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Podcast by Nia King
Ryka: When we talk about the master’s tools, we talk about things like words, education, opportunity, money. Sorry, I’m not giving those up. In fact, you know what? Those resources belonged to people of color. Those resources belonged to women. Those resources, they’re not the master’s tools. He just stamped his damn name on them. I’m taking them f*cking back, erasing the name, and pretending that that never happened. Nia: [laughs] Ryka: I was like, “Sure I won’t use the master’s tools. You find me something he actually made, and I won’t use it.” Nia: [laughing] That’s a good point. (jazz piano musical intro) Nia: Hello, and welcome to We Want the Airwaves. My name is Nia King. Today, I have the great pleasure of sitting down and speaking with Ryka Aoki, who is a artist, activist, writer – just published a book called “Seasonal Velocities”, which you should definitely check out, available from Trans-Genre Press (http://trans-genre.net is their website). She is up for Lambda Literary Book award. In addition to her work being amazing, she’s just an incredibly inspiring person. I mean, I’m super inspired by everyone that I’ve talked to so far on the podcast, but I almost cried during this interview. Not quite, but I was definitely having a lot of “feels” going on during this conversation. I was just very moved by her big-heartedness and just sort of peaceful acceptance of – not the way things are, ‘cause she’s an activist for change, but – she’s just sort of, at peace with the world, for the lack of a better way to put it. This was my first guerilla interview, which was held in an empty conference room at San Leandro Library, unbeknownst to the staff there. Fortunately, we did not get kicked out. We originally were going to meet up in a little coffee shop but it was too loud to record audio, so we snuck into the a library and found an empty room, and had this conversation with you’re about to hear, and I hope that you will enjoy. Without further ado, here’s Ryka. (jazz musical interlude)
Ryka: Nothing in the entire book depended on a handout. Everything was done by trans* people, gender-variant people. Anyone who ever touched anything creatively with that book from layout to cover, that entire press is completely trans*-run. And we had no outside help. We just put it together, and I found a publisher who – actually A.J., A.J. Bryce, who is the publisher, he was actually doing a record company kind of label/web presence, and he had wanted to do, become a publisher, rather. We said, okay, let’s link dreams. You work your ass off, I work my ass off, and we find people who believe in our dream and let’s go forward. So back to the Lambda Literary, I find that, that we were recognized and became nominated for a final, just an amazing victory, just to me and my grassroots. It’s a beautiful book, I just love the cover. The cover was painted by, you know, an old, old school person who just went around – Jack Dandy! – who considers themself butch, but comes from a generation where trans* wasn’t really the same kind of option that it was … Identities kind of get played around, so this – every page of that book, there’s something in it, to me, that I can tell a story about. The cover’s beautiful, A.J.’s scribbled lines all over the thing, I took chances with that book that I would never have taken with a straight publisher, or a cisgender publisher. Sorry, Allison Books would never have published that. So, it’s an honor to be nominated. There are some great, great nominees that I’m sharing this with. I hope I win. I hope we win. But I think we already did. Nia: That’s a good way to look at it. How do you even get on the radar of Lambda Literary when you’re a small press that has maybe never published a book before? Was this the first book that Trans-Genre did? Ryka: Absolutely. So far it’s still the only one. We have other books coming up, but I’ll talk more about that later. Kit Yan, Shawna Virago, James Terry – okay – Nia: [laughing] Ryka: You get on the radar by pulling strings. You get on the radar by going to other people’s events, and learning. When somebody offers you a reading at times, you know you’re tired, you take the reading. You take the interview the morning after a show, like we’re doing here. Also, we talk later on about higher education. I’ve got an MFA – having letters at the end of my name really, really helps, it matters. It opens doors. Whether or not you think an MFA is a worthwhile thing, when you’re broke as an artist, it sure as hell opens doors. You know, not everybody who decides who gets the publishing deal is a writer. Some of them are beancounters, some of them are administrators. And they respect, for some odd reason, they sometimes respect that. Like it or not, that’s kind of the game. Like it or not, if you’re going to be successful in this country, soon or later you’re going to have to deal with the white man. I mean, you just have to. Sorry, it might be working at the bank, it’s like, you may not want it to be this way but it is.
