Our Friend is Here! An Interview with Ryka Aoki, Author of Light from Uncommon Stars – On Inspiration, Learning the Violin, and the Magic of Queerness in Speculative Fiction

Our Friend is Here! is a guest feature at The Quiet Pond, where authors, creatives, and fellow readers, are invited to ‘visit’ the Pond! In Our Friend is Here! guest posts, our visitors (as their very own unique character!) have a friendly conversation about anything related to books or being a reader — and become friends with Xiaolong and friends.

Friends, I genuinely think Light from Uncommon Stars is the best book I’ve read this year so far. The premise of a runaway violinist who ends up getting mentored by a legendary musician (who may or may not have struck a deal with the devil) was already so compelling, but I truly did not expect the story to grab me by my heart and shatter all of my emotions—only to put the world back together kinder, sweeter in the end. It is such an honor to have Ryka Aoki at the Pond to talk about her lovely balm of a book today, and I’m so excited to share our discussion with you!

Ryka is joining us today as a bespectacled snake with a fountain pen! A very adorable and fitting little bookish noodle, for reasons that will soon become apparent later in this post (hehe). If you still haven’t checked out Light from Uncommon Stars or CW’s glowing review of the book yet, just know that this is a book that CW and I still gush about to each other occasionally because it’s just… that good. It is queer and trans-affirming and so healing, with some of the most wonderful found family I’ve ever read in a contemporary SFF book. It means a great deal to me that Ryka has visited us today with such thoughtful answers to our interview, and I really hope that our little chat today convinces you to pick up the book if you weren’t already planning on it! And if you’ve already read it: please feel free to commiserate with us in the comments. 😭 Onto the interview!

Light from Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki

This lyrical, delightful, queer SF novel is Good Omens with a Faustian bargain.

Shizuka Satomi is a brilliant, cursed violinist who must win her soul back from damnation. To do this, she must take seven prodigies as students, then entice each to trade their soul for fame. She has already delivered six.

However, rather than the usual pampered genius, the seventh, Katrina Nguyen, is a young transgender runaway with a wild talent, who is fleeing an abusive home.

Meanwhile, Lan Tran, a starship captain, has crossed the galaxy with her family to make a new life running a local donut shop. But though she saved them from a galactic war, nothing can stop the end of existence itself.

Faustian bargain meets space opera in this genre-bending novel of three vastly different women. Bombarded by catastrophe, misunderstanding, and fate, each has come to San Gabriel Valley, just outside of Los Angeles, to escape their fates, find their voices, and save the universe.

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Cover design by Jamie Stafford-Hill

Author Interview: Ryka Aoki

Skye: Hello Ryka! Thank you so much for joining us today here at the Pond! For anyone just now discovering your work, could you tell us a little about yourself?

Ryka: Hi Skye! Thank you for having me at the Pond. My name is Ryka Aoki, and I wrote Light from Uncommon Stars. I love writing and music, and my friends call me a foodie. For most of my life, my favorite colors were purple and magenta, but nowadays, I am kind of falling in love with red and black. I love meeting people, and in addition to English, I speak kind-of-functional Japanese, enough German to get by, and I read some Hebrew. My usual pandemic breakfast is instant ramen with an egg and chopped green onion from plants I grow in my window planter. I was bullied as a kid, so I have also done martial arts for many years and got pretty good—I teach self-defense to other queer and trans women now. I’m allergic to eggplant, which is annoying because I really like eggplant.  I’m also allergic to walnuts, but I don’t like them, so it’s not as big a deal.

And I’m really super happy to meet all of you!

Skye: Where did the spark that grew into Light from Uncommon Stars come from? What kept you coming back to the story again and again throughout the writing process?

Ryka: The initial spark for this novel was a single incident coming back from Los Angeles International Airport. It was at night, and when you fly into Los Angeles at night, sometimes the plane banks, and for a moment you’re not sure if you’re looking up or down. For all you know, you might be ascending into a galactic empire.

And then coming home from the airport, in my car, I felt like I was in a little space runabout. I drove past Randy’s Donuts—it’s a Los Angeles icon in the shape of a giant plaster donut. It was radiant—bright and welcoming as it is every night—and as I approached it, I thought, “What if that was actually a functioning stargate?”    

What kept me coming back to the story was something a lot more earthbound. Many things in my life had just gone wrong. Job stuff, relationship stuff, family stuff… A publishing deal fell through. My car (the space runabout) was stolen. Do you ever have those times where you just feel broken? I was there. This story kept me going. This book offered me a world that I could come back to and build. This book forced me to think about that noodle house, this donut shop, that violin, that star… and reminded me that yeah, we can work with this.

