In conversation with… author Yi Shun Lai

Author Yi Shun Lai tells us about her fascinating new novel which reimagines the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration with a woman on board.

In conversation with… author Yi Shun Lai

Author Yi Shun Lai tells us about her fascinating new novel which reimagines the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration with a woman on board.

In conversation with… author Yi Shun Lai


Author Yi Shun Lai tells us about her fascinating new novel which reimagines the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration with a woman on board.

Yi Shun Lai is a writer and educator. Her latest project is her debut young adult novel A Suffragist’s Guide to the Antarctic. She’s also the author of the novel Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu and a memoir, Pin Ups

Yi Shun also publishes her “noodlings on creativity, productivity and more” regularly on Medium and you can find her on her website The Good Dirt. When she’s not writing, she teaches in a master of fine arts program where she specialises in creative writing and publishing. 

We caught up with Yi Shun to chat about, among other things, her fascinating new novel set in Antarctica. 

Your work covers a wide range of topics. Where do you find your inspiration?  

Oh, gosh. Everywhere! Internally, by some serious navel-gazing. Externally, by just keeping my eyes – and ears – open. It’s a common misconception that writers are naturally creative people. Some of us are just excellent eavesdroppers. Er, I mean, really good at paying attention. Here’s another misconception: Writers write what we know. This writer writes what she’s curious about, whether that’s what’s going on in my own life or a thing that happened in history that won’t let go of my brain. 

Yi Shun is a writer and educator (Credit: © Mimi Snow)

For this book, it was a combination of the two. I’ve been low-key obsessed with both the Antarctic and the topic of leadership for a long time now. I’m also a stickler for equity across the board and it rubs me wrong that women never had a chance to participate in the Golden Age of Exploration, just because the people in charge had no imagination.

Do you prefer writing fiction or nonfiction? 

That’s like comparing apples and wristwatches. They’re completely different beasts and I love the writing of both equally. I also find they inform each other, to a greater extent than you might expect. Fiction is often drawn from real-life events and experiences and when I write nonfiction, I think about the characters that are populating the work and the plot that’s inherent within any story. 

Tell us about A Suffragist's Guide to the Antarctic.

It’s exactly what it sounds like: a young American suffragist decamps for the British suffragist movement in 1914, only to arrive just as they’re seriously considering abandoning the cause of women’s voting rights to support the British effort in WWI. Frustrated, she signs on to a cockamamie Antarctic expedition (her words, not mine!). She thinks the Antarctic is the perfect level proving ground for a woman to demonstrate her worth.

A Suffragist's Guide to the Antarctic (Credit: Simon & Schuster)

But when their ship gets locked in ice and sinks, the fragile place she’s built for herself crumbles and now the stakes are much higher. This book is her diary as she navigates survival of two kinds – as the sole woman in a crew of men and as a person trying to survive the Antarctic. The book’s events are pegged to the events of Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. 

What was it like to tackle a huge legend like the Endurance expedition/Ernest Shackleton? 

Terrifying. In general, I respect explorers, provided they show respect toward any existing populations and I admire Shackleton’s drive toward class equity among his crew members. But then I remembered that there were women who applied to go on this expedition and others like it and who were turned down just because they were women. Writing this book was an opportunity to imagine what might have happened. 

I thought a lot about the harassment women are still undergoing when pursuing the careers of their dreams, in the environment of their dreams. That loaned me bravery.

And finally, I remembered I write fiction and so this expedition can be its own thing. The characters in any work of historical fiction go on to be their creatures, quite independent of their inspirations and that’s a cool thing to feel happening.

Have you visited Antarctica? How did you do your research? 

I have visited Antarctica, aboard a cushy French cruise ship. Obviously, I enjoyed it but I longed to extend my stay and do some work that would help me to contribute to a greater understanding of it. We got to visit the Chilean base! I’ll always remember hearing, in the wind, the sound of a base resident practising their saxophone. You could hear it through the walls of their container home. 

Yi Shun with her father in Antarctica (Credit: Yi Shun Lai) 

My research for this book (I didn’t know it’d be a book then) started twenty years ago, with my first-ever reading of Alfred Lansing’s Endurance. I also did a lot of research and thinking about leadership and what it is; and what it means. 

