Janice Mirikitani


Revisiting the Poets of the 1960s
Gabrielle David
phati’tude Literary Magazine, Vol. 3, No. 2

Multicultural visionary. Activist. Executive Director of Glide’s 52 programs. Janice Mirikitani has produced a body of work that is an eloquent testament to a literary commitment that spans over four decades. In this interview, we learn about her literary odyssey during the 1960s and its impact today.

JANICE MIRIKITANI IS AN IMPORTANT FIGURE in the Asian American community and in the literary world. Her unique trajectory of activism — from her participation in the San Francisco State Third World Student Strike in 1968, to her current work with the Glide Foundation — has unequiviocally informed her literary works. Mirikitani also helped spearhead an Asian American movement that helped to define and carve out a place for Asian American writers and their own literature, as well as promoting ways in which ethnic minorities can come together to achieve positive literary and sociocultural results.

Mirikitani was born a Sansei or third-generation Japanese American to Ted and BelleAnne (Matsuda) Mirikitani, who were Nisei (second-generation) farmers in San Joaquin County in Stockton, California. Her grandparents emigrated from Japan to Hawaii in the early twentieth century, working on plantations until they saved enough to move on to California. When she was only a year old, her family was swept up in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s controversial decision to intern Japanese Americans, spending her early childhood in at the Rohwer War Relocation Center in Arkansas.

Mirikitani’s parents moved to Chicago at the end of World War II, hoping to escape some of the racism of the West Coast, but their arranged marriage ended in divorce shortly after the move. As a single parent, her mother worked as many as three jobs at a time before remarrying. Eventually, Mirikitani, her mother and new stepfather moved to California so they could be near the remainder of their families. Mirikitani’s maternal grandparents had already returned to California after the war, establishing their own small chicken and vegetable farm north of San Francisco. During the time that followed, Mirikitani became the victim of sexual molestation up to the age of sixteen, and was saved from suicide only by the love and care of her grandmother. She would later speak of the pain of her incestuous abuse through her poetry.

Mirikitani received her B.A. Cum Laude from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1962 and obtained her teaching credentials from the University of California at Berkeley in 1963. She taught English, speech and dance at the Contra Costa Unified School District (1964-65) and enrolled in graduate studies in creative writing at San Francisco State University, where she would later lecture in Japanese American literature and creative writing in 1972.

Since Mirikitani was openly expressive about controversial topics, in 1966 she left her teaching post and became an administrative assistant at Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco, an institution that would shape much of her career. She would become Glide’s program director in 1969.

But it was the student strike for Asian American and Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State College in 1968 that propelled Mirikitani into joining the San Francisco-based Asian American Political Alliance, and became involved in Vietnam War protests and in the Black Power and civil rights movements. She helped cofound Third World Communications and in 1970; and cofounded and edited the first Asian American literary journal, Aion, with Francis N. Oka. The two issues of Aion included many of the political theorists and Asian American writers of the 1960s and 1970s, including Alex Hing, Lawson Fusao Inada, Frank Chin, Toshio Mori, Pat Sumi, Sam Tagatac, Mitsu Yashima, Serafin Syquia, Al Robles, George Leong, Jim Dong, E. Jundis, and others.

She went on to edit two anthologies for Third World Communications: Third World Women (1972) and Time to Greez! Incantations from the Third World (1975). Mirikitani was also editor of Ayumi: A Japanese-American Anthology (1980), the first bilingual anthology to include work by four generations of Japanese-American artists and writers.

After a brief marriage in 1966 and the birth of a daughter in 1967, Mirikitani married the Reverend Cecil Williams, pastor of Glide Memorial Church in 1982. The following year she was elected president of the Glide Foundation. She has spoken frankly of the challenges of their biracial marriage — Reverend Williams is African American — and the prejudices of both Asian American and African American family and community members.

Since her association with Glide, Mirikitani has undertaken a leadership role directing the foundation’s many outreach programs for the homeless, incest survivors, battered women and other victims of violence, poverty and prejudice. Her writing, editing and activism fuel one another, and her work at Glide in the impoverished Tenderloin district, has fused the three. Her voice is often angry, aggressive, blunt, and direct. But it can also be elegiac and take on a variety of literary forms: dramatic monologue and dialogue, lyric, satire, and parody. Because Mirikitani is continuously finding new ground, she takes time to explore her topics, and in doing so, manages to escape easy nostalgia and cultural sentimentality. Literary scholar Shirley Lim has pointed out that one of Mirikitani’s poems, “Breaking Silence,” makes use of actual excerpts from her mother’s testimony before the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Japanese-American Civilians in 1981. In this regard, Mirikitani does not separate her writing from a social and political platform. Rather, she recognizes the necessity of writing with a political agenda, committed to speaking out against racism, violence, and containment, always urging women of color to shed their silences and find the power of collective voice. Identifying her community as “Third World,” Mirikitani has said “I don’t think that Third World writers can really afford to separate themselves from the ongoing struggles of their people. Nor can we ever not embrace our history.”

