INTERVIEWED BY: HA NGUYEN
EDITED BY: MICHELLE NISHIDERA
Ryka Aoki is a poet, author, composer, and teacher. Some of her most prominent works include Seasonal Velocities, He Mele a Hilo and Why Dust Shall Never Settle Upon This Soul which had appeared in multiple mainstream and queer publications. She has performed at the first ever Transgender Stage at San Francisco Pride, National Queer Arts Festivals, and many colleges in the US and around the world including UCLA, Yale University and the University of Island. Ryka is the founder of the International Transgender Martial Arts Alliance and executive director of Dissonace Press.
Tell us about yourself outside of your work.
This one is easy to answer—there's not much to say. Most of my life revolves around my work. Most things I do, whether it's practising an instrument or learning a new language, or starting to paint, work themselves into my writing. When I'm not doing any of that, I'm usually either teaching class or grading essays. Professor stuff.
It's a little difficult to think of myself outside of work. I know that might not sound healthy, but I'm just being honest. Also, I've suffered chronic pain for many years, so sometimes, it's difficult to be social, even when I want to. Imagination helps to cut through the brain fog. So overall, I’m pretty introverted. I read a lot. I try to do a little bit better at the piano. I make soap or play the harmonica. I chat with a few close friends. I like ice cream.
If I'm not actively writing at the time, I like to read. But I don't read all the time. I am a little envious of readers who read stacks and stacks of books. I think if I did that, I might get taken up by them and stop writing my own stuff. ☺
Sometimes I find it challenging to reconnect with the outside world after I've been working on one of my stories or my poems. The best times are like being under a big sky, maybe going fishing, or watching people go by at a museum. I love chatting with other writers or musicians, or just people who are really into what they do.
It's nice to feel part of a greater organism, be it the universe, the planet, or people just being who they are.
When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
I don't remember ever not wanting to be a writer. At least not inside. I remember being told that I shouldn't write. I grew up in a time when there weren't very many Asian American writers. My parents wanted me to do something more bankable, like science or engineering, or medicine, of course. And even when I was at UCLA, years ago, the undergraduate English advisor tried to give me some friendly advice, literally saying, “You are Asian, you should stay in science.”
By the way, I do love science. And in many ways, I'm glad that I majored in chemistry. I was able to nurture a systematic way of thinking that I'm very grateful to have polished. Also, think of actions such as filtering or crystallizing or distilling—these are used so often figuratively. And yet I know what it's like to do all of them, with pristine glassware, in controlled conditions. There's a certain fluency one gains with this sort of experience.
And all of that comes back to helping me grow as a writer. Writing is my source.
Although I’ve always wanted to be a writer, writing takes a belief in oneself that I struggle with even now. There were times in my life where I tried to run away from pursuing writing. Even after I completed my MFA from one of the most selective programs in the country, I could not see myself being a creative writer.
At the time I was engaged, and I thought maybe I could become more employable as a technical writer, an advertising writer, a music publicity writer. But none of that worked. I could do the work... But all that was hurting me. And it probably factored into a wrecked relationship.
Yet, even when the times were most difficult, it was always the poetry and stories that I came back to. And it was always giving comfort, hope—and after a while, I had to ask myself, “why are you running from the one thing that loves you?”
I think having a little bit of fear is always good. Fear drives you. I don't think I ever want to get so comfortable that there isn't just a teeny bit of terror in what I'm doing. But I have learned to more often trust my heart, and that's made all the difference on the page, and in my career. Who knows, maybe that might one day make a difference in other areas, as well.
What do you think makes a good story?
I think a good story is one that the readers can trust. There's going to be an attention to craft and a care for the characters and plot and details—this all contributes to letting readers know that the writer cares about this story, even as they do.
I think magic in the story happens when connections are made on the page that maybe the reader had not thought of before. Perhaps a new way of seeing something familiar, or the first glimpse of something far away. But not in an abstract way, in a way that seems and is so insistently present that it has shape and sound and taste and motivations and dreams.
But I think the most important thing is that a story can't be complete.
A story should be enticing, seductive, terrifying, maddening—but there should always be gaps for the reader to permeate the story, inhabit it, to run their fingers through, to make it their own. The relationship between reader and writer is exactly that, a relationship. And just as, while writing, an author might “read” what a reader might expect, while reading, the reader inhabits the story, fills in the gaps, “writes” the story whole.
How do your poems develop? Please guide us through the stages of a poem
For me, poems are largely immediate matters of the heart. It's a faster, more direct way to access raw emotions and images for me. For me, when I want to work out ideas and try out scenarios, I write prose.
I don’t theorize so much in poetry. Instead, poetry has to do with expression, with revelation. Even when I am unsure, it has to do with a need to cry, to scream, to laugh, to point out something and say, “Hey look this is the most important thing in the world now look! Right there?”
Sometimes, I want to express emotion in eight different directions. But it's hard to speak in eight different directions—and it's almost impossible to be understood if you try. Poems, though, are perfect for this. Poems allow me to take a simultaneous feeling and spread it out over stanzas, perhaps even over a sequence.
Many times, a long poem or sequence looks like it has a beginning, middle and end, but for me, it is often my attempt to express or project the same point or feeling over and over and over and over from different directions.
So my first drafts, of my best poems, poems that I'm most satisfied with—come out all at once. Lately, I've had the honor of being asked to contribute poetry to some most excellent issue and/or identity-based poetry anthologies.
