Four Questions with Ryka Aoki
Author: Emmanuel Henderson
June 8, 2023
Lambda Literary is pleased to announce Ryka Aoki as one of the winners of the 2023 Jim Duggins, PhD Outstanding Mid-Career Novelist Prize.
Dedicated to the memory of author and journalist Jim Duggins, this prize honors LGBTQ-identified authors who have published multiple novels, built a strong reputation and following, and show promise to continue publishing high quality work for years to come. This award is made possible by the James Duggins, PhD Fund for Outstanding Mid-Career LGBTQ Novelists, a fund of the Horizons Foundation, and includes a cash prize of $5,000.
Ryka Aoki’s latest novel, Light From Uncommon Stars (Tor Books 2021) was an Alex, Otherwise, and SCKA Award winner, and was a finalist for the Hugo, Locus, Dragon, and Ignyte Awards. Ryka’s first novel, He Mele a Hilo, was called one of the “10 Best Books Set in Hawaii” by Bookriot. Her work has appeared or been recognized in publications including Vogue, Elle, Bustle, Autostraddle, PopSugar, Honolulu Magazine, and Buzzfeed, as well as NBC News and the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. She was also honored by the American Association of Hiroshima Nagasaki A-Bomb Survivors, where two of her compositions were named the organization’s “songs of peace.” Ryka has been recognized by the California State Senate for “extraordinary commitment to the visibility and well-being of Transgender people.” She is a two-time Lambda Literary Award finalist, and served as the Poetry Faculty for the 2018 Lambda Emerging Writers Retreat. She has an MFA in creative writing from Cornell University, where she was awarded the Philip Freund Prize for Excellence in Publication, as well as the University Award from the Academy of American Poets. Ryka is currently a professor of English at Santa Monica College.
How has access to queer literature/ stories impacted your life as a queer person and shaped you as a writer?
In my case, I think it was lack of access. I don’t think we had so much queer literature when I was growing up. Definitely not trans Asian-American literature! That’s one reason why, no matter what I write, be it poetry or essays or songs or science fiction novels, I bring my authentic self—even if it is in outer space with donuts—to the page. Some people will identify with my characters and that makes me really happy.
But also, my identity does not match the identity of many readers. And I hope with them, my literature does what the literature of my childhood did for me. Despite our differences, I would like my work to impel future writers to take the pen or the keyboard or the direct thought -to-word input (wherever we are at the time) and create their worlds, their songs, their novels.
And I can’t wait to read them.
What’s your favorite part of the writing process (besides finishing)?
I love editing. Anybody who follows my social media knows that my posts are full of grammatical errors!
But seriously, have you ever been in the situations where you are in this conversation, and you think of the right thing to say…five minutes after the conversation is over? When I edit, I can hold a point in time, and think about it, and shade it and work it. I go into a zone when I’m editing. I work to get the beat right, the shading right, the layout on the page… And then, when it’s read in real time, it’s like… “whoa…did I really write that?”
I’m not going to lie—sometimes it’s frustrating, and it’s always hard work, but it’s work that I find incredibly rewarding. I edit not just for me, but for the readers. With my last book, I wanted to do my best to get the violin right. Because I know that people who love the violin would want the violin portrayed with accuracy and respect.
It’s such a privilege to be able to spend time with my words and know I did my best to get it right.
What’s your emotional support writing habit?
Whenever I wonder if I’m good enough, not doing enough…whenever I feel helpless or alone, I try to think of the writers I’ve worked with, My colleagues, my mentors, and my students. Maybe someone has a new book out. Maybe someone has won an award. And each of them has woven themselves into my life and work.
The happiness I feel—as well as the happiness I know they feel for me—becomes almost its own entity, an entity that supports me when I’m not feeling good about myself, and something I can proudly stand upon and cheer when one of my beautiful writing family is recognized for their brilliance.
What’s next for you?
Personally, I’m working on a new science fiction/fantasy novel, as well as a sequence of poems, and a collection of essays. Beyond that, I want to help bring different groups of queer writers together. Many writers I work with in queer poetry don’t know the queer science fiction and fantasy writers and vice versa. Or essayists. Or game writers. Or horror novelists. I’ve had the privilege of writing and being published in multiple genres, and have met so, so many brilliant writers along the way…
Imagine what can happen if there were more creative cross-pollinations and sharing of ideas! Think of the amazing work that might result…I want to help that along!