Wednesday 27 September 2017

Interview with Ryka Aoki

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Ryka Aoki, a Japanese American award-winning author, performer, and professor of English at Santa Monica College, known for her book "Seasonal Velocities" (2012), novel "He Mele a Hilo" (2014) and set of poems "Why Dust Shall Never Settle Upon This Soul" (2015). Hello Ryka!
Ryka: Hello Monika!
Monika: It has been already 2 years since you published your last book. Can we expect any new publication soon?
Ryka: I’ve had some stories and poems published, most recently in Meanwhile, Elsewhere from Topside Press. But my main work is a new novel, currently untitled, which is set in the San Gabriel Valley, in the Greater Los Angeles area. It centers around a traumatized transgender runaway, and a violin teacher bargaining with the Devil to win back her soul. On their journey, they also meet a family of Vietnamese space aliens escaping interstellar war and trying to run a donut shop. I am trying to convey a world of flux, adaptation, sweetness, and loss.
This book covers a lot of cultural ground. I’ve been addressing intersections of sexuality, gender, race, age, accessibility…not because I was purposely putting them in, but because the characters were experiencing them. Kind of like He Mele a Hilo, but with maybe a bit more traffic. Plus I actually had to learn to play a little violin to understand the characters—all trying to make sure when I finally give it away to the publisher and to other readers, I can tell myself honestly that I did my best.
That said, I am hoping to finally have the book to editors in a couple of months. It’s been a journey.

Order from Biyuti Publishing here!

Monika: I know that you strive not to write just for other transgender readers, but for anyone in general. However, is there anything like transgender literature? What does it mean to be a transgender author?
Ryka: Gosh, that’s a huge question. But to me, it’s less about what I can write as a writer and more about how my words affect the transgender community. People often get the "transgender literature" question backwards, IMHO. It’s not about what the writer writes—transgender literature should be identified by how it enriches and alters the communities it reaches. A cisgender person can write about trans people, sure. But how does the community see it? Does a young trans writer look at this author and say, “Wow—if he or she can do it, so can l?” I am not sure.
Now imagine a trans person writing a book—it doesn't even have to be trans-centric. Say it’s about tropical fish or Beowulf. If that author decides to be out about their trans status, what does that book do for the community—what possibilities does it give to burgeoning trans writers and readers? How does it engender community pride and the feeling of cultural ownership? That I believe is the best way to think of transgender literature—it’s about how the work is received by transgender readers.
Monika: The perception of our life changes with age or passage of time. Do you often go back to Seasonal Velocities and find there some experiences that you would describe differently?
Ryka: Not at all. :) At a knee-jerk level, if I were to revisit the book, I would definitely want to change things—but that is what the next blank sheet of paper is for. I think part of the journey of self-love is loving and trusting who you were yesterday. Especially for me as a trans person, and an abuse survivor—there’s a lot of my past self that I could choose to hate. But enough people in my past have hated and rejected me without my help—there’s no reason to join those voices. Instead, I choose to love her. I think I am wiser now, but I love—and celebrate her—for who she was.

During a class.

Monika: Your novels are primarily the personal reflections of your world. In He Mele a Hilo you revive the old spirit and traditions of The Hawaiian Islands. Not everyone knows about the Kingdom of Hawaii and how it lost its independence in 1898, and the persecutions of the native Hawaiians and their language …
Ryka: This is the issue with writing about past cultures. You never get it right. You make mistakes. I think of Alex Haley writing Roots, or even the pains Disney took with “Moana.” You are dealing with a past no one has lived in. Even the historical accounts are imperfect—both from incomplete transmission and projections of the storytellers’ own agendas/desires.
As trans people, many of us know all about cutting and pasting our histories to create a personal story that we can actually live in. We also know what it is to have violence-induced blank spaces in our timeline—I have years I just cannot recall due to psychological trauma.
As a writer, I try not to be an accurate historian, because, well, all of the above. But I do try to be a human being, doing as best I can. Again, because, well, all of the above.
Monika: On the other hand, Why Dust Shall Never Settle Upon This Soul is a lament for trans losses that is also somehow a celebration of life …
Ryka: With Why Dust Shall Never Settle Upon This Soul, I was processing the death of two friends. Trans deaths never get easier. In fact, as I get older it gets harder and harder. It’s like—we’ve fought so hard, worked so hard, with so many people far stronger and more courageous and resourceful than I could ever be—and still? Still, the world is this way?
But we go on, right? Because what’s damning about being trans is you survive and you get stronger and suddenly it takes more to kill you. So you carry the sadness and loss forward. But you are alive. And as stupidly inappropriate as it can be—sometimes you find yourself smiling. Sometimes, you even fall in love.

Order He Mele a Hilo from
Topside Press here.

