Matador Review

A Quarterly Missive of Alternative Concern

no dust here

An Interview with Ryka aoki

Interviewed by Mandy Grathwohl

Ryka Aoki is an award-winning author, performer, and professor. She is a former national judo champion and the founder of the International Transgender Martial Arts Alliance, and has been honored by the California State Senate for her "extraordinary commitment to free speech and artistic expression, as well as the visibility and well-being of Transgender people." Ryka is a two-time Lambda Literary finalist for Seasonal Velocities and Why Dust Shall Never Settle Upon This Soul. Her debut novel He Mele A Hilo was published in 2014, and she is currently at work on her second. You can find her on Facebook at @booksbyrykaaoki and Twitter at @ryka_aoki. Her website is

TMR:  What is your main goal when you write?

RA:  When I'm writing, I have two people in mind; the first person I have is me. I grew up in a household that was pretty rough. I write about that a little bit. I didn't have much trust in my family, and I always felt that. Even my father himself told me -- this was when he thought he was raising a little boy and I had won my judo championships -- he said, "You might grow stronger, but as long as you're in my house, in the middle of the night when you're asleep I can come into your room and slit your throat." And that's just Dad.
At the end of the day, all of this has taught me -- in some ways it's a bitter lesson, but if I don't satisfy myself and if I don't work towards making myself a better individual, no one's really going to help me. And being trans, that's brought it even more, being a person of color, it's brought it even more, that the world's not built for me. I learned that right away.
I write alone, I'll probably die alone, and so if I write work that doesn't satisfy me, that doesn't accomplish anything. It's important that I'm doing work that challenges me, that makes me happy, that makes me feel clean, that at the end of the day I can say, "Ryka: not great, but pretty good. Good job."
The second person I write for is somebody I don't even know. When I was younger, I picked up a book that had really nothing to do with me. It was written by John Shirota, it was called Pineapple White. It was the first time that I had ever seen another person with a Japanese surname write a book in English. Kind of like the Whoopi Goldberg scene on Star Trek, where you realize, "Oh my god, I see a black person on TV and she's not a maid." All of the sudden I see a writer. And that changed my life. That made me think that I wanted to be that way.
Somewhere down the line, someone's going to run into one of my books. That's not because I'm great or anything, that's just the way the world works. I have a public piece, someone's going to run into it, and the smarter they are, the more obscure they can get before they can find it. When they get to my book, I want it to be good to them. I want it to say "I love you." And that's the second person I write for. Those are the two people: myself, and whoever the hell might need me later on.

Writing is not always joyful. It's not always happy. But at its best, you can count on it to be satisfying. You can count on it to be life-affirming. Might be a crappy life at the time, but it affirms it.

Writing is not always joyful. It's not always happy. But at its best, you can count on it to be satisfying. You can count on it to be life-affirming. Might be a crappy life at the time, but it affirms it. I think it's surreal. It's a real privilege and honor to have been born with the capacity to play with words.

TMR:  A few months ago, musician Amanda Palmer said that "Donald Trump is going to make punk rock great again." What do you think the role of art is going to be in the years to come, particularly during the current presidential administration?