Ryka: I would just say, for doing that, just really, to get some attention from Lambda, it just really – make a lot of friends, and be genuine friends, too. I think if you put in to the community – I may be naïve but – if you put in to the community, the community gives back. Nia: You were talking a little bit about having an MFA and the sort of legitimacy that that lends you. So I interviewed recently Dr. Kourtney Ryan Ziegler – Ryka: He’s cool. [laughs] Nia: Yeah, and we had a long talk about their handle as “blac (k) ademic” and sort of the experience of being a person of color in higher education and the costs and benefits of like, um. I recently got into an MFA program for cinema, and I’m trying to figure out if I’m gonna go. I’m gonna try not to turn this into my personal college counseling session – Ryka: No, go ahead! Nia: *laughing+ But I think sometimes it’s hard to determine the value of something like an MFA – Ryka: Higher education will help you realize your dreams – no, I’m just kidding! *laughs+ Nia: [laughing] Or a Ph.D., because it seems like a lot of times, queer, trans*folks, folks of color really struggle in those spaces of higher education and sometimes, with all those things you hear about how degrees don’t take you as far as they used to, these days, you know, you have all these people either underemployed or unemployed working jobs that they’re way overqualified for – I think sometimes it’s hard to know whether it’s a worthwhile investment to pursue higher education. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on that. Ryka: Well, I think the odds really, right now, especially for queer folk – well, there’s two different types of queer folk, let’s just come right out and say that, you know, there’s some people who – you have kind of your well-heeled folks who come out as queer in college and things like that, but you know they still come from a bit of money. Not really gonna talk about that. Because they got their financial advisors, and they may have their own family dynamic, but I didn’t grow up rich, so I can’t speak to that experience, I don’t know. But if you’re putting yourself through school, I still believe in the MFA. Provided you’re good, provided you’re dedicated. I shouldn’t say “good” – “good” is, eh, what does that mean, right? Provided you’re willing to work. Provided you’re willing to stay in when all your friends are out partying. Provided you get up in the morning because you can’t stay away from your pen. Provided you can see yourself doing nothing else in the world but write. Then the MFA is an amazing thing, and I would say the same for cinema. If that is what you are born to do, then the MFA helps immensely. You have contacts, you make friends, you learn techniques. Actually, you still go to school and learn. I didn’t know what so many poetic forms were. I didn’t realize the publishing game. So you actually learn stuff in school. You still learn sh*t in school; it’s just the most amazing thing.
If you’re going there, though, just to put off the real world, if you’re really worried about the real world, if you think grad school’s going to – um, it doesn’t work that way anymore. The other one, too, is if you’re really tied in street-level community work, and that’s where you want to be, and you want to work at a community center, and you want to build your life that way, then perhaps leaving the community for school will break your heart. I’ve seen that happen. I saw people at Cornell, where I did my MFA, they dropped out of the program because they couldn’t bear to be outside of their community, where they knew there had been so much work for them to do. I guess this answer’s kind of a non-answer. If you know you belong in an MFA program, an MFA program, will still help you. If you have any doubts, though, in MFA and the Ph.D., these programs cost a lot of money. Just like anything else, they cost a lot of money. I mean, really, cost of getting a Ph.D.: do you want the Ph.D. or do you want the Rolls-Royce? It’s amazing how much money that just goes down. Nia: Yeah. Sorry, there’s something you said that I wanted to follow up on, and I’m trying to remember what it is. You’re a writing teacher – how do you teach people how to write? I always wondered, if that’s… Ryka: Well, there’s a difference between – teaching people how to write, tricky – there’s a difference between painting this wall and painting the Sistine Chapel. I try to shy away from teaching Creative Writing classes. I feel a poet, or a short story writer or something, will find their way. I am proud to teach Composition courses. I teach housewives, and I teach kids who may have never been told that they could write, and are intimidated by writing – maybe – a lot of my students are students of color and they just feel that they don’t have ownership of the English language. And that will cripple them. Grad school or not, that just destroys them. I tell my students, what’s the difference between “I work hard” and “I works hard” – you know, twenty dollars an hour. So when I teach writing, I teach it as, there’s nothing different from teaching writing as there is any sort of construction. It’s a system. You do your free-writing, you do your outlining. You give yourself time to think, and to breathe. There is such a thing as subject-verb agreement, and there is such a thing as a topic sentence. And here’s how a topic sentence works, if you put it at the front of the paragraph, or the back of the paragraph. And the way I teach them, is that it’s simply another process. If you are, you know – no different from unplugging a kitchen sink, or from changing the oil in a car, or from coloring someone’s hair, or from cooking dinner for your family – you can nail it down to a process. It’s not so intimidating. Nia: Hmm. Once someone has sort of a mastery of the English language, how do you help them become a better writer? Ryka: At that point, I’ve given them – once I teach them the mechanics, and [knocks on wood] here’s hoping I teach them mechanics, my job as “teacher” is over. Because at that point, I’ve given them skills – goal of your life.
