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Imagine Otherwise: Nikiko Masumoto on Queer, Feminist Japanese American Farming

Imagine Otherwise: Nikiko Masumoto on Queer, Feminist Japanese American Farming

retro
May 18, 2016
Nikiko Masumoto wearing a black jacket and blue button-down shirt looking joyously to the sky, below peach trees

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Guest: Nikiko Masumoto 

Born in the Central Valley of California, Nikiko Masumoto spent her childhood slurping over-ripe peaches on the Masumoto Family Farm (an 80-acre organic farm in Del Rey, CA). She has never missed a summer harvest.

She graduated with highest honors from the University of California, Berkeley with a BA in gender and women’s studies. It was there that she realized she wanted to return to the Valley to farm. But first, she completed a master of arts in performance as public practice from the University of Texas, Austin. Her area of research focused on the performance of memory and Japanese American history (specifically the movement for Redress).

In 2013, she published her first book (a cookbook), called The Perfect Peach: Recipes and Stories from the Masumoto Family Farm, which she co-authored with David Mas Masumoto and Marcy Masumoto. In 2015 her family was the subject of a documentary film Changing Season which explores a moment in the family story of transition and living on the land.

She continues to develop her creative practices, exploring civic practice, creative entrepreneurship, storytelling and site-specific performance. She’s currently a Creative Community Fellow with National Arts Strategies, serves on an advisory board for the College of Arts & Humanities at California State University, Fresno, and is a board member of the Alliance for California Traditional Arts and the Western States Arts Federation.

On most days you can find her on a tractor, dreaming of projects yet to be born.

Nikiko Masumoto wearing a black jacket and blue button-down shirt looking joyously to the sky, below peach trees. Text reads: The act of creating something with ferocious critical thinking is part of the work of activism that is trying to remake the world.

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People and projects discussed

About Imagine Otherwise

Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at ideasonfire.net/imagine-otherwise-podcast. Imagine Otherwise is hosted by Cathy Hannabach and produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.

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    Transcript

    Cathy Hannabach (00:03):

    Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach.

    Cathy Hannabach (00:24):

    Welcome to episode 10 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast. Today our guest is Nikiko Masumoto. But before we jump into my interview with Nakiko, I want to let you know that two group coaching programs that I run for interdisciplinary progressive graduate students are now open for enrollment. The Grad School Rock Star program and The Dissertation Rockstar Bootcamp. Both programs help progressive, interdisciplinary scholars like those featured on this podcast, create awesome work, build accountability and community for their projects, and rock their interdisciplinary careers.

    Cathy Hannabach (00:56):

    If you or someone you know are a graduate student who wants to create a regular writing routine, stop drowning in email, prioritize self-care and finish their dissertation alongside other social justice oriented scholars, you can go to gradschoolrockstars.com to find out more. Now, onto the interview with Nakiko.

    Cathy Hannabach (01:16):

    Born in the Central Valley of California, Nakiko Masumoto spent her childhood slurping overripe peaches on the Masumoto family farm, an 80 acre organic farm in Del Rey, California. She has never missed a summer harvest. She graduated with highest honors from UC Berkeley with a BA in Gender and Women’s Studies. It was there that she realized that she wanted to return to the Valley to farm, but first, she completed a master of arts in Performance as Public Practice at the University of Texas at Austin.

    Cathy Hannabach (01:47):

    Her area of research focused on the performance of memory and Japanese American history, specifically the movement for redress. In 2013, she published her first book, a cookbook called The Perfect Peach, which she co-authored with David Mas Masumoto and Marcy Masumoto.

    Cathy Hannabach (02:05):

    In 2015, her family was the subject of a documentary film called Changing Season, which explores a moment in the family story of transition and living on the land. She continues to develop her creative practices, exploring civic practice, creative entrepreneurship, storytelling, and site specific performance. She’s currently a Creative Community Fellow with National Art Strategies, serves on an advisory board for The College of Arts and Humanities at the California State University, Fresno, and is a board member of the Alliance for California Traditional Arts, as well as the Western States Arts Federation. On most days you can find Nakiko on a tractor dreaming of projects yet to be born.

    Cathy Hannabach (02:49):

    Thanks so much for being with us, Nakiko.

    Nikiko Masumoto (02:53):

    I’m so excited. Thanks, Kathy.