RA:  They do say that necessity is the mother of all invention. They do say that, a lot of times, art seems to flourish in times of great adversity. But I disagree that it makes the art. I think the art has always been there.
When you think about something like tyranny--great oppression, great sexism--if you look hard enough, you find poems. Poets are strong. Writers and artists are strong; we're always doing something. Whether it's creating poems bound in books or putting stories into quilts, or even changing a recipe a little bit, we always find ways to create. And the divinity of art is that we find ways.
It's not that there's a message that changes the artist in general, but I think that what adversity does is it tends to select a certain type of artist, a certain population of artist. There are great artists that are rugged, and they're punk, and they're strong and they're manic, and they're like, "Fuck you! I've got my art." That sometimes is what the public wants to hear, so there's a resonance. The great other truth is that great art needs great audiences, so when you find that resonance, that's an amazing thing. So for certain types of artists, it binds the audience to push the artist forward, to venerate that work, to need that work. All good art's just going to a great audience. I do think it does elevate that type of art.
On the other hand, usually that type of art is done by people who are recently disenfranchised. Consider a white queer woman who just happens to be queer but is otherwise white and cisgender. When somebody in power does something and it makes life harder for queers, there's this feeling of fresh outrage and there's this feeling of, "if I stand up on this one issue, this is my fight." The problem with that is, when people like this white queer woman say that, it's easy for them to make their very bold stands, to plug in their amp and crank it and say "Fuck you Trump," and off they go. It sounds like they're at the forefront. But what I worry about are the artists of color, the trans artists, the ones who understand that this is nothing new. That Trump is just the latest voice in all of this.
When you go to a women's march or a women's protest, if a white cis woman gets arrested, that's one thing. If I get arrested, that's a totally different ball game. If my friend, who's undocumented, gets arrested, that's an even worse ballgame. In these protest situations and in these moments of crisis, we don't all have the same agency. And what I want to use with what agency I have to work with, within the community, is to understand that that slogan that you're seeing might not be the most important thing you need to hear. You might feel good raising your hand and saying "Down with Trump," but what you should be doing is, instead of looking up at the white dyke there saying "Down with Trump," or wearing a safety pin, what you should probably be looking for is the person of color in the wheelchair, who can't speak, who looks scared, and you look into their eyes and say, "You're not alone."
When you hear the saying "it takes a village to raise a child," the village is these institutions. First off, if you mostly know the village is okay, and maybe it's just something wrong with the streetlight or something, you can rally to fix the streetlight. It sounds very strong, it's very definite. Or if the new police chief in the village is an ass, it's very easy to stand up and go "We're gonna bring this guy down," and do this with conviction, because you have faith that once you get rid of this guy, the guy that replaces him is going to be better, the village is going to still be okay. If, however, you're always marginalized by the village, and nothing works, because you are an outcast, this is no longer the streetlight or the mayor. This is not something wrong in the village. This is something wrong with the village. With the entire system.
And that requires a completely different kind of activism. That requires architecture, that requires deep-thought, that requires winning people over, that requires endurance. Sometimes the people who are working that way, who are working on true village renewal, working with transforming the institutions as opposed to simply repairing the institutions, I think their voices tend to get lost because they don't make as good copy, they're not as flashy. It doesn't make a good bumper sticker. And I worry about that.
And then there's also the concept of -- it really sucks, every administration, to wonder if you'll have control of your body or not. And it gets really, really old. Cisgender men don't have to worry about certain rights that they have during an administration. They can take these things for granted. I think it gets old, after a while, to keep revisiting Roe v. Wade. We won, why do you keep challenging this? Why do you keep bringing it down, rolling it back?
As long as we live in this bubble of uncertainty, where anything we have can and will be taken away, what happens to the clean, well-lighted space that artists require to create work?

As long as we live in this bubble of uncertainty, where anything we have can and will be taken away, what happens to the clean, well-lighted space that artists require to create work?

The ones who are the most certain of their safety will be the first ones to create work. So we privilege the people with the most privilege. Yet paradoxically, the voices we need to hear the most are not the fiercest, strongest voices, but the voices that require the most cultivation. The most shelter. Because they're the ones who might have been the most the affected by these environmental changes. They're the ones that are most in danger.

TMR:  What do we do? What's the answer?

RA:  The first thing we have to understand is that we're all in this together. And "together" is an amazingly strengthening word. All of a sudden, my world gets so much better knowing that you are out there.
I think for a trans woman, and I'm certain for other queer people, the biggest thing is loneliness. To know that you're out there by yourself, you could die and no one's gonna give a shit. So to know that nobody is alone, and we pull together, I think is spectacular.
As an Asian, I think one of the biggest mistakes westerners made is the idea of the nuclear family. Suddenly, you don't have your grandma or your great aunt, which we have in our Asian families. Everything weaves together, and when we talk about chosen family in the queer world, because a lot of folks in white culture aren't used to anything outside the nuclear family, there's no template. We can borrow from emulating and listening, and begin to rebuild, more of an idea of shared wealth, shared knowledge, shared identity, the fact that nobody is really alone.
As an artist and a writer, one of the things I hope my books do is they build up connections. That somebody might not know me at this moment, but in a hundred years from now, somebody might pick up my book and read it and there's a connection. I hope that good art can create these sort of indisputable connections. You can say what you want, but in this moment, at this time, I related to somebody else, thereby I must not be completely alone.

