Art As Activism

Art As Activism

This interview with Reiko was originally published on the Women Authoring Change blog for Hedgebrook, an amazing retreat for women writers. In their own words, “Our mission is to support visionary women writers whose stories shape our culture now and for generations to come. Our core purpose is equality for women’s voices to help achieve a just and peaceful world.”  


Hedgebrook: Tell us about your work as a writer—do you write in multiple genres/forms?

Reiko: Sadly, yes. I’m a self-taught writer, so every time I write a book, I have to teach myself to write all over again, and it’s not a quick process. For my first novel, Why She Left Us, I read like crazy and mapped out the books I liked to figure out what a novel was. I dissected them, teaching myself everything from how to end a chapter to how to format dialogue.

When I started my next book, Hiroshima in the Morning, which was a memoir, I didn’t realize there were new rules, new expectations, until the first draft was done and it was terrible. And then I had to look at the central question of the memoir, the reason why I was telling the story so that I could use it to create the skeleton… I’ve just finished my next novel, and now I am working on my fourth: a fantasy, possibly for young adults, though that’s not even clear. With, you guessed it, yet another set of rules and assumptions that I need to learn, to play with, and possibly to break.

Complaining aside, perhaps it is truer to say that I will always have to teach myself to write this new book that’s in front of me no matter the genre, because this new book has the potential to be anything and how else could I find out what it needs to be? And as hard as it is to keep shifting (and failing, over and over), I also expect I would be bored if I was repeating myself.

 

Hedgebrook: Do you consider yourself an activist?

Reiko: Yes, though it’s taken me a while to realize it. When my memoir was still a manuscript, and Amy Scholder at the Feminist Press asked to see it, I did think to myself, “Why would she want my book? I’m just a mom.” Of course, if you are a woman who believes that fathers can take care of children as well as mothers, that mothers should be allowed to travel for work without being vilified, that you are equal and your voice is important too, then you are a feminist. But at the time, I didn’t consider those views as political statements. They were my experience, my reality. I thought it was just common sense.

 

Hedgebrook: Would you characterize your writing as activist? Why or why not?

Reiko: I think all writing is activist when you speak from your heart and from your truth. When what you have to say is urgent to you, and when your exploration of an idea or a form or a vision is consuming. I write about motherhood, gender roles, racism, discrimination, historical trauma and war. These topics emerge, regardless of what I think I am writing; I don’t plan them, and especially, I don’t start with them. I start with people, relationships, situations, inheritance. I often find myself circling around identity, with my characters trying to figure out who they are, what they want for themselves, what they refuse to be, and how their sense of themselves is different than the stereotypes and misperceptions others hold.

Again and again, in my books, you’ll find women stuck in roles that suffocate them. You’ll find lots of racism, individual and global. The internment of Japanese American citizens by their own country is just one example from my own family’s history, which is still relevant today. More relevant than ever in the aftermath of this presidential election. Our history is full of times when we created the label “other” for people who were not like us. Full of times when we changed laws and twisted all logic and reality in order to enforce that separation and to justify our acts of racism and hatred. We assassinate, enslave, perpetrate genocide, imprison, drop bombs on entire cities. This history infuses my books, but I keep my focus on people, and on the human consequences of hating, judging and limiting each other.

 

Hedgebrook: What impact do you hope your writing will have in the world?

Reiko: I hope my readers will experience a new way of seeing the world. Art should be surprising, challenging, exhilarating, and tenderizing. Of all of these, this last is most important to me. Despite my earlier answers, I’m not trying to hit anyone over the head with my “message.” The point is not that war, racism, oppression and misogyny are bad – we know that. To me, the point of reading is to be able to leave your daily life. The world of the book may be wonderful or ridiculous or terribly sad, but that’s how we practice our empathy and stretch our own boundaries. We need empathy now more than ever. And we get it by immersing ourselves inside the character who is suffering, striving, facing down oppression. The character who is just like us after all.

And in a society without enough empathy, a society of fear and separation like the one we live in now, I want to help to give voice to the stories, experiences and people who are not often heard. As a writer, in my subject matter, but also as a teacher, mentor and activist. This is where it begins. We need to hear ourselves, validate our experiences, find allies and community, claim our space. This is the Hedgebrook mission, of course, and I guess my own point here is that society cannot and will not change until the silence is broken. So that’s my mission: to speak the truth I see and help others speak their own.

 

Hedgebrook: What’s the best feedback you’ve received from a reader/audience member?

Reiko: Some form of, “Thank you for sharing this story that does not get told.” “Thank you for seeing me, and for reflecting my struggles and my experience.” “Thank you for showing me that I too will survive.” I’ve heard from many women struggling to define their own motherhood who were grateful that they were not alone. From children of internees whose parents would not share their own stories. But also from people whose lives are very different from my characters’ on the surface, but who see themselves in a broken family, an adopted child, a family secret. We are, at heart, the same. That connection is everything.