    Cathy Hannabach (02:55):

    You are doing a million and a half things. I’d love to just start with some of the current projects that you’re working on, the new projects you’re putting together, and then hopefully we’ll also get a chance to pull in some of your past work. I’d love to start with the forthcoming companion book that you have, that is a companion piece to the documentary film Changing Season. Could you tell us just a little bit about that documentary, about the book and about that project more broadly?

    Nikiko Masumoto (03:30):

    Absolutely. This has been a really interesting endeavor for me because Changing Season is a documentary film that just debuted in March of 2015, and it was a fascinating process to be the subject of someone else’s creation. There were just wonderfully challenging moments, thinking about the production of truth and representation when you’re in the subject’s position and not necessarily the creator, which is the lens that I’m used to taking more often.

    Nikiko Masumoto (04:09):

    The film itself follows our family for a year on our farm, and our farm, the Masumoto Family Farm, is in the Central Valley of California. I am blessed to be the fourth generation to physically touch this soil. The film shares a little bit about the history of our family being a Japanese American family and the way in which the history of so called internment camp is really woven through our day lives here and what it means to be farming, what it means to be planting and cultivating food and planting roots in California.

    Nikiko Masumoto (04:57):

    And the film also follows my dad and I as we go negotiate the myriad of challenges and joys of farming together, both on a daily basis of me learning the tasks and the craft of farming, and also taking up bigger questions about what does it mean to transition work between generations. How do we honor the generations that come before us and also forge our new path.

    Nikiko Masumoto (05:27):

    And so the film really helped us open up a lot of meaningful conversations that we’d been wanting to have, because one of the challenging things about being in a family farm, I’ve found, has been that, in a sense, my success or my growth as the next generation is indelibly linked to the mortality of my dad. And that’s a really heavy, heavy thing to embrace and work through together.

    Nikiko Masumoto (06:04):

    So, inspired by the experience of the film, we wrote a book together that explores some of these concepts, more particularly through our voices. And so that book, the manuscript is done. Yay! And it hopefully will be out this summer, 2016.

    Cathy Hannabach (06:22):

    That sounds great. You’re also the author of another book, a cookbook, which I’m a big fan of, by the way, and I’ll put links in the show notes to that.

    Nikiko Masumoto (06:34):

    Oh, thanks.

    Cathy Hannabach (06:34):

    I know! I love all those recipes.

    Nikiko Masumoto (06:36):

    Thanks, Cathy. I’m so glad.

    Cathy Hannabach (06:41):

    Your cookbook is called The Perfect Peach, and it focuses on peaches, as is the focus of your farm. So, you write and you work in so many different genres, and I want to talk about several of those today. But why do you combine food with film, with farming, with performance, with theater? Why do you work across those different mediums? And they all kind of come back to food in particular?

    Nikiko Masumoto (07:13):

    That is such a great question. I strongly identify as a generalist, so I have been really challenged and excited to transfer skills and questions and explore them through different mediums. I never thought I would write a cookbook, to be honest. But as I was doing research and working on the cookbook specifically, it was amazing to hear, in my dialogues, in my conversations, how much of my work in performance studies and performance as public practice was pulled into the idea of creating a recipe as an archive that calls forth an embodied ritual.

    Nikiko Masumoto (08:06):

    And so, to me, it has been so fascinating to explore and discover and create through the lens of food and farming as it relates to place, as I want to say entry points to pull in all of these other different manifestations of art, writing, storytelling, spoken word. I sometimes get dizzy just thinking about myself, but it’s been delightful.

    Cathy Hannabach (08:46):

    So yet another genre that you’re working in, as you mentioned, is performance, and you have a new performance that you’re developing called Who Will Feed Us. And you’re working in collaboration, as you often do on a lot of your projects. And I hope we can talk a little bit more about that process, but you’re working with a master taiko player, a drummer who’s also a composer. Can you tell us a little bit about that project and what it’s like to work in a genre of theater that you do have experience in, but also stretch yourself a little into the music realm, into kind of multimedia performance?

    Nikiko Masumoto (09:27):

    Yes, I can speak to that. Roy and I are just beginning our partnership, and he Roy Hirabayashi, he is an incredible taiko master and composer, and he works through thinking through sound and movement percussion. And much of my work, across different genres, storytelling, performance has been rooted in writing and words. So, it’s been really fun, already, to begin to think about how those two intersect and when is a moment for translation across genre translating words into sound or sound into words, and when is it better to let sound be itself, and when is it better to let words be themselves. And also inhabit the space of the difference between the two.