I mean, I’m your auto-mechanic, I don’t tell you where to drive. I taught you how to cook, I’m not going to tell you what to cook. I’ll make recommendations, and I feel blessed that some of my students come back to ask me for advice, but at that particular point, the only thing I tell them to do is read. Just read. Just be a contributing member to the English language. Read. Enjoy. Borrow. Steal. Write. Just learn. And a few of them I think have caught on over the years. For those, I’m really, really grateful. Nia: I remember what I was going to ask you before. Ryka: Okay. If you’ve noticed I’m long-winded, I’m sorry. Nia: Oh no no – [both laughing] that’s what interviews are made of! If all your answers are short, there would be nothing to air! You were talking about folks that go to grad school that takes them out of their community, and their community’s kind of their lifeblood. I feel like we still have a ways to go in terms of starting to see organizing and art as like really intregrally related, and not having art be something that takes you away from organizing, or organizing being something that takes you away from art. I feel like artists like Favianna Rodriguez and Melanie Cervantes are starting to help bridge that gap, but what do you think is the ideal – like, what does it look like to be an artist who is also involved in the community on the street level – involved in organizing on that level? Ryka: I think that – you know, I had been given a few, I’d been blessed with a set of talents. I know what I’m good at, and I know what I’m not good at. You know, no queer is an island. I write. I can take something and make it sound a little bit better than it used to be. I don’t know sometimes where those words come from, but they’re there. That is my passion. I think that I depend heavily on the greater community, for everyone to kind of do what they do best. A lot of these community organizers are terrible dancers – Nia: [laughs] Ryka: I’ve seen them! What I really mean is, what does it really mean to be an organizer? What really the hell does that mean? Nia: I often have no idea what that means. I’ll gotten asked that at job interviews and I just have to make something up! Ryka: Yeah, I mean. Yeah, what are you organizing? When we talk about organizing – when I tell my students to organize a paper, you have the thesis first. And then you organize according to the thesis. What is the thesis of all this organization? What are we all trying to do? I think that the artists and the work – you know, the artists, the writers, the moviemakers – I think they provide a lot of thought on that level as well. It’s like – what are we doing here? Because it’s really too easy to see what we do as a succession of battles in the trenches, battles in the trenches, battles in the
trenches. And then there’s a lot of infighting. I don’t know if you know this, but sometimes queers fight each other. Nia: [laughing] Ryka: I know: big surprise. Nia: [laughing] I know. I’m well aware! Ryka: I think a lot of that’s wasted effort. I think a lot of that comes from, just in my humble, humble opinion, people thinking they have to sacrifice some of who they are for the greater cause. Look, I’m a femme; I want it all, baby. Why can’t I be a poet, and have my poetry change the world? Why can’t you be a filmmaker, and have your films change the world? Why can’t somebody else be an accountant, and have their accounting change the world? Why can’t somebody else organize a sit-in, and have the sit-in change the world? All of these together, I think, create that healthier community. We talk about what an organ is. The heart isn’t busy breathing; the heart’s pumping blood. The kidneys aren’t thinking; that’s what the brain does. The brain isn’t processing air; that’s what the lungs do. If we just respect each other and trust that we’re all doing our job, and are happy doing our job, our passion – mm, I’d be for that. Nia: So, you started out as a chemist? Ryka: Mhm. Nia: How did you become interested in poetry? Ryka: Well, I was always been interested in poetry. But I used to be – and still am – I think it’s time I come out: I’m Asian. And um [laughs] I’m significantly older than you are. There was a time when there weren’t very many Asian-American writers, and I got not-so-gently shoved into the sciences. I mean, I scored very highly on some of those tests. I’m good at it, but I got shoved in there. I kind of got in profiled. I would take chemis- if you looked at my notebooks from college, the chemistry notes would be going from right to left, and if you go left to right, you’d see poetry coming. So I’ve always wanted to do poetry, but um, I kind of – I think I kind of bowed to the pressure to be secured first in my life to do the safe thing, and it did not work out. Nia: How do you overcome that pressure? Ryka: You almost commit suicide. Nia: I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how – I mean, this is going to be a little depressing, but I guess since we’re talking about suicide, we can go there – as I’m interviewing all these super amazing artists, and actors, and people that just really inspire me and are so creative, and work so hard, a lot of them are… broke. Like, a lot of them are really struggling. It’s just made me think a lot about like how do you decide to be an artist when you kind of know that you’re never gonna make any money?
