Queer Arts Festival: a Conversation on Queer Mentorship with Hiromi Goto + Erica Isomura
“I am not separate from my environment; there is a play between self and place. This isn’t to say that there isn’t a core that is solid and present. Only that the social performance of presented identity is like a dance. The core is, for me, private. I don’t know if it has a name. The social identities I inhabit and move in and among and between are feminist, JC, queer, woman, mother, etc.”– Hiromi Goto, The Bulletin, December 2007
“In the palm of my hand, I delicately finger a pair of unfamiliar ID cards printed on worn pieces of coloured paper, yellow and salmon pink. The faded type reveals they were issued in the spring of 1941 with approval from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The yellow marks my great-grandmother as a Japanese National and the pink indicates my great-grandfather was a naturalized Canadian. Between my thumb and index finger, I clasp these rare and coveted discoveries: names, addresses, heights, weights, occupations, and even marks of identification on their bodies. I practise saying my ancestors’ names aloud, slowly, so I do not forget, but I have never learned to speak Japanese and am self-conscious about my pronunciation. I realize there is a third colour of these cards – white – that I am missing. White was only assigned to those who were born in Canada.”– Erica Isomura, Briarpatch, February 2019
Many people’s introduction to Hiromi Goto was through her award-winning first novel, Chorus of Mushrooms, a book that explores the shifts and collisions of culture through the lives of three generations of women in a Japanese family living in a small prairie town. Goto has gone on to write a number of acclaimed books for adults as well as youth, and is in the process of releasing her first graphic novel with artist Ann Xu. In addition to writing, Goto is an editor and workshop facilitator. She has been a writer-in-residence and an instructor for a number of institutions, including Athabasca University, the University of Alberta, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver Public Library, and the Emily Carr University of Art and Design.
Emerging writer and community organizer Erica Isomura is a yonsei (fourth generation Japanese Canadian) of Japanese and Chinese heritage. In 2019, Isomura’s work was selected as the winner of Briarpatch Magazine’s Writing In The Margins contest. Her writing has appeared in Room Magazine, Briarpatch Magazine, Poetry is Dead, and emerge 18 (SFU Publications, 2018), among other publications. She is a co-editor of Our Edible Roots (Tonari Gumi, 2018), a book sharing cultural food and gardening stories of Japanese Canadian elders and knowledge-keepers.
Isomura has performed and spoken at events for the Vancouver Writers Festival, Word Vancouver, the Powell Street Festival, Heart of the City Festival, Canadian Race Relations Foundation, Asian Canadian and Migration studies at UBC, and Perspectives: Anti-racism Arts Festival. In 2019, she co-organized ensoku, a four-day event for Japanese Canadian and American youth from across North America.
On Saturday July 25, from 12pm – 1pm PDT, Hiromi Goto and Erica Isomura will explore the nuances of intergenerational mentorship as queer writers of colour in A Conversation on Queer Mentorship as part of the Queer Arts Festival: Wicked, running July 16 – July 26 across varied platforms.
Registration is by donation. Visit queerartsfestival.com and click on the event to register.
Bulletin Interview: Hiromi Goto + Erica Isomura
The title of your Queer Arts Festival online event is A Conversation on Queer Mentorship, so my first question is, do the two of you have a mentor/mentee relationship. Have you been working together, and if so, how has that unfolded or developed?
ERICA Hiromi and I met through The Writers Studio (TWS) at Simon Fraser University, where she worked as a mentor for students writing speculative fiction and young adult literature. I was a student of Kevin Chong’s in the fiction cohort at the time, but I took one introductory class with Hiromi that year. After I finished the creative writing program, I wanted to continue to develop my work further and so I reached out to Hiromi about the potential to support me as a writing mentor. I spent a few months writing an early career development grant for BC Arts Council and found out I was awarded funding for a mentorship last fall. Since then, we’ve been meeting one-on-one to support my writing projects, as well as sharing learnings around the literary industry, publishing, and other relevant topics.
HIROMI When Erica first approached me I was at first a little uncertain – only so much that I had decided that I was going to end my mentoring job at TWS, I had been teaching there for six years, and felt like it was time for a change. But I am so glad that we embarked on this learning together! Because alongside talking craft, technique, professionalism, etc. we’ve also talked widely about the political, the personal, cultural knowledge, our queer lives/personal histories, and so much more. Outside of the conventions of an official institution (say a college for example) there is a freedom to speak and exchange on a more personal and informal level that opens up learning in interesting ways. Of course one must be very careful with whom you open yourself to.
