David Hoenigman, host of the Aug. 23 PAINT YOUR TEETH, interviewed me for WORD RIOT.
Yuri Kageyama is a poet, writer and journalist in Tokyo. She has a book of poetry – “Peeling” (I. Reed Press). Her works have appeared in many literary publications, including “Y’Bird,” “Pow Wow: Charting the Fault Lines in the American Experience – Short Fiction from Then to Now,” “San Francisco Stories,” “On a Bed of Rice,” “Breaking Silence: an Anthology of Asian American Poets,” “Greenfield Review,” “Beyond Rice,” “River Styx,” “Other Side River,” “Yellow Silk,” “Stories We Hold Secret,” “MultiAmerica,” “Echoes From Gold Mountain” and “Obras.” She has read with Ishmael Reed, Shuntaro Tanikawa, Geraldine Kudaka, Victor Hernandez Cruz, Russel Baba, Seamus Heaney, Shozu Ben, Al Robles, Winchester Nii Tete, Eric Kamau Gravatt, Yumi Miyagishima, Yuri Matsueda and other artists. Her son Isaku Kageyama is a professional “taiko” drummer with Tokyo-based Amanojaku, led by Yoichi Watanabe. “A Back Alley Asian American Love Story, of Sorts,” a film by Niccolo Caldararo of Kageyama’s short story, was shown at the San Francisco and New York Asian American film festivals, and won awards at the 1986 Palo Alto Film Festival, 1987 Ann Arbor Film Festival and 1988 Onion City Film Festival. Yoshiaki Tago is now making a film of Kageyama’s readings with music, set to be completed later this year. She is a magna cum laude graduate of Cornell University, and holds an M.A. in Sociology from the University of California, Berkeley.
David Hoenigman: How has your environment/upbringing colored your writing?
Yuri Kageyama: I was born in Japan and went to the U.S. for the first time with my parents when I was 6. I didn’t speak a word of English and didn’t say a single word for a year in elementary school. But I had mysteriously picked up English during this period of silence – though I can’t explain how that happened. I also spent a part of my high-school years in the U.S., again with my parents. While I lived in Japan, my parents sent me to international schools because they wanted me to be a scientist and thought English would be a useful tool. Although I have long had mixed feelings about my bilingual/bicultural upbringing, which had made me both emotionally and socially marginal, if not an outcast, I am now more at peace with it and am now trying to see it as an asset. I love Japanese writers and their sensibilities but I also love the English language. It is powerful not only because it has such a large audience but also because it is the kind of language that forces the writer to be direct and speak in a universal way and be strong as an individual. I also often write about musicians because they are good vehicles to explore themes of self-expression, cultural identity and eroticism that are central to my works.
DH: What Japanese writers do you love?
YK: Shuntaro Tanikawa, Kenji Nakagami, Hiromi Ito, Mieko Kawakami, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Kenji Miyazawa.
DH: I enjoyed your poem “Cecil Taylor”. What other musicians have you written about?
YK: I have written about musicians who are my friends and relations in San Francisco and Tokyo, and characters based on such people. One of my recent poems was inspired by the music of Winchester Nii Tete, a percussionist from Ghana with whom I have been collaborating on performance pieces of poetry with music.
DH: When and why did you begin writing?
YK: I have been a writer as long as I remember. It was a natural part of my everyday life like breathing or eating. As a child, I made up stories. Reading books and writing took on more importance as a way to cope with difficulties, a way to vent out emotions. I am not sure if this makes for good writing, but it is true I sometimes feel I may have killed myself (or killed someone else!) if I hadn’t had writing. My parents had a hard time paying tuition for the international schools and couldn’t afford dance or drawing lessons. To write, all you needed was a piece of paper and a pencil. And the whole world was there to explore. These days, my writing has allowed me to connect with artists of many genres in collaborations. I am working on a film about my poetry with Japanese director Yoshiaki Tago, and I do readings with African percussionist Winchester Nii Tete. In April, I read at the Bowery Poetry Club in New York with Eric Kamau Gravatt, an American traps drummer who tours with McCoy Tyner, and a Japanese couple on their honeymoon. The event was in celebration of an anthology of American fiction called “Pow-Wow,” edited by Ishmael Reed with Carla Blank (DaCapo Press), which came out earlier this year. My short story “The Father and the Son” is part of that book. Ishmael is going to publish one of the poems I read there “Little YELLOW Slut” in his online magazine Konch this summer.