Ryka: Well… Nia: Or, is it a decision? Ryka: I think that yes, it is a decision. In fact, I think it has to be a decision, where, you know it’s like being in a relationship where if you fall into the relationship and never quite commit to it, that’s completely different than looking at your partner and saying, “Are we in this together? Yes, we’re in this together. Really? Forever?” Well, whatever “forever” means to queers, but yes. Nia: [laughing] Ryka: And there comes that time, when you’re in the kitchen, cooking, and you got all these options to cook, because you just got – sooner or later, you have to say: look, I’m making the lentil beans and I know I’ve got some other stuff back there, but if I keep thinking what I’m gonna make, I’m never cooking. In the same way, you have to commit to being a writer. Or an artist. You have to say: no more safety net. Nia: I guess my question is: how do you let go of the fear of not being able to survive? Ryka: You don’t let go of it. You channel it and you let that fear drive you. Every time that you’re afraid, you work harder. You wake up an hour earlier. You don’t go out that extra day. You make that e-mail to that person who can help you. You smile. You use that time to think about all the amount of work you need to do. And it’s weird, when you have that kind of dedication, in turn your self-talk gets a lot easier to deal with. But yeah, you don’t get away from the fear. You turn that fear around, and you let that sucker put your forward. Nia: You think most art is driven by fear? Ryka: I think art is driven by whatever emotion they can use. Art is omnivorous. I feel that it’s important that we be able to channel all the emotions. I know artists who are only channeled by hate, or who are only channeled by happiness, and what happens if there’s nothing more to hate? Nia: [laughs] It’d be a good world, I guess. Ryka: I guess, but think about these rock musicians who spend their entire lives – not just musicians – but people who spend their entire lives as “other”. And then, when they finally get some measure of acclaim, they can’t deal with it! It’s like, “What the hell, I’m successful. Where the hell do I go now?” and sometimes their work starts to change, and not in a good way. I think of myself as – I try to position myself as an omnivore. If I’m happy, I’m gonna write about that. If I’m sad, I’m gonna channel that. If I’m pissed off, I’m gonna channel that. And so, fear’s just another one.
