The Lounge Chair Interview: 10 Questions with Shelly Bryant

By Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé

Shelly Bryant PixLet’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?

In one sense, the answer to this question is simply “Because that’s what I do.” I have no grand agendas attached to my writing. It is an activity I am naturally drawn to. I love to encounter good writing, and I hope to produce it. For me, writing is closely connected to reading, and the role of reader-writer is a core part of who I am.

Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?

My most recently released book is Pine the Passing. It is the fifth in a series focused on the wuxing, or the Five Elements in Chinese thought. For me, this collection and the four that went before it (Under the Ash, Voices of the Elders, Harps Upon Willows, and The Lined Palm) are my exploration of the wuxing, a system of tension and balance that is expressed in every aspect of life and the world around us. If all goes as planned, it will eventually be a 25-book series, so I see Pine the Passing as a step along the path of exploration.

Describe your writing aesthetic.

From the above description of Pine the Passing, it might be obvious that I am drawn to complex patterns and thought systems and to how “the big picture” fits together. That is a fundamental aspect of my aesthetic. I also prefer understated, thought-provoking writing to in-your-face or flashy. I think my own writing reflects this preference, and so invites slower, more contemplative reading – and hopefully rereading.

Who are your favorite authors?

Some of my favourite authors: John Donne, W. H. Auden, Edwin Morgan, Todd Boss, G. O. Clark, Ursula Le Guin, Diana Wynne Jones, George MacDonald, Ray Bradbury, and Isaac Asimov.

What’s the most challenging piece of writing you’ve attempted? Tell us why.

Sestinas are tricky, because the form is rigid and complex in a way that makes avoiding a monotonous sound somewhat difficult. Sonnets are difficult for me because of the weight of the English-language poetry tradition. Haiku is always challenging because you want to pack as much as you can into the least possible space. Those are a bit general though, so… I guess the most challenging single project I have ever done was translating Khoo Seok Wan’s poetry for the National Library Board’s exhibition in 2013. His work is complex, and capturing that in English verse that is (I hope) interesting to contemporary readers was very tough.

What’s your idea of bliss?

Easy. Bliss = good friends + good conversation + good tea

What makes you angry, and I mean all-out-smash-the-china raving mad?

Colonialism. Racism. Sexism. Privilege. Discrimination and oppression in any form.

What books would you take with you on a three-month retreat in the boondocks?

Tough one. I would probably take as many books as I could carry. Which books would probably ultimately be determined by what I was working on at the time. If I left today, it would be Peter Valder’s The Garden Plants of China, the Bible, the Complete Poems of Edwin Morgan, and 6-8 novels. Then, just as I was heading out the door, I’d probably slip another novel, a magazine, and a slim volume of poetry into my bag, just in case I ran out of things toward the end of my retreat. (One of my biggest fears is being caught somewhere without reading material.)

Your house is burning down. What’s the most important thing you’d want to take with you?

My family. Everything else is replaceable.

Describe your life philosophy. In a sentence.

“Discipline is remembering what you want.”

Author Biography:

Shelly Bryant divides her year between Shanghai and Singapore, working as a teacher, writer, researcher, and translator. She is the author of six volumes of poetry and a pair of travel guides for the cities of Suzhou and Shanghai. She has translated work from the Chinese for Penguin Books, Epigram Publishing, the National Library Board in Singapore, Giramondo Books, and Rinchen Books. Shelly’s poetry has appeared in journals, magazines, and websites around the world, as well as in several art exhibitions. Her translation of Sheng Keyi’s Northern Girls was long-listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2012. You can visit her website at