TMR:  There's a TIME article with the headline, "Reading literature makes you nicer and smarter." It talks about how reading makes people empathetic because it takes them somewhere where they aren't; it makes you not alone. How would you say you go about this in your own work?

RA:  For me to say "I'd like you to learn something from me" necessitates I say, "I'm going to be learning from you, too, along the way." Otherwise, it's just not interaction. It's teaching class. And I don't think any of us -- even artists -- signed up to be teachers. We're artists.
I will never be able to write the stories you write. I can't do it. Those are for you. And none of us can create the tapestry by ourselves. So it makes absolutely no sense to overstep what I know and to over-present what I have. If you like the work, wonderful. I will tell you all about it. I will do my best. And when you read my stuff you will know that that was the best I could do. But it's not the complete story. I hope this inspires my readers to go on and find other people they can write to, to complete whatever stories or continue filling in the blanks of whatever else they need.

TMR:  What was the role of art in overcoming your struggles as a child, perhaps in dark times of your life?

RA:  I think, specifically, writing. The funny thing is, I'm not a good reader. I have no confidence in reading. I always think to myself that I'm going to be missing the point of something I have books the way I have friends: I have very few of them, but they're very deep. The few books that really mattered to me helped me to not only save my life with the message that they had -- I was having a really rough time expressing myself, because I was dealing with the fact that I had been heavily abused. And I didn't have any of the vocabulary for it. Obviously I wasn't going to write a Sylvia Plath-style poem because little Asian kids don't do that. From my culture, it seems self-indulgent, and overly emotional.
So I ran into, of all people, Edgar Masters in the Spoon River Anthology. And all of a sudden it dawned on me that I could write in third person. I didn't have to put it all down in one poem. I could write a little bit of a snippet here, and a little bit of a snippet there. I could put it in somebody else's words, and I could whisper it out, and they would hold onto it for me, and it wouldn't be me talking about myself, which I would be hit for when I was younger. It was somebody else. I developed a language that I could use to process the trauma that had happened to me.
What ended up happening was, rather than being a fan of Masters, or being a fan of Beckett, or later on down the line, a fan of Jane Kenyon, Li-Young Lee, these people that I really love -- I'm not the kind of fan in the sense of "Oh my God, they're so wonderful." I'm grateful to them in that they helped me find my way. Justin Chin, may he rest in peace, was a big big deal to me when I was growing up because he was a queer Asian. And all of a sudden I thought to myself: I can do that? Really? Oh my god.

You just feel so much gratitude, and so much love for the people who came before you. They blazed the trail for me, they showed me this was possible, and I'm going to take this now and I hope I do them credit by what I'm about to do.

You just feel so much gratitude, and so much love for the people who came before you. They blazed the trail for me, they showed me this was possible, and I'm going to take this now and I hope I do them credit by what I'm about to do. For me, it's not the fact that these have been celebrities, it's that they have been guides. They were the parents I never had, the big brother and big sister who whispered to me every night. They've been the voices in my head saying, "It'll be okay. I know you're broken, this is how to fix yourself."

TMR:  In an interview with Nia King, you talked about fear, primarily in your career. You used to be a chemist, but eventually you went over to poetry. Were you fearful when making that switch?

