useful urges that can be used for greater good, even if that good looks hyper-local.

ROAR: What are some concrete actions that feminists with privilege could take to be more intersectional and inclusive?

YI SHUN: Here’s what I’m doing:

Reading more about other cultures.

Making an effort to meet more people and have consequential conversations.

Asking questions about the parts of diversity I don’t have personal experience with.

Shelving default indignation and misplaced pride in favor of genuine interest.

ROAR: What are some concrete actions that you believe allies can take to support feminism and feminist work?

YI SHUN: I’ve spoken to a good number of people who consider themselves allies over the past few months on deeply uncomfortable topics, and I think two critical items are this:

Get over your discomfort.

Shelve your indignation.

Start there. Then ask questions. Go ahead. I don’t mind. And if I don’t know the answer, we can find out together.

ROAR: What’s the most rewarding thing you’ve ever done, artistically or professionally?

YI SHUN: I learned to loaf. Sometime in the last two years, I figured out that letting my brain ostensibly rest while it’s watching some CW action-hero show is the best thing I can do: turns out, we’re always noodling in the background, so long as we have something to noodle on.

Oh. You mean concretely. I volunteer for a disaster-relief agency called ShelterBox. We work in tiny teams in highly stressful situations, and putting interpersonal skills to work in those situations and having to be highly observational, especially about oneself, has made me a better professional and a better person in countless ways. I don’t think everyone needs to do something like this, but there is an equivalent for everyone.

ROAR: What’s next?

YI SHUN: My work-in-progress, a second novel entirely unrelated to my debut, is eating all of my background attention and causing a reasonable amount of what I think is angina. And I’m still visiting book clubs and college classrooms for my debut novel.


Rachael Warecki is a native of Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review, the Masters ReviewMidwestern Gothic, the Tahoma Literary Review, and elsewhere. She is a graduate of Scripps College and Loyola Marymount University, and holds an MFA in Fiction from Antioch University Los Angeles. For more information, visit her website or follow her on Twitter.

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