    Nikiko Masumoto (10:29):

    So, we are just in the beginning of our process and we are starting by really flooring some of our ethnographies of generational knowledge. And so, we talked a lot about [inaudible 00:00:10:44], we’ve talked a lot about death, we’ve talked a lot about cooking and food. And working with him has changed the way that I inhabit my daily life as a farmer.

    Nikiko Masumoto (11:00):

    All of a sudden I start thinking about the way the tractor sounds, and thinking about how sounds carry through the farm, how my ojichan, my grandfather, worked on the same tractor and sat in the same place. And what does that mean, and how can you capture the stories? So, that project, it’s going to be a couple of years of research for us to compose an original piece together, but I am full of more questions than I am answers at this point.

    Cathy Hannabach (11:36):

    Obviously, this is a podcast that is interested in the intersections of art, academia and activism, and since I started it, you are certainly one of the people who came to my mind first as the literal embodiment of this intersection.

    Nikiko Masumoto (11:52):

    Oh my Gosh. I was so excited to see your launch of this podcast series.

    Cathy Hannabach (12:03):

    It’s been quite a ride. It’s been pretty fantastic. So, how do you see that intersection in your own work, from your own perspective? How do you combine the work that you do as an academic, the work that you do as an artist, and the work that you do as an activist?

    Nikiko Masumoto (12:21):

    That’s a great question and one that I’m not sure I have a great answer to, but a lot of my work has emerged from the struggle of trying to combine different modes of knowing that I have been able to experience. So, when I graduated from UC Berkeley, after setting Gender And Women’s Studies, coming home to farm was really challenging because I didn’t have tools to express and translate some of what I had experienced in academia to other contexts. I didn’t know how to talk to my neighbor about feminism in a way that would create a space for true engagement.

    Nikiko Masumoto (13:15):

    And so, in a way, art has been a method for me to continue to explore and try to answer some of the intellectual questions that drive my life. How do we create a more equitable world? How do I communicate my questions about the way power is functioning? And in so doing, I’m not sure if I would call myself an activist, but I definitely borrow from and hope that some of my work helps to participate and bolster activists’ work.

    Nikiko Masumoto (14:00):

    Because I think, for me, the act of creating something with a root of ferocious critical thinking, that in itself is part of the work of activism that is trying to remake the world. I mean, for me, the intersection of the three, those three are so interrelated that I can’t imagine one without the other. I know that’s not true for everyone, but for me that’s definitely true.

    Cathy Hannabach (14:41):

    Ferocious is such a great way to put that, the passion, the rage, the fire that comes from that comes from social justice commitments, right? Whether we use the term activism to describe those or not, but also the ferociousness and insatiability of knowledge. Of knowledge production, of knowledge seeking, of learning. Your phrase of combining different ways of knowing kind of taps into that. And it’s certainly a theme that that carries throughout your work, regardless of the medium, regardless of the genre, regardless of whether it’s a solo piece or whether it’s a collaborative piece, whether you’re working with family members, with friends, with people you just met. It’s certainly a kind of strong thread across all of your various projects.

    Nikiko Masumoto (15:36):

    I love that word. I do. I love it.

    Cathy Hannabach (15:40):

    It’s a great word and it fits so well with what you do.

    Nikiko Masumoto (15:44):

    Thanks, Gabby.

    Cathy Hannabach (15:47):

    So, as listeners might have gathered, Nikiko and I met in college where we were both Gender and Women’s Studies majors at UC Berkeley, and then we both went on to do graduate work in interdisciplinary programs, me in Cultural Studies at the University of California Davis, and Nikiko in Performance as Public Practice at the University of Texas at Austin.

    Cathy Hannabach (16:06):

    So, clearly interdisciplinarity is something that you and I have been working on and working on together for a very, very long time. So, I’ll just ask you, what does interdisciplinarity mean to you? What drew you to Gender and Women’s Studies, to Performance as Public Practice, to Asian American Studies, all of these fields that you draw on so heavily and that you’ve contributed such rich work to over the years. Why work between fields?

    Nikiko Masumoto (16:33):

    My gut is taking me back to why I chose Gender and Women’s Studies, and Cathy, I don’t know if I ever asked you why you chose the same program. I’d love to hear that. But for me, the birth of that major for me was in utter confusion, and I think that confusion is the best place to start an endeavor, and it is absolutely always already interdisciplinary.