Nia: Yeah, is that (you know, we were talking about channeling different emotions) is that part of why – I haven’t read your new book yet, but I read a review of it, and they talked about this sort of, I know your press is called “Trans-Genre” but the book sounds like it really is transgenre in terms of the different types of writing that’s in there. Ryka: Very much so. “Seasonal Velocities” does cover – I divided it according to seasons, starting with winter and going through fall. And each season does have a – it’s almost as if I’m drawing from a different emotion coming through and also, I tend to channel different emotions in different ways and so that’s why when you say that’s transgenre, there are essays and there are poems, and there are a couple performance pieces, there’s even – there’s song in there, actually, too. All of these contribute to the collage. So it is very much a mixed genre book. What I tried – when you do a mixed genre book, you have to be really, really careful because it so easily can really just be kind of this pastiche, this collage of just stuff. So the seasons are such to me a primal and inevitable way to organize time. So winter, spring, summer, fall: very, very, very good. Then within each chapter, I try to think about the American musical – how songs give emotion to the dialogue, which contextualizes the music, and so on, so forth. I wanted to make sure all my pieces held that way. I don’t know if they have or not. I’ve done my best; some people seem to think so, and I’m grateful for them. Nia: Do you feel like pulling from different genres, or having a diverse array of mediums you draw from, is a political choice? Ryka: I think it’s a… political artifact? Nia: Hm. Ryka: I think that I can’t be like Wallace Stevens and go sit in an office somewhere and write poetry for the rest of my life. I can’t – I don’t have a job in the poetry department. That’s not what I do. There are sometimes when the immediacy of something’s like, “I don’t have time to waste to put the metaphor. Here, I’m going to give you an essay.” Or, “This is a story because I just need to tell it the way it came at me.” And then sometimes, “Here’s a poem because I really, really need to take the time out to break your heart.” But in each one of those, you notice it starts with, “I need…” I need, I need, I need. The need for the artistic need. I think if the success had come to me earlier on – in other words, if I hadn’t had been one of the few people of color in my MFA program or if I hadn’t been queer, hadn’t been trans – maybe success might have come to me a little bit differently, a little more early, and I would have found myself ensconced in some poetry department somewhere. At that point, my essays would have seemed more like excursions as opposed to expressions. And so, I think part of what we’re seeing, when so many queer and marginalized people do so many things, it’s a bit of a blessing, but I do think it’s an artifact of oppression.
Nia: Yeah. I took a couple of writing classes at Mills. In both the classes I took, I was like one of, I think, two people of color in the class? Which I imagine is probably not uncommon but a lot of my writing’s about race and [laughs] that made it really hard to talk about race in class. Not made it hard for me, but I feel like the feedback that I got was like people had a hard time engaging in what I was actually saying. Was that something that you encountered? Ryka: Absolutely. At the Cornell program, I was maybe the second Asian-American in the entire program, ever. At the time, we did our copying at the copy center… Nia: Mhm. Ryka: … the people at the copy center, when I was trying to print handouts for the class I was TA, didn’t believe I was part of the English department. Nia: Wow. Ryka: And I had to get one of my white friends to vouch for me that I was part of the English Department. Nia: Jeez. This is when? Ryka: This is in the late 80s. Yeah, I’m that old, but still. Yeah, not too long ago. Nia: [laughing] Not that old at all. Ryka: Not too long at all, when you think about the grand scheme of things. Actually, it was the early 90s, sorry, early 90s. God, whew. Nia: [chuckling] Ryka: And then, when I talked about race, people were saying, y’know, or just when I talked about myself, it’s like, “Why do you keep bringing race into things?” Like, “I’m not bringing race into things, can’t you see I’m talking about my grandpa, or my grandma, or my breakfast?” Nia: [laughing] Ryka: “And I’m sorry that I’m eating rice for breakfast, but I’m not bringing race into it! This is breakfast to me!” It can – that part of the MFA experience sucks a**, okay, where your cohort just doesn’t get it. They can be supportive in so many other ways, but there’s these areas where they can’t. And that’s just where you gotta think, “I’m in it for myself.” I’m here to improve as a writer, to create context, to create community, but in the end, my writing is beholden to me. I hope that helps a little. Nia: Yeah. One of my friends that I interviewed, it’s not up on the internet because it was a practice interview before I started the podcast, but she’s a transgender sculptor, and she was talking about in art