RA:  I'm on a career path right now where I'm kind of scared shitless. I've been happily teaching writing online, and suddenly I'm finding out that they're not going to be accepting the MFA for teaching anymore, so I'm going to be losing about a quarter of my income come the end of the year. They'll take a Masters in English before they'll take an MFA. In Nia King's interview, I talked about not wanting to teach creative writing. I am revisiting that: maybe I'm going to have to. How am I going to do this? How am I going to make this gel with what I hold true? So I'm doing a lot of soul searching here.
Part of what helps me forward is knowing that I left chemistry for this and here I am. The older I get, you'd think I'd be wiser. But I still feel scared. There's still fear. Kind of like how you have to come out over and over and over. Every time you come out, it's that same process, and there's this feeling that I've been here before, but it feels new all the same. In some ways that's not a bad thing, because you can have bad relationships, but you want every new relationship to have that initial hope. Maybe that's just part of being a poet, where you can wash yourself clean and approach everything with a certain amount of freshness.
Right now, I don't think fear's a bad thing. I think fear can be a catalyst. But sometimes people will be afraid and react to it with a sort of inaction and even a fetishization of that fear. People will blame the fear, but a lot of times it's just the way that it's been handled might not have been the most constructive way. I've done my best work when I've been scared, where it's like if I don't do something right now, I see my life ahead of me being very messed up. When I'm at my best, what I can then do is make a decision, forget about the fear, and move forward. When I'm at my worst, I let the fear dominate me, and I don't do anything for a while and things pile up and then it just gets in the way.
I think we're all afraid of sucking, of not having the right words. I think we all have the fear, after writing something great, thinking, "Maybe that's it." But when you actually have something to be afraid of, I think all of that washes away and it brings you up from your personal fear so that you can address something that's in front of you.When you're dealing with the current president, when you're dealing with the current political situation, that personal fear kind of washes away.. Because now all of a sudden you might not be able to see the doctor. You won't be able to use the bathroom. I don't think we have time, then, to bullshit ourselves. So when I'm writing, that's what I'm writing. But I want to go back to what I said earlier: when this is happening, this is when we should be looking around for the people who are so afraid they're frozen.
People of color have a lot more time to think about what we're going to say because it happens a little more rarely. As a trans woman, the risk of being assertive is that people will put my feminine identity in doubt. The moment I speak about things and I use strength, or if I try to be strong, to be assertive or articulate, there will be people out there going, "I told you, that's really not a woman." That, in the back of one's head, can hobble a voice.
Part of being a writer, part of anybody who spins narratives, is to patiently prune the narrative tree and get rid of the narratives that really hurt. Some of these narratives, they're really awful. At the end of the day, you just want to stop living. But as writers, especially writers from the margins, I think we have a few tools to combat that. In real life, I'm just an Asian tranny. Nobody knows who the fuck I am, walking around in the street. It's dangerous sometimes. It's often scary. But what I have and what I'm very grateful for is when I come home, I can write. And when I write, I want to create part of the solution.
Occasionally this community only wants a limited amount of diversity. It's like the way our language currently works is that there's only a limited amount of diversity slots. What ends up happening is that they tend to pit trans people up against each other. The moment a trans person becomes anything close to known, you're going to hear about Caitlyn Jenner, you're going to hear about Laverne Cox. You're going to hear about the icons.
You look at Marvel comics, the Marvel movies -- there's no problem with putting another white guy in the movie. Nobody is situating the guy who's playing Captain America with the guy who's playing Thor. But the end of the day, I'm having a hard time telling these people apart. But the studios see no problem with this, because they're all seen as individuals. Half of them are named Chris but I guess they're still individuals. As for trans women, the moment somebody comes up, they're going to bring up the other person, and it's almost like people get a field day watching us little queers fight each other for that slot. I get very, very upset by that. We have so many more things to say. I'm so much more than a trans woman. I'm Ryka. I have a personality. I am weird. I think I have some times where I'm actually kinda cute. I think each of those things, as a writer, is valuable when I write a story.

When are we going to let people of color be universal? When are we going say that Langston Hughes was for all men, that he was for all people? It's not just because queer people need a place at the table. It needs us.

If you only see Asian, or if you only see trans, it's going to poison the well. It's going to blind you from seeing this. Where's the universality? Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot, Sylvia Plath -- they're often positioned as universal. When are we going to let people of color be universal? When are we going say that Langston Hughes was for all men, that he was for all people? It's not just because queer people need a place at the table. It needs us. We are in a situation facing so many moral, ethical, artistic, existential crises; don't you want your best voices, wherever they may be found?

TMR:  What inspired the title of your poetry book, Why Dust Shall Never Settle Upon This Soul?

