Thursday Apr 18

KiikAK Kiik A.K. is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley and Santa Clara University. He earned an MA from UC Davis where his poetics thesis was titled “THE JOY OF HUMAN SACRIFICE,” and an MFA from UC San Diego where his collection of counter-internment narratives was titled “EVERYDAY COLONIALISM.” His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Pleiades, The Southeast Review, iO, Washington Square, Spork Press, CutBank, The Masters Review, and States of Terror. The pieces featured here are dedicated, with many thanks, to super-team Jeff and Ann VanderMeer.

Kiik Araki-Kawaguchi Interview with Karen Stefano

“An Impression,” “A Small Fortune,” “A White Man,” and “A Tiny Murder” are four stunning linked pieces of flash fiction. In these self-described “counter-internment narratives with recurring names, voices, and themes,” Kiik A.K. delivers both powerful imagery and searing wit as he ushers his reader into the secret world of internment camps. A few of my favorite lines and phrases:

“…and in the morning he awoke mouthing those bewildering words, tongue slack with ghost-breath, a rawness, soreness, an impression the sentry’s mouth had been all night pinned atop Kane’s.”

“…shelltop the color of whipped milk, a massive lip brimming with remnants of sea dander, calcium foam, wet sand, salt bath…”

And the opening line in “A White Man” pulls the reader right inside to this mysterious secret world:

“Yoshikane Araki was the Gila internee most commonly mistaken for a white man.”

Then building and building…

“It took nearly an hour of explaining before interveners felt convinced, first that Kane was not there to rape his own mother, and second, that he was not in fact a white man.”

…exposing with humor the pain of racial, and historical, misunderstanding.

What was the initial spark of inspiration for these pieces, and how do you describe or explain this work?

The initial spark was one of my grandfather’s stories. I used to ask him to tell it all the time. My grandparents were interned in Gila from 1942-1945. That’s where they fell in love, got married, and had their first daughter.

When my grandmother was pregnant with my aunt, she used to get cravings for fried meat. Fried hamburgers. Meat was scarce in camp, and you couldn’t order or buy everything you wanted. My grandfather would find ways of escaping into Casa Grande in order to bring my grandmother sacks of hamburgers. He would hide in the backs of bread trucks. The bread trucks would leave camp and pull into Casa Grande to load. He’d jump out of the back, run to the nearest diner, buy hamburgers and then somehow sneak back onto a bread truck.

I still think that’s a great love story. When we think about Japanese relocation and internment, we think about shame and tragedy and powerlessness being forced onto a generation of people. It’s not a lie exactly. But in my mind, that’s an incomplete story. My experience of hearing and thinking about camp life was through these love stories. Stories of being young and determined and fearless.

So sometimes after hearing them, I would ask my grandfather if I could write his autobiography. He’d say, sure. It was mostly a joke between us. But that’s where it started.

Later I met Professor K. Wayne Yang at UCSD. Wayne is my mentor, my friend. He was on my MFA thesis committee. He was teaching a class called “WORLDMAKING” that was thinking through the power of counter-narratives. Thinking about ways stories could confront our assumptions about people. Subvert our conventional wisdom. Wayne is also big on love stories.

So that’s how I think of these stories. I start by thinking about the love stories and family dramas of my grandparents. The historical moment puts pressure on the stories. It forces that love to get stronger, more complex. I wanted to think about love stories through complex desires. Through a diversity of sexualities. That’s what makes the love feel a little more real to me.

When I started writing these stories, I wanted to make it clear I wasn’t trying for a literal representation of what happened in Gila. I’m not a good enough writer to go for that. Stronger writers and researchers and scholars have done that work. The Densho Project has archived thousands of oral histories around the subject of Japanese internment. That can’t be my job. No one should give me that job. I mostly write speculative fiction.

What I can do is to try and open up the possibilities for writing about interned characters.

Have you had any personal experience with racial misunderstanding, perhaps misunderstandings fueled by ignorance?

Most of my personal experiences with racial misunderstanding are fueled by my own ignorance. I think I’m interested in racial assumptions that are cruel and self-serving because I see that cruelty in myself. A lot of the poetry and fiction I write involves racism, sexism, homophobia. I’m usually confronting some poisonous assumption I recognize in myself. Maybe if I keep writing and confronting I’ll become a better person. I sometimes think of writing as a sort of medieval leech therapy.

If you’re Asian, people want to guess about you racially. But I must have an odd face and haircut and build and fashion because no one ever guesses correctly. This sort of guessing is a losing game with me.

Every once in a while someone will tell me that I look hapa and expect me to take it as a compliment. I get it from Asian people and white people. My friend Angela tells me it’s because they can only understand beauty through whiteness.

What was your introduction to fiction and poetry? Does anyone in your family write?

