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Nikkei Uncovered: a poetry column


Fire. No, not in reference to the countless acres of land and livelihood burning across California this summer. But perhaps subconsciously inspired by the precarious path nature takes us on, I was drawn to this theme and to featuring these pieces meant for the mature reader of this month’s column. A prose piece from Alameda, California-based Colleen “Coke” Tani and a poem from Portland-based Jenna Yokoyama - these are searing pieces that speak in turns, facing inward and outward, inviting us in to moments where we need breath, we call for reckoning, we demand to heal.

— traci kato-kiriyama

* * * * *

Colleen “Coke” Tani is a sansei writer, dancer, art-life facilitator and spiritual seeker. She was born and raised in the Crenshaw district of Los Angeles and is grateful for her roots, family and homies! Coke is also now based in Alameda, CA. Once a clinical social worker, Coke wrote and toured a one-woman show, “Soft Tissue,” while providing choreographic and directorial support to solo artists such as Julia Jackson, Zahra Noorbakhsh and Lisa Marie Rollins. Her work has appeared in ONTHEBUS, Spillway, Rattle and Under Her Skin. She is currently working on her first book-length project, a body memoir.

Eating Fire

I meant to run interference, but interference had run me.

Fifteen more weeks until I leave clinical social work, mental health, HIV, trauma, all of it. I’ve been feeling others more than I feel myself. Attuning outward with all my senses at my disposal, as if to survive. Is this a cultural inheritance? A gendered one? Religious? I’ve crossed an inner line and need to do something before I can’t come back. What was it one of our Vietnamese clients had said about Quan Yin Buddha? That she went down to hell, saw suffering, felt compassion, ate fire.

I’ve eaten fire for a long, long time, though I am no Quan Yin Buddha. I’ve eaten it because of the taste, the intensity, and because I thought it would make a difference. I thought the more I’d swallow and let burn inside me, the more I’d be helping. Sacrifice is the ghost I’ve learned to pray to.

But eating fire has given me panic attacks, a white blindness. It’s made me a ripe host to scabies, and to miniscule pearls of herpes sizzling around my lips, on my fingertips. Rashes have grown raw in private places and at the nape of my neck, along my waistline, behind my left ear. And this is only the first layer, dermis. I am burning a hole into the center of me.

Eating fire has also distracted me. It’s called me away from the helplessness I feel toward my torn and punctured past. It’s also detracted me from my shrieks of glee, my soft sparkle & glow, my moans that curl into the earth.

In the end, eating fire has fooled me for fifteen years in a “helping profession.” I’ve become a junkie without knowing it. I never got into speed, coke or weed. I really got into fire. A little of it in my reach, in the air, on my tongue, a small human need I could sniff out like a hound in heat, and I’d be ready, poised with insight and a knife pushing at my own heart. Once I swallowed, I’d feel that union like a consummation, a bad marriage, but who was asking? It’s like getting a rush that I both hate and am familiar with, a terror that gets me pumped and ready for more. Survival turns me on.

Cortisol, epinephrine—you name it—now courses through me like wildfires consuming familiar ground. My trails are thrashed and exposed. There is no shelter. I am ancient and hazardous land, craving new seed.

A client with paranoid psychosis tries to trip, then kick me. Others pull me into their rings on a daily basis—into their vulnerable cavities with cryptic clues, psychic claws. I, in turn, have become a safehouse—c-o-n-f-i-d-e-n-t-i-a-l-i-t-y—a sealed cavern, crowded and closed. I cannot feel myself, where I begin and they end. How much I’ve used others to somehow be penetrated, to be exasperated a focused intimacy while continuing to possess a rulebook, distance, control. I feed myself, my attention to them and try to leave them wanting, needing more. Like good sex, we’re hot then satisfied, relieved then cooling down. I’m ready for more though, lining up appointments back-to-back. How used to not feeling myself I’ve become. The more numb I get, the more fire I need, just to feel what I believe is me.

My beliefs are like wires that got crossed and hooked-into wrong destinations. I thought I could put out other people’s fires and light my own, by taking theirs into me.

But what I thought was the end, isn’t. Because here I am in the flesh again, two breast surgeries, twenty rounds of chemo and one week of radiation behind me. Did my dependence on fire cost me my right breast? I lie still, alone in a medical basement room with a giant machine. I am instructed to only inhale, hold and breathe. I obey the precise and quiet fire of unfathomable laser beams to save me. This time, the giver remains intact.

My own hands, learning to warm then cool, are turning back toward myself. My old pathways and beliefs are closing so that everything else can open.

* This poem is copyrighted by Colleen “Coke” Tani (2018)


* * * * *

Jenna Yokoyama is a Yonsei/Shin Nisei, radio/podcast producer, and creative living in Portland, OR. She is a co-host for the radio show Pacific Underground and an annual singer at her local obon festival. When not hunched over a computer doing audio editing, she can be found hiking and backpacking in the local Cascade mountains.

*Content warning: this work contains references to sexual assault and adult language

ma, ei ja nai ka? [So, isn’t it good?]

Tear us down raise it up
The diaspora we pretend does not exist
Erase our past before we
learn           the truth
Resist the model minority model the minority resistance
          –Ma, ei ja nai ka?

Raise up our women tear our men down
You’re so articulate you’re so middle class
The safe kind of Asian
The Asians who took reparations
The Asians who watched as you stole away our
babies at gunpoint in the middle of the day
In front of our neighbors in front of our friends
The silence of white folks deafened our culture
          ––Ma, ei ja nai ka?

Raise up your cock tear my autonomy down
My tiny frame so cute so petite
So easy to satiate a patriarchal eye without wanting to
You want you take you penetrate       you smile
          ––Ma, ei ja nai ka?

Raise me up pull my skirt back down
The silence sets in the hiding begins
Get better Be better Smile         Gaman
Codeswitch until you feel safe
Codeswitch until I feel numb
          ––Ma, ei ja nai ka?

* This poem is copyrighted by Jenna Yokoyama (2018)


© 2018 Colleen “Coke” Tani; Jenna Yokoyama

Colleen “Coke” Tani Jenna Yokoyama mental health model minority Nikkei Uncovered poet poetry rape women

About this series

Nikkei Uncovered: a poetry column is a space for the Nikkei community to share stories through diverse writings on culture, history, and personal experience. The column will feature a wide variety of poetic form and subject matter with themes that include history, roots, identity; history—past into the present; food as ritual, celebration, and legacy; ritual and assumptions of tradition; place, location, and community; and love.

We’ve invited author, performer, and poet traci kato-kiriyama to curate this monthly poetry column, where we will publish one to two poets on the third Thursday of each month—from senior or young writers new to poetry, to published authors from around the country. We hope to uncover a web of voices linked through myriad differences and connected experience.

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