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Jackie Henrion at Lake Pend Oreille in Washington & Sun Yung Shin. Photo by Uche Iroegbu
     (Left) Jackie Henrion at Lake Pend Oreille in Washington. (Right) Sun Yung Shin. Photo by Uche Iroegbu.

Writing Their Own Stories

by Lisa Birman

Low-residency students often talk about staying local as a major factor in deciding how to pursue their studies. Creative Writing MFA candidates Sun Yung Shin and Jackie Henrion both remain deeply engaged in their local communities while working on graduate degrees at Naropa.

Korean American writer and educator Sun Yung says she’s always wanted to pursue an MFA, but the timing just wasn’t right until now. Sun Yung teaches full time at Perpich Center for Arts Education, is an adjunct faculty member at Hamline University, and works with the Minnesota Humanities Center on projects involving professional development for educators. This summer, as well as attending her residency at the Summer Writing Program, she served as the Gale Public Engagement Fellow at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. That’s enough to keep most people busy, but only a fraction of Sun Yung’s work. “As a writer of color,” she notes, “I have to do everything because I and my work are not as legible to a wide readership.” 

Sun Yung is deeply committed to promoting the voices of writers of color. In 2006, she co-edited Outsiders Within: Writing on Transracial Adoption. Last year, she edited the collection A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota, an anthology of essays by sixteen indigenous writers and writers of color writing about racism in Minnesota. “After the wave of extrajudicial police murders of Black men and women, I felt I had to do something more to advance the work of racial justice in the state by bringing more voices into the mix and to a broader audience,” she explains.

Her third book of poetry, Unbearable Splendor, winner of the 2016 Minnesota Book Award for poetry, was published by Coffee House Press last year. “Unbearable Splendor is a book that for me was an attempt to explore a few themes—the politics of hospitality being the first. At first I wanted to rewrite The Odyssey. As I re-read it, the Robert Fagles translation, I realized how repetitive it was, which isn’t a bad thing for an epic! What struck me at the time as most interesting was actually how hospitality recurs as Odysseus has to rely on the hospitality of strangers so often. He is repeatedly addressed as ‘Dear, stranger.’ That led me to reading about the figure of the foreigner in Julia Kristeva’s work, and so on. All the influences of the book are present in the epigraphs throughout the text, so I think of the book as a conversation with these various ideas.”

Jackie Henrion’s path towards an MFA was quite different. After retiring as a purchasing executive in 1995, she embarked on a singer-songwriter career. Having grown up in Greenwich Village in the golden age of the folk revival, Jackie felt right at home gigging and producing her own work. In 1998, she released her first self-published album of original songs, followed by Mama Loose in 2008.

In 2013, Jackie started volunteering at KRFY, the independent community-supported radio station in Sandpoint, North Idaho. Within six months she pitched a show, Songs-Voices-Poems, and began broadcasting in October 2014. Jackie describes the show as “a live one-hour weekly show where I play songs that are poetic and poetry which is related by a theme.” With each show featuring ten to twelve songs and two to three poems, Jackie also occasionally solicits poetry at community gatherings, building local voices and interests into the show.

It was a feminist historical novel project that ultimately led Jackie to Naropa. In 2002, Jackie started collecting artifacts about a woman who owned a “hotel (with benefits)” in the early twentieth-century Inland Northwest. Last year, she says she came to the realization that “I knew enough to know that I didn’t know enough… I decided I wanted to get a more formal education about poetry and develop my writing skills to finally pull together my novel project.” Jackie has already experienced a number of important breakthroughs during her classes. Through Gabrielle Civil’s spring class, she discovered Gloria Anzaldúa’s anthology, This Bridge We Call Home. The anthology inspired her to explore work within her own cultural heritage, through which she discovered the writing of Emily Lawless and Else Jerusalem—both of whom share Anzaldúa’s and Jackie’s fascination with what she describes as “the space in between beliefs.” A class with Eleni Sikelianos at the Summer Writing Program added more fuel to the fire, introducing Jackie to hybrid approaches to memoir and novel writing.

As she continues to work on the novel, Jackie is hoping to “contribute to a bit of a renaissance or reintroduction” of Lawless and Jerusalem’s work. She’s engaging in critical analyses of their writings and is exploring the possibility of republishing Jerusalem’s novel The Sacred Scarab.

Jackie is particularly excited about how low-residency degrees work for non-traditional students. “I believe one way to stay young is to challenge myself with new situations,” she says. “The contemplative philosophy valued here also teaches me compassion for myself when the new information is almost too much to absorb at once. Since there is no sense of cliquishness, it is easy to interact with the younger students. One of the students just taught me a simple approach to writing a critical analysis, which is something I had never learned before. I also feel as if my life experiences add to the discussions, as if I am a grandmother elder giving back to a community.” Naropa mini seal to end article


To keep up with Sun Yung and Jackie’s work, check out and tune into KRFY 88.5 FM Sunday nights at 7 p.m. for SongsVoices-Poems. To learn more about Naropa’s low-residency MFA in Creative Writing, visit