school, just not being able to get useful feedback or critique on her work at all, so she would just bring friends to her crit so she could actually get useful feedback. Did you have any creative workarounds like that? Ryka: Well, what I learned to do early on, because I didn’t have friends to do that with, I – I didn’t get much support going into the program, but I think part of the reason at that particular point in time, I’d been working as a chemist, so most of my friends didn’t understand why I would give up this really solid job analyzing toxic waste – Nia: [laughing] Ryka: – to go write poetry. Why on earth would you ever write poetry when you can, you know, put brown liquid from a sump into a machine? Oh boy. There was this one time at chemistry – totally different thing – where we had oil from a crematorium and I had to analyze flash points and I’m making human oil ignite and I’m just thinking – Nia: [laughing] Ryka: “There’s gotta be a better way! There’s just gotta be a better way! This oil came from a human being; I can make soap!” So, anyway – what the hell were we talking about? [both laughing] Nia: I was asking if you had any creative workarounds for not getting the kind of feedback that would be helpful to your work? Ryka: I think my experience as an abuse victim really helped. Because, you know, you learn what you can and can’t expect from your parents. You’re not ever going to expect unconditional love – that is just never gonna happen. So you’re grateful for the food. You’re grateful for the good times, and you kinda gear up for the bad times. You understand that the shit can the fan hit any time, any place without warning, so you hoard. So… I learned how to do that. When I was in my MFA program, I learned quickly that these people actually had something that I valued: consistency. I knew what kind of criticism I could get. So when they talked about my imagery, I would listen. When they talked about meter, I would listen. When they talked about different forms and other writers I should think about reading, I would listen. But then when they started telling me that I was bringing race up, I would turn it off! Nia: That’s really smart. [laughs] Ryka: It’s wisdom that came from – that wisdom came at a price. Nia: Mm. So we talked a little bit about your background as a chemist, making human oil – [laughing]
Ryka: I didn’t make the human oil! It showed up in a jar. Nia: [laughing] That’s such a visual image that I’m hoping not to leave this room. Ryka: I know! There was this other one that – and I didn’t always do forensics but occasionally there’d be, like, this water that came from a drowning victim, when I’m shaking this jar thinking, “This is the last thing she ever saw!” Nia: Oh my God. What was your job? Ryka: I was an environmental chemist. So a lot of the stuff, the forensics had already passed, but now how do we dispose of the stuff? Nia: Huh. Ryka: You never think about that, how once something is over, is it toxic, or is it … that kind of thing. So we used to analyze all kinds of things, we used to analyze that, but sometimes we get really good stuff. Like one time we had to analyze alcohol content for beer, so we all got free beer. Nia: [laughing] Ryka: So it’s not always gross stuff. [both laughing] Nia: That is a more positive note to end on. But you’re also a master martial artist. Ryka: Uh huh. Nia: What kind of martial arts? Ryka: Judo. Although right now, I am teaching a more inclusive form of self-defense, but my background training is judo. Nia: That’s cool. I always thought judo was really interesting because – I hope I’m not wrong about this because I’m not an expert – but you use your opponent’s force against them? Ryka: Absolutely. Nia: So it’s sort of considered a soft form? Ryka: Mhm. Nia: In that there’s not a lot of striking? Ryka: No striking in tournament judo whatsoever. I really enjoy judo simply because it’s almost like having a conversation, where you’re just working, and you’re just trying to come to – I tell my students, “You don’t beat your opponent. You become one with your opponent, and then you master yourself.”
Nia: That’s deep. [laughs] Ryka: So when I’m in a judo match, it’s almost like having a conversation and trying to get my other half to agree with me. Nia: Does that effect or impact sort of the way you look at your social justice work, or …? Ryka: Probably. How could I not? I mean, I’ve been doing judo since I was ten. I was a small little Asian kid who was a little bit of a bookish geek, and you know, skipped a grade and was small anyway, and when I started doing judo, by the time I got to green belt, people started leaving me alone. Nia: [laughing] Ryka: I was, at the time, like twelve, eleven – middle school, just a good time to be left alone. Nia: And green belt is like – how high up is that in the rankings? Ryka: Two or three up. Nia: Okay. Ryka: I was like, “It’s all good.” But at the time I didn’t really – I thought I’d have to fight. I thought I’d have to go, “Hai-ya! Wax on, wax off, bitch!” Nia: [laughing] Ryka: But it really just turned out that maybe it was the way I was carrying myself or something. Nia: Mhm. Ryka: So in terms of how it informs – yeah, whenever there’s a fight, there’re two types of fighters: the type who want to show the world they can fight, and the type who want to win. I’m not in there. I don’t want people to know I can fight, which is why I’m telling you I have a fifth degree black belt on a podcast, but still. Nia: [laughing] Ryka: This was for educational purposes only. Kind of like, you know, a dildo in South Carolina. It’s for novelty purposes only. [both laughing] Ryka: The best way for me to win an argument or a fight or a political battle is to make the other person think they thought of it first. Nia: You get “Inception” style. [laughs]