Mirikitani’s work has appeared in numerous publications, such as Bamboo Ridge, Feminist Studies, and Amerasia Journal, and both her poetry and prose have been included in several collections of Asian American and Japanese American writing. In 2002, she wrote Asian Americans on War & Peace, a response to September 11, 2001, published by UCLA’s Asian American Studies Center. Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies, textbooks, magazines, and journals both in the U.S. and Japan.

Mirikitani has published four collections. In her first poetry collection, Awake in the River (1978, reissued 1982), Mirikitani has turned her sense of history into a weapon, an active protest against racist ideology in America. She explores the trauma of Japanese American internment, the nuclear devastations of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and U.S. imperialism in Southeast Asia. Her second collection, Shedding Silence: Poetry and Prose (1987), consists of thirty-five poems, several works of prose, and a short play. Divided into four sections, the first, “Without Tongue,” contains angry poems about racial discrimination. The works of “It Isn’t Easy” are personal and address Mirikitani’s marriage and marriage in general. The last two sections, titled “What Matters” and “Reversals,” address a range of issues from the politics of various nations to the pollution of Love Canal.

Mirikitani continues her protest of racial and gender inequality, patriarchy, and oppression with the poems of We, the Dangerous: New and Selected Poems (1995). Many of the poems focus on the violation of the body as both an inescapably physical act of violence, and a metaphor for the silencing and erasure of the marginalized. Love Works (2001) is an impressive collection that brings together Mirikitani’s strongest poems on a diversity of subjects: the incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the fragility and challenges of family relationships, and the quest by people at the margins of society to claim justice, bread and dignity. Also included is her inaugural speech as San Francisco’s Poet Laureate, in which she discusses how poetry can connect people and transform lives.

Mirikitani also co-edited the groundbreaking anthology Making Waves: An Anthology of Writings by and about Asian American Women (1989). With her husband, Reverend Williams, she compiled a book of children’s writings on the crack cocaine crisis, I Have Something to Say about This Big Trouble: Children of the Tenderloin Speak Out (1989). She published Watch Out! We’re Talking: Speaking Out About Incest & Abuse (1993) is a collection of stories from survivors that was set in motion when women began sharing stories of abuse during a Glide church service.

As choreographer and artistic director of Glide’s dance company, Mirikitani also choreographed and produced more than 35 dance productions with social themes, including “A Tribute to King”; “Who Among the Missing” (in honor of Central Americans missing, tortured, and imprisoned); “Hiroshima, California,” an antiwar statement with had a national tour; “Lonnie’s Song,” which focuses on a community of people affected by the AIDS crisis; and “Revealing Secrets, Releasing Fear,” dances and poetry about addiction, incest, and recovery.

She has said “I found that my wounds begin to heal when the voices of those endangered by silence are given power. The silence of hopelessness, of despair buried in the depths of poverty, violence, and racism are more deadly than bullets. The gift of light, in our compassion, our listening, and our works of love is the gift of life to ourselves.” Mirikitani continues to write on Third World communities, cultures, and conflicts as transformed through the visions and writings of women.

Mirikitani has served on many Bay Area boards, including the Zellerbach Community Arts Distribution Committee and the United Tenderloin Community Fund, and has been affiliated with the Vanguard Foundation, Asian American Media Center, Yerba Buena Cultural Board, California Poets in the Schools, Asian American Theatre Company, and the Haight-Ashbury Free Medical Clinic. Following the path blazed by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Mirikitani was named the second Poet Laureate of San Francisco in 2000. The program for Mirikitani’s inaugural read in part: “Her work with the Glide Memorial Foundation has been one of the best marriages of art and social conciseness and is the type of image San Francisco has always fostered,” which is fitting. When Mirikitani’s term ended in 2002, devorah major followed as Poet Laureate.