Skye: You’ve mentioned before that SFF helps us to imagine better worlds where we are kinder to each other, and I love that this is such a central theme in Light from Uncommon Stars. There are Starrgate donut shops and bargains with the devil, yes, but the core of the book is the radical idea that at the end of the day, when the waters recede, there is so much to love and to hope for. As a writer, how does the magic of SFF enable you to explore these themes in your work?

Ryka: SFF gives me the magic to work magic. It gives me the space to work space. What I mean by that, is I can create entities and realities where my more abstract ideas can take form as concrete, tangible things. Even when I was in my MFA program, I would talk about this idea and that and my classmates would look at me like I was being weird and say well… okay

But I never write anything or think anything just to be weird. I remember screaming in frustration, “Why is it so hard for everybody to understand that I actually believe in this stuff?” No matter what, at the heart of all my stories has always been the reader and what’s human and love and hope. Frankly, if I can’t do that, I have no business writing—that’s just not the way I roll.

With science fiction, with fantasy, I don’t have the same constraints—readers don’t come in with the same preconceptions of what I can talk about or what is real. I don’t need to worry about the weird looks. And that lets me be even more real, if that even makes sense.

Skye: Light from Uncommon Stars feels like such a love letter to the history and community surrounding violin (CW also discussed this in her review of the book here on the blog)! I have a few years of classical piano training myself, and both CW and I are so curious to know: how much of this book grew out of your own experience of learning the violin and being in the musical world?

Ryka: Music is a huge part of my life. It always has been. I play all sorts of keyboards, I play guitar, the flute, the harmonica… I have composed music, played in the band, I’ve even scored a rock opera. But up until recently, I’ve largely been self-taught. Right now, I have a wonderful piano teacher (who I’m ironically taking a short break from because I have to promote this novel).

But until just three or four years ago, I had no idea how to make music with a violin. Even though I knew people who could play, and some even offered to teach me a little, I was intimidated. The violin is like that super hot, super smart person whom you would never think of approaching because they’re so obviously out of your league. Sure, I’ll have a casual fling with an ocarina—but a violin?

However, once we did start playing, we bonded. I really enjoy the violin. It does so many things well that the piano just can’t do. Glissando, vibrato, even just being able to play a singing note, let it swell and decay and swell again… SO not like a piano!

In a way, my experience was perfect for the book—it was all new to me. While I couldn’t be an expert, I thought maybe I could bring you into the mind of a beginner. Maybe I could show you a little bit of the wonder and the freedom that the violin gives. One thing I did not expect was how intuitive the violin was. The strings are all at logical intervals, unlike the guitar with those two high strings doing goodness knows what… and when your intonation is on point, the other strings ring just a little bit.

I learned to play a lot from watching YouTube videos, and yes, I have been practicing my Schradieck. For practice, I would play lo-fi BGM and just jam with it on the violin—learning how to sing. I started to pick up on this little thing and that—and once I felt the violin and I were friends, that’s when I felt ready to bring it into this book. As far as the violin community, I’m happy that I was able to capture some of that essence. I went to lectures and recitals, I did watch some violin competitions. And I found a lot of it very familiar. Although I was never a competitive violinist, I was a competitive judoka. As a junior, I competed at national level—in fact I won the national title once. I was even invited to go to school in Japan on a judo scholarship. I sacrificed a lot for my judo—on bad days I need to walk with a cane because of my knee injuries. And when I witnessed how musicians competed, as well as the pressure and egos and injuries, I realized that there wasn’t much difference between us. Most of the differences were in the details, and I could research that. But I felt a kinship with these competitors, and with that, I felt I had enough to go forward.

Skye: In a world where queer people still face so many hurdles just to live true to themselves, what did it mean to you to write a book that centers trans joy and healing? What do you hope queer readers take away from Katrina’s story?

Ryka: Why bother with science fiction and fantasy if all we’re working for is just more of the same intolerance towards queer and trans people? I don’t care how nice the starship is, or how magical the new wizard school is—I would never want a world where someone like me would have to hide their identity, where queer love is relegated to whispers and subtext, or given “a very special episode”—yet never be allowed the dignity of the day-to-day.

If you expect me to accept that we could learn to travel faster than light or discover a place where dragons and magic are real—yet still have to face the same homophobic and transphobic garbage that we facing now—excuse me, are you high? I expect better from those who would fill my world with dreams.