RA:  I suppose the big platitude is that the journey is the destination. I'm going to keep moving and I'm going to do what I can to write the best work I can, to meet the best people I can, to help people as best as I can. Learn to make the best curry I can. And at the end of my days, I'll look back and say, I'm still bright and shiny. No dust here.
I don't have standard at my disposal, just as I don't have a womb. Nothing's going to change that. I can sit here and be bitter about it, but what am I accomplishing? I don't have what I expected to have, but what can I work with? I happen to be a writer, and I'd like to think that I happen to be somewhat resourceful.
The injustice of society is that you shouldn't have to be a writer and be resourceful to find meaning out of the world. I'm at a good place in life, and sometimes it's not the best, but with queer folk, with trans folk, we have to not think that just because I can do it, so can you. There are a lot of people that don't have the opportunity. Think about the trans Serena Williams. The trans woman who's Serena Williams has no career because she's not going to have that venue open for her. I just happen to be a writer. But there's somebody out there who is a brilliant tennis player, or has the capacity to be that; any athletes, or a trans musician who is playing classical music, where they have to deal with a whole institution. There are so many different venues that are closed right now. I'd like to see more ways for a trans person to be included in a community, to be able to contribute to a community. Another thing that I hope with my art or with the art of other amazing trans writers, is that they read us and say, "Wow, if they can write like this, I wonder what other things they can do." I wonder what other things we're overlooking in this community. It's so rich.
To be a writer is a really interesting thing. There's a bias towards men in writing, in literature, but you never get the feeling that it's an unfair competition. The publishing game is unfair, but in terms of actual writing--of putting words on paper--there's no advantage to being male. There are a lot of places, like athletics, where there's a perceived advantage. And so people who pursue those sorts of activities, they've got it much, much worse than a trans writer does. And as annoying as it can be to be a trans writer, there's a reason I'm still not really competing in martial arts. There's just no place for me there. So what you're seeing, even within trans literature, you're seeing the lucky ones.

TMR:  Will you talk about your novel-in-progress?

RA:  My new novel is set in the San Gabriel Valley in Los Angeles. One of the main characters is a trans girl who's a runaway. She bought a violin off of the internet and she loves it; her other violin was smashed because her father said it was turning her into a faggot. She runs away and she meets a violin teacher who sees promise. But she herself has got her own backstory, and has made a deal with, basically, the devil. She's trying to buy her soul back. But when they get together, they actually bond in a true teacher-student way, and eventually as mother-daughter. So the teacher is now struggling with the idea of giving this person up, or not. The trans girl is saying, "Well, if you need to, fine, because the hell you describe is nothing compared to what I went through."
Alongside all of that is the understanding of what it means to be an artist. What it means to do more than play the violin, but to create music. It's a learning process for both of them, because the student is understanding that, in addition to being good, not being afraid, and being proper and what's expected and all of that, there's this additional thing of having to be free. No matter what people expect of you, no matter how scared you are that people are going to come after you if you give your own voice, if you really call yourself an artist and you want that and you are pushing that way, your path is clear. You have to be honest in your love.

No matter what people expect of you, no matter how scared you are that people are going to come after you if you give your own voice, if you really call yourself an artist and you want that and you are pushing that way, your path is clear.

On the other hand, the teacher is actually learning, by thinking, "What does it even mean nowadays to be an artist in this world? This world is changing." There was a time when she had won two or three violin contests and all of the sudden the music world would venerate her, but what does the music world even mean now? Everything is so multiplicitous. You go on YouTube, you see these amazing violin players who play nothing but music from animes and from games. So what does it even mean anymore to be a star in the music world, when there's so many worlds? Can we even make good on our bargain, to say, "Give me your soul and you have fame," when there are so many ways to have fame? What are we getting that we can't already get by other means?
All of this is taking place in the San Gabriel Valley, which has gone through so many changes. It's gone from back in the days with the German settlers; the Japanese came in and they got moved out because of the war, and then different Asians and Latinos came, and towards the end of all this, it went from Asian to Latino to Latino to Asian. So much of this was done with no white people involved. So to the white people coming in, they may just see a brown. But there have been so many changes within the communities, which makes Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Valley a place that I think is inconceivable to people who only see race as black and white. None of this is happening with blackness or whiteness, it's just all these people trying to live with each other. That's all kind of mixing in. So this novel really is focusing on this idea of how to create art from a certain identity, but also, what the role of art is as a community changes around you.

TMR:  If you could speak to yourself as a child, what would you say, coming from where you are now?

RA:  Enjoy everything. You don't have to run around with a bra on.
You're doing alright. You'll be okay. Just keep going the way you're doing, and be strong, because I wouldn't change her. I don't think she needs advice. I think she's a survivor. I would just give her a thumbs up and say, "If you continue believing in yourself and going this way, it's gonna be a great adventure."