Mirikitani also served as a commissioner on the San Francisco Arts Commission beginning in 1996 and was reappointed by Mayor Newsom in 2004. In recognition of the exceptional commitment and impact of her writings and her life work, Mirikitani is the recipient of over 40 awards and honors, including the Woman Warrior in Arts and Culture award, the Pacific Asian American Women Bay Area Coalition; was also honored, along with Alice Walker, Alice Adams, Judy Grahn, Josephine Miles, and Tillie Olsen, with the Woman of Words award; the Minerva award, Governor and First Lady’s Conference on Women and Families; the Outstanding Leadership award, the Japanese Community Youth Council; Distinguished Alumnae award, San Francisco State University; the Lifetime Achievement Ebbie award, San Francisco Chamber of Commerce; the prestigious American Book Lifetime Achievement Award for Literature; and the Chancellor’s Medal of Honor award with husband, Cecil Williams, University of California at San Francisco Chancellors. The California State Assembly named Mirikitani Woman of the Year for the 17th Assembly District, and she has received two honorary doctorate degrees.

Mirikitani speaks out against legally sanctioned racism and brutality. Her prose and poetry has captured the devastation of Hiroshima with Vietnam and the internment camp at Tule Lake, and further connects them to war atrocities with such assaults and invasions as sexual harassment, child molestation, incest, rape, and battering. She has written about racial exoticization, cultural misogyny, self-erasure, and the cost of political passivity and silence. Mirikitani’s writings, however, are not about victimization as much as they are about survival, rebirth, and affirmation of self. While some have found her writings too angry and blunt, Mirikitani refuses to bow to a history of violation; instead, she voices her anger and acts for change. In fact, many have felt empowered by her explosive poetry and prose and her clear political commitment towards “justice for all.”

As she writes in her poem, “Breaking Silence,” “We must recognize ourselves at last. / We are a rainforest of color and noise.” Difficult though it may be for women of color to break free of “prisons of silence,” it is important, Janice Mirikitani insists, to “give testimony,” for, as she says repeatedly, “We survive by hearing.”

§ § §

What was your attraction to literature and writing? Was there a defining moment?

I remember writing since I was five years old. My mother and I had moved to Chicago after World War II, and after being released from Rohrer, Arkansas concentration camp. She and my father had divorced, and she had to work two jobs. Writing was a source of comfort for me, as I waited for her to come home. I was really into comic books at that age, and I would write in those bubbles over characters I made up in my head . . . mostly of Wonder women and Archie’s girlfriends.

My love of reading started with those comic books, but I was always hungry to read books . . . fairy tales, mysteries, whatever other kids would loan me. We could not afford to buy books.

When we moved to California in 1948, we lived on a chicken farm with my maternal grandparents while we built our own house. Books were considered a luxury, and we had few in our home. My attraction to serious literature like “Ivanhoe” and Hemingway’s novels began in junior and senior high school.

One of the defining moments of my own writing occurred during the era of the 1960s and 1970s when all the movements burst forth out of years of injustice against people of color and other marginalized communities in this country . . . the Civil Rights Movement, Redress & Reparations for crimes against the Japanese Americans, the student, women’s, disabled, and LBGTQ movements. I was attending graduate school at UC Berkeley during the free speech movement; and S.F. State University during the ethnic studies strike, when I found my voice in poetry. The times, the gathering of writers of color encouraged me to define the language I felt most authentic to my vision and experiences.

Through the weaving together of poetry and prose, you have outlined your struggles for self-understanding that often come with being both a descendant of an Asian culture and a female. You have said “I write about these things because I think it is healthy to express these thoughts or these feelings of violence and rage in words . . .” (Carabí 70). Would you consider this your primary reason for writing?

No and Yes. Writing was the way I could put my feelings on the page, make them real for myself. I felt invisible growing up as a Japanese American female in a patriarchal household, and in a predominantly white community. An abusive stepfather and a dysfunctional bunch of male relatives around me caused me to want to disappear. I felt visible only as a sexual object. Writing helped me define myself, and being able to express rage was one source of relief, but I found poetry as the most natural way to express all of my passions. As I began to define myself more clearly as a poet in post graduate schools, the issue of self definition, breaking stereotypes, and anger about racism against people of color and my own experience with sexual abuse — but really how women of color in general were treated as inferior — became a source of power and voice in my history of silence.

I believe my poetry has evolved into a wider range of purpose and vision, as I have grown in my own recovery and spirituality.

What was the impetus for you becoming an activist? Did internment and being sexually abused play a large role in this?

