The Impossible, the Implausible, and the Real: A Conversation with Ryka Aoki and A.J. Bryce of Trans-Genre Press
Author: TT Jax
May 29, 2013
In April of 2012, A.J. Bryce, parent, musician, artist, and director of Trans-Genre Press, published musician, martial artist, and writer Ryka Aoki‘s stunning debut title, Seasonal Velocities, from the basement of his ailing mother’s home in Granite City, Illinois. Neither Bryce nor Aoki knew enough to know the enormity of the project they’d taken on in deciding to launch a press. From the ebullience and dedication of their desire to bring Seasonal Velocities to binding, as well as their respect and friendship with each other, they made the impossible happen in a matter of tumultuous months. Now Seasonal Velocities is a Lammy Award finalist, and Trans-Genre Press is well on its way to continued magic-making. I had the great pleasure of interviewing A.J. Bryce and Ryka Aoki about the story behind the book.
Ryka, A.J., when did y’all first meet, and how long have you known each other?
Ryka: We met on tour with the dearly departed Tranny Roadshow. Gee, I think it was back in 2007 at Lawrence College in Appleton, or maybe the year before in Milwaukee. All I remember is it was super cold (at least for a L.A. girl). I remember A.J. clearly, though. He first, he seemed like a total player, both with and without the guitar, but he was very sweet and friendly, and something about him reminded me, even in the cold, of my friends and family in Hawaii. Turned out he had native Hawaiian blood, but I didn’t find out about that till later.
A.J.: Ryka and I met back in 2007 on the Tranny Roadshow. Funny thing is (and she won’t let me forget it) that I had already decided not to like her. Not for any particular reason, other than everyone else was telling me how cool she was, and I was not the type to follow the crowd. “Cool, huh? well she’s gonna have to prove it” I decided. Yeah, well that only took about 10 minutes. I really didn’t have much of a chance at being a butt at all. One of the first things she said to me was “I have a boomerang pedal, you can plug your guitar in and play around for awhile if ya want.”( a boomerang pedal, for those who don’t know, basically is the mother/queen/goddess of all looping pedals, essentially, one could compose an entire chorus of guitar live on stage with that beautiful chunk of metal…) I melted. I was in artistic musical love immediately, and we hadn’t even seen each other perform yet. From there on it’s been somehow magically pulling off rocking out on stages together improv style, bouncing tracks from coast to coast to come up with music like “Nobody Told Us” (found here), and the birth of Trans-Genre Press.
What was going on in your life at the time?
A.J.: Oh Goodness. I had just moved from NC to IL to help take care of my Mom who had been diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer (she had been fighting stage 3 for about 5 years by that time). I was in between jobs, and feeling the weight of isolation moving back to my hometown when I was talking to Ryka about how I wanted the Trans-Genre project to better incorporate written and visual art. It was time to expand. So we came up with a plan, I would launch a publishing press, Ryka would deliver a manuscript I couldn’t refuse, and Trans-Genre Press would become another resource for so many more of the brilliant individuals that had power in their work, but no or to few outlets in which to get their work represented.
Ryka, when did you start writing Seasonal Velocities? How did that manuscript come about?
Ryka:I drew upon two references. For the overall flow, I drew upon the seasons of the year. Seasons are so metaphorically rich, yet are very immediate and visceral. Doesn’t winter have a taste to it? So I could be very liberal with specific time, yet very precise in theme.
To structure the different genres, I drew upon the American musical. I thought of my poems as songs, my prose as spoken dialogue, and my performance pieces as dance numbers. I hoped that each might complement the other, while reinforcing the overall narrative structure.
I understand that you, Ryka, approached A.J. about the possibility of publishing Seasonal Velocities. What was going on in your life at that time? A.J., what was going on in yours?
Ryka: I was discouraged, yet feeling bad about being discouraged. I mean, I have been so fortunate to be performing and touring. But, gosh, I am a writer, and having a book has always been the big one. I wasn’t sure if it was ever going to happen. At the time, mind you, there was no Trans-Genre or Topside. I wasn’t even sure if feminist presses would even be interested in me, and my recent work was very much outside the realm of the straight world.
