Benjamin Duarte’s Story of Migration

In his essay “Migration to Immigration,” Benjamin Duarte writes:

I was born in Esqueda, Sonora, Mexico and lived as a Mexican citizen until I was 10 years old, when my Texas-born Mother registered me as a “citizen of the U.S. born abroad.”  I was asked by the consular officer in Douglas, Arizona if I was now “renouncing” my Mexican citizenship. I said “Yes.”  

But what does it mean to renounce one’s citizenship? Join us tonight for Our Stories, Ourselves, a special Third Thursday event hosted by the San Jose Museum of Art, to hear Melinda Marks read this powerful piece.

Benjamin was born in Mexico, immigrated to the U.S. as a child, and came to San Jose at age fifteen. A graduate of James Lick High and San Jose State, he worked as a criminal defense attorney for 30 years before retiring with his wife to the Arizona desert in 2004. An avid runner, Benjamin ran marathons until the age of 73, and stays active with gardening and construction projects on his acre of land.

When asked what immigrant heritage means to him, Benjamin says:

“Immigrant heritage implies an inculcation into more than one culture, which gives one an enhanced understanding of humanity. Not only an understanding of different cultural perspectives on the world and we humans’ place in it, but more importantly, it gives one an insight into the multitude of similarities we humans share. For example, when I lived in Mexico as a child, there was a popular Mexican dance called ‘El Barillo Cervezero.’ When I moved to the U.S., not only was I surprised to learn that the ‘Beer-Barrel Polka’ was a familiar dance here as well, but that it had originated in Germany! Many ‘differences’ are constructed to eliminate or obscure our similarities. Migration and immigration are more than just bodies crossing land; they are a means for folk customs, games, legends, and traditions to spread and flourish. An immigrant heritage has the power to make one a better citizen of the world.”

join us tonight to hear his work performed aloud.

Kai Katayama’s Uniquely American Story

Sometimes we get a submission that totally blows our socks off. It’s unusual, though, that it comes from a fourth grader.

This spring, Kai Yong-June Katayama sent us his own Ted Talk, entitled “My Uniquely American Story.” He writes movingly about his Korean and Japanese heritage — and what it has felt like to see Asians and Asian Americans unjustly blamed for the COVID-19 pandemic. He pairs this with images of his ancestors, including his great uncle, Kazuo Katayama, who served in the 442nd regimental combat team, a segregated Japanese American unit who fought in World War II.

We are delighted to include a recording of Kai performing his story in Our Stories, Ourselves, our Third Thursday show held in partnership with the San Jose Museum of Art, on June 17.

Kai lives in Northern Colorado with his mom, dad, and aunt. He enjoys playing MineCraft, Roblox, skateboarding, and creating science videos, such as his submission to the Poudre School District Science Fair and his performance of “You’ll Be Back” from the Hamilton soundtrack.

He looks forward to playing with his friends in person someday.

Kai was kind enough to answer a few questions about himself in advance of our show.

How did you hear about Play On Words?

My aunt is a writer and a supporter of Play on Words. She saw the call for submissions and said that I should submit my Ted Talk to the show. 

How has your creative practice changed during the pandemic?

I don’t usually like to sing and dance or give speeches in front of people, but I like to share with my class on zoom and I like to record my presentations. Recording is better, because I can go back and fix things with the power of editing! Using technology tools like zoom and video recordings has helped me to express myself without any fear.

What does “immigrant heritage” mean to you?

I’m not sure. Maybe it means where you came from. I was born in California. My mom and my Halmoni and Haraboji (grandmother and grandfather in Korean) were born in Korea, but my dad and my grandma were born in Colorado. My dad is Japanese American and my mom is Korean, so that means I have Japanese and Korean heritage.

What else should we know about you?

I’m going to a parkour camp this summer. I hope you will subscribe to my YouTube Channel, Science Kai!

How awesome is this kid. Join us on June 17 to see him perform his story!

c’mon … how could you not subscribe to kai’s youtube channel?