Becoming an activist felt like a natural outcome of many factors. The time of the 1960s, the movements that exploded around us: anti-war protests in Vietnam, civil rights and Dr. King’s assassination, third world students revolting on campuses. The redress movement came to life for us when Sanseis (third generation J-A’s) were inspired by the court cases of Korematsu, Hirobayashi and Yasui challenging the U.S. on unconstitutionality of the internment, which led to the Commission Hearings for Reparations. Stories that were silent for over 40 years burst forth from many Nisei and Issei former internees, including my mother. Many of my poems about the internment were written in that era. My feelings of being the “outsider, the unacceptable one” for most of my life which suppressed my outrage became clear, and found an authentic ground for expression, not only in poetry, but in action. I helped organize, and engaged in many coalitions, demonstrations, and efforts to publish Asian American and other third world artists.

The experience of sexual abuse did not really become subject of poetry until after the 1960s — perhaps because my passion found its ground in the activism for social justice. When Glide started its innovative recovery programs in the early 1980s along with the addicts (most were African American) who were facing the scourge of crack cocaine, I realized that addiction was a disease with holistic complexity of causes, including physical abuse, racism and violence. I discovered that for most women (95%) who were addicted to chemicals had been sexually abused as children; and I found myself having to face my own denial about my addictions. My addictions were not to chemicals (although I certainly could booze it up) but to destructive relationships including many violent ones.

Beginning in the 1960s, you developed a unique trajectory of activism: from your involvement with the San Francisco State Third World Student Strikes to your work with GLIDE. When did you gain this strong sense of right and wrong that is so evident in both your poetry and activism? It seems over the years, you’ve made them seemingly inseparable. Was this a conscious effort on your part or just a natural progression?

I don’t think I can separate the conscious effort and the conviction to my vision, my mission at Glide and in my community work to the natural progression of events that were thrust upon us, and the outcome of our efforts.

GLIDE was the base for much of the organizing I became involved in. Because of our activism at GLIDE, and because of Cecil Williams’ relationship to the African American Community, GLIDE had a reputation for being a place “without walls”. We opened up the sanctuary, the office spaces for the movements to organize, and for countless political poetry readings and benefits for causes which ranged from supporting liberation movements in Central America, South Africa, anti – war and grassroots movements at home. We also organized coalitions to support the Black Panther Party, political prisoners and communities who still struggled against segregation in the schools. These were actions we took because of our convictions and our vision; also creating and becoming a part of a natural progression of more and more activism emerging from more and more communities. We at GLIDE were committed to the principal and the practice of self determination. We did not presume to “help” other communities in their issues, but were invited to join and contribute; just as we invited groups who needed space, and infrastructural support.

It’s important to emphasize that during these times in the mid to late 1960s, we had begun our grassroots programs to feed the hungry and relate to the poor. That was the basic ground upon which GLIDE stood . . . our position to support and provide services for poor people. This has been our basic commitment for over 45 years, and is today.

You were one of several key poets and scholars (for example, Kai-yu Hsu, Helen Palubinskas, Frank Chin, Jeffery Paul Chan, Lawson Fusao Inada, Shawn Wong, David Hsin-fu Wand, Elaine Kim and others) who were instrumental in creating, developing and shaping an Asian American identity, which eventually expanded to include not only Chinese and Japanese, but also Vietnamese, Koreans, South Pacific islanders. As the boundaries of Asian American literature continues to expand and stretch to include South Asians and Southeast Asians (Indians), looking back, do you think it was a good idea to lump all of these distinct cultures together under one umbrella in the first place? Do you believe it’s become an unrealistic monolith of what Asian is, and in the process has detracted from the specific cultural offerings each has to offer?

Organizing as a unified community was an important source of strength and power. I believe it was necessary to be a united Asian American, Asian, Pacific Islander community. Within our efforts to unify in the past, there were many differences and disagreements, and many independent efforts to express our unique cultures. However, I applaud the efforts and accomplishments to bring together unified Asian American, Pacific Islander, Asian cultures (including events, benefits, poetry readings) as the most memorable and enduring ones. The publications which unify us as unique yet connected cultures is perhaps best exemplified by AMERASIA JOURNAL (UCLA) edited by Russell Leong. This is not to diminish the power and accomplishments of anthologies such as Liwanig, Poems from Angel Island, AYUMI, Four Generations of Japanese in America, and other ethnic-specific collections.