So I had really felt at a loss. Then in 2011, I found a press that would publish me. I was ecstatic! I was actually with A.J. on tour when I found out. But as the weeks passed, nothing. It was difficult to talk to the publisher. And soon, all contact stopped. No one ever told me why or called to give notice. I was crushed. Probably one of the lowest points in my artistic life. I felt betrayed and discarded.
Since that time, I learned a little more of the back story with the press. It helps explain a little bit. But still, not everything. It’s best to move on. It all turned out for the better, anyway!
What did the publishing process for Seasonal Velocities look like? I understand that it happened under immense pressure.
Ryka: Well, we started talking about it in Winter 2011. Can you imagine? We conceived and published our first book in under four months! My previous publisher totally fell through, and as I said earlier, I was pretty devastated. I had already been booking shows with a book in mind—and suddenly, no book! I was about to toss yet another chapbook together—but it wasn’t where I needed to go. Finally, I called A.J., and pretty much bared my soul and vented to him. But more than that, I pitched him a plan. I knew I had gigs. I knew I had readers. So I told him if he published the book, I would give him my best work, then tour, promote, and work work work to publicize the book and the new press.
A.J. was incredibly understanding and on board immediately, but I think some of that was because he had no idea how impossible this was. Neither did I. So instead, we just kind of lurched ahead. Since A.J. had never published a book before, researching the ins and outs was a total team effort. I was figuring out arcane things like ISBN numbers and bar codes—A.J. trying to figure out print-on-demand and layouts and contracts.
As for the cover, I revisited the work of some of the artists I featured when I was running the performance/art series Trans/Giving in Los Angeles. Jack Dandy’s work was perfect, and sie was extremely gracious in letting us use the cover image. Then finallygosh! To have people like S. Bear Bergman and A. Finn Enke and Scott Turner Schofield say such wonderful things about the book—all on such short notice. I am so honored, so grateful—and just a bit horrified that I imposed so much!
So, yes. Intense pressure. Impossible deadlines. But I swear, A.J. and I never had—not a single time—what could be called an argument. We have very different styles, but I think we just trusted each other. That’s really rare, and I feel so lucky!
A.J.: Oh my gosh, can I be honest here?!? It was a mess. Our deadline was 3 to 4 months, to launch a press, to publish a book, to have it in hand in time for Ryka’s first book gig, and to learn everything…. literally everything from the ground up. Did you know that Microsoft Word is actually a very complex program?!? Embarrassing to say, perhaps, but these are our roots. It meant spending every last bit of my free time watching video tutorials on book layout, researching book publishing methods, trying to get our site updated for the new press, designing covers, 3 am “uh…we have a problem…” “Alright, let’s work through it until it’s right” phone calls. This is on top of working decreasing hours stoking grocery shelves, raising my now teenage son, and care taking my mom’s increasing health needs. Needlessly to say, I didn’t get a lot of sleep, and as a publisher, I got to learn some great lessons through a lot of initial mistakes.
What did you learn from that process? Is there anything you’d do differently on the next go-round?
A.J.: What I learned is that there’s a whole wide world to book publishing, it’s a heck of a lot of work, but it’s beautiful and it’s art. And although I look forward to refining some of my techniques to create a sustainable press, I always hope to be finding ways to do things differently.
Ryka: For me, publishing was transformative. I realized that I can move mountains, but I need to occasionally take myself seriously and not wait for some white knight with a publishing house to rescue me from literary obscurity. I need to be brave, and let myself have standards and commitment to a vision. I remember telling A.J. that I would help Trans-Genre Press get national exposure. At the time, I felt I kind of fudged a bit on that—basically I was saying that I had tour dates in a few states. But gosh, now looking at where we are. I think I might have delivered. It’s an amazing feeling.
As for my work with A.J., remember, as this was going on, A.J.’s mother was deteriorating, and A.J. was working and being a parent and a caretaker. Did I mention the stress? His computer would crash. Files would get corrupted. In one case his computer and my computer couldn’t agree on a font. But somehow, I think the work became a haven, a place where our blood and sweat were making something beautiful and special. I understand now, more than ever, that creating a project like this, something tangible and uncompromising—I don’t know, it sounds corny—but this type of work makes our lives worth living. Before she passed on, A.J.’s mother got to see her son be a real publisher. She got to hold a book his Trans-Genre press produced—a part of her son’s dream realized. I’d like to think she left this world proud of her son and confident that he’d be okay.
