Know Your (Grown Up) Mighty Writers: Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai

Grew up: “The northwest suburbs of Chicago, went to college at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and lived on the north and south sides of Chicago. I’ve lived in Brooklyn for the last five years. All of these living experiences taught me a lot about different people who don’t always get represented in books, films or TV. It’s a big part of my mission as a Chinese Taiwanese American writer to show the complexities and beauty of life from perspectives that often get dismissed or overlooked.”

Writing inspirations: “Many people—from teachers to fellow poets to friends and family. What inspires me most is the energy in spoken word. When we can relate to each other’s stories, it helps you feel stronger and more vulnerable at the same time. It teaches that our stories are important to share and that inspires me.”


Special Guest
Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai
Asian Arts Initiative Open Mic Night
Friday, November 20, 7:30 p.m.
Asian Arts Initiative
1219 Vine Street
Admission: $5-10 sliding scale.


When I was little: “My mom would bring us to the library every week. My big sister would check out almost a dozen books and read all of them. I would try to be like her, but usually I didn’t get through half of them. I even volunteered at the library a few summers, got free tee-shirts and cleaned hard cover books with weird foam stuff. I loved to read Bunnicula, Encyclopedia Brown, the Lloyd Alexander Black Cauldron fantasy books, Lois Duncan’s scary stories, The Get-Along Gang and Berenstein Bears. I also loved books about Martin Luther King Jr., the Civil War, art and Egypt. Unfortunately, there weren’t very many books by or about Asian Pacific Islander American kids and our families at that time. I’m glad to see that today there are a lot more.”

Now I read: “Pretty much everything—fiction, non-fiction, poetry, psychology, drama, screenplays, sociology. Among my favorite books—Jessica Hagedorn’s ‘Dogeaters,’ Toni Morrison’s ‘The Song of Solomon,’ Ntozake Shange’s ‘for colored girls….’ Zadie Smith’s ‘White Teeth,’ Sherman Alexie’s ‘The Toughest Indian in the World,’ Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘The Interpreter of Maladies,’ Stephen King’s ‘On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft,’ Dorothy Allison’s ‘Trash,’ Sapphire’s ‘Push,’ Ama Ata Aidoo’s ‘Our Sister Killjoy,’ Octavia Butler’s ‘Wild Seed’ and I’m starting Khaled Hosseini’s ‘The Kite Runner’ today.”

Favorite authors: “I really enjoy the artists listed above. I also really love political poets like Sonia Sanchez, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Ai, Nikki Giovanni, Etheridge Knight and Luis Rodriguez. I just started reading some of Sui Sin Far’s work. She was one of the first Asian American woman to be published in the U.S. in the late 18th century. I’ve seen many amazing poets—Regie Gibson, Marc Smith, Patricia Smith, Kent Foreman, Chuck Perkins, Tyehimba Jess, and Mama Maria McCray. I also get inspired by MCs and songwriters (Nas, Jay-Z, Common, Wale, Lupe Fiasco, Bahamadia, Jean Grae, Ani DiFranco, Raphael Saadiq). Plus screenwriters, some I’m just starting to get familiar with, like Charles Kaufman (‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’).”


“Always carry a notebook with you. You never know when you might need it most.”


Hardest thing about writing: “Switching between genres (poetry, fiction, essay, drama, etc.) is very challenging, but satisfying—a poet’s eye and ear, a journalist’s appetite for information and fairness, a playwright’s love of dialogue, an essayist’s subtle insights, a screenwriter’s ability to tell a story through pictures, an mc’s lyrical gymnastics in rhythm and rhyme. There are A LOT of different ways to read and different ways to write so I hope all Mighty Writers get the opportunity to find the form that suits you best for the story you want to tell.”

What I like best about writing: “It helps a shy girl to be able to be a loudmouth to the entire world. I’m a true introvert at heart, but as a writer and a performer I’m able to see, talk about, explore and communicate things I would never have been able to understand or feel as deeply if I didn’t have my pen and notebook, and an audience to share it with (although some of my poems and stories prefer to stay in my notebook).”

Advice for young writers: “Start one time more than you quit. I tried to quit writing so many times, but it just kept coming back to me. So if it keeps creeping back into your life and you have a hard time accepting its rightful place, just remember that if you quit two times, start writing again three times and you’ll be good. That, and always carry a notebook with you. You never know when you might need it most.”

Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai is a Chinese Taiwanese American spoken word artist who has performed her poetry at over 350 venues worldwide. including three seasons on “Russell Simmons Presents HBO Def Poetry.” Winner of a 2007 New York Foundation for the Arts Urban Artist Initiative Award, she was listed as one of Idealist in NYC’s “Top 40 New Yorkers Who Make Positive Social Change” in 2008 and AngryAsianMan.com’s “30 Most Influential Asian Americans Under 30” in 2009. She has shared stages with Mos Def, KRS-One, Sonia Sanchez, Talib Kweli, Erykah Badu, Amiri Baraka and many more. You can learn more abour her at yellowgurl.com.

Photo/Kevin Kane


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