    Nikiko Masumoto (17:05):

    My first class with Professor Lee Gilmore, she used words that I had never heard before. Feminism, patriarchy, hegemony, and I was utterly fascinated by my lack of understanding, and that is what made me fall in love with Gender and Women’s Studies, that I had no idea what these things meant, but I knew that they were about power. I’m not sure I even really internalized how interdisciplinary Women’s Studies was as a field when I was 17. and picked that major.

    Nikiko Masumoto (17:48):

    But now, looking back at it, when I think about interdisciplinary work, I immediately think about points of contact and for me, working across genres and working across fields is, in itself, a practice of defiance and liberation. This reminds me of your work in undergraduate. Why would we want to uphold literally the words “disciplines” that are separate? They just begged to be challenged, don’t you think? And so, I think having conversation-

    Cathy Hannabach (18:34):

    I do.

    Nikiko Masumoto (18:34):

    Yes! It’s almost our responsibility to challenge the borders of disciplines.

    Cathy Hannabach (18:45):

    Yes, I completely agree. And I have a very similar, in some ways, reason for turning to it, that kind of recognition that you could do everything with this type of field, with this type of a degree. And the disciplines that I was taking courses in as part of the GE requirements, they didn’t give you the world, much less encourage you to make a different one, and Gender and Women’s Studies does.

    Nikiko Masumoto (19:17):

    Absolutely. It does. It does. And it’s so fresh. Cathy, I never made this linkage before. It’s amazing. In the past couple of years, I have really felt a yearning to pay attention to my spiritual life, and so I have been cultivating a Buddhist practice of stopping and consciously looking at things from multiple angles, on a spiritual level. And that’s exactly what interdisciplinary work asks and challenges you to do, is to intentionally pause and look at something from multiple different angles, and validate what each of those angles has to offer. But also, then, when you can consider things from all these different angles, you then are invited to a level of discernment where you can start discerning what is useful in different contexts.

    Cathy Hannabach (20:19):

    Absolutely.

    Nikiko Masumoto (20:20):

    That’s so exciting to me.

    Cathy Hannabach (20:23):

    So, one of the other things that I think you and I both value very much coming out of our shared roots in the academic arm of feminist movements, if you will, is an emphasis on collaboration, and commitment to collaboration as a political and ethical project, as a core tenet of what we do.

    Cathy Hannabach (20:54):

    You have such a rich history of collaboration, so I’d love to hear you talk a little bit about how you navigate that. Collaboration is amazing and it lets us do things and get places and create stuff that we never could by ourselves. And some of those things that we make in the process are worlds themselves.

    Cathy Hannabach (21:16):

    But of course collaboration is also incredibly hard. It’s challenging, it’s frustrating. It can be a pain in the ass, in a lot of ways. Right? Intermixed with all of the pleasure that it brings, for sure. So, who are your favorite people or communities to collaborate with, and how have you navigated some of the waters of that process?

    Nikiko Masumoto (21:41):

    That’s such a rich question as well. Oh, my gosh. I just have to say, whenever I’m working in a collaborative project, on many, many, many [inaudible 00:21:55] am I challenged to really think about what radical love looks like in a daily practice. And I think collaboration is a word that we use lightly and it’s not light at all. It is serious commitment to being present with another human being and working together, which inherently means navigating through differences, disagreements, misunderstandings. I always think about radical love.

    Nikiko Masumoto (22:37):

    In the last couple of years, I’ve been involved with and thinking a lot about rural place making and rural communities. I live on a farm with my family. I very much identify as rural. And so, I have been thinking and working across differences that I’m not sure I ever thought I would.

    Nikiko Masumoto (23:02):

    I mean, we’re talking about folks down the road who hang a Confederate flag, and they are my neighbor, and they farm as well. And we are both small farmers and they have helped me when my tractor tire was flat. And so, it’s a real challenge to think about how do I speak up, stand up and intervene in contexts where ideas about what equity and justice look like are vastly separate.

    Nikiko Masumoto (23:56):

    So, how do I stand up and be vocal and honor the rage that I feel at injustice? How do I do that, and at the same time, understand that, in some contexts, I depend on this person who I rage against, right? And so I have been blown away by the nuances and the wisdom that I have found by navigating some of those relationships in rural spaces.

    Nikiko Masumoto (24:38):

    I have found many more moments of honest truth telling in my life here on the farm, than my life in urban spaces. And that’s just my experience. I think there’s amazing truth telling going on everywhere. But I do think that one of the amazing things about collaborating in rural spaces is that, because there are so few people, you can’t self-segregate along political veins as easily. You have those contact zones all the time.