Why might it be important to have mentors who share some of your myriad identities such as queer, JC, person of colour?
ERICA I don’t think it is necessary to share overlapping identities with a mentor, but there is no doubt that this has enriched and affirmed my learning with Hiromi. It feels like we have a kinship in a way—she is the writing auntie I never knew I needed in my life! Culturally, our relationship is interesting because I am yonsei (fourth-generation Japanese Canadian) and Hiromi is a first-generation immigrant from Japan.
As a yonsei, I grew up deeply immersed in Western culture and without a lot of reference points to Japan, which may be relatable for other yonsei and gosei raised in Canada. Through our mentorship, Hiromi has introduced me to elements of Japanese literature that I would likely not otherwise learn about. For example, she has encouraged me to write zuihitsu, which is a classical Japanese genre I wasn’t previously familiar with. She has also lent me a number of books by Japanese authors and graphic novelists, which have offered me insight into historical and contemporary Japanese writing.
I feel more comfortable sharing my rough work and thoughts openly with Hiromi than I would with other writers who don’t understand my perspectives. I appreciate our mutual understanding because Hiromi doesn’t get hung up on the content of my writing—it isn’t interrogated or questioned. This means the two of us can focus on digging into the writing craft and improving my work as an artist, which is how it should be. Overall, our mentorship seems quite rare because the Canadian Literature industry still lacks a lot of diversity.
How does the mentor/mentee relationship add depth to your work and open spaces for you to learn more about yourself and others?
ERICA The intergenerational aspect to our working relationship is something I really cherish. I am very new to the literary scene, but Hiromi has been publishing her work since the early 90s, when I was still an actual baby! There are a lot of firsts for me in this process of writing and establishing a literary career. For example, over the past couple months, I’ve begun to write my longest piece of creative non-fiction yet (currently hovering around 6,000 words) and I’ve been baffled that this is something I am able to do. I’m like… I don’t know where these words are coming from! But then I sit down to work and the lines keep coming—it’s a huge expansion from what I’ve written in the past. This inspired me to think that I might be able to complete a manuscript one day. I’m learning so much about my process right now and Hiromi is there to witness, support, and encourage me to keep growing and budding. As well, she can see patterns in my work that I am still discerning. Hiromi is there to push me when I don’t know what to do next.
Hiromi also shows me what is possible to accomplish in a writer’s lifetime. She has written seven books, including literary novels, a series of young adult novels, a collection of short stories, a book of poetry, and has a graphic novel forthcoming, which is a dream of mine. Meanwhile, she’s raised two adult children, pursues her hobbies in nature photography, is in a loving partnership, and, from what I can see, enjoys her life. I have respect for her accomplishments as both an artist and overall as a person in the world. I didn’t grow up around professional artists and I think it’s difficult for people who choose a more stable or normative life path to understand how artists work and live. Beyond the writing itself, I’m learning more about how I can structure my life to nourish my creativity and understand the artistic process as a broader way of being in the world.
HIROMI I also think intergenerational learning is so important! One of my life-long desires is to keep on learning and not get locked into a place of rigid thinking. Being in conversation with a person who is much younger than me keeps me in touch with the urgent present as experienced by someone who perceives it differently than I do. I have children who are of Erica’s generation, and Erica has her parents too, but with these relations comes an array of familial histories that may bind possible conversations and ways of listening. So I appreciate this opportunity to share with Erica outside of family systems. As Erica mentioned, I’m also a writer who has been doing this work for a long time. I’m at a place now where I’m finding it hard to work on new booklength projects, and feeling a little jaded. Is it perimenopause? I ask myself. Is it artistic burnout? I don’t really know. But working alongside Erica who is in the full of exploring, stretching, challenging, integrating and creating, it opens up a space inside me to feel that possibility once more. For this I’m deeply grateful.
What other writers have had the most impact on you, whether as mentors or fellow writers/artists?
HIROMI Fred Wah was my first creative writing instructor at the University of Calgary and I arrived in his classroom, wide-eyed, angry and very ignorant about racism as a system… Through his gruff but generous teachings, alongside conversations and learning with my writing peers my understanding grew. I also learned a great deal from Aritha van Herk, and several different conversations with Roy Miki at the right time had a strong effect upon my writing life. A creative workshop with Lee Maracle in the 1990s also had a profound impact upon my ways of thinking about culture, race, colonization, and the body. And SKYE Lee also shared important ideas with me regarding being both a writer and a mother of young children. It made a deep impression because being able to learn from someone older than I was who was also a queer POC writer meant that the challenges I was facing could be overcome. She was living proof of it.
