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Interview with Amy Uyematsu

By June 12, 2019 June 14th, 2019 No Comments

Amy Uyematsu is a sansei (3rd-generation Japanese American) from Los Angeles.  Just after graduating UCLA, she joined the newly formed Asian American Studies Center; during her five years there, she was Publications Coordinator and co-editor of Roots:  An Asian American Reader.  Amy taught public high school math for over three decades.  She has five published poetry collections, including her most recent The Yellow Door and Basic Vocabulary.  Now retired, Amy currently leads a writing workshop at the Far East Lounge in Little Tokyo.

 

  1. What do you consider your biggest accomplishment?

My biggest accomplishment is raising my son Chris as a single working mom.  He’s grown up to be a wonderful husband and father and I am grateful to see him thriving and happy.

 

2. How do you get over writers’ block?

 

Every writer has to figure out what works best for her.  In my case, I seem to write in spurts. During those periods where there’s a lull, I try to keep up my journal, read, and remind myself that small buds and fragments of new poems are brewing.

 

3. What is the best poem you have ever read?

 

The “best” poem I’ve read keeps changing – and there are so many!  Among those on my read-again-and-again list are Lucille Clifton’s “Light,” Linda Hogan’s “Nothing,” Li-Young Lee’s “Peaches,” Pablo Neruda’s love sonnets, Lawson Inada’s “Legends from Camp,”  Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Kindness.”

 

4. What is the favorite poem you  have written?

 

I don’t think I have a favorite.  Kinda depends on the day, my mood, what’s going both around me and within.  One of my favorites is “Nursery Rhyme,” the only nursery rhyme I’ve written (originally in the 80s, for my son, and a second part in the past decade, for my grandson).  Another, “Sansei Line Dance,” is a piece on the eclectic musical experiences of LA Japanese-Americans in the 60s. I’m also glad that so many poems about stones have emerged, including a recent piece, “Sister Stone.”  And at poetry readings I enjoy doing “Before Bruce Lee There Was Toshiro Mifune” – Mifune remains my favorite film star.

 

5. What are your thoughts on affirmative action?

 

I have long supported affirmative action.  Back in the 60s-70s when I was at UCLA, I saw many bright, deserving students of color who were admitted through the EOP and High Potential Programs.  Without affirmative action, they might not have attended a university. My husband, who graduated UC Berkeley’s Boalt Law School, says that he and many other Chicano lawyers he knew are practicing law today because of affirmative action.  What is all the more inspiring is how many of them are attorneys who serve their community.

 

6. Who are some good up-and-coming poets?

 

There are so many – which is a great thing!  In LA I’ve had the pleasure of reading with gifted  younger poets like Traci Kato-Kiriyama, Mike “the poet” Sonksen, William Archilla, Ramon Garcia,  F. Douglas Brown, Teresa Mei Chuc, Vanessa Angelica Villarreal.

 

7. Who, in your opinion, is an Asian activist who has made a lasting change in the US?

 

Again, there are many Asian American activists that have contributed to lasting and progressive change.  I’ll mention two. Yuji Ichioka taught the first Asian American Studies course at UCLA in 1969 (one of the best experiences of my life); Yuji is credited for the term, “Asian Amerians.”  Before that we were called Orientals, and even that early class was entitled “Orientals in America,” since “Asian American” was still not in our lexicon. The second activist is Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga, a nisei whose years of dedicated research at the National Archives was instrumental in the movement by Japanese Americans for World War II concentration camp redress and reparations and helped influence Congress to pass the 1988 Civil Liberties Act.

