We Do What We Can: A Conversation with Ryka Aoki
I first met Ryka Aoki through her program The After School, a collaborative workspace for queer people and people of color at Beyond Baroque, a literary arts center in Venice, California. I was struggling to write a personal essay at the time, and the advice she gave me cut to the heart of what I was trying to do.
Aoki is a poet, composer, musician, martial artist, novelist, and teacher. Her second novel, Light from Uncommon Stars, a queer sci-fi epic about aliens, donuts, violin prodigies, and the San Gabriel Valley, was released by Tor Books in September. Light from Uncommon Stars follows Shizuka Satomi who has made a deal with the devil: In order to avoid damnation, she must convince seven violin prodigies to trade in their souls for success. Having already delivered six, she finds a likely candidate in Katrina Nguyen, a young transgender runaway.
In the novel, Aoki has achieved something rare and strange—by turns tender, joyful, brutal, and impish, it speaks to the heart of what it means to be human by invoking the galactic (space aliens) and the infernal (literal hell). It’s delicate, but it also cuts deep.
I spoke to Aoki over the phone about selling your soul to the devil, writing queer, derpy romance for older women, and how to write trauma with just the right amount of spice.
The Rumpus: What was the inspiration for the book?
Ryka Aoki: The inspiration was being at a crossroads in my writing career and wanting my work to meet more readers and to see if I could settle back in and write a second novel. But this time, really talking about my present-day experiences as a queer trans person of color. Those two seem a little at odds, because on the one hand, I want to write to a larger audience. On the other hand, I’m writing about this very specific group. But I was doing so intentionally. This is almost a proof of concept that humanity is humanity, wherever it’s manifested. We all have our peculiarities. We all have our idiosyncrasies.
Rumpus: Did you write this book during pandemic times?
Aoki: I was in the middle of edits during this. The first year of the pandemic and isolation, I barely noticed, because I was writing, I was editing. But now that I’m on tour and I’m looking at things I’m realizing, yeah, this is what happens. I was digging much more into 9/11, when the veneer of American invulnerability had been shattered. And then the second thing was the AIDS pandemic, and how responses were so nuanced, but ultimately it did break down into the ability to keep your hope up for a better tomorrow.
Rumpus: How did choosing sci-fi as a genre influence your book?
Aoki: The trick for me doing this was to not sacrifice my family, my chosen family, my neighborhood in order to reach for the stars. Rather than think of a future where either one, everybody’s queer, so it doesn’t really matter, or two, everything is the same and we all have to be careful because it’s still a very cisgender and very patriarchal society—I wanted to cut against both of those things. The way I did that was to combine some very out-there premises—Vietnamese donut shop, aliens coming in from across the galaxy who are plum-colored—with the very real sense that sometimes when you’re a trans woman of color, you’re doing sex work, and it’s not good or bad, it’s how much you’re getting paid.
I wanted to reach as high as I could but also keep my feet on the ground, to anchor all of our dreams in this reality. We don’t all get to have the stars unless we all get to have the stars. I wanted to combine these very fantastical elements, while giving the closest approximation to the lives of people that I love here and now to the readers. Now, I say approximations because if I told you all of the details, for some people, that would be a little bit too much. They would get fixated on the details and forget the story. So, the whole idea is to give enough to indicate that there’s more, but not so much that you shock or horrify your reader.
Rumpus: The hate in the book was hard to read, especially with the focus on anti-Asian violence recently. What was it like to write that? Was it painful? Was it cathartic?
Aoki: There are about forty thousand pages of this book that nobody will ever see. What I ended up doing was getting it all out. I was very naked on the page when I was writing through some of these drafts. But after that part is over, and after I’ve cried, and after I’ve been frustrated, after all of that, I still have to write a book that people want to read. I had to be very technical and very calculating about how much I wanted to give to the reader, how much I thought the reader could handle.
