Alumni Interview: Emily Yamauchi (MFA, Fiction, '08)

Welcome! Check out the first of what we hope will be many more interviews with our program's Alumni! First up is Writer, Educator, and Multi Genre Artist, Emily Yamauchi!

Alumni Emily Yamauchi

Emily Yamauchi, Fiction, 2008

Job Title: Writer, Artist, Educator, Immigration Legal Writer 


Currently reading: VIETNAMERICA by GB Tran (graphic memoir); NIGHT SKY WITH EXIT WOUNDS by Ocean Vuong (poetry); HOMEGOING by Yaa Gyasi (novel)


Currently writing/ upcoming projects/ Publications: novel; graphic memoir; comics; graphic essays


Where do you live? Where are you from? Where did you get your undergraduate degree? What was your undergraduate major? How has your education played a role in your writing?

Born in Los Angeles, raised in New York and New Jersey, living in Oakland, CA.


I majored in political science at Brown University, while managing to avoid taking poli-sci courses. Instead, I studied public policy, education, the criminal justice system, ethnic studies, literature, etc. and made the case that together these things were relevant and crucial to my chosen concentration. I would've said that my degree is pretty much irrelevant to my writing, but I'm realizing now that both the things I'm concerned with and my compulsion to fuse together different aspects haven't changed much and definitely figure into my writing process. I've also been an educator in one capacity or another for 15 years. Working with young people constantly reshapes my sense of the world and my place in it, so in that sense, too, education has played a huge role in my writing.

Where do you work and what’s your job title?

I work with high school students throughout the Bay Area on writing personal narrative as they get ready to apply for college. I work with them one-on-one as well as teach workshops. Technically, my job is a writing instructor but as I guide students toward crafting stories and meaningful reflection about how the specific world they inhabit has shaped them, the process of digging through their lives becomes about a lot more than just teaching writing. Before that, I taught Humanities with a focus on the framework of oppression and liberation at MetWest High School in Oakland, and coordinated internships and mentors for my students in Bay Area orgs and businesses. I also do legal writing and research for an immigration law firm.


What have you been up to since graduating from the MFA Creative Writing program?

Writing and teaching, mostly, and delving more into music and visual arts. Filling in the gaps that traditional MFA programs can have, especially for writers of color. Building a tribe of brilliant writers and artists making important work, and dope people in general, who genuinely want to see each other succeed. David Mura once said that in his 20s, he knew a lot of people who wanted to be artists and set out to sea. Over the years, one by one, most turned back for shore; the ones that made it were not necessarily more talented—but they were the ones that kept rowing. Now that I'm well into my 30s and I've gotten over the delusions that immediate success is the best kind, I have a sense of deep knowing of myself and trust in the process that I didn't have when I was younger. I'm grateful for the freedom and sense of capaciousness I have when I take the long view. I'm amazed that 8 years have passed since graduating from my MFA program, but I've never felt like turning back to shore. At least not yet.

What are you working on now? What inspires your creative expression as a writer?

I'm plodding my way through, I don't know—my third or fourth draft?—of the novel RISE I started during my MFA program. Back then my goal was to completely ignore the thesis requirements of 80 polished pages of publishable quality fiction and instead turn in 270 pages of a messy but complete first draft of my novel. So I did that. I wanted to graduate with something significant I could continue working on rather than endlessly revise a chunk that would probably completely change later anyway. That was the best decision I made. Over the years, this book has changed, but at the core, it still explores a young, ambitious teacher navigating her personal and professional life during the highly publicized rise and downfall of a charter school in East Oakland, led by a charismatic sociopath. It's funny to me how in workshops, writers often pointed out how I portrayed this character as both buffoonish and monstrous, generous and wildly manipulative, as if those things couldn't go together. Now we have Trump and I'm like, well, there you go. 