The writers/artists/cultural workers whom I call friends are also such important teachers and comrades to me: Rita Wong, Larissa Lai, Nalo Hopkinson, Michelle Sylliboy, Susanda Lee, Dorothy Christian, Christine Stewart, and Anne Stone. I’m also grateful that Wayde Comptom invited me to serve as a mentor at The Writer’s Studio. I learned so much about writing, teaching and listening through everything that the mentees shared with me. They were the best teachers.
ERICA I am very grateful for the mentorship of author Kevin Chong, who accepted my application into his fiction cohort of The Writer’s Studio without any actual fiction writing in my portfolio, which is a little wild and probably unheard of. I recognize that Kevin took a huge chance on me and I learned so much from him and the other students in my cohort, who I continue to learn from today. We graduated together in 2018, but since then we still meet every two weeks (now through Zoom).
A JC mentor who comes to mind is Kathy Shimizu, who isn’t a writer, but is a printmaker, graphic designer, taiko drummer, community organizer, and a friend. Politically, much of my art is influenced by stories of my personal history and the history of the JC community. Kathy introduced me to the community through her support for the kikiai collaborative (formerly known as the Japanese Canadian Young Leaders of Vancouver) and informally mentored many of us younger JCs who became deeply involved in community organizing, particularly in 2015, around the same time that the Right to Remain project was happening at gallery gachet. Kathy’s influence has been huge on how I approach community arts, particularly supporting Downtown Eastside initiatives.
Hiromi, I asked you a long time ago how you answer the question, “where are you from?” Your response to the question was long and thoughtful, and really quite beautiful. I was rereading it today as I was putting together these interview questions. Part of your answer contained the line, “social performance of presented identity is like a dance.” Your response acknowledges the reality that the question itself is potentially problematic and answerable in so many ways. So here we are again with a not-easily-answerable question: how do your Japanese Canadian and queer identities inform your work?
HIROMI I speak to how my Japanese Canadian identity sometimes figures in my work in the response to the question below, but I’d like to speak specifically about queer identity here. If we flip the question and imagine that this question is being posed to a heterosexual author, would it even be a question? I.e. How does your heterosexual identity inform your work? I can’t recall ever seeing this… So the question is being asked because there’s a sense that there’s something different or other about this subjectivity… This is how normativity plays out in conscious and subconscious ways.
There is nothing spectacular about my queer sexuality (other than my general middle-aged hotness) – it is my sexuality, no more remarkable than anyone else’s sexuality. The only remarkable aspect of queer sexuality is that there still remains such an entrenched homophobia in so many people, institutions, and organizations. Someone I know in the writing business once asked me why I had to include a gay agenda in so many of my stories. What about the heterosexual agenda? I asked. Why do heterosexual writers include their heterosexual agenda in their stories? If your answer to that is, “Well, that’s because that’s just normal,” then you have a lot of personal work you need to do. Queer content arises in stories when the characters (like many of my friends) are queer, when there’s a love story, or a sex scene…. I have no desire to center heterosexual characters in all of my work—there are many many stories about heterosexual characters and heterosexual life in published works already. I’d also like to point out that in ancient Japan life was very queer indeed and there are classical texts from the Heian Period (like The Tale of Genji) and onward that reference gay love. Homophobia in Japan was a more recent and imported development….
Have I learned important things, been moved to tears, been filled with wonder by stories written by and about heterosexual people? Of course. So, too, should heterosexual readers be open to reading queer content. Queer audiences are also always hungry for queer representation in media. Especially queer people of colour. A lot of gay culture has been dominated by white narratives, because of white supremacy, so I think it is even more important that queer brown people can see positive and complex representations of ourselves on our own terms.
A number of JC artists have started out their careers not explicitly addressing their “Japaneseness” before turning their brushes, their pens, or their lenses, to their family histories or their own sense of JC identity. Both of you have jumped right in from the start. Chorus of Mushrooms looks at the relationships between three generations of Japanese Canadian women, and Erica, much of your work-to-date has dealt with your identity as a fourth generation Asian of mixed heritage. Can you tell me more about that?
HIROMI As a JC immigrant who grew up in BC and AB in the 70s and 80s white heteronormative culture had always “told” me how I was seen – “exotic” at best, despised “other” at worst. I was sick to death of being misrepresented. As a writer I could speak directly to those misrepresentations, call them out if you will, and also create representations that spoke to my ways of being and seeing. I could center myself. This is a powerful act for a person to be able to do – to name oneself instead of being named. Especially if you have come from a culture that has been systemically marginalized and oppressed.