Monika: Is it difficult to be a poet or writer in such materialistic times?
Ryka: These are the only times I know, so I think that is a difficult question. I’ve also been very fortunate as a poet and writer. Despite what I’ve been through—look—you’re interviewing me. I have books published. I have made so many dear friends through writing. I am still alive. I’ve seen many cities and even a couple of different countries. All because of writing. So, difficult or not, can I just say right now how grateful I am and how lucky I feel? And thank you, so much.
Monika: At what age did you transition into a woman yourself? Was it a difficult process?
Ryka: Well, sticky question. I’ve always been me. But, it wasn’t until my thirties that realized I was trans (we didn't have much info back then, esp. before the Internet). As far as difficulty—yes, but less difficult than how life had been until then.
Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Ryka: At first, it was mostly a shot in the dark and talk in newsgroups such as the Genderfreezone and alt.gender and things like that. I never wanted to be drop-dead gorgeous or a model—even though I saw images of beautiful trans women. I’m just a writer girl. Later though, both Kate Bornstein and especially Leslie Feinberg encouraged me and I will always be grateful to them.
Monika: We all pay the highest price for the fulfillment of our dreams to be ourselves. As a result, many trans women lose their families, friends, jobs, and social positions. Did you pay such a high price as well? What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Ryka: Yes, I did, and continue to do so. Family means a lot to me. The hardest thing was simply starting over. The hardest thing now is realizing that I may never find the sort of peace and acceptance I wished for years ago. Even love. I suppose transphobia has led me to develop closer ties to writers and artists and musicians. I’ve found soul mates in music, on paper. Safely and comfortably far away, unreachable, or dead.
But through the years, as a trans person, it can be difficult not to get fatalistic about someone loving me in real-time. And I wonder how this has altered my way of seeing the world--which means I need to find a way to be optimistic again, I guess!

On stage.

Monika: The transgender community is said to be thriving now. As Laverne Cox announced, “Trans is beautiful.” Teenage girls become models and dancers, talented ladies become writers, singers, and actresses. Those ladies with an interest in politics, science, and business become successful politicians, academics, and businesswomen. What do you think in general about the present situation of transgender women in contemporary society? Are we just scratching the surface or the change is really happening?
Ryka: I really hope we’re thriving. I think hope is important. We need to be ready for the backlash, and the media has such a ham-fisted way of portraying us that sometimes I think media personalities are purposely introducing misunderstanding simply for kicks (and clicks). But I can keep my fingers crossed and hope. :)
Monika: On the other hand, the restroom war is raging on and transgender women are killed on the streets…
Ryka: Yes. I teach self-defense to at-risk queer youth at the LA LGBT Center. Many make it. Many don't. So I see this every day. This is why we need to be very careful about which causes we support and whose banner we march behind. We need to choose our allies carefully. If we move forward without bringing our most needful and vulnerable with us, we become no better than those who would chop the T off of LGBTQ for expedience. It’s difficult, but what about being trans was ever easy?
Monika: The transgender cause is usually manifested together with the other LGBTQ communities. Being the penultimate letter in this abbreviation, is the transgender community able to promote its own cause within the LGBTQ group? 
Ryka: There are always ways to move, both within and without Queer, Inc. But it takes a lot of work sometimes. Dedication, politicking, planning. And it continues to be done. As a writer, I do hope my work helps, as well.

Order Seasonal Velocities from
Trans-Genre Press here.

Monika: Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Ryka: I am glad that people who are politically active have made so many gains, and I have benefitted from many of them. I am grateful.
But I work with my hands, on what I see in front of me. I try to help in my own way. I’m not a politician. I’m a writer. I’m a teacher. I speak to queer students on staying alive and cherishing themselves. In my spare time, I teach queer homeless kids how to protect themselves from knife attacks twice a week. I hope this helps, too.
Monika: I have read somewhere that cisgender women were liberated thanks to the development of contraceptive pills whereas transgender women are free now thanks to the development of cosmetic surgery, so they are no longer prisoners of passing or non-passing syndrome …
Ryka: The pill offered no protection from Hep C or HIV or HPV or HSV. Rape, battery, sexist courts, and institutions? Nope. No protection there, either. And it will take more than a surgery that most people with no health insurance can’t afford to liberate us, as well. Of course, these procedures are life-changing and very important for some of us. Absolutely yes! Critically so! BUT this is not the same as helping all trans people live better lives today.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Ryka: I haven't really lived enough to start thinking about that yet! ;)
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Ryka: In my life? I think I’ve been a love poser. I am a storyteller and a good cold reader, and I can make people infatuated with me. There’s a rush in that. More than that, though, I have also felt utterly in love. But all of my relationships fell apart. So now what? As I age, I am learning what I gave to those relationships may have been tainted because I’ve not done enough work on loving myself. So now I am trying to figure out—and a lot of it comes through my writing—what accepting oneself and even loving oneself might look like. Am I lonely? Yes, horribly so at times. But there’s something really nice about discovering who I am and that I can survive and even have good days without someone next to me. And maybe one day I’ll find someone who makes my heart race and be strong enough in myself that the person they fall in love with is actually me.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Ryka: I know we get bombarded by so many images—but try to go beyond that. Gender is so much more than the body. Besides, no matter what, we’re either going to get old, sick or stop living and what then? The body alone is not the most stable place to house your identity. Find the things you love to do—and put your heart in them. When you look back at your work, I believe you will see something true and beautiful and utterly yours. And unlike the body, it will live on, and on, and on.

In the midst of questions from the audience.

As far as gender… again, beyond the body, gender lives in what we create, what we write, the way we hold a pen or brush or stylus. It’s in how we decorate our bedrooms, what we buy at the supermarket. It’s how our dear friends see us. And it’s how we see our friends. It is living, and this is what we should all be doing to the fullest.
Monika: My pen friend Gina Grahame wrote to me once that we should not limit our potential because of how we were born or by what we see other transsexuals and transgender people doing. Our dreams should not end on an operating table; that’s where they begin. Do you agree with this?
Ryka: Those are very wise words! :D
Monika: Ryka, thank you for the interview!
Ryka: Thank you, so much!

All the photos: courtesy of Ryka Aoki.
© 2017 - Monika Kowalska

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