On the Art of Waiting for Writing

On the Art of Waiting for Writing

Recently, Beth Kephart asked me to talk about my writing process and rituals, and writer’s block. She shared my answers in her Junctures newsletter. Reading over them now, I find myself wishing to be in that other country: writing. To capture what is coming through in the dark.  And you?  It’s been a hard post-election year for the country, and a hard 2016 for many of us.  What does your 2017 look like?  How will you find a way to declare yourself ready for writing?

From the interview:

I don’t write every day. I don’t write every week even. I wish I did. I write long books with worlds to build, that take time to feel my way into and more time to climb my way out of, and I often wish that I was the kind of writer who had lots of ideas, short stories, essays, poems popcorning around in my brain and that I could sit down every morning and one of them would come and keep me company for a while. I’m not talking about ease – that I wish writing was easy – but availability. I’m not talking about validation either. I know I am a writer even when I am not writing because I have written, because I think in terms of story, because I am an annoying person to watch a movie with since I am constantly pointing out the clues that have been dropped to create that satisfying ending that seems surprising but suddenly inevitable (just ask my children), and because when I haven’t been writing for a while I am restless and nitpicky and vaguely unhappy. You’d think, as a writer, I’d be sensitive enough to notice that for myself and correct it, but it’s usually someone else who points it out.

For me, entering a novel or memoir is like entering another country. Just as large, as far away, as difficult to navigate, as exhilarating. Something new around every corner; an unfamiliar map that I have to work to keep in my brain. Which is to say, it takes a while to get there, and once there, I don’t want to be pulled out. If I had my choice, I would keep writing, every day, for six hour chunks (that’s the point when I start getting sloppy and cutting corners), without noticing whether it happens to be dinner time or two in the morning. Indeed, when I am in that space, sometimes I wake up at in the middle of the night and grab the pen by my bed to write down what is coming through in the dark. As a result, I can give you great tips on how to get ink out of your duvet cover.

But having become conversant with that new world, I also have to leave it for long periods of time so I can edit. I have to put my work away for months at a time until I have forgotten enough of it that I can judge it. I need to be able to see past what exists on the page to why it is there in the first place and I need to be able to break myself out of the rhythm and sound of the words so I can cut them if necessary. So, for me, writing comes in waves – in and out.

When I am writing, I often start with a moment to clear my mind and pick a direction. Some people meditate. I tend to pull a tarot card. I ask a question – what do I need to know right now? Maybe the meaning of the card itself is helpful… It’s about refuge, say. Or maybe the image reminds me to pull out the conflict more, or sometimes it’s a message for me as the writer – to let go, or turn something upside down. But really, pulling a card is a way to get out of my way, and also to declare that this time is mine, and this headspace is ready for writing.

Don’t Write?!

Don’t Write?!

I’ve been thinking a lot about being a writer in this world. Not about the need to raise our diverse voices, or to break down the barriers that keep too many of us silent; not about the role of writers to expand our collective understanding of what it means to be human. I’ve been thinking about the opposite: about how our current culture is strangling art, and how we are letting it.

You’ve been reading, surely, about authors’ declining income, about our paltry sales figures (even for prize winners). You’ve quite likely read suggestions on the Internet for “making a living” as a writer. But when money “makes” our very lives; when money is the measure of our worth, we are living in Opposite Land. And in Opposite Land, where art equals product, equals sales, equals giving some ill-defined readership what “they” are presumed to want, it can sometimes feel impossible to begin to get words onto a page.

How do we write in this climate of efficiency, productivity and bestseller lists? One way is to embrace opposition, and contradiction, in our writing spaces. If you are looking for a new approach, or some inspiration to energize your writing in a corporate world, here are a few suggestions:

Don’t write: At least, don’t start with the blank page on your computer screen. You’ll find yourself counting pages, or words, and disparaging the quality of your delicate first draft. Instead, grab a journal, and start writing by hand. Try out voices, descriptions; rough out a scene. Cross out, draw arrows, and keep going; messiness can be very freeing. Jot down notes and ideas for later. Record your questions without stopping for the answers. If you brainstorm your way into a dead end, let it be. Your brain is pondering the problem in the background; the answer might sneak up on you in time! You are building pressure in that journal, and when it is bursting with ideas, your blank computer screen will be irresistible. Don’t forget: your journal is waiting for you whenever you want to come back to play.

Don’t edit: Once you are writing, let it flow. If one path peters out, jump to something that feels urgent. Be prepared to be surprised, and to follow those surprises, but try to resist the urge to go back to fix what you have. If the writing is going well, it will keep shifting and changing. You won’t know what each element of the story is supposed to do until you get to the end of the first draft. Revising, and especially polishing, parts of your manuscript too early can be detrimental because you run the risk of making something read so well that it’s hard to see that you are supposed to cut it, or move it, or reassign it to a different character. If that urge to revise is coming from the need to have a product and pages to show for your time: resist!

Don’t isolate yourself: You know the atmosphere you write best in; maybe it’s a wild, quiet garden, or a room with no windows, or a crowded café. But regardless of what you need to do to empty yourself out onto the page, don’t forget to fill yourself back up. Populate your life with books, movies, music, other people; get outside. Exercise your ability to recognize patterns and see how your concerns echo other people’s stories, and the world around you. Plugging yourself into your community will give you energy, and remind you that your writing is meaningful to others.