Before I even pick up a pen, I ask myself, “how do I feel about this issue? The site entity. This injustice.” I stew in my feelings. I obsess over them. I filter out distractions, I do everything I can to distill and crystallize my feelings.
And then, when I am ready, boom. Let's go.
Once that is done, of course there is editing. There is honing images, crafting line breaks, making everything shine.
But the poem is always there first.
Has your idea of what poetry has changed since you began writing poems?
Not really. Not at all, in fact. Is that silly? I still believe that encountering a favorite poem is one of the best things about being a human being. I still believe poetry can change the world.
What can readers expect in your new book “Light From Uncommon Stars”?
What might a reader expect in my book? Gosh, who knows? What a reader discovers can differ from reader to reader—and that’s a wonderful thing. After reading advance copies of Light From Uncommon Stars, I've noticed that some readers want to learn or relearn violin. Some want to visit koi. Some want kiwi boba—and many want donuts. That's really cool!
But I can tell you who and what I tried to include in Light From Uncommon Stars. My characters are heroes on journeys, but they are also women, queer, transgender, people of color. They are violinists full of innocence and regret. They are mothers trying to preserve the family business. They are refugees fleeing a war from beyond the stars. And they have come to the Asian-American enclave of the San Gabriel Valley, just outside of Los Angeles, a place where many drive past without a second thought, yet where others explore, discover, find their magic and the possibility of love.
I can also say that I wrote Light From Uncommon Stars to show how one can be a hero and remain with family and hearth. How heroes exist around us, every day. Because, if there’s anything that living as a queer, transgender woman of color has taught me, it’s that life is a gift to be shared.
But, most of all, I wanted to write a tale about space aliens, violinists, demons, and donuts. But more than that—a tale of space aliens, violinists, demons, and donuts that I could believe in.
Can you give any advice to someone wanting to write and publish their text?
There's a lot of good advice already out there. Here are a couple of thoughts that I'm kind of feeling right now.
First, the road to writing and publishing is a lot like the road to evolving and becoming yourself when you're transgender. Or maybe even finding true self-love. (In some ways that's kind of the same thing.) There are a lot of people who will tell you how to do it. And there are a lot of people who are wonderfully honest about their processes and journeys. But if you notice, there's no one way. There’s no one way to find yourself.
Similarly, just because your writing and publishing paths seem to be a little weird, a little off, maybe not anything your peers have done...so what? That’s to be expected. I wrote a book about pansexual Vietnamese space aliens operating a donut shop. And violins. In the San Gabriel Valley.
And because of that weird story, I'm here chatting with you.
I think no matter what you do, just be sure that your choices help bring the work you love closer to the readers who might love it as well.
Second, I believe that you have to be a little obsessive. That means, going to a conference if you think it's going to help you. Visiting the beach, or going to a museum, or even walking down the street—but as a writer, thinking, supposing, composing all the time.
Maybe you might take a weekend off and go on a road trip. Even if all you can afford is a night at a rest stop Motel 6 or something—if you can do it safely, and you get a story out of it that you're proud of, or an insight that inspires you, is an improbable, inexplicable investment in your career worth it?
It has to be.
Because it's more than just writing and publishing a text, isn't it? Nowadays, anybody who wants to publish something can do it. It's really about publishing something you want, to write in the way you want, for the people you want.
What did/do you struggle with as a trans person and how can we become better allies?
I'm going to be honest. Sharing my struggles as a trans person is difficult. Much of those struggles are contained in my books. In my poems. Other than that, they are hard to articulate to strangers, even strangers whom I respect as much as you and your readers. I have a few very close friends who I can share this with—but it's hard to share and not get emotional, so please forgive me.
I can tell you this. The struggles are deep, they hurt badly, and they haven't gone away.
As far as how to become a better ally? How do we become better at anything? There’s no mystery: we practice. We learn, we research, we fan our interest into an everlasting flame, and we practice. Practice. We practice every day. Even when there's no performance, we practice. we make mistakes, we feel bad, we practice even more.
And also, please understand that as much as trans people need allies, really good friends are nice to have, too. Being a friend and being an ally are not necessarily the same thing. One can be both, but friendship is a whole different thing to practice. <3
What advice would you give to the Asian youths who are struggling with their sexuality, identity and parental acceptance?
In this situation, I don't think it's the youth who need my advice. They're not the ones who are messing up. Instead, let me direct some advice to the communities and the families and the parents in our communities:
For those of you who are turning your backs on your kids because of who they are.
Here in the US, I’ve seen Asian-American kids disowned, or living in the threat of being disowned. I’ve seen so many of them write poems and stories. Some of them dance. Some of them daydream. Many of them cry at night wondering what they did wrong.
Some of them yearn to taste your cooking again. To hear your lullabies again. To just be themselves without fear so they can fully enjoy hanamatsuri or obon…have their favorite moon cakes…celebrate Tết.
I know this because I was there (and still am.)
Consider this as well—think of how hard so many Asians throughout the diasporas have worked to make our lives better. Immigrants, children of immigrants—how many of us have faced being ridiculed, having our loyalties questioned?
It’s frustrating, isn’t it? It’s terrifying, isn’t it? Think of the fear that you were raised with, a fear that has not subsided, especially nowadays with rising anti-Asian sentiment. Think about the fear that you and your communities face as grown-ups.
Think of the prejudice we face every day.
Now think of your kids, your children—who have inherited your genes, your stories, your heritages, your journeys—facing all this without you.
Please think about it.