Isaac Yuen on Utter, Earth: Advice on Living in a More-Than-Human World


In this Q&A, Isaac Yuen discusses the creation of his debut nature essay collection, titled Utter, Earth: Advice on Living in a More-Than-Human World. You can read Yuen’s piece, “Our Museum of the Future,” featured in Volume 68.1 of Shenandoah here.


Can you tell me the story of this book: When did you start working on it? What were some of your preoccupations as you were writing it? How did you know when you had a complete collection on your hands? 


The initial germ of Utter, Earth came while I was volunteering at a natural history museum, which incidentally was the same setting that inspired my piece in Shenandoah titled “Our Museum of the Future.” I was putting together an exhibit for visitors around the theme of living fossils, and decided to bring along a cast of a coelacanth, impressions of gingko leaves, old shark teeth, and a preserved hawksbill turtle. As I was explaining their stories to a group of kids and adults, I thought it might be fun to write a piece on creatures that have survived for hundreds of millions of years, on the advice they might be able to offer us, who in comparison have been around for no time at all. That eventually grew into an essay called “Life Lessons from the Odd and Ancient”, which was eventually published in The Hopper, an environmental literary magazine.


I think what drew me into writing a full-length collection was the voice that emerged from that essay. It’s a little odd, slightly frenetic, prone to tangents, as if its owner (who is me but also not me) was always in a process to knit stories out of the tangle of connections found in the natural world. To fuel that voice, I found myself immersing in science journals and articles, which provided a constant stream of weird and wonderful discoveries, and delving into a child’s mentality, which contains this intrinsic fascination with the non-human, before rules and borders so neatly divided everything into nature or culture.


As for knowing when Utter, Earth was complete, the capstone came in the completion of an extensive glossary, which lists all 500+ creatures and entities mentioned throughout the essays. I remember just finishing The Meaning of Liff by Douglas Adams and John Lloyd, and thinking that an index would be a fun and accessible way for readers to re-engage with the creatures they had fleetingly encountered during their reading experience—a parting fact, an extra musing, a stray bit of oddball commentary.


Is there an essay you feel is a good representative of the collection as a whole, or do you have a current favorite? What is the book’s relationship to “Our Museum of the Future,” which appears in Shenandoah?


There’s a piece in the collection called “Second Best is Best” that made me smile while I was doing a final proof. Of course, it’s the second full essay in the collection, begins with the second tallest mountain on Earth, and argues that being runner-up in life is often better than being the outright winner. It covers a lot of ground in a few pages, with the narrator bouncing from white rhinos to beaked whales to very spicy peppers, before pivoting to overturn their own thesis altogether. A previous version of it was published over at Gulf Coast Online, so interested readers can check it out to get a sense of the book’s tone, which is a little silly, at times overwhelming, but always steeped in a sense of whimsy and playfulness.


Another fun piece I enjoyed working on is called “Giving Up on Your Dreams”, which was published over at The Center for Humans and Nature. It begins with the question of why certain birds, like ostriches and cassowaries, abandoned flight sometime during their evolutionary histories. From that premise, the piece explores why creatures did certain activities, like laying eggs, eating ants, or returning to the sea after being on land, all in pursuit of seemingly inexplicable dreams. I think the essay represents the collection’s overall attempt to convey the workings of nature on human terms. Of course, there’s a danger of anthropomorphization, of assigning too much human agency to non-human entities, but I hope that the not-so-serious stylings keep that element in check.



As for the book’s relationship with “Our Museum of the Future”, there’s definitely an overlap in subject matter. Both attempt to grapple with humanity’s relationship with the natural world through language, although there’s a bit more wordplay in Utter, Earth. Both try to play with specific tonalities of wonder and grief that are associated with living in this age of discovery and extinction, with things coming across a bit weightier in “Museum”. And then there are essays in Utter, Earth that derive their narrative power from factual statements, just like in “Museum”, while there are passages in “Museum” that lean into the absurd as a counterpoint to the grim realities of the Anthropocene, just like in Utter, Earth.


I’m curious about some logistics: How did you come up with the title? How about the ordering of the book—its organization, or how the essays cohere or relate to one another? What about the cover art?


The title came from my fondness for Vladimir Nabokov’s title for his autobiography Speak, Memory.

I’ve always found the comma to be striking, with words falling on either side of it, playing perfectly off each other. So it was fairly early on that I knew the title had to be Utter, Earth. For me, it reads two ways; one, as if all the creatures mentioned in the collection came to form the true essence of the planet, making it “utterly Earth”; or two, as if every single life form contributed a unique building block in a planetary alphabet, and thus allowing for the “uttering of Earth”. The latter take actually plays into the last essay of the collection titled, “So You Want to Write an Animal Essay,” which explores the notion of animals as grammar.


In terms of organization, I spent a lot of time thinking about the structure of the book, and eventually decided to order the collection by using the fragments of an essay that was itself called “Utter, Earth”. The original Pushcart-winning piece, published in AGNI, contained seven sections that I cannibalized as chapter openings. For example, the first chapter begins with the concept of “Din”, alluding to the cacophony of species we share our world with. Later on, there is a chapter titled “Duress”, which featured essays on the various strategies creatures use to cope with stress. The thematic connections are not always immediately apparent, but I do feel there’s an underlying logic that dictates which piece goes where. As a result of this experiment, I feel the collection took on a very distinct and unique shape.


As for the cover, it’s yet another Shenandoah connection. I was taking a graphic design course with Buffalo-based designer Julian Montague and suddenly realized that he was the designer of Shenandoah’s relaunched logo and banner. Being a fan of his work, I asked if he might be interested in doing a few illustrations for the book, which turned into him agreeing to do the cover as well. I’m really thrilled with the approach Julian took; it has roots in a wonderful project he once did called The State of America series. I find the minimal, playful silhouettes of the various creatures really help to balance out the frantic density of the texts.


Anything special you’re working on now or next?


I’m currently a writer-in-residence at the HWK Institute of Advanced Studies in Northern Germany; it’s an institution that connects scientists and creatives across different countries and disciplines to meet and learn from each other (I’ve had the fortune to meet past Shenandoah comic contributor Mita Mahato here). Currently, I’m focused on a short story collection that explores the inner lives of scientists. The scenarios I’m working on are mostly literary and realistic, but more often than not non-human voices are popping up with something important to say.


At the same time, I’m working through notes gathered from a recent 5000+ mile road trip across Japan. I want to write a pen a travelogue that is seen through the lens of fish and other aquatic lifeforms—their natural histories, their cultural significances, their fortunes in an uncertain future.


Finally, I’m working on a collaboration with my partner Michaela Vieser that’s tentatively titled “The Atlas of Deep Sea Features.” It’s a series of literary essays that seeks to highlight the geological, ecological, and cultural stories of little-known but terribly important spaces, especially in the light of issues like bottom trawling and deep-sea mining, where ignorance is wielded to advance agendas of extraction and exploitation.

A first generation Chinese-Canadian, Isaac Yuen’s short stories and personal essays appear in Flyway, Hippocampus, Orion, River Teeth’s “Beautiful Things,Tahoma Literary Review, Tin House Online, and other publications. He is the creator of Ekostories, an online essay collection exploring narratives through themes of nature, culture, and identity. Isaac lives in Vancouver, Canada, on unceded Coast Salish territory.