Don’t focus on success: Which is, of course, what I have been saying all along. With each book I have written (and I am playing with my fourth), I have had to teach myself how to write all over again. The judgment and expectation that come from having or wanting success are the best ingredients for writer’s block. Creativity requires a beginner’s mind, and a willingness to fail, combined with the courage – stubbornness even – to keep learning and playing and trying something new. In our product-driven world, writing, and living, are both processes. Trust the process, and the product will come.

(This post from our archives was written before 2020.)

The Gifts of Retreat

The Gifts of Retreat

fingerless gloves tightIt’s 94 degrees in Brooklyn, and I am writing in a pair of blue cashmere fingerless gloves. They are a gift from a dear friend – crafted from recycled goodness, and sent from Canada. They are also a shared talisman that connects me to my tribe: a group of women who inspire me, recognize me, support me, and challenge me. Women writers.

We found each other in retreat. At Hedgebrook, an oasis for women writers on Whidbey Island, famous for its radical hospitality. Hedgebrook is the only retreat I have ever been to, though, as I write this, I am poised to announce a new, week-long retreat in Hawaii that will combine three of the ingredients that Hedgebrook uses to create magic: place, space and community. It’s hard to imagine that, once, I was a writer who thought, because I have my own office at home and time to write, a retreat wouldn’t offer me anything I didn’t already have.

So how wrong was I?

Place first. A retreat is surely always beautiful. A setting that makes you want to breathe in deep, go for walks, listen to the birds (or frogs, owls, or the rain on the leaves). A place that awakens your senses, that reminds you to be in your body and use it when you write. Where you find a new rhythm that allows you to feel your too-familiar ones, which is to say to see yourself and your work with new eyes. A great retreat will also encourage you to stay inside and get lost in the other realm you created. To be in both worlds at the same time.

Let’s talk about that getting lost, because that is key too: more than no cell phones; an abundance of delicious food you didn’t have to prepare; no one asking you where the scissors are or if we are out of toilet paper (and jeez, it was just a simple question!). Quiet time at a retreat means that there is nothing else to do for quite a while. You’ve given yourself the gift of time, you’ve likely traveled far, and what I have found for myself is: the space that opens up for me changes my relationship to my work. Whereas at home I am much more likely to be thinking about product – how much have I accomplished? Can I fix this? Is it finished? And if it isn’t, can’t I wash the dishes instead? – when I am in retreat, I am able to look beneath the surface of the work and break it open, because, why not? I have the time. I can always go back to my earlier draft. The quiet writing time of a retreat, for me, has been a time when I can play, explore, take a risk, step off the path. And I have been able to tap into the heart of something, unseen, shifting, necessary. Something that, honestly, when I was home, even in the quiet of my own lovely writing room, I didn’t know was there.

The final piece, which my Goddard colleague Nicky Morris pointed to in a recent blog post, is community. Other writers. It’s a little counterintuitive that one would be going off into the woods to have conversations, but other writers – peers, mentors, students – are the source of the true gifts of retreat: inspiration and encouragement that continue long after you leave. They are the ones who – on that day when you decided to take a risk and rewrite your manuscript in the first person plural – serendipitously have the perfect story, “We,” and four other book recommendations that find their way magically into your email inbox. Or, on a long walk with a new friend, you might confide your current struggle – that you are writing your third book, say, and yet with every one it seems like you have to teach yourself to write all over again – and you find out that she has exactly the same experience, and she’s on book number eight. If your retreat also includes workshops, the support you get from your community will be more directly focused on your creations, rather than the writing life: a prompt to try, a comment about an aspect of your work that is really haunting, or a suggestion for finding a way to rethink something that isn’t working. Maybe you will be the student who finds a flash of inspiration from the first writing prompt and ignores everything else in the workshop because you are lost in your own world, writing. Maybe you will be the one who reads a brand new piece at the final evening open mike and brings everyone to tears. Maybe you will leave with a journal full of new ideas, beginnings, and go-to exercises for when you are home and stuck.

 

I know you will leave with life-long friends. I have, every time. From my last retreat, which began with Vortext, I gained a new sisterhood, as well as great enthusiasm for the writers who attended, some of whom (and I know this because I worked with them, heard them read, ate with them) you will be reading someday. I also left with a pair of red fingerless gloves (my winter pair!) handknit by one of the writers who attended. I have other gifts and talismans too – from homemade jelly to a carved ivory mermaid, crystal balls, a book, a four leaf clover, a pencil so elegant I am afraid to write with it, plastic earrings that (I kid you not) say “Compost Queen,” a ginger lollipop (no, I ate that); the list, as already crazy-long as it is, goes on.   These gifts are evidence of the magic that happens in retreat, and reminders that we are in this together; they are my motivation to help create another space for writers in the world. Even now that I am home again, I know I am not alone. They – you – are out there too.

(This post from the archives was written just as Pele’s Fire was launching in 2015)