Within any coalition, whether the end goal is achieving products such as anthologies, or organizing events or political actions, each one of our voices is distinct and unique, and should speak for themselves. Each writer speaks of their own individual and unique experience in the style and manner which defines them as artist, poet, author, as exemplified by such great voices as Al Robles, Russell Leong, Jessica Hagedorn, Lawson Inada, Garrett Hongo, Hisaye Yamamoto, Toshio Mori, Wakako Yamauchi, to name just a few.

The confusion of white America, and the ignorance (via omission) which is perpetuated in our educational systems, the racism and stereotyping which has become institutionalized in every aspect of mainstream media, corporate controlled commercialism, continues in American society which has still not dealt with all of its “ism’s” and homophobia. These are only some of the reasons for this “lumping together” not only of the distinct Asian American cultures but also with new immigrants, and an expanded range of ethnicities and cultures which have more recently immigrated to America.

Racism, ignorance, and indifference are those factors which to this day raise questions of me: “where are you from, and what are you”; “where did you learn to speak English so well?”

Hate crimes, gentrification and decimation of poor neighborhoods, the violence/territorial terrorism within communities, in my opinion, are evidence of unconscionable greed and the growing divide between the haves and have not’s. The digital divide is immeasurable.

Beginning in the 1960s, your strong sense of Japanese and Asian American identity expanded into a Third World identity; and you believed that communities of color should work together to obtain true empowerment. You were perhaps one of the few who believed in connecting these groups (Asian, African, Native and Latino), but while each group, individually, have made advancements in ethnic studies including historical scholarship and literature; they never quite unified under one umbrella. Why is that, and do you think it will ever happen, or should happen?

Ethnic studies is an umbrella. Unfortunately, because of institutional racism, ethnic studies continues to be segregated, and it is therefore a necessity to continue to demand “ethnic studies”. I still hold the belief that ethnic studies (African American, Asian/Asian American, Native and Latino) should be mandatory literary curriculum in colleges and universities as American Studies.

You’ve been working with GLIDE since the mid-1960s. Certainly, one would expect to find religion in your work, but in fact, it’s not clearly evident. Is this a conscious decision on your part?

Religion is not relevant to my poetry or my vision. In its institutionalized rigidity and exclusivity, it is oppressive and divisive.

My belief is that true spirituality liberates people, and affirms the individual’s self definition. Acceptance of differences—indeed, the deliberate, conscious striving for diversity in all aspects of our lives is the necessary element for real community. Diversity challenges us out of our assumptions, ignorance and complacency.

Would you say that you evoke a sense of spirituality into your work?

I strive to speak my truth, and attempt to express it as beautifully as I can. If I am inspired, I can only hope that the work inspires others.

What were your favorite foods, music, books and films from the 1960s? How would you compare your life, overall from that period today? Simpler and easier times? Not so much? Your take on this.

Always ethnic foods . . . soul foods from all cultures, including steak, mac and cheese; I tried to see every Mifuni movie and all films directed by Akira Kurosawa; loved foreign films . . . especially by Francois Truffaut, Bergman and Fellini. Love Hitchcock films.

Today is much more complex. The older I get, the more layers I see. Working with the poor has been a journey of understanding more each day that life and individuals cannot be seen in slices and surfaces. I have integrated my own life more, and I feel at the same time more clear and more conflicted. As a poet/writer, I am fueled and also humbled by the work I do with so many people in physical and emotional need. They are often my own mirrors.

These are more complex times that lack the traction for the kind of activism, we need now, that was present in the 60’s. Technology is both a blessing and a curse.

How has your writing evolved since the 1960s? Do you find yourself less or more angry; less or more committed to the social and political convictions you held when you first started out?

I cannot respond to this quantitatively. All is situational and complex. I continue my commitment to activism for social justice. So much more of my writing is personal or individually focused, and yet I am deeply affected by how I view the systems which continue to marginalize so many people.

Any upcoming poets you’ve taken a shine to?

Slam poets rock . . . especially those who are so politically and personally aware. Many young poets also have a sense of giving back to community, and reach out to other young people to teach poetry to find their voices. I witness this through organizations like YOUTH SPEAKS, BRAVE NEW VOICES; and the many classes we hold for youth at Glide with partners such as Youth Speaks, the American Conservatory Theatre, and others.

When you look back at all that you have accomplished: politically, socially and culturally, do you feel you’ve helped make a difference?

Everything that comes to mind seems trite. I believe that we all can make a difference. But who knows what sticks?

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Source: Gabrielle David

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