We can talk about anti-Asian sentiment, but for people who haven’t been through it, it can be shocking. And we don’t want them shocked; we want them awake. So, how much do we give? I remember one time, I was at a Thai restaurant and I wanted to have some of their larb. They asked, do you want mild, medium or spicy? I said, “Oh, spicy.” And then the cook—she’s someone’s grandma in the back—she looks at me and goes, “You! You Japanese?” And I go, “Yeah.” “Okay, mild.” And you know, when Grandma tells you that’s what you’re getting, you don’t protest. So, I’m eating this, and my eyes are watering, and I’m walking out going, Thank you, Grandma. You saved my life. So, what might be mild to her, for me was all I could take. I’ve always remembered that lesson.
Rumpus: What was the editing process like?
Aoki: A lot of it has been not to overwrite. For example, if I have a cup of coffee, I’m not going to tell you how many spoons of sugar I put into the coffee. In fact, I take my coffee black. The moment I say that, everybody who sweetens their coffee is gonna say, “Well, I sweetened the coffee.” But instead, if I just say, “She had her coffee. She closed her eyes and she sniffed it and you can tell this is the best cup of coffee she’s ever had.” Your mind can put in the perfect amount of sugar.
Rumpus: There’s such a specificity to your characters. But there’s also something very universal about their experience.
Aoki: If we start talking about universal pain, it can end up just sounding like trauma porn. If I can write a character who people identify with, I have to treat the character with the amount of mercy and compassion that I would treat my readers. So, what I do is, sometimes I’ll write something very graphic and really quite horrible. But I also make sure to have an occasional joke thrown in—they’re talking about eggs and the chickens ate worms. My goal is not to traumatize the reader but to indicate to the reader that I recognize your pain and I understand and I empathize. It’s this balance between writing very graphically horrible scenes, and then writing scenes of very graphic and affirming rest and compassion, and maybe even a little bit of love, if I’m lucky.
Rumpus: What are your comedic inspirations?
Aoki: Douglas Adams is a trip. Monty Python is something that I really enjoyed. The movie Galaxy Quest. I’m making fun of space opera, but I’m really enjoying it. On another note, too, I wanted to show that when [violin prodigy] Katrina is laughing, it’s a beautiful sound. When these characters are happy and they’re laughing, people take notice and don’t you want to have more laughter like that in your world? Maybe you should be nicer to people that you don’t know too much about. Who knows what you’ll get?
Rumpus: Katrina is this brilliant, talented musician, but she’s also able to empathize with other people and draw out their stories of pain or joy. How does she do that when she didn’t get that from her own family?
Aoki: She doesn’t. Katrina thinks she’s just singing for herself, and she learns how to cry and she eventually learns how to speak through her violin. But she doesn’t realize that there are other people around her who have felt much the same way. This happens with a lot of queer folk. Our experiences aren’t just valuable to us, they’re valuable to others. Sometimes we lose track of that. So, when she’s performing, suddenly she realizes that there are all these other people listening. And maybe for the first time, she is overwhelmed with this desire to help them and save them.
Then Shizuka is reminding her that when you can look out it can be all dark, but if you can find one or two friendly faces, or even imagine that they’re there, you’ll be fine. The odd thing about having an honest, genuine personal experience is you can sometimes be at your most altruistic, because other people see you and there’s resonance, right? When a string vibrates and resonates with other strings, it’s not trying to make the other strings vibrate. It just happens.
Rumpus: That reminds me of what it’s like to be a writer. Speaking as a musician and as a writer and as a poet, how do you draw on all that?
Aoki: You have to have real trust that you’re a human being. That your experiences will resonate with other people. When we come from abusive backgrounds or we’ve been told that we are somehow different or tainted, we mistrust that, so we try to make overtures to learn how other people are. But that can only cause a lot of stress. Suddenly, we’re acting like humans; we’re not being humans. If we stay with this game long enough, we get too tired of that. We just don’t have time anymore to act, and we start to be ourselves. We realize, Oh, crap, this is how we relate to others. We’re friendly and we go with a good heart. We honestly share what we share about ourselves, both our personal stories, but also the stories that we craft and we write. Do this with honest effort and with an authentic voice, and other people will be inspired to reply in their authentic voice. You never had to work on that. You never had to try. All you had to do is be yourself.