    Nikiko Masumoto (25:22):

    And so, I continue to struggle with this. I continue to struggle with how to embody my values and my dreams in a world of people who have vastly different experiences and vastly different values. So, that’s kind of an extreme example of collaboration.

    Nikiko Masumoto (25:45):

    Some of my other collaborations, I’ve participated in a civic practice project, which was asking artists to give their artistic skills and creativity and knowledge in a partnership with a non-arts partner to serve some type of community or civic function. And in that particular collaboration, I worked with an agricultural education nonprofit, and I’ve worked with a couple of different staff members to develop arts-based exercises to match and expand their curricula.

    Nikiko Masumoto (26:27):

    And what was so fascinating to me in that collaboration was the depth and formidability of the word creativity itself. I didn’t realize that, for some people, that word carries with it a strong a reaction of, “Oh, I’m not creative.” And a friend of mine, she wrote an amazing blog piece that explored the concept of a creativity wound. And that so many people, at some point in their life, were told that they’re either not creative or they don’t draw well enough, or they don’t think well enough. And so they shut off that identity of being a creative being.

    Nikiko Masumoto (27:12):

    So, a project that I had no idea would lead me down this path of really understanding more deeply the vast ways that our experiences of wounds continue to inform how we delimit what we are willing to try, that was a result of this collaboration. And I had no idea. And so now I carry myself in the word creativity with more empathy and understanding about what that particular word may provoke in another person.

    Cathy Hannabach (27:51):

    Wow. That’s really powerful.

    Nikiko Masumoto (27:54):

    I don’t know if that was helpful, Cathy. I went real far on that one.

    Cathy Hannabach (27:58):

    That’s exactly the kind of stuff that I was hoping that we would get at. So, this leads me to my favorite question that I get to ask guests. And if I’m honest, it is the entire reason why I started this podcast, is because I wanted to get a whole bunch of really smart, creative, brilliant, bad-ass people together and ask them this one question. But since a podcast needs to contain a little bit more information, I added more stuff. But this is really the guts of the project.

    Cathy Hannabach (28:30):

    So, obviously this podcast is called Imagine Otherwise, and the central tenet is people working for some version of a better world, right? Who are bringing together the areas of art, of activism and academia in the service of that. So, I want to know what your better world is. What do you want? What are you fighting for? What are you helping to create? When you write your cookbook, when you get on stage, when you, when you write your plays, when you collaborate with a Confederate flag waving neighbors, when you navigate the historical as well as present wounds that come with that, what is the world that you’re building? What do you want?

    Nikiko Masumoto (29:21):

    I love this question, Cathy. I think you are brilliant by asking and inviting this type of imagining. My answer is probably articulated in different ways on different days, but it’s feeling like the world I want to see is one where we are able to express our ferocious questions and quests, and where we can find the nourishment from ourselves and each other to live holistic lives that include joy and happiness and pleasure. But also makes space for the wisdom that comes from understanding what healing looks like, what struggling together looks like, and what imagining together can look like. I want a world of pure freedom. I want a world of dreams that are sustainable, dreams that are bright and brilliant and I want to to be right in the middle of it. I want to be listening and witnessing and speaking when I’m needed.

    Cathy Hannabach (31:02):

    And you are.

    Nikiko Masumoto (31:04):

    I hope so.

    Cathy Hannabach (31:07):

    Well thank you so much for being here.

    Nikiko Masumoto (31:11):

    Oh gosh, Cathy, I’m so honored. Thank you so much. Just the invitation to do this has made me so full of joy and happiness.

    Cathy Hannabach (31:23):

    I’m so glad. Well, in the show notes, we’ll be sure to link to all of the various projects, the millions of projects that Nikiko has been working on over the years, as well as some of the really exciting upcoming ones.

    Nikiko Masumoto (31:39):

    And if anybody wants to follow up, I am on Twitter, Facebook and happy to connect with folks.

    Cathy Hannabach (31:48):

    Awesome. We’ll be sure to put those links as well. Thank you again.

    Nikiko Masumoto (31:55):

    Thank you so much Cathy.

    Cathy Hannabach (31:58):

    Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Editing for this episode was done by Julie Lenard. Be sure to check out our website at imagineotherwise.com to listen to full episodes, read show notes, and see links to the people, books and projects discussed on the show. You can also subscribe to us on iTunes.

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