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Sun-Mi Clyburn

"Writing is one of my ways of giving back and passing on. I also hope I can encourage others to find their own voice and adventure."

Heartlines explores what it means to write – from the heart and soul – and where that writing takes us. Every writers’ journey is different, so we invite you to take a moment to read, pause and reflect on what it means to shape stories for the page.

Sun-Mi Clyburn is a Perth-based writer, spoken word artist and theatre maker with African American and French heritage. Sun-Mi was born in the USA, grew up in Poland and now calls Australia home. Sun-Mi’s work explores love, loss, death, grief, fragmented identity, beauty in impermanence and archetypal storytelling. Get to know more about Sun-Mi and her multi-disciplinary practice below.Sun-Mi is looking off into the distance. Behind heris a bright blue wall with the painting of a friendly shark.

Centre for Stories: Sun-Mi, you are a multi-disciplinary artist working across many creative fields and producing a lot of artistic pieces. When you’re not busy writing, what do you do?

Sun-Mi Clyburn: When I’m not writing I’m usually singing, walking, swimming, dancing or making theatre. I’m also a mental health worker, a visual artist and a lifelong student and researcher with a Faustian hunger for knowledge. I think it would be difficult for me to determine what is the most surprising passion of mine, because it’s all just normal to me. I’m a massive history nerd, enjoy hiking, climbing trees and rocks and cooking is like painting to me. I’ve also always had a keen interest in the makings of the human psyche, especially the nature of violence.

CFS: Why do you write?

SMC: I mostly write for myself. In many ways it helps me stay sane and it is a practice like meditating. It’s therapeutic and cathartic in and of itself. I also write to share with others what I see in the world around me – the magic, the love, the pain, the struggle, the healing. I found that words and stories of others have been a guiding light and have helped me reflect on different aspects of my own life. I owe so much of my sanity to people I have never met. Writing is one of my ways of giving back and passing on. I also hope I can encourage others to find their own voice and adventure.

CFS: When did you decide to pursue writing and what triggered that decision?

SMC: I’d say that as soon as I could write I was a writer. By the time I was five I had already written forty books of my own. I even cut out the paper, bound the books, illustrated and catalogued them. I was lucky that my parents encouraged my creativity and I received a thorough literary education. I’ve pursued many other areas of work that I enjoy and still engage with, however I’ve always returned to writing. It’s been a lifelong love affair.

CFS: What are you currently reading and why?

SMC: I tend to read a number of books at a time. The main ones at the moment are Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, The Chronicles of Narnia in Polish and the Bible. I find the Meditations fascinating, because they were private writings of a statesman that were never meant to be published and give valuable insight into the mind of a practicing Stoic (also, ancient philosophy is definitely an interest of mine). The Narnia series is one of the few books I brought with me when I moved to Australia. I’ve had them since I was a child and rereading them is reminding me of parts of me I’d forgotten. I’m revisiting the Bible in a literary and philosophical context (you can’t understand much of Western culture without it), but also to reconnect with my family heritage – both the African American and French sides of my family were devout Christians for generations – and what faith used to mean to me.

CFS: Is that also an inspiration for your current work?

SMC: Yes, in a number of ways. I’ve been spending a lot of time exploring family dynamics, concepts around community structures and governance and the influence of archetypal storytelling in all its forms.

Sun-Mi is laughing at the Camera. She is standing in front of the same blue wall with the friendly shark.

CFS: Walk us through an ‘aha’ moment while you were on the hot desk.

SMC: There were so many of them it would be hard to choose and I can’t remember them all, however the most significant breakthrough for me was the peer coaching session with six fellow writers facilitated by Dr. Robert Wood and the writing flow I had for the rest of the day. We each took turns sharing the struggles we had with our writing and then asked each other prompting questions. I felt that untangled a lot for me. I wrote and cried a lot that day and spent a lot of time in the library room listening to Nina Simone and reading snippets of different books. That was when I wrote what ended up becoming the prologue and title piece of my collection of poetry, as well as two other poems that I included. It was an emotionally exhausting day, but well worth it.

CFS: When you first applied, you had been working on piecing together a novel. Is this what you worked on during the hot desk?

SMC: Yes, fleshing out the content of the novel was my main focus. What emerged from it is a collection of poetry that will be included in the novel. The book itself will be a hybrid of poetry, prose, short story, letter writing and children’s storytelling. It will lean heavily on magical realism, fairy tale and fable and will be a compassionate exploration of love, grief and healing. A big focus will be the mother-daughter relationship and how it changes over time and with experience, loss and reconnection. I’ve been working on this novel for two years now and it has unfolded in many unexpected ways. That has been a good thing.

CFS: Based on your experiences in the writing industry, including your hot desk at Centre for Stories, what advice would you give to writers who are starting out or are unsure where to start?

SMC: Writing as an art ought to be enjoyable and meaningful and that means different things to every writer. That’s a good place to start – finding what is enjoyable and meaningful to you as a writer. It’s worth engaging wholeheartedly with a number of genres. Consistency is also important and it’s worth writing something every day; some days it might be a single word, other days it could be ten pages or more. What’s important is engaging in the writing process – it doesn’t really mater where you write, with what instruments, or what about. I personally enjoy and encourage writing by hand. My three fountain pens are probably my most valuable possessions and I rarely leave home without them and something to write on. I also have a habit of using the notes in my phone. Another thing is: be patient with yourself. It takes time to figure out how to make writing part of your daily routine or what you want to write about.

CFS: Centre for Stories is about taking things at your own pace, working with others, and providing a safe place for all. How has this space enabled you to think and explore your work?

A beautiful portrait of Sun-Mi. She is smiling and the wind is blowing softly.

SMC: I loved that the space felt like a home, but also a library and a place where writers just hang out. Every time I came in I had a different working space – in the main hot desk space, in the overflow room by the window, in the library, on the floor (my choice, because I enjoy working on the floor), in the courtyard – and enjoyed them all for different reasons. Every day I came in was a day of meaningful conversations and sharing meals and making cups of tea for each other. Most of all, I felt like I could come in and just be, which allowed for a stillness and peace of mind that I rarely have in my everyday life. In that kind of space the writing often just happens on its own.

CFS: What will you be working on next?

SMC: I’m sure I will be consistently percolating over the novel, however I’m going to put it on the back burner for a bit and focus on some theatre work. I’m currently in rehearsals for a show I’m directing for Perth Fringe Festival 2022, Yaaas Kween. It’s irreverent BIPOC and queer comedy and I’m enjoying the change of pace. I’m also currently writing and co-writing a few scripts that explore and tackle confronting issues, including mental health and illness, homelessness, domestic violence, inter-generational trauma and racism. I’m excited for it all. Theatre has a mind of its own and I’m just happy to be part of making it come to life. It’s another lifelong passion that I love to share.

Sun-Mi Clyburn is a Perth-based writer, spoken word artist and theatre maker with African American and French heritage. Sun-Mi was born in the USA, grew up in Poland and now calls Australia home.

Writing Change, Writing Inclusion is Centre for Stories’ signature writing program for 2021 to 2023. Generously funded by The Ian Potter Foundation, Australia Council for the Arts and Centre for Stories Founders Circle, this writing program features mentoring, hot desk, and publication opportunities for emerging writers from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds and/or Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander backgrounds.

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