Great Blog Tour: Four Questions

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Thanks to Natasha Moni, whose poetry book The Cardiologist’s Daughter is coming out soon, I’ve been tagged in the Great Blog Tour.

1. What am I working on?
I have a couple of personal essays in the works right now. The first one is in a yearlong series about being Nikkei in the Pacific Northwest, for Discover Nikkei. This next essay is about the Japanese American tradition of Obon in Tacoma. I’m also revising an essay about my job transition, titled “What Remains.” I’ve gotten some wonderful feedback from a writing partner but haven’t been able to revise based on that feedback yet.

When school starts I’ll be back to work on my book, a memoir that weaves together my dad’s WWII incarceration experience (and writing) with my written and my artist sister’s visual responses to that history.

If I’m being honest, it’s been gratifying to write and publish so much material online for the last few years, because of the speed and capacity for response. However, I worry sometimes that I’m writing too often for the instant “hit” of publishing something quickly and having people respond. I’m looking forward to going back to the book again, because so much of that material is going to be offline first and it will have more time to percolate.

2. How does my work differ from others in its genre?
When I was a graduate student, I did a summer project about where “ethnic” literature was shelved in bookstores. This was a time when Borders was still around, and had created a African American section, usually next to the “fiction” section. The paper became a project about questioning the categories “ethnic” and “literature,” and where I wanted ethnic literature to be shelved.

I concluded, shamelessly, that I wanted it all. I wanted a separate ethnic literature section for readers who need and want a separate section, who feel power in critical mass. I wanted the enclave and the refuge, I wanted integration and intersection and coalition. I wanted “ethnic” books to be shelved in Literature, because they, too, sing Literature.

As a writer, that’s still what I want. When I think about where I want my work to be shelved, I hope for multiple cameo appearances: on the memoir shelves, on the Ethnic Studies and Asian American and Japanese American Studies shelves, on the essay shelves, and even on the Literature shelves. I would love to see my book facing out on any bookshelf in an independent bookstore (or a library) with a handwritten staff recommendation.

My work is different from others because it keeps nudging the boundaries of who and what belongs in each of these genres.

3. Why do I write what I do?

I write about any subject I’ve chosen (usually family, food, loss, books) because those are the subjects that I love, that are always with me.

Why I write: I write to understand something that I can only understand through the act of writing. Sometimes I write wanting to please people, as a present for them; sometimes I write despite knowing that I will make people upset. I write because writing has been a cerebral act for me for far too long (as a recovering academic) and because I want it to be cerebral and emotional. I write to get back to my heart and my gut, to what feels true. And I write because I wanted to be a writer when I grew up, ever since I was a little girl reading about little girls and young women who wrote. And I write because the best writing—really, the best art—makes you want to create something yourself. I’ve been surrounded by some of the best writing for my entire life. And I like to make things. I like the pleasure of having an object that says, however imperfectly, that I have been here.

4. How does my writing process work?
I’m still a poet in some ways, so there are times that I will begin with an image or a moment that grips me. Then I will write towards that image, or begin with that image and see where it takes me. I’d like to change up my process this year, and maybe experiment with changing settings—writing in a museum for a while, or by the waterfront, instead of cafes where I usually write.

Most of the time, though, I will begin with mentally clearing the space. Sometimes that looks like staring out the window, or writing a couple of quick e-mails or browsing. Then I will begin with notes. Sometimes the notes are handwritten, but most of the time they are collections of lines in a computer document. That will take a few days. Then I’ll begin by picking one or more of those lines or notes, and write about that for a while without stopping. Then the bowl starts to rise from the pottery wheel, and sometimes it will just sink back into spinning clay again. I know I’m onto something when a part of my body tenses up, whether it’s my heart going faster, my gut clenching, or my head buzzing.

Lately, as I’ve been writing about especially difficult topics, I’ve started with something that already makes me feel: the pictures from my pilgrimage to Tule Lake this summer, a video of my godsister playing piano, an essay about grief by Cheryl Strayed, a song I heard after my second daughter was born. I’ll sit with those things for a few minutes and let those objects do their emotional work, beginning to tap into the wellspring of emotion that’s beneath. Then I’ll write, draft, write, read it to myself in my mind. When I think it’s ready, I’ll show it to my husband Josh, who is my first reader. He’s a composer, so we’re able to talk about theme and structure and form and rhythm together. After that it may be time to send it to another friend, another reader, or in for publication.

I’m tagging three writer friends who also live in the Pacific Northwest: Sonora Jha, Bryn Gribben, and Renee Simms. Definitely time to check out their writing, if you haven’t already.

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