Ryka: Yes! It’s just a maneuver, and then, when the person thinks he’s thought of it, he has thought of it first, he then pursues it with his own passion. So then what I’m actually doing is literally using his own force against him. Nia: Yeah, that’s so interesting because I think – you know there are different approaches to social justice and a lot of people feel like anger is a really important useful tool and that combat is sort of like how social justice manifests itself? But it sounds like you have a very different approach. Or maybe this is combat; it just looks very different. Ryka: It’s – it’s teaching. I don’t see myself as a warrior. I see myself as a teacher. When there’s somebody who’s my adversary, I don’t think of that person as an obstacle. I think of that person as a learning experience. I’m gonna sometimes be the student, I’m gonna sometimes be the teacher. But we’re gonna get through this, and we’re each gonna become wiser for the encounter. And it kind of works. I’m not a fighter. I love learning, I love teaching. Why can’t we use that, and have social justice as a way where there doesn’t have to be a winner or loser, where we all become more aware. Nia: Yeah. [laughing] I feel like you’re describing utopia. Ryka: Yeah, but you know, the person who says, “We’re gonna kill all our enemies so we’re going to be the only ones who are strong and we’re going to take justice back.” – really, is that any more realistic? Nia: I mean, I don’t know if that’s justice – Ryka: That’s not justice. Nia: Even related. [laughs] Ryka: But you know, when you hear people going, “We’ve got to struggle against the man,” to me, that’s purgatory. You’re gonna spend the rest of your life struggling against the man – you dream of purgatory, I’ll dream of utopia, and together, we’re still going to work with each other. I’m not going to invalidate you, it’s just I can’t see where you’re coming from and you can’t see where I’m coming from but you know what? The heart can’t see the brain – but they work together. Nia: Yeah, I really admire and kind of envy your wisdom [laughing] and how… at peace with all of this you seem. Ryka: I love what I do! I love to write! I love my teaching! You know, I teach on my birthday sometimes, and I tell my students, “My birthday wish for all of you is to have a job that you love enough that you want to come on your birthday and go do it!” Nia: I’m getting emotional! [laughs and sniffles]
Ryka: Aww! Nia: No, that’s really sweet! You just have this amazing spirit of kindness and generosity. I think it’s hard to maintain that. Like being in social justice – a lot of that struggle makes people jaded and bitter, and I include myself in that, and you just don’t seem to have any of that at all! [laughs] Ryka: No, it’s like – every day I can look out and see that tree, and see how beautiful the light is off of that, I win. Nia: Yeah, I feel like I look out that window and see the American flag and think about war and [laughing] nationalism andRyka: Sometimes it’s good to see the symbols. Sometimes it’s good to see the colors. The funny thing about being jaded is that people think that’s the end state – you start from innocent, and you become jaded. It’s like being a butterfly: you start – you look at the monarch butterfly, and it looks like it’s jaded, right, but actually what’s going on there under the hard shell is a transformation. And I think that if you just stay with the process, eventually you just realize this sort of “jaded” covering is simply just holding your wings back – break through it, you’ll be fine. Nia: Yeah. I feel like that’s a good place to wrap. Unless there’s anything else that you’d like to share about yourself, or your work? Ryka: Well, I mean, just that Seasonal Velocities comes from Trans-Genre Press, http://trans-genre.net/. My personal website is http://www.rykaryka.com, and I got a bit of good news: I just signed a book deal with Topside, so my first novel’s gonna be coming out, as well. Nia: What kind of press are they? Ryka: They started off as a trans press, but – Nia: Oh, awesome. Ryka: This particular book that I wrote – Tom Léger [Topside publisher], in New York, in Brooklyn, he’s doing some amazing work, himself – but my book that’s coming out really has not much to do with trans issues. It’s pretty much a story based on my family, and I wasn’t out as trans at the time, so there it is. But he’s putting it on his Topside signature label because he believes in the book. I know you wanted to end, but I just wanted to say this – Nia: Oh no, no, go ahead. Ryka: I was at a book panel, Rainbow Book Fair, and I broke down crying – on the panel! I mean, not like little tears but [gasping sobbing noises] that kind of crying, because I was talking about this novel, it’s called “A Hilo Song” that’s coming out, and it was about Hilo, and dancing, and how –
