Ryka Aoki is a musician, performer, and martial-arts extraordinaire. She was recognized by the California State Senate, Huffington Post, and the LA Gay and Lesbian Center (to name a few) for her work and contributions to transgender advocacy. Ryka is also a professor of English at Santa Monica College, and Queer Studies at Antioch University.

cover has hula dancers drawn on it, with a wave patternHe Mele a Hilo is a fictional novel set in Hawaii, told from the perspective of some of its lifelong and newly-arrived residents. It’s about learning to love others and finding connections through traditions like hula and food. It grapples with what it means to be Hawaiian and what is “Hawaiian enough” in an evolving culture. Amidst this story, there are characters with disabilities; there’s Harry, an amputee who loves fishing, and his friend, Lisa, with an undisclosed chronic illness. The cast is vivid; we get intimate snapshots of their dreams, fears, and relationships. He Mele a Hilo is a read that sticks with you long after you finish.    

Erin Hawley, the Digital Content Producer for Easterseals Thrive, interviewed Ryka about her book, creative process, disability, and the importance of community.

In He Mele a Hilo, Harry is an amputee and Lisa Yates has an undisclosed illness. I loved how you seamlessly weaved these identities of disability into the story. There was no pity or shock value – it was just part of who they are, and that was refreshing. Can you tell us about your process of including disability as part of these characters?

Harry’s based a bit on my Uncle, and my Uncle was never the same after his broken back, except that he was exactly the same.  In terms of actually writing, though—I know this sounds weird, but I was working on the novel and Harry reminded me he was an amputee, and to include it in the book. I swear this is true. I was bopping along, writing the book. And when he dove into the water, it was like, “Eh, Ryka—I need for take off my leg if I going rescue dis haole.”

Harry himself has his own feeling about his body, and it’s not my place to pry too much. But for a writer, who functions in many ways as an advocate and ally for her characters, it's important to remember that it’s seriously dehumanizing to use disability as the main or sole characterizing feature of any character, let alone any other human being.

Lisa’s illness in many ways is a metaphor for me, who thought her life was pretty much over after realizing, through therapy, how much I was abused as a child, and that rather than being a complete loser and failure and waste of life, I was actually a survivor. One gets soooo tired realizing that. Instead of wanting to end it because you are a loser, now you just want to stop hurting and finally get some rest.

But life is more than a burden. It can actually give back to you. I continue to learn this. And luckily, through writing and meeting so many queer readers and writers, and finding new family as a trans person, rediscovering myself—I found color coming back into my life. I think I want to live a nice long life now. Thank you. 

A big theme in He Mele a Hilo is the multicultural makeup of Hawaii, and the essence of what it means to be Hawaiian. One of my favorite things that highlighted the theme was the food descriptions. Why is food important in this story?

Because we all eat. But what we eat is always so interesting. I wanted to make a political statement here, too. Notice I rarely talk about authentic food. Authentic food is like authentic people—whatever does that mean. People change, we are dynamic and growing—we have older foods like breadfruit and poi, but there are innovations and fusions and growth. Sometimes foods fall into and out of favor. Nona’s chicken becomes Eva’s adobo. This is not merely ok—this is the sign of a healthy community--with a healthy appetite!

I think this also extends to communities and “proper” behavior. Are you “really” acting Asian? Or female? Or disabled?

Stupid question. We exist, and that is enough. Deal with it. And, if you let yourself, you may even learn something. ;)

Ryka in a white shirt, sitting on a bench at night, carnival/amusement park lights behind her

You’ve mainly written in poetic form, and I noticed that style come through in He Mele a Hilo. As a poet myself, I often struggle with the constraints of prose writing. Do you find it harder? For you, what are the differences between writing prose and poetry?

I think main misconception is that there are so many differences. I have a certain style of working; I enjoy word play, description. I will ruminate over a word or a sound or a beat. I don’t really change that when I write in prose. I am not the fastest writer, but that is simply how I work. I used to feel inadequate, or that I “should” be writing in a certain way, but I cannot change who I am.

So much of this is self-acceptance of your own writing style. There are a lot of people telling you that you need to write one way of another—but in the end, your style is okay, as it is. Of course you learn and improve, but your style is inherently fine. Prose writing has a different rhythm, and it takes many more words to cover the same concepts as a poem, but I believe a good writer is a good writer is a good writer. If you decide to write a novel, you will find your way—and if you think of struggles as simply places to develop your own style, I think you’ll write a good one!

You’re into so many cool hobbies: martial arts, playing instruments, and performing in a cabaret. How do they influence your writing, or vice versa, if at all?

I try to see them as variations on a theme. Nothing more. When I do martial arts, I am telling a story. The piano or guitar or violin is simply another pen. When I am acting, I am embodying metaphor. I try my best to tell myself, “Come on, girl. Don't look down. You can do this. You can do this.”

I hope one day, when I look back on my work, it turns out that I was actually just writing one big love letter to my time on this earth.

Easterseals Thrive is an online community for young disabled women. We also have an offline community where disabled mentors with younger disabled women. How is community, both online and off, empowering for marginalized individuals? What and how can we learn from one another? 

I am feeling empowered now. I learned so much from your simply reaching out to me. Your reading my book made me encounter He Mele A Hilo in a new way, which is a cool gift for any reader to give an author.

Beyond that, I think too many people worry about what can bestow upon folks they perceive as needy. It’s kind of like when someone is blind—why do people immediately start speaking more loudly? Or when someone needs to get up from their wheelchair, people immediate try carrying them, or demanding they lean on them, or telling them all sorts of things—rather than simply listening and giving them their cane?

This unsolicited “help” is horribly condescending and demoralizing. It’s a waste of time and it’s hurtful.  Yes, information is important. But people have a right to the information they need. Yes, help is important. But people have a right to determine what form that help comes in.

That takes self-confidence, and community support. And I think what the online community does best is link people who listen to each other—then give affirmation and assurance that trusting their choice, their abilities, their intuition, their judgment is the best way to help people with disabilities and other forms of marginalization to move forward into this world, share their stories, and bring some laughter and love and genius to all of us.

Are you an author with a disability, or do you write about disability in your work? Let us know by sending a tweet to @ability2thrive, or contacting Thrive via e-mail!

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