“Everyone at every age needs this, but especially when you’re just starting out... If you don't see many people like you in the field that you want to be a part of, it's only natural to think that you there’s no space for you - and the dream can end there,” says Sennah Yee, the author of How Do I Look? (Metatron Press, 2017). “But when you DO get the chance to see people like you thriving, succeeding… it’s so inspiring!”
The twenty-six year old grew up in a predominantly white neighbourhood in Toronto. She is acutely aware of the way politics shape our work whether we want them to or not. As such, making her work accessible, as well as specific to her own lived experiences and beliefs, is a constant balancing act.
“I'm forever grappling with this in my life and my work - the opposing feelings of belonging and alienation, living in the hyphen of ‘Chinese-Canadian,’ and challenging what those identities outside of that hyphen even mean. I'm grateful to have grown up in a loving, supportive home. My family is everything to me,” she asserts. “I try to capture their tenderness and care in my work, and spread it around in my life.”
Her first children's book, My Day with Gong Gong, is coming out in 2021 with Annick Press, whose books she grew up reading. “It's a love letter to Toronto's Chinatown, and my own gong gong/grandpa who always wore a puffy vest with pockets full of treats.”
Sennah enjoys all kinds of treats - from movies & TV in bed (“rewatching Mad Men or something animated like Secret Life of Pets, or Arthur”) to eating cheese ramen (“with a perfectly soft-boiled egg”) to pole dancing… or even checking on her childhood Neopets account!
She attributes “growing up on the computer” as a huge influence on her work.
“Making online profiles forces you to decide who you are and how you want to appear to the world,” she says. “The internet made it easier for me to grow up inundated with pop culture, celebrities, and fandom - things I loved and still love, but that also made me insecure, shallow, and obsessive.”
Despite the fact that she, like many of us, finds “receiving carefully-curated emojis” quite romantic, Sennah finds social media deceiving. “I like to think I'm a ‘smart’ internet user but I let a lot get to me!” she muses. “I still catch myself marveling at how eloquent everyone is, and their consistently exciting and successful lives - and then I'm like, oh right, we're all curated; myself included!”
The young writer admits she can feel “useless and lazy” if she doesn’t have “a million jobs that cloud [her] thoughts” day and night. She acknowledges imposter syndrome can permeate any field. “I have trouble remembering that my worth does not lie in how productive I am or how much I succeed at work,” she tells me. “And I can get obsessed and paranoid about money in my work life, likely because I know my creative work can’t support me.”
That being said, Sennah is not preoccupied by labels. When I ask about her preferred brands, she laughs, “I don't know if I have any aside from Muji, whose pens and pants are my vice! Is Dollarama a brand?”
Sennah is interested in directing her time and energy towards setting both personal and collective goals to support worthwhile causes. “How can I learn to sit with my power and privileges and use that to empower others?” she wonders. “I'm scared of making mistakes as I try to do so, but I need to remember that sometimes that those mistakes are part of it.” Above all, she denounces “backwards, upside-down, and inside-out systems that leave people more helpless and hurt than before.” When I ask what gets her down, she replies, “Thinking about the dark web, how I can only do so much as one person in one moment, and the fact that I will die both before and after my loved ones.”
There’s no getting past those realities.
On a brighter note, Sennah currently acts as the Arts Editor at Shameless, which she describes as her “happy place” and “a magazine for young women and trans youth with a focus on feminist and anti-oppressive politics. It's the magazine you wish you had as a kid - inclusive, informative, and caring.”
Keep reading to learn more.
RS: What would you recommend to someone looking to get into your craft?
SY: I recommend being kind and patient with yourself, and others. Give yourself time to figure out your own style, to make meaningful connections. Find/make space for yourself, in the community, and for others. And remember that you don't have to - and literally can't - go to everything, do everything, or be everything, for everyone! I've started to say "no" a bit more, which sounds silly, but setting boundaries with my time and energy is very scary, new, and important for me.
RS: What's a day in your life like?
SY: Wake up with my 18-pound cat on my belly. Fall asleep on my commute to work. I do outreach at Archive/Counter-Archive, a project dedicated to activating audiovisual archives by marginalized communities. Fall asleep on my commute home. Fall asleep while watching Netflix. Fall asleep with my 18-pound cat on my belly.
RS: What would you say are the most important elements of your writing?
SY: I try to write succinct vignettes, much like shots in a movie. I'm always looking to bring out patterns and parallels that are surprising, and yet were always there. Playing with hybridity is something I like to do; it's freeing! Humour is also an important element for me, even and almost especially with more serious subject matter. I always want my poems to land!
RS: By the way, what did you do in undergrad?
SY:I remember simply thinking, hey, I love writing, and I love movies, so the combination of that must be screenwriting, right? So I majored in that... but I wasn't that good at it! But it did teach me to write very visually and economically. I procrastinated from my final screenplay by spending more time writing film essays for other classes. I moved onto film studies in grad school, but then I procrastinated from my thesis by writing poetry/prose about movies... I think I work best when I'm supposed to be working on something else!
RS: So what are you working on right now?
SY: I'm working on a soft sci-fi novella that I'm really excited about, but really stumped on. I haven't written anything longer than a vignette-y, tweet-length piece in a long time, so it's a big challenge for me!
RS: What freaks you out or makes you think too hard?
SY: The idea that I truly don't know how I look, and how others see themselves. You know those memes that are like "how I look in my selfies vs. how I look when someone takes a photo of me?" I keep thinking about that, and how my mirror image also doesn't look anything like photos of me, and then this snowballs to how I don't know how OTHERS see me and how I have no control over that, and then how I don't even know how I see others, if they themselves don't know how to see themselves...!
/// Sennah’s favourites ///
Listing favourite films is always a struggle, especially as a damaged film student who feels pressured to have an answer that's a perfect balance of art and fluff (and then arty fluff, and fluffy art!) - but some of my forever-favourites are: There Will Be Blood, Princess Mononoke, No Country For Old Men, and Magic Mike XXL.
I love Larry Sultan's photography - very mundane and habitual, yet completely hypnotic and cinematic. I also love Lee Bul's cyborg sculptures, and Mariko Mori's self-portraits.
My bed, the fish & chips restaurant I used to work at, San Francisco.
Faith Arkoful, Franny Choi, Marcela Huerta, Canisia Lubrin, Sally Wen Mao, Morgan Parker, Claudia Rankine, Ocean Vuong, Light Zachary.
Vanilla, campfire, fish. And this is kind of weird, but I remember hiding in closets during hide and seek as a kid because I liked the smell of leather!
Seeing my friends thrive, my cat nudging his head on my face, catching the bus right on time, remembering an old favourite song, no new messages.