The thing that saves Katrina is she loves that violin. I don’t really talk about how much she loves the violin. Because she just does. And sometimes, if you love something selflessly, other things happen, too. She runs away because of that violin. She meets all of these characters. But it really all comes down to, somewhere down the line, she fell in love with the violin. And gosh knows why. But there she is. I think sometimes you just love something. Why did you become a writer? Why did I become a writer? I have no idea. But we did. And by not abandoning that love, it’s going to bring us to good things.
Rumpus: This idea of selling your soul to the devil—how do you think you’ve faced that temptation as a writer?
Aoki: I was positing this as giving into despair. That if I weren’t trans, I would be more accepted. If my parents had introduced me to more writers, or had I not been beaten as a child, or had I had a figure built more like a cosplayer model, I would get more fame and that would be better. In other words, all these reasons why for things that we don’t have. These are the things that the devil can provide.
But you resist that by saying, Girl, the reason that you haven’t succeeded is you haven’t succeeded. What’s in your control? Write your best stuff and be open to success and market it, and you’re going to screw up. But at the end of the day, are you going to spend today being bitter or are you going to spend the day writing a poem? The poem can be about being bitter, too. You can kill two birds with one stone. But are you producing work? Or are you silently bemoaning that the world is unfair?
This has nothing to do with what’s right or what’s wrong. This has to do with [the fact that] your poem might be exactly what this girl around the corner needs. Why don’t you do it? Why don’t you write it? That’s what I mean. Then, for some reason, for me, once I did that, I’ve had a lot of crushingly bad luck, but a lot of amazingly un-crushingly good luck, too.
There are so many beautiful, talented writers who don’t have a book deal. I’m not going to sit here saying my life sucked. What I am going to say is it took time. It took writing. And every night, do I sell my soul by saying that person’s luckier than I am? And then, instead of writing a story, bitch with my friends about how this writer has this or that and I don’t? All of those things are valid. All of those things have roots in truth. But it doesn’t help me when I’m trying to write a story.
I’ve known a lot of people who stopped writing the major story. They’re no longer with us. They ended their lives. That’s one way to stop writing your story. I’m not going to sit here and say that they were weak or they did the wrong thing. This is a very personal choice that I’m making.
Rumpus: There’s this narrative that if you don’t sell your soul to the devil, if you don’t compromise and you’re like, Fuck you, patriarchy and capitalism, that somehow you’ll succeed. And that’s not necessarily the case.
Aoki: No, it’s not. But what always happens is, if you kill yourself, nobody reads your work anymore. Or actually, they do. But you never write another book. And you’re certainly not there to enjoy it. This whole idea of perseverance, it’s working for me, but it could just as easily not have. But even if it didn’t, just like Katrina, even if none of this worked out, Katrina would still love playing the violin.
Rumpus: I wanted to talk about the San Gabriel Valley.
Aoki: You might have noticed that some of the things in the San Gabriel Valley that I talked about are wrong. That was intentional. I’m not going to tell you where my favorite Hainan chicken places are. I played a little bit with the topography and I mixed and melded a couple things. The park that I’m talking about, there are actually signs saying, “Please don’t feed the ducks.” When you’re writing about your hometown and your home, you have to be careful because you’re talking about families and communities and towns that didn’t ask to be written about. So, you write about them, but you also remember that people you love live there. Some of them like their privacy. I made it a little bit different and a little bit mystical so people can still enjoy being in the San Gabriel Valley and enjoy their own version of it without going on to seek and destroy places that I care about.
Rumpus: That seems very wise. There’s this one dim sum place that has really cheap dim sum. It used to be like $1.88 a plate. And my family and I would always go to that same place.