For a long time, I used to be monogamous with my novel and never gave in to the itch to have a fling with a short term project, or attempt to have a secondary relationship with a compelling idea that satisfied a different side of me. It just seemed too complicated and required way more communication and compromise that I had the time for. However—having my hands in a lot of different things is how I naturally am, so I decided not to fight it. So now I also draw comics and graphic essays, which I hope to put up soon. I'm also working on a second book, a graphic memoir tentatively titled SILHOUETTE. lt tells the story of a girl's fractured family dealing with the pain of phantom limbs, her connection to estranged siblings who feel the same missing limb, and her journey as an adult to interrupt and heal family patterns of denial, silence, avoidance, and escape. It's also a story of the cycle of displacement, set against the family's history of immigration from Japan, wartime, and imprisonment in the internment camps. 


The inspiration obviously comes from my own ongoing journey and this book is part of the healing I'm speaking of. Not one person in my family knows I'm writing this, which is how I write anything: by pretending at first that no one will ever read it. There's a silence, maybe in any family, but definitely in Asian American immigrant families, that can be debilitating. We know our parents, our aunts and uncles, their parents, great-grandparents have dealt with a lot of displacement and trauma in their lives, even if, particularly if, they don't talk about it. The ripple effect this has on subsequent generations makes it impossible to untie our personal history from our familial ones and the larger historical landscape. 


Please list some of your recent publications or accomplishments?

I've been awarded residencies, scholarships, and workshops at Hedgebrook, Napa Valley Writers Workshop, and VONA. I also was accepted for a fiction workshop at Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and was a finalist for a Work-Study scholarship in Fiction, but I did not attend. I was the September-October writer-in-residence for ELEVATE: An Urban Residency, at Real Time & Space in Oakland. It's a collaboration of RTS's artist studio space and Small Press Traffic, which seeks to give a platform for experimental writing. The ELEVATE residency is literally in an elevator—a decommissioned giant crate elevator. On October 30, I'll be giving an artist talk open to the public. The info is here.

Why did you choose to earn your MFA Degree and what made you pick Saint Mary’s?

If I'm being completely honest, I decided at the last minute to get an MFA. It was mostly about providing structure and investing in myself. From the time that the idea even entered my head to application deadlines was about a month, but I knew that if I waited to apply the following year, I'd talk myself out of applying at all. It was one of those moments when you don't feel quite ready but you say yes and leap anyway, and it worked out for me. Of all the schools I was accepted to and visited, Saint Mary's left the most positive impression on me, from the classes I sat in on to the professors I spoke with and the students themselves; also, oddly enough, students and professors at other schools I visited praised Saint Mary's and told me I should go there. Who knows why.

How did your experience in the MFA program affect your writing and creative growth?

The MFA taught me how to read, more than anything else. I've always been an avid reader but what I mean is, it taught me how to read like a writer, and that's probably the single most valuable thing I can say definitively changed the way I read and write. If you're not reading all the time, and not just in a way that you're consuming the story but analyzing craft choices and the delivery of the reader's experience, you're not becoming a better writer.

Did earning your MFA impact your creative and professional trajectory? If so, explain.

I don't know. Yes, in that anything you do impacts your trajectory. I had professors who believed in my book and urged me to apply to this and that residency, which I did, and I wrote my first novel, which is not nothing. I'm sure in certain people's eyes, having the MFA degree lends me an amount of credibility, but I certainly don't feel I'm a writer simply because I earned an MFA. For me, being a writer came afterwards. For other people I know, they were writers far before they ever considered an MFA program. 

Do you have any advice for prospective or current MFA candidates? Or writers in general?

I've noticed that my energy tends to flag if I'm focused too much on what other people need all the time and neglect my art, but when I prioritize my own shit, it makes me happier and I'm more present and generous with my students, and everyone else, really. I'm a better friend and human in the world when I'm on my game, so I try to be cognizant of that. A lot of times, we tell ourselves we're being selfish—it's ok. Be selfish, protect your time. 

What role does your MFA and writing as a whole play in your career currently?

I think I already answered this.

Why do you write?

Because not writing is even more painful than writing.