Reviewed by Katy Lewis Hood
â€”Sun Yung Shin, â€˜Unbearable Splendorâ€™Â (Coffee House Press, 2016)
Beginning a book sets anticipation against possibility, in a negotiation between the known and the unknown. But Sun Yung Shinâ€™s â€˜Unbearable Splendorâ€™ is full of beginnings, making reading a continual surprise. In a striking interweaving of poetry and essay, etymologies brush up against adoption certificates, and quotations jostle with myths. As many of these beginnings have been lost, forgotten, or erased, the nature of origins is always a question in this book. Shinâ€™s resistance to offering a definitive answer allows her to make connections that are sometimes dizzying, often lyrical, and always thought provoking.
Spanning centuries and continents, Shinâ€™s subject matter ranges from black holes to Blade Runner to Korea. â€œKoreans, according to their creation myth,â€ she tells us, â€œare descended from a male god and a female bear.â€ She quotes some online information about the myth, calling attention to the religious and colonial means by which it came about. She then adds: â€œI feel myself from a young age to be all bear, no god.â€ Embedded within the bookâ€™s title, this â€œbearâ€ is gendered by myth and by history, making up a vital component of Shinâ€™s lyric â€œIâ€. Such an â€œIâ€ is complex, figured and refigured through her negotiation of the complexities of her position as an Asian-American adoptee, a woman, a daughter, a mother, a writer. As the text unfolds, so does identity.
Significantly, identity in â€˜Unbearable Splendorâ€™ is not singular but multiple, as Shin continually seeks ways â€œto love the word we more than Iâ€. Again and again, she looks to â€œthe plural formâ€ as a means both to acknowledge difference and to suggest the possibility of collectivity. For transnational adoptees such as Shin, a collective identity is often denied â€” socially, culturally, and even technologically. She writes:
In Microsoft Word, â€œadopteesâ€ is underlined in little red Vs that look like the stitching that ran across some of our dresses when we were younger. Red, forbidden, dangerous, bloody.
For Shin, thinking of language as rooms inside rooms, or as pieces stitched together, allows for imagination, emancipation, and play, even where personally or politically sensitive topics are at stake:
Orphan is a gorgeous word. Sublime. The first syllable or reminds me of gold ore, or simply the word or, which means the possibility of alternatives, the certainty that another choice is to follow the little word or.
Where speech has been made difficult, Shin turns again to the â€œlesser and slighter, minor and more secretâ€ elements of language, the first syllables and little words. Throughout â€˜Unbearable Splendorâ€™, she demonstrates that these elements contain treasures and possibilities, â€œoreâ€ and â€œorâ€. The accumulation of such moments builds a quiet, lyrical â€œsublimeâ€, as â€œoreâ€ and â€œorâ€ steadily translate into their homophone: awe.
Leaving traces of its own continual metamorphosis, the book is an echo chamber, a hall of mirrors. â€œYou are already in it. It is home and tomb. Womb and veil. Wall and wail.â€ Not only do sounds build upon sounds, but stories build upon stories, creating shared, shifting, accumulated histories (and herstories).
In amongst these stories, the â€œbearâ€ of myth and title emerges as an other amongst others â€” the host of clones, monsters, and cyborgs that populate the text. Each of these characters is an â€œuncanny guestâ€: slightly strange, disquieting, â€˜un-home-likeâ€™. The uncanny appears â€œlike a second person inside usâ€ at every turn, making links between sections, acting as structural principle. It connects dream to memory, and end to beginning. It replaces stable, bounded individuality and linear narrative progression with the â€œpartiality, irony, intimacy, and perversityâ€ of Donna Harawayâ€™s cyborg subjectivity, quoted as the epigraph to the book.
In â€˜Unbearable Splendorâ€™, then, Shin turns our attention back to the source: of life, of identity, of stories. Complex yet compelling, the book asks to be read and reread, to test Shinâ€™s claim that â€œthe opposite of what is familiar is infinite possibilities of startling encounters.â€ Coming to the end of the book, I return again to the beginning. Back on the very first page, I read: â€œThere is a limit to canniness, but not to being uncanny â€” it is infinite, ë¬´í•œ, mu han.â€ Such a line cuts across languages and identities, and yet it creates a rhythm. In â€˜Unbearable Splendorâ€™, Shin configures and reconfigures this unconventional rhythm, as the â€œslipperiness of a shared timeâ€.