 

8. What are your thoughts on the model minority myth?

 

In the late 60s I became aware of the model-minority MYTH in the Asian American movement.  Many of us protested it. “Model minority” promoted the idea that nonwhites can “succeed” through hard work and education.  It was, and still is, wrong on so many levels. First of all, it’s a lie – true racial equality and acceptance are unattainable in a system built on white institutionalized racism.  It downplays the centuries of racism against Asian Americans in this society and reinforces the false notion that “good” behavior by nonwhites is all it takes for success. It ignores the continuing reality that even when Asian Americans attain higher educational levels, there are still many who are not promoted to higher management levels.  The model minority myth pits Asians against other people of color, and I get really upset when I see Asian Americans buy into this myth and use it to judge others. “Divide and conquer” has long been a strategy to keep us fighting among ourselves. One of the things that scared the establishment during the civil rights era was how Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were rallying together people of all colors and the Black Panthers were raising political awareness in not only black neighborhoods but among a broad spectrum of groups and communities.  I don’t think it’s surprising that the white power establishment crushed the Panthers and were relieved when Malcolm and Martin were killed.

 

9. Do you think Asians are pushed out of creative fields?

 

Yes, because the creative fields are still often run by whites.  Perhaps, this is changing. For example, the unexpected success of “Crazy Rich Asians” has suddenly made Asians more visible on the film stage.  I was surprised when this year’s Academy Awards had three Asian women presenters, two of them Asian American. My own writing history includes being in a group called PAAWWW (Pacific Asian American Women Writers West).  It was formed in the mid-70s and lasted around 3 decades. The members were LA-based Asian writers and actresses who were not getting published by white publishing houses or hired in local theater productions. I am happy to see the literary establishment finally giving recognition to so many great black and other nonwhite writers, and in poetry, I’m buying so many new books by poets of color.

 

10. What is the most positive feedback you’ve ever gotten?

 

That’s hard to say.  Throughout the years, I’ve been fortunate to receive positive acknowledgement in many arenas – family, work, art.  Recently I ran into a young father with his two daughters at the movies. I didn’t remember him, but he recognized my face, remembered my name, and told me how he  learned to like math after being in my class.

 

11. How do you deal with criticism and negativity?

 

I try to learn from it.  If it’s deserved, then I take it to heart; if it’s undeserved and unkind or cruel, I try not to be affected by it – but I’ve long realized I need to grow a thicker skin.

 

12. What do you do to relax?

 

Wallking is a kind of moving meditation for me.  I take in local trees, flowers, the sky and clouds.  Many of my poems have developed while walking.

Making custom notecards using origami and chiyogami paper is a relaxing pastime.

I also enjoy Sudoku, crossword puzzles, LA Dodger baseball, and morning Zumba classes.

 

13. Have you ever faced discrimination in your field, either for your gender or race?

 

When I graduated UCLA as a math major, I applied to IBM for a computer programming position.  This was in 1969 before there were laws protecting against blatant discrimination against women.  I made it past the written tests to the oral interview, where I was told by the man interviewing me that I would be better off staying at home and raising a family.  So this was job discrimination for both race and gender – which I’m pretty sure was a common practice in those days.

 

14. What do you hope to see from this magazine?

 

I would like this magazine to build a wide global readership among Asian women on both sides of the Pacific, educate its readers about both contemporary and historical topics/issues, and promote the positive identity and well-being of Asian women.

 

15. What do you think is the biggest problem facing Asian women today?

 

I think what is considered the “biggest” problem depends on the country that Asian woman belongs to.  I just saw a news report about women in India who have difficulty getting sanitary pads and Tampax and must often use cloth rags during their periods – this is something we take for granted in the U.S.  Here in America I think Asian women still face economic and social barriers, some of which are intertwined with persisting stereotypes of our being ‘good workers,’ ‘uncomplaining,’ etc. Some feel that Asian Americans are middle-class or wealthy, but significant numbers are at the poverty level or living check-to-check, live in substandard housing, may not have health insurance.  Economic disparities are extremely high in what is consider “Asian America,” coming from around 20 different countries in Asia. Locally, I’m aware of Chinese seniors in East L.A. who are being pushed out of rent-control apartments as a result of gentrification. And since 9/11 and continuing under the Trump administration, incidents of anti-Muslim, anti-Asian hostility have increased, especially toward Asian women and men who are from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh.   Asian American women have faced major problems since they first arrived here; we continue to need to address the specific conditions in each Asian American community as they impact women.

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