Keiko O’Leary’s Recipe for Hamburgers

While the kids at Keiko O’Leary‘s school ate McDonald’s hamburgers, her mom made teriyaki hamburgers at home. We love her poem, “Recipe for Hamburgers, 1985,” and look forward to performing it on June 17 at Our Stories, Ourselves, as part of San Jose Museum of Art’s Third Thursday series.

Keiko first tried non-teriyaki hamburgers in fourth grade. She writes short pieces, including poetry, fiction, and marketing copy. She is also involved in a new online writing community, Prolific Writers Life. A fellow writer from San José, Lorraine Haataia, started the initiative with the vision of a writing community that’s always there when you need it. Writers can share their expertise by offering workshops and events, and they can benefit from the expertise of others by attending. 

POWSJ fans will remember Keiko from our New Year, Nouveau show, in which Alex Draa performed her piece, “The Golden Beauty of Carlina Johansen, Author of Milliner’s Dreams.” She was kind enough to answer a few questions for us in advance of our June 17 show.

Keiko O’Leary

How did you hear about Play On Words?

Wow, it’s been so long. I feel like you’ve always existed. I’ve been involved in San Jose’s literary community for many years. Maybe I heard about you through the Flash Fiction Forum, or the San Jose Poetry Slam, or the Santa Clara County Poet Laureate program, or Poetry Center San Jose … It’s wonderful that we have so many vibrant literary organizations, including ones focused on performance. 

How has your creative practice changed during the pandemic?

I’ve experienced a deep change during the pandemic. I still do mostly the same activities, but my relationship with them is completely different. 

I used to view my creative practice as something I needed to force myself to do more of. I was forever trying out new routines and challenges in an effort to conform to some ideal work level that I could never reach. 

During the pandemic, with my kids at home, I lost all my professional time. At first, I tried to make the sacrifice gracefully, but I failed. 

I came to realize that the only way I could be a good parent was if I made time for self-care. I’m not talking about baths and pedicures. For me, self-care is writing, teaching, making art, giving workshops. Now I view my creative activities as vital to my health and my family’s happiness.

I still do challenges and try new routines, but I approach them with joy instead of with a whip.

What does “immigrant heritage” mean to you?

I’m fourth generation on both sides: all eight of my great-grandparents were immigrants to the United States. But they didn’t all come from the same place. 

I grew up in a multicultural family, so switching from culture to culture seems normal to me. But when I was a kid explaining sushi to my friends at school, I hoped that one day I’d experience being part of a group where everyone was the same. This turned out to be impossible. Even within groups I have chosen, I always find myself to be a voice of diversity: a poet among engineers or an engineer among poets. As an adult, I’ve come to accept this as normal and good, and to understand that I’m not alone in being different. 

Everyone has something unique to offer in any group they belong to.

I met Sandra Cisneros when her novel Caramelo first came out, and she gave this advice for writers: think of a group you belong to, say women or actors, and write down ten ways you are different from other people in that group. Do this for ten groups you belong to. Multiply all those differences together, and that’s the place you write from. 

I believe our differences are valuable, and we should not deny our heritage — any of our heritages. 

I claim my heritage in every line I belong to, not just as a person of Japanese descent and Irish descent, but also as an American, a writer, an artist, a computer scientist, a linguist, a woman, a queer person, a human being, a life form of the planet Earth.

What else should we know about you?

I love sending real mail, especially postcards and handmade pop-up cards. I also have an email list where I send (digital images of) handwritten letters. I write letters of encouragement and practical tips for creative people who want to improve their craft, organize their life, and see the big picture while taking meaningful action today. People can sign up at http://keikooleary.com/list/signup.html.

Join us June 17 to hear Keiko’s poem performed aloud.

Chaney Kwak’s Life as a Passenger

“No matter how hard we try to make up narratives to explain past events, history seems to me no more logical than it is compassionate,” writes Chaney Kwak in “Seventy-some Years Ago,” an excerpt of his forthcoming memoir, The Passenger: How a Travel Writer Learned to Love Cruise & Other Lies from a Sinking Ship.