DH: How exactly will you (and Yoshiaki Tago) make a film about your poetry?
YK: We are filming my readings, my son’s concerts of taiko and other footage of everyday life in Tokyo to make a poetic statement on film. We are out to say what life means, what death means, what cultural identity means, what womanhood/motherhood (manhood/fatherhood) means _ all that. Tago is a very talented filmmaker and so much of the logistics rest with him, and I don’t know what’s going on. But my poems always play visuals reel-like in my mind so I already have a feeling for what the movie should look like. Maybe I am not good at making friends in the normal way. But I think I connect very well with some artists of various genres, even people who are very different from me in background. My work and I personally thrive on these connections. One thing leads to the other, really, and the relationships I have forged with Tago, Winchester and many others are just as valid and meaningful as, if not more so than, the friendships that normal people have.
DH: I loved “The Father and the Son”. I found something about it very comforting, though before reading it I hadn’t realized I was in need of comfort. Does that make any sense to you?
YK: Thank you! What a nice thing to say. I don’t think the purpose of creative writing is the same as a pretty painting hanging in an office building. In that sense, it isn’t out to appease. But if a story can give true spiritual comfort, that’s the ultimate. Poets are shamans. We are purging this world of evil and pain and pumping in some good poetic energy through the magic of the word because we are in touch with the eternal and the extraordinary.
DH: Is there a message in your work that you want readers to grasp?
YK: I am one of the few writers in the world who is a Japanese woman writing in English about the experiences of being Japanese in Japan and America. The world is increasingly global, and being multicultural is more accepted. I don’t have a message per se. I am writing because that is what I was born to do. I am always thinking about my writing, and life – every day, every moment – takes on more meaning for me if I am doing that. Nisei writer Toshio Mori once told me that as a writer you live life, and then you live it again when you write about it. So it is doubly difficult, time-consuming and heart-wrenching. But it is also a way to celebrate and feel love and everything else more intensely. That is basic to all writing (art) – not just multicultural writing. I don’t aim for multicultural writing. I aim for good and honest writing always. It just happens to be multicultural because that is who I am. My son Isaku Kageyama, who was born in San Francisco and is also bilingual/bicultural, is a professional “taiko” (Japanese drumming) player with Amanojaku, led by Yoichi Watanabe, in Tokyo. A traps drummer who was a friend happened to be in Japan studying taiko and so Isaku started learning taiko when he was 6. He now goes to teach taiko to Japanese Americans in Brazil, and performs all over, not just the U.S., but also China, Dubai, India. It’s exciting. I am proud of what I have achieved as a mother and don’t have qualms about taking some credit! Having a son who is an artist helps me keep going in my art. It gives me courage because as a mother I must practice what I teach and I have to show by example like all mothers. But I am starting to realize these days that it is my son who has helped me and given me so much, although all the while I thought I was helping him. The musicians I’ve met lately are all his friends, and friends of his friends. What goes around comes around. And so trying to be a good writer starts with trying to be a good person. If we can’t love the people around us, we can’t hope to save this world. That sounds like a platitude and I can’t express it any better, but it is very important.
DH: What projects are you currently working on?
YK: I have several short stories in various publications starting from the late 1970s to this year. (Links to the anthologies available from amazon are below:
On a Bed of Rice
San Francisco Stories-Short Fiction by Bay Area Writers-Premier Issue
The Stories We Hold Secret: Tales of Women’s Spiritual Development
Pow-Wow: Charting the Fault Lines in the American Experience – Short Fiction from Then to Now
There are more that got published over the years that aren’t available on amazon. )
I feel they are still good stories. I am looking for a publisher that will put them out as a compilation in a book. So if anyone is interested, please let me know.
About the author:
David F. Hoenigman is the author of Burn Your Belongings.
© 2009 Word Riot