Each week, the My America blog series introduces you to one of the writers featured in our newest exhibit My America: Immigrant and Refugee Writers Today. The exhibit is designed to elicit thoughtful dialogue on a wide array of issues with contemporary immigrant and refugee writers delving into questions about writing influences, being multilingual, community, family, duality, otherness and what it means to be American. Check back every week to learn more about these writers and their thoughts on these themes, as we highlight select quotes from the exhibit as well as reading recommendations. Today, learn more about Joe Ide, a crime fiction writer of Japanese descent who grew up in South Central Los Angeles.
When Joe Ide was 11 years old he cut a lamp in half with his grandfather’s samurai sword, who had an impressive collection of swords. His grandfather landed in Vancouver in the 30s then worked as a migrant laborer near Los Angeles, so Ide is not sure where and how he amassed such an impressive collection, yet somehow he did. Ide was never allowed to touch the swords — they are very sharp after all — but at the age of 11 his pre-teen curiosity and defiance got the best of him and he decided to play pirate. “So I got this 700-year-old sword and I’m prancing around swinging, and there was this wooden stand-up lamp, and I cut it in half. I cut it in half…And there’s my grandfather. We were about the same height and he’s purple with rage, just purple. And he grabbed me and threw me through the screen door, not against it, through it. So the sword has a lot of meaning.”
Ide is of Japanese descent and grew up in South Central Los Angeles, which is the setting for his popular IQ detective novel series. Yet he never really identified with his Japanese heritage, instead feeling more closely linked to the predominantly black community he lived in, identifying more with his black friends and black heroes than his Japanese family. This led him to feeling like he was on the fringe, not really fitting in with any group in particular. “My experience left me culturally confused…it made me someone who watches and listens. That, I think, was the primary impact on my writing, was being the outsider.”
As far as that writing went, it wasn’t until he was in his 20s that he seriously pursued a writing career after bouncing around various odd jobs. He wrote “exactly one dozen terrible screenplays” before the 13th screenplay finally sold. “I had a sequence of jobs up to that point, and I never kept any of them for more than a year…so the writing of a screenplay that would sell became really an act of desperation…like I have to do this because I can’t do anything else.” The writing would continue after that and eventually result in the popular IQ detective series. We spoke with Ide about his experiences growing up in South Central LA, grappling with multiple identities and cultures, and how all of that has impacted his writing. Read the following excerpted quotes from our special exhibit My America: Immigrant and Refugee Writers Today then explore the exhibit in person to hear even more. Plan your visit today!
Selected Quotes from My America
On Writing Influences
“Early on [I was influenced by] Sherlock Holmes. I thought he was like me, something of a misfit. He didn’t belong. He was not a badass. But Sherlock had an identity, he had confidence. And if he faced obstacles he could overcome them with just his intelligence. It was a very important idea for me. I was a small kid in a big neighborhood. What it meant was that there was a way for a kid like me to face his world and not be afraid.”
“I’ve always fought fiercely for my own dignity. That was always important to me. If I got beat up I’d take the beating. I could not be humiliated. I would not let that be taken away from me. That was huge. I think part of that is an Asian thing, is a Japanese thing, not losing face. It was certainly important in my family.”
“My grandparents were very old world and they spoke Japanese almost exclusively. My parents were fluent in both. But I grew up in a largely black neighborhood, and my friends were black, so I co-opted their speech, style, attitudes, musical tastes. To me, my grandparents were foreigners…so my exposure to their language as a language was nil. On the other hand, the patois or the vernacular was my first language. I will always look back on that with great affection. There is music to that language, and then there’s the music itself, and the dancing, which I could never do. But all those things still mean a great deal to me.”
On What “American” Means
“There is an American way to treat people, and it has to do with kindness and patience and acceptance. That is what that word means to me. That is what I think of most when I think about the word American. It is kindness. That is who I think we essentially are and should essentially try to be.”
On Cultural Identification
“The hero in my books, Isaiah, is black because that