Aoki: Yeah, and you know, the last thing I want to do with a place like that is ruin it. And, you know what’s ruining a place like that? Three dollars a plate ruins it.
Rumpus: There’s such a tenderness in your book and a lot of joy. And the relationship between the Donut Lady and the Queen of Hell [Lan and Shizuka] is very cute.
Aoki: Thank you! These are people who are older who have had love not quite work out for them. And so I wanted to portray, for a lot of my queer family, an older couple. They’ve been hurt. They know what it is to be cynical. They’ve been around the block many times. And then seeing them open up. I wanted to give that sort of derpy goofiness to them. I’m glad that came through—you guys are dorks.
Suddenly, they want to flirt, and they don’t know what to do with it. I didn’t ever want to make them flirt with each other at the same time; I wanted one to say something that seemed flirtatious, but the other one is being deadly earnest. Because neither of them quite knows what they’re doing to the other one. They’re being derps.
A lot of times when you’re older, you’ve given up on romance. And you don’t even know what you’re giving off, because you’re too busy making donuts. I wanted to give a bit of a young-adult feel to these characters. My goal was to write a young-adult, flirty romance for people who are in their sixties.
Rumpus: If there was a movie version, have you thought about who would play these characters?
Aoki: Oh, gosh no, I haven’t. In fact, I’ve purposely not because I would love to be surprised. All I can say is when this goes and becomes a movie, I hope that I hear so much laughter. Uncomfortable older women laughing—that’s what I want.
Rumpus: What would you say to a writer who has an idea, but they think, Oh, no one will ever let me write that?
Aoki: That’s exactly what you should be writing. However, when you’re doing this, make sure you’re doing this to tell the story that you want to tell, that you need to tell. I never wrote a story like this because I wanted to show off that I could. I know people who wrote trans characters, and they just wanted to show that they could. This is a horrible reason. It’s like somebody dates me, and we end up hooking up. And they tell me the next day, “Well, I just wanted to know if I could do it.” That’s horribly messed up. In the same way, don’t write a story about people just to show that you can do it. Write it because there’s an actual connection, an actual attachment. There’s a need to write that story within you. You do that, you’ll be good.
Rumpus: Katrina has this ability to understand and be aware of things that other people are not aware of. She’s constantly perceiving how other people are perceiving her. Do you think that’s something you also do in your writing?
Aoki: No, that’s something I do because I’m trans. And you have to, as a trans woman, be reading the room around you constantly. Unless you’re in a very safe space. But when I’m going about my daily life, it’s looking around—are there any threats? Read the room. Perceive what other people might be thinking about me. The downside to this is a lot of times we’re better safe than sorry. So, we end up projecting a lot of negative feelings towards people around us to keep ourselves safe, right?
It can cut out a lot of possible connections. But as you get better at it, as you get older, and as you start to live in your skin a little bit more, you get a little bit better at finding good things as well. That’s Katrina’s job. That’s her mission in this book. Going to the Cinnabon was really important, saying, You have to look for the people who are smiling. You’re really good at looking for the danger—it got you here. But now, in order to go to the next step, to thrive, you’ve got to look for the good stuff too.
Rumpus: How did you find your voice?
Aoki: Fatigue. Crying. Giving up on everything else. It comes from a very dark place, when I was at my lowest. When I’m at my lowest, there’s always a voice that says, Come on, girl. Just brush your teeth now. You’ll be okay. I don’t know where that voice comes from. But it’s mine. And when I write, it’s still that insistence: Come on, you’re gonna write this and you’re gonna be so much better in the morning. You can do this. Knowing that voice is there has helped me. But finding my voice wasn’t about attaining anything. It was having everything or most things stripped away. Until all that was left was my voice.
That gives me a lot of confidence to write things that I want to write. People have said that they’ve been startled by me caring so little about what other people think. When other people have hurt you, you stop caring so much about what they think. You stop trying to impress them. You start to realize, we do what we can, and we should be alright.
Photography of Ryka Aoki courtesy of Ryka Aoki.