Nia: What is Hilo? Ryka: Hilo’s a city in Hawai’i. Nia: Okay. Ryka: It’s on the Big Island, and my father’s side of the family’s there. Many of my best memories come from there. I wrote this novel about this. To me, it’s the best thing I’ve ever written, just flat-out, period. I mean, I just put every, every, everything I had in that book. But there’s no trans characters! There’s a couple gay characters, but they’re very peripheral. We were talking about trans press, and trans narratives, and all of a sudden I said, “This world, this world keeps telling me that I’m more than trans, that I’m an artist, that everyone’s working for me to be a complete human being, and blah blah blah. And here I’ve got this novel that I just think is the most beautiful thing! A couple of my friends have read it, and they think it’s a great novel, too, but since it’s not overtly queer the very presses that are supposed to support me won’t touch this! And I start crying, going, “You say you want me to be complete, but when I’m writing these things, I gotta rip my heart in half, what’s going on?!” I think we’re at an exciting time right now where people like Tom who’s just, you know, a happy trans guy, kind of realized that in order for this community to grow, we have to not only grow as organizers looking for useful things to keep furthering the queer and trans agenda, but also nurturing our artists, who are also furthering the queer and trans agenda, albeit in a different way. Every book I write is trans. I love oomph – I mean, it’s great. But if we expect our tran speople to be more than professional trans people, we have to let them be professional chefs, professional doctors, and you know what, when I have my neurologist taking care of my brain, and ze is a trans or genderqueer person, I don’t want that person thinking about hir identity, I want that person thinking about my brain! Because I want a trans pilot on a jetliner, I don’t want that person thinking about trans identity, I want that person piloting the jet! And when I’m writing, I want people to welcome my writing, my craft. Nia: Mhm. Yeah. I think that brings up an interesting point. Ryka: I know you’re probably going to edit this. [to the listeners] Sorry, guys! Nia: That’s my job; don’t worry about it! [laughs] I’m gonna drop another name. [laughing] I interviewed La Chica Boom recently, and we got into – after the interview was over – we got into an interesting conversation the idea of being pigeonholed as an x artist or a y artist. I think in part it came from a workshop I went to recently where people were supposed to get together and talk about race, and queerness, and the arts. People were coming from really different places. There was someone who was like, “I’m not gonna check the ‘Asian’ box or the ‘queer’ box to get money. Like, I’m just an artist, and if you can’t deal with it, then that’s your problem if you’re trying to squish me into a box.”
I’ve just been thinking a lot about whether sort of being a queer and/or racialized artist is an asset or a liability. Because I think in some ways it opens a lot of doors, like when Black History Month comes around, a lot of black artists have a chance to show work, and make money that maybe they don’t the rest of the year, or at least not as much. But at the same time, there’s also: if you’re not making work about race, or about queerness, and you’re only getting a chance to perform at the black shows or whatever, then what does that mean? I don’t know. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this. I realize it’s not exactly a question. Ryka: Mm. Well, for me, rule number one is – and because I’ve already thought about this, it makes it a little easier – when the white man gives you money, take the money and run. You just won. It’s like, great – so you had to check off that you’re Asian. You get to pay rent! That’s cool. You can do a lot of things with a roof over your head. In terms of being pigeonholed, what helps get me out of pigeonholes are the backdoor dealings, are kind of like talking to people, maybe seeing the person in the other part of the audience and going, “Hey, I saw you came to my show, or my reading.” And you start to go to other people’s readings, and you start to say – I think sometimes, if one gets pigeonholed on-stage, there’s no pigeonholing off-stage. One can go to whatever show they want, usually. Especially on the West Coast. I just find that being nice, really trying to listen to the work that – if you watch a show that you don’t feel welcome being a part of, but you admire the work, for real, you listen to it. You enjoy it. You have honest questions about it, and curiosity. And then you start talking to the people, and you start learning a little bit, and instead of breaking the walls down, you look for the door. Yeah. Nia: Yeah. Ryka: It may take a while, but I think at that particular point, I don’t handle anger very well and it’s easier for me to believe that other people are ultimately – if you find the right way in, most people are not assholes. Nia: Yeah. I think that’s a good note to wrap on, too. [laughing]
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