ERICA There is much about my identity that has taken me years to unpack and articulate. There is something about the act of writing that enables me to share my experiences in a way that I am not always comfortable doing with people in person or at the workplace, wherever. It feels safer on the page somehow.
Back in 2016, I submitted an article for The Bulletin titled, “Reflecting on racism: why race still matters in 2016,” co-written with my sister Kayla and my friends Lucas Wright, Kendall Yamagishi, Elena, and Ren Ito. These were not necessarily comfortable conversations for each of us to have over Thanksgiving dinner with our families, but they were ideas that we wanted to express as young people who saw the way our community had been historically displaced/discriminated against and made connections to the way Black and brown communities were (and are) still being targeted. I could probably re-write that same article today in the context of ongoing police brutality, resource extraction on unceded Indigenous territories, etc.
These days, my writing is more literary than journalistic, but the work comes from a similar place of wanting to use creative tools to connect with peoples’ emotions to uncover truths that are difficult to face head on. The stories that live within me and my lineage as a fourth gen JC and Chinese Canadian aren’t always pretty, but writing can make them accessible and easier to share with others.
How have you been coping with the quarantine? Have you begun the process of emerging into this fraught new world?
ERICA When the pandemic first began, I started creating poetry installations in my living room window, facing the street. Every week or two, I would use various materials in my house (butcher paper, tissue paper, packaging from online orders, pages from the March issue of The Bulletin, actually!) to create a new line of poetry, which was also a “found poem.” Funnily, a lot of those lines were drawn from a phone conversation that Hiromi and I had when the pandemic first began while we were discussing the uncertainties of the coronavirus.
I found it incredibly difficult to write when the pandemic began and I first began working at my job from home. I just had no energy to put into writing about what was happening for the first month, as least, but I began drawing comics in my journal to reflect my strange day-to-day life and this bizarre “new normal.” I’ve eased up on drawing diary comics as I’ve begun to work on writing projects again, but from time-to-time I am still drawing and documenting in that way. I call the series my #dailyquarantinecomic and one of them will be printed in the art zine that Queer Art Festival is printing for this year’s festival. I believe they will be mailing copies to their members and donors.
HIROMI It’s been a struggle to write consistently for quite some time for me. I’m trying to become more comfortable with these periods of fallow. The pandemic has had a dampening effect upon any kind of creative dreaming. Thoughts would jump, it was hard to focus. I feel scattered. But Erica and I arrange writing dates on Facetime. We’d be at our desks in our own homes, and just write at the same time. This helped to tether us into a form of writing. Holding each other accountable made it easier to actually work on something.
Are there any positives that have come out of this upside-down-world for you personally? Have you discovered anything about yourself or the world that has surprised you?
HIROMI In some ways the pandemic has made me and my ex-husband better parents to our adult children?? (You’ll have to talk to them to confirm!) The children are both grown and I think we as parents had grown rather comfortable assuming they were okay living separate adult lives. But the children were both laid off and had more spare time. Their father and I made greater efforts to be in more regular touch, take them grocery shopping and out for walks. This has been a surprising renewal of bonds.
ERICA I was also temporarily laid off from my job in April because of COVID, which means I have had more time to write and live in my creative process, which to be honest, has been pretty great. Although my social circle is much smaller, I’ve become closer to the people I talk with regularly. I talk to my parents and my Popo (my mom’s mom) over the phone more often and my extended family chats on zoom every two weeks. A friend who lives within walking distance of me has become my pandemic bestie, which is really sweet to have. Last year, I faced some difficult personal challenges and so I’m extremely grateful for the people and relationships in my life at this moment.
Do you see the COVID19 crisis and the subsequent lockdown impacting your writing? If so, how?
HIROMI I’m trying to integrate the kind of fragmented state of my mind with some of the photos I’ve been taking. My tech-savvy partner Dana Putnam showed me how I could add text into the photos so I’ve been working some visual poems. There’s something about the materiality of this form that is very satisfying, especially when the long-form ideas are not taking shape. There is always some way to find a shape of creativity. This is good for our mind and spirit.
ERICA There is a folder saved on my laptop named “coronavirus” where I have saved various fragments of writing that have come to me since the lockdown. The piece I am currently working on is about distance, both what we lose and what we gain from having it.