I dove deep into the British and American suffragist movements.

I visited the Scott Polar Research Institute’s archives. I went to Dulwich College and visited the James Caird and their Ernest Shackleton papers, which is where I learned that Sir Ernest and I have something in common: we both have near-illegible handwriting.

While I was at the James Caird, I met a man whose father had been on a later Antarctic expedition and he invited me to his home to go through his father’s papers. And I read every single crew diary I could get my hands on. It was such a remarkable time – such a privilege. 

Finally, I lived in Chicago and ran lots of cold-weather foot races. One five-miler we did clocked in at -40°C! Brr!

You were once invited to be a crew member aboard an Antarctic cruise ship – how did that work out?

This was the coolest thing ever to happen to me: the French cruise line I visited Antarctica with invited me to become a naturalist aboard their cruises. They liked that I was fluent in English and could speak French. Plus, I was learning Mandarin at the time and they specifically wanted me for the burgeoning Chinese cruise population. (Nothing I was learning in my classes, though, covered seals, whales, tourism, or how to not fall off a Zodiac dinghy. It would have been a whole new set of vocabulary.)

In the end, I didn’t end up going: the timing for the six-week trial period coincided with the pre-publication of my debut novel and I absolutely had to be stateside to make sure the publicity ran okay. 

Tourism in Antarctica is a thing I’m deeply mixed about. There’s a treaty in place to help alleviate the massive strain tourism puts on any eco-system. A lot of that treaty addresses educational efforts specifically geared toward tourists. But I don't think it’s not doing enough. And I know that some people I went to the Antarctic with still don’t understand the very real threat the environment is under.

Do you still have a dream destination you haven't visited? 

Whenever I visit my home country of Taiwan, I end up on a relative-driven restaurant tour. I love that – eating is a national pastime in Taiwan. But my dream trip there would be to bicycle the perimeter of the island. And hike its mountains. (I’ve never visited a lot of places in Taiwan. My family sees me as foreign, but not as a tourist, so I don’t get to, er, tour.)

And I’d love to actually set foot on Elephant Island. Also: Greenland, Scotland, Colombia, Singapore, Malta, Latvia, Estonia and Finland…What was the question, again? 

What's next for you?

I’m working on a Western mystery, another work of historical fiction. This one’s set near Death Valley, California. I’m also working on a romantic comedy. Plus, I’m learning to longboard! I’m terrible at it! It’s okay, I have a helmet. My university students think I’m pretty cool until I put it on.

Yi Shun in Death Valley, California (Credit: Yi Shun Lai) 

What luxury item would you take if you were working at Port Lockroy for the season?

Oh, if I got to work at Port Lockroy, I really wouldn’t care what I had with me. No, I lie. Matching underwear – since we’re talking luxury – is really nice. In another life, I do some disaster-relief work. No matter how long and arduous and emotionally taxing the day; no matter how long it’s been since a wash; no matter how grubby I am on my outer layers; if I’ve got matching underwear on, it helps me with some sense of order. 

I know, it’s silly. And maybe that’s a huge part of it, too: If I can inject some absurdity into my day, it somehow helps the big stakes feel a little more bearable. Oh and maybe a pair of Crocs, one of those really ugly, faux-fur-lined pairs. Shut up! Squashy, non-slip soles!!!

Finally, what’s your favourite species of penguin? 

I love any form of crested penguin with their Gonzo feathers. Rockhoppers, Macaroni, crested…

But if I have to pick a penguin that lives on the Antarctic continent or peninsula, it’d have to be the gentoo, flippers down. I love that they look like they’re wearing little headphones. Hey, if we got the gentoos and the crested guys together, they’d look like they were in a punk-rock band.

Who doesn't love a Macaroni punk rocker? (Credit: Charles Bergman/Shutterstock)

You can order A Suffragist’s Guide to the Antarctic here. The audiobook will be available soon, too! 

In the UK, my book will be out on 28 March and you can order it from bookstores everywhere then. You can preorder from Waterstone’s, for instance, here! Or – and this is one of my favourite options – you can ask for it at your favourite local library or independent bookstore!

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