As for queer and trans readers who encounter Light from Uncommon Stars… I hope they take away some laughter, some tears, some characters and stories they can share with their friends. I hope they can feel seen a little bit more. I hope they can feel included a little bit more. I hope they can relax a little bit more and not need to infer “who might be queer” in my book because I’m telling you straight up they are. I hope they can listen to their own music a little bit more. I hope they can take a little time out and have a donut and enjoy the stars.  

But most of all, I hope they read Katrina’s story, and feel a little less alone when they are writing their own.

Skye: I personally think that there should be a rule against reading this book on an empty stomach, because all the descriptions of food in there are so mouth-wateringly good! From donuts to noodle soup to tangerines (so many tangerines), food plays such an important role in catalysing Lan and Shizuka’s relationship and defining the diverse cultural landscape of the book’s setting. Can you tell us more about this connection between food, cultural belonging, and the feeling of home?

Ryka: Thank you so much! Food is culture. The cuisines of our hometown, our home country, our neighborhood… Somebody from New York City returns and grabs a slice of pizza and they know they are home.

Many Asian families also grew up with vegetable gardens, fruit trees. Families mixed food with all sorts of events, from huge weddings all the way to quiet weekends—so often your favorite childhood memories are enmeshed with food, maybe of that bowl of noodles that’s been served in that neighborhood in that restaurant where your auntie’s mother-in-law has been working forever.

Which means, if you’re disowned by your family, and word gets around, eating that tangerine or those noodles as your queer and/or trans self can become, well, difficult. Sure, we might have wonderful chosen family, but often that chosen family comes from different cultures and different backgrounds.

So, with this book, I wanted to emphasize food, both to acknowledge that lingering hunger and hopefully give people, to the best of my ability, a satisfying taste of home.

Skye: Okay, looking forward to the future a little: what’s your wildest pie-in-the-sky writing dream?

Ryka: I have two. My please-please-please dream is that Light From Uncommon Stars becomes so popular that it even might inspire fan art and fan fiction. Maybe I’ll even see it translated into different languages? Omg…that would be amazing. And maybe, with such a platform, I can continue to raise up and help create space for up-and-coming queer writers and artists.

My faraway dream? To create an immersive game/adventure/novel/world. I bought an Oculus VR headset to help me get through the pandemic, and I was blown away. My gosh, the possibilities!!! I won’t say where, but I almost fell in love with one of the characters. And I see so much more…so much more. So was I thinking, please Universe, one day let me see what I can do with these tools, this technology. I have no idea how games are designed—but you said this was a dream, right?

Skye: Closing on a sunny note! What is something—big or small—that’s been bringing you joy lately, despite everything else currently going on?

Ryka: This is Peppermint. She’s a ball python (royal python if you are in England). I’ve had a few fish, but besides that, I’ve never had a pet before. Never anything I could pick up and hold. I’ve always shied away from pets because I didn’t feel adequate. I think that some of my upbringing convinced me that I couldn’t care for another living being.

But during this pandemic, I’ve been horribly lonely. So, some friends suggested that I get a pet, and when I asked myself what pet did I really want, I realized I wanted a snake. And after weeks of research and maybes, I saw a photo of Peppermint and that was it! 

Peppermint goes her own way most of the time. She’s quiet, and she always seems to be thinking. I love that about her. But we hang out with each other every day, unless she’s shedding—and the time is just so relaxing. Last week we were watching Bob Ross videos. I’m just so happy whenever I look at her. 😀 Yay!

About the Author

Ryka Aoki’s first novel, He Mele a Hilo, was published by Topside Press in 2014. She is a two-time Lambda Literary Award finalist for her collections Seasonal Velocities, and Why Dust Shall Never Settle Upon This Soul. Ryka’s work has appeared or been recognized in publications including Vogue, Elle, Bustle, Autostraddle, PopSugar, and Buzzfeed, as well as the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. Ryka has been honored by the California State Senate for “extraordinary commitment to the visibility and well-being of Transgender people.” She has an MFA in creative writing from Cornell University, and is currently a professor of English at Santa Monica College

Find Ryka at: Website | Twitter | Instagram

3 thoughts on “Our Friend is Here! An Interview with Ryka Aoki, Author of Light from Uncommon Stars – On Inspiration, Learning the Violin, and the Magic of Queerness in Speculative Fiction

  1. That’s such a cool spark for Light From Uncommon Stars! I’ve had a similar experience of otherwordliness when looking out the window of a plane descending at night, but I never parsed it as a galactic city. Now I’m really curious about reading Ryka’s book!

    Liked by 1 person

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