As an undergraduate I had a wonderful mentor at Santa Clara University, Professor Claudia MonPere McIsaac. She’s both a poet and a fiction writer and one of the kindest people I know. She taught me how to write both poetry and fiction. I really only know how to write poetry though. Fiction is still very awkward for me.

When I was in Claudia’s workshops, I read all of Li-Young Lee’s books of poetry and his interviews. He’s my favorite poet. I’ve tried to talk to him twice at his readings, but both times I almost passed out. He’s the most wonderful reader ever.

My mother and sister are really the writers in the family. They’re great writers and humorists. They write me twenty or thirty emails every week. My sister makes me fall off my chair laughing.

What are you working on right now?

These stories are part of a linked collection. There are about twenty-five of them now. I have outlines for a few more. I want to write about a hundred of them. But I’m so painfully slow as a writer. So that’ll only take me about ten thousand years.

I’m also working on a poem about some Nicki Minaj lyrics. I’ll read it for you sometime. Of course, her lyrics are better than my poem.

When you sit down to write, what do you start with?

The opening line starts it all. Everything else is just anxiety about the opening line.

My old thesis chair, the poet Joe Wenderoth, he used to tell me all my poems began just after the speaker had suffered a great blow. Then the speaker sort of flounders in that aftermath. He was right.

Usually I’m chewing on something I’ve heard. Some slur or slogan or scrap of rhetoric. I write it down and then I try to channel a voice or some energy to confront it. Usually that voice is full of anxiety. The poet Ben Doller once told me just about all writing is about channeling anxiety.

I met you at the Radvocate reading in San Diego where you read with Connotation Press Fiction Editor Meg Tuite and Connotation Press alum Heather Marie Fowler, as well as some other Very Cool Cats. Not only did I fall in love with your work, I was impressed with you as a reader. In your opinion, what’s the key to delivering a great reading? What do you think makes a reading compelling versus…well, not so compelling?

Meg Tuite and Heather Fowler are such great readers. You can tell they have experience. They choose great pieces for the audience. They’re confident on stage. They sound great.

I’m a really nervous reader. I was sitting next to the poet Sandra Doller once, right before I went on stage to read. She asked me how I was doing. And I said, I’m so nervous I think I’m going to throw up. And she was like, oh okay, well then it’s probably going to be good...

But one thing I think about is all of those friends who hate going to readings but get dragged to them anyhow. Those are some kind friends. When I choose what I’m going to read, I just try to be considerate of them. They might not dig poetry. I can’t blame them. I just try to read them something they didn’t expect to hear. It might be poems about zombies or David Hasselhoff or lambs farting. But no one needs to think I’m a good poet after a reading. I just want to entertain them.

I usually apologize first though, in case they were looking for a good poet. Then I read my poem about wizards. And about getting attacked by bees.

What are your aspirations as a writer and as a human being?

As a writer I want to keep thinking and struggling through writing humor. The most cruel and absurd aspects of this world can be confronted through humor. It’s a very effective tool. But comedy is so complex. It has a mind and history of its own. You can’t always bend it to your intent.

There’s a whole layer of craft where you’re thinking about entertainment. None of it works unless it’s funny and entertaining. But then there’s another layer where you’re thinking about a hypothetical audience and how you want your writing to benefit them. To transform their thinking. Then you make that entertainment productive. None of it works unless you’re asking your audience to challenge themselves a little. Both of those layers require a lot of attention. Good and experienced writers know how to do this. I’m just beginning, so I’m going to fail and struggle a lot. But I think that’s moving in the right direction.

Chinua Achebe has this amazing quote, and it goes something like, “There is a moral obligation, I think, not to ally oneself with power against the powerless. An artist, in my definition of the word, would not be someone who takes sides with the emperor against his powerless subjects.” I’m trying to keep Achebe’s quote in mind. Writing should be entertaining and funny for the right reasons. Not because it justifies racism, sexism, homophobia and class disparity as it exists right now. I always want that thinking to be a part of my writing process.

Somehow I feel like I should be able to address both parts of this question through talking about teaching and teaching writing. Right now I’m teaching for UCSD and Palomar College. I really want to learn how to be a good teacher. Most of my writing practice disappears when I’m teaching. But that’s sort of okay. If I work hard at my teaching, I’m a better writer when I return to it.

I’m really just a beginning writer and a beginning teacher. So I’m doing a lot of planning and experimenting and panicking. I’m failing a lot, but I’m learning a lot too. My aspirations are to try and understand what serves my students and their learning. That way when I’m working my ass off, at least I know the energy is moving us in the right direction.

Wow. Kiik. I mean, uh, wow. Thank you so much for sharing your stories, and yourself, with Connotation Press. Your students are damned fortunate to have you as a teacher.


In order to preserve the artistic arrangement of the writing, this piece has been created with Print2Flash Flashpaper. Get Adobe Flash player