Chaney’s excerpt tells the story of his father, who immigrated to his native Korea from Japan, where he had been living with his family at the time. We love Chaney’s thoughtful and incisive writing, especially given the way he contextualizes his family’s journey seven decades later, from the prow of a sinking cruise liner off the coast of Norway. We’re delighted to perform his work on June 17 as part of our Our Stories, Ourselves show with the San Jose Museum of Art.

Chaney’s work appears regularly in newspapers such as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, as well as magazines such as Afar, Condé Nast Traveler, and Travel + Leisure. A recipient of scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Emerging Writer Award from the Key West Literary Seminar, Chaney teaches nonfiction writing with the Stanford Continuing Studies program and lives in San Francisco.

Before San Francisco, Chaney spent six years in Berlin where he failed to experiment with drugs or get into famed techno clubs. He did discover his love for exploration by sneaking into places like decommissioned Soviet military bases and the former Iraqi Embassy on Tschaikowskistraße. He broke into the world of professional travel writing by reporting on an abandoned East German amusement park for The New York Times.

Fast-forward ten years, he was freelancing for magazines like Travel + Leisure when he boarded the infamous Viking Sky cruise ship that lost power in the middle of a storm, charging straight toward the shore. After aging considerably during the 27 hours drifting at sea, he returned to California, where he now dedicates his time to more sedate pursuits like beekeeping and writing a book.

Chaney Kwak

Join us june 17 to see chaney’s work performed aloud.

Sebastian Gomez Biggeri

“I taught myself to U the O’s, fizz the TH’s and water down the R’s. San Fernando. Los Gatos. San Hosey. Love and fear made this place real, like the vaccine scar on my arm,” writes Sebastian Gomez Biggeri, a Latino visual artist living and working in San Jose.

We were mesmerized by Sebastian’s turns of phrase in both English and Spanish and are delighted to perform a series of his short pieces on June 17 in partnership with the San Jose Museum of Art. He is currently exploring a series of vignettes comprised of short writings, drawings, and digital art, and will be participating in the Cultura Power Fellowship through Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana (MACLA).

Sebastian Gomez Biggeri, photographed by Juliana Rico.

Sebastian was kind enough to answer a few questions about himself and his work in advance of the show. We are providing his answers in Spanish and English.

How did you hear about Play On Words?

My partner may have forwarded it to me, or perhaps I learned about it through the SJMA. 

How has your creative practice changed during the pandemic?

Siempre he percibido el presente como algo muy precario, y la pandemia hasta ahora no ha catalizado ningún cambio fundamental. Al contrario, parece ser otro estertor más de la gran pesadilla que se devora a sí misma con nosotros adentro.

Pero si me ha ayudado a desprenderme de ciertas pretensiones que me demoraban creativamente. Hay cierto consuelo en la melancolía de las escalas geológicas, la certeza de que el plástico y las penas eventualmente serán otra capa sedimentaria. Un proceso mucho más lento pero no muy diferente al régimen de una cultura curada algorítmicamente, donde todo es novedad e inmediatamente sepultado para siempre bajo el flujo de información. 

Sumándole a esto un momento de verdadera crisis material donde mi interés se enfocó más en la solidaridad comunitaria y la acción política, mi práctica artística logró reconciliarse con lo efímero. El mío es un acto insignificante pero universal, como regar las plantas o caminar con una piedra en el zapato.

Our present always felt utterly precarious, and the pandemic so far hasn’t catalyzed any fundamental change. On the contrary, it only has exacerbated the ongoing conditions, one more gasp of the great nightmare that devours itself, with all of us in it.

Nonetheless, the sudden direness made obvious for me that certain pretensions had become creative obstacles.

There’s solace in the melancholy of geologic time scales. The certainty that plastic waste and sorrows eventually will be just another rock layer. A process much slower but not that different from the regime of a culture algorithmically curated where everything is novelty and immediately buried forever under the flow of information.

In a moment of true material crisis where my focus and energy turned into mutual aid and political involvement, I was able to reconcile my artistic practice with the transience of its fruits. An insignificant but universal act, like watering the plants or walking around with a stone in my shoe.