For the press overall? Wow. I think we learned everything we now know. Onward to the next batch of mistakes! Seriously, in the next round, we’re going to have a more realistic time line, get review copies out. Also, give people a bit more time to blurb the book. And having a distributor would be great. (Any distributors out there?)
How does it feel to have Seasonal Velocities nominated for a Lambda Award this year?
Ryka: It came as a shock. I’m in Los Angeles, on Pacific Time, so when I wake up I have all these congratulations in my Inbox. It was surreal. Good surreal, but surreal.
Now that it’s kind of sunk in, I simply feel grateful that our work has been recognized. I know I am the author, and yes, it’s an amazing feather to have in my proverbial cap, but it’s the book that has been nominated, and it was such a labor of love. A.J. has done so much with logistics and layout. Jack Dandy’s artwork was amazing. Everyone who said kind words and got people to read it. And through it all A.J.’s mom was supporting all of us. It’s such a team effort—and I am just so happy our work has garnered some attention.
A.J.: It’s been an honor. Most of my work has felt isolated, and staring at a computer screen for hours doesn’t really make one feel all that amazing. I’m grateful for any positive recognition that comes in the direction of Ryka Aoki, and Trans-Genre Press.
What future projects are in store for each of you?
A.J.: As far as the press, things have slowed down a bit over the past few months as I’m sorry to say that my mom’s condition declined and she passed just a few weeks ago. It has been a long grueling process, but I’ve received tons of support to see through. Despite our fair share of child/parent conflict, my mother was a founding supporter of the press, donating a chunk of the start-up costs to launch the press and publish Seasonal Velocities. That being said, I’m excited to say we’re working with some amazing artists right now to help expand the growing definition of “Trans Literature”. Shawna Virago, Jamez Terry, and Kit Yan to name a few. I’m looking forward to getting things back up to full speed in the next few months. Folks can keep updated by visiting our website at www.Trans-Genre.net.
As for Ryka, I’ve heard rumor she’s off to take over the world. We at Trans-Genre Press offer her our full support and confidence.
Ryka: This summer, I’ll be working with A.J. beyond my book to find and foster new projects for Trans-Genre Press. So far we have the forthcoming projects with the amazing poet Kit Yan, Tranny Roadshow co-creator Rev. Jamez Terry, and San Francisco’s legendary rock goddess, the inimitable Shawna Virago.
With my own writing, Tom Leger is publishing my first novel He Mele a Hilo (A Hilo Song) on his Topside Signature label. I’m very excited! This came out of the blue; it’s a book based on Hawaii, not a trans narrative at all. I didn’t think it would be right for his press. But after speaking with Tom, I realized we share a vision that trans people should be able to write about all sorts of things (just like anyone else). I’m working on a second novel, a new poetry sequence, and sketching out my next book with A.J.
A.J. Bryce is the Director of Trans-Genre Press, dedicated to the empowerment of the Trans Community through expression of art and word. Born and raised in the St. Louis area (across the river in Steel Mill Town, USA), and bred by amazing trans artists and activists, Bryce aims to continue being a part of bridging and building communities not to create just one voice, but to help make space for all of them.
Ryka Aoki is a writer, performer, and educator who has been honored by the California State Senate for her “extraordinary commitment to free speech and artistic expression, as well as the visibility and well-being of Transgender people.” In 2012, Ryka was named an Outstanding Volunteer by the LA Gay Lesbian Center’s Child, Youth, and Family Services. Ryka’s long poem, Sometimes Too Hot the Eye of Heaven Shines, won RADAR Productions’ 2010 Eli Coppola Chapbook Contest. Her collection, Seasonal Velocities, is a finalist for a 2013 Lambda Literary Award in Transgender Nonfiction. Ryka has an MFA in Creative Writing from Cornell University and is the recipient of a University Award from the Academy of American Poets.
Ryka was recently honored as a member of the Trans 100 list as one of 100 groundbreaking trans advocates from around the country, Ryka appears in the recent documentaries “Diagnosing Difference” and “Riot Acts” as well as the anthologies Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation (Seal Press 2010), Transfeminist Perspectives (Temple University 2012), and The Collection (Topside Press, 2012). Ryka is a former national judo champion, the founder of the International Transgender Martial Arts Alliance, and is a professor of English at Santa Monica College.