What does “immigrant heritage” mean to you?

Herencia es una palabra pesada para alguien que siempre vivió de paso, pero con los años he descubierto cosas de mi origen que atesoro. No sabría decir cuánto se debe a la nostalgia del expatriado y que otro tanto a la erosión que va revelando nuestros rasgos más fundamentales. Cualquiera sea el caso, es parte de una conversación continua con los demás que me obliga a ser honesto conmigo mismo. La complacencia de estetizar las afecciones regionales nos termina transformando en caricaturas. Me tomó tiempo entender que el exotismo es una dinámica colonial, es la sintetización benigna e inoculada de lo foráneo. El rol que me hacía sentir especial es un viejo yugo imperial. La verdadera herencia son las costumbres con las que entendemos la justicia, el amor, y la soledad. 

Heritage ended up being two faces of the same coin for me, depending where I am. As an immigrant, I can’t tell how much of it is nostalgia and what’s due to our fundamental characteristics contrasting against the foreign landscape. However it may be, it is part of a continuous dialogue with others that compels me to be honest with myself. Indulging in exotic affectations turns us into caricatures, for exoticism is the synthesis of a colonialist dynamic that inoculates what’s foreign and processes it into something benign. Partaking in the role that made me and others feel special but void is an old yoke. I see my heritage as the elusive customs through which I understand justice, love, and loneliness.

What else should we know about you?

I was born and raised in Argentina, and I’m a graphic designer by trade. Since last year I’ve been intermittently working on vignettes and short stories @gunsgermsandmemes. I’d also like to plug a new podcast by Juliana Rico that focuses on conversations about art with BIPOC creatives, @artinmotionpodcast.

Join us on June 17 for our stories, ourselves, to see sebastian’s work performed aloud.

Lyra Halprin Rescues Esther

Lyra Halprin’s mother never liked raising money for raffles. It wasn’t until many years later that she discovered why: Saralee’s family hosted raffles to earn the money needed to help their family in Europe escape persecution. Somehow, selling candy door to door just didn’t seem that important.

We were moved by the voice and narrative in Lyra’s essay, “Rescuing Esther,” which ties the story of her family fleeing Europe to Trump-era America, where she was eager to show recent arrivals to the U.S. that they were, indeed, welcome and necessary parts of the community. We’re excited to read an excerpt of this piece on June 17 as a part of Our Stories, Ourselves, in partnership with the San Jose Museum of Art.

Lyra is a Northern California writer whose stories have aired on NPR, Capital Public Radio-Sacramento, and KQED-San Francisco, and appeared in newspapers, magazines and online venues. A former reporter, she worked for 20+ years as a public information person for the University of California sustainable agriculture programs. She is working on stories about growing up in an activist family in the 1950s and ‘60s and believes the secret to living in this crazy world is having a big humor gene, a loving family and a soft dog.

She was kind enough to answer a few questions in advance of our June show.

Lyra @ Davis Central Park rally 2017 for immigrants

How has your creative practice changed during the pandemic?

I used to meet with 2 writers every month, sending them what I was working on ahead of time. Now we meet every week, talk a little, then leaving the camera on we write.

What does “immigrant heritage” mean to you?

The dreams, fears, delights and memories we/they bring with us/them.

What else should we know about you?

A writer friend described her students stumbling into “completely unconfined, holy gears in their writing,” words that bring tears to my eyes because they explain how I often feel at the keyboard. I cherish those holy gears as I’ve been working on transforming my essays and journal entries into memoir stories about a girl growing up a feminist in California in the 1950s-70s. My stories feel more urgent in the wake of our frightening political reality.

I’m reminded that members of my family perished in the Holocaust, and family and friends were blacklisted during the McCarthy Era, but I grew up in a vibrant activist household filled with hope and optimism. I want to share that with my children, other young people, and those grappling with feelings of hopelessness to show that natural beauty, art, music, and progressive action can thrive and sustain us during chaotic times.

Join us June 17 to hear Lyra’s work performed aloud.

Yunlu Shen and “Gung Haggis Fat Choy”

Sometimes the best traditions are the ones we invent ourselves. That’s what Yunlu Shen discovered as a Chinese Canadian transplant reading the work of Scottish poet Robert Burns. Seeking community in a new city, Yunlu hosted Gung Haggis Fat Choy, a mash-up of the Chinese New Year and Burns Night, a celebration of the poet’s birthday.

We fell in love with Yunlu’s essay, “To a Chinese Mouse,” and are excited to perform it on June 17 at Our Stories, Ourselves, in partnership with the San Jose Museum of Art.

A structural engineer working in New York City, Yunlu likes to read and go on long bike adventures in beautiful places. She kindly answered a few questions for us in advance of our show.

How did you hear about Play On Words?

I first heard about Play On Words from writer friends in the Bay Area.

How has your creative practice changed during the pandemic?

I began writing more letters to friends during the pandemic. That process often generated ideas for other pieces. I also became more patient. The lock-down created more time and space for introspection and drew me closer to the physical process of writing. I write more drafts by hand and set them aside for longer between editing.

What does “immigrant heritage” mean to you?

As someone who moved to North America at the age of 11, immigrant heritage is an direct and personal experience for me. Over the past two decades I have also learned to love the cultural contributions from other immigrant communities and how well they sometimes complement one another. There is a banjo-guzheng duet by Abigail Washburn and Wu Fei, Wusuli Boat Song/The Water is Wide, that melds together a Chinese folk song and an American folk song of Scottish origin. It’s a beautiful example of shared immigrant heritage in America and resonates with me deeply.

What else should we know about you?

I spend most of my day designing structures – skyscrapers, airports, museums. But I think the act of creation is really the same process, whether we are constructing sentences, ideas, or buildings.

JOIN US JUNE 17 TO SEE YUNLU’S WORK PERFORMED ALOUD.

Julian Parayno-Stoll’s “Jar”

What would you do if you discovered a jar of bullets in your family home?

We were taken by the voice and language in Julian Parayno-Stoll’s “The Jar,” which describes a young protagonist witnessing his father adding bullets to a peanut butter jar. We’ll be performing this short piece at Our Stories, Ourselves on Thursday, June 17, with the San Jose Museum of Art.

Julian (he/him) is a mixed/mestizo Pilipinx American whose writing has been performed at De Anza College’s virtual Euphrat Museum, Flash Fiction Forum, San José Poetry Center’s Bauchhaar, and Play On Words San José. He received a BA in Philosophy from UC Santa Cruz. Raised on Kumeyaay land (San Diego), he currently resides on the unceded ancestral lands of the Tamien Ohlone people (San José, California).

He answered some questions for us in advance of the show.

Julian Parayno-Stoll

HOW DID YOU HEAR ABOUT PLAY ON WORDS?

I was invited to submit to Play On Words by a wonderful creative writing mentor, Lita Kurth, who saw potential in my (very) short story. For that, I am very thankful.

HOW HAS YOUR CREATIVE PRACTICE CHANGED DURING THE PANDEMIC?

In a sense, my creative writing practice began during the pandemic. Although I have l always enjoyed reading and (to a smaller extent) writing out my thoughts, I became more invested in creative writing last summer when I was settling into a kind of despair over the pandemic, the hypermilitarization of the police, the massive climate change-fueled wildfires, and the realities of surviving under capitalism. At that time, writing felt like both an extremely frivolous activity and an essential practice for me to process these things. I feel immensely grateful for the work done by writers such as Ocean Vuong and Gina Apostol, because their books have shown me how the act of making art can be a means for engaging with the world from a new, more thoughtful angle. Despite much trying, I haven’t been able to maintain any kind of writing schedule during the pandemic. But when I do write, that’s the intention I now want to bring to my desk.

WHAT DOES “IMMIGRANT HERITAGE” MEAN TO YOU?

To me, being someone of “immigrant heritage” means multiple different things. On the one hand, my specific position as a mixed/mestizo son of a Pilipina immigrant beautician and caregiver and a white former sheriff’s deputy demands that I recognize my Pilipinx heritage in the context of the incredibly violent systems of white supremacist, patriarchal settler colonialism and American imperialism. On the other hand, as is common for many second generation children of immigrants, it means that there is a certain feeling of “disconnection” from this heritage. For example, I still have never been to the Philippines, cannot speak any Philippine language, and have not met many of my own family members. So in this sense, recognizing my “immigrant heritage” means grappling with the ever-present need to learn more about where I come from and to decolonize myself by engaging with these histories. But in the final and most important sense, my “immigrant heritage” means that I am a present manifestation of a long lineage of beauty which has persisted despite great hostility. In this sense, it is about the love I have for my mother and her family, which is my foundation for trying to bring into fruition, in slow steps, day by day, a different and better kind of world.

WHAT ELSE SHOULD WE KNOW ABOUT YOU?

Thank you Play on Words! I’m very excited to see “The Jar” reimagined with someone else’s voice!

JOIN US JUNE 17 TO SEE JULIAN’S WORK PERFORMED.

Selma Tufail’s “Self-Portrait”

At Play On Words, we believe that the stories we tell reveal truths we may not have recognized otherwise.

That’s why we were drawn to Selma Tufail’s “Self-Portrait,” an excerpt of a memoir-in-progress that she is writing with her sister (and fellow Playonwordsian) Anniqua Rana. We’re delighted to perform this piece at Our Stories, Ourselves, our virtual performance with the San Jose Museum of Art on June 17.

Selma, an artist, has always navigated through the worlds of literature, art, and education. Life’s journeys have taken her around the world where she has taught, written, and created art — in Spain, Qatar, the U.A.E., the U.S. and Pakistan. Throughout, she has continued her pursuit of creativity in all its forms. She was awarded the Order of Civil Merit, the highest civilian award of Spain.

She is the author and illustrator of Con Yanci: When Chickens Fly and Other Tales, a children’s storybook. Her writings on gender, art and mysticism have appeared in The Dollhouse, Pakistan Daily Times, Article in Shards of Silence – An Anthology, The Arabia Review: TESOL Arabia, UAE among others. Selma is currently co-managing a blog, Tillism.com طلسم – Magical Words from around the World, with her sister Anniqua. Tillism means magic, and this is where they both share their fascination with creativity in all its forms.

Selma was kind enough to answer a few questions about herself in advance of the show.

Selma Tufail

How did you hear about Play On Words?

I was told about Play on Words by a previous participant, my sister, Anniqua. Then, when the opportunity came up again, and the theme fitted me perfectly, I knew I wanted to participate. My contribution, “Self-Portrait”, is an excerpt from a joint memoir I am writing with Anniqua.

How has your creative practice changed during the pandemic?

I have reached out and connected virtually with others a lot more. I used to be quite content working alone, but during the restrictions of the shelter-in-place phase, I suddenly felt the need to connect with others for inspiration. My favorite people to work with are the online Shut Up & Write groups. Working with multinational groups of writers adds a really interesting dimension to my own creative process.

What does “immigrant heritage” mean to you?

My family and I have been fortunate to live in and experience the cultures of Pakistan, United Kingdom, United States, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. At the moment we are in Spain and continue to enrich our lives through friends we have made here, and our new way of life. 

I have always immersed myself completely in the places where I have lived, making them my primary home for as long as I was there. I carry my experiences with me, the people, the food, the lifestyle and pull out of my treasure chest whatever I need, when I need it.

What else should we know about you?

I am an artist and my work for the past 10 years has focused on the unity that exists within the universe. It is my attempt to restore the feeling that we are all part of a complete whole so as not to feel isolated even as we live on this overcrowded planet. My inspiration comes from the poetry of mystics past and present, from all religious backgrounds and cultures, and my preferred medium is oil on canvas but I dabble in watercolors and pencil drawings too.

JOIN US JUNE 17 TO SEE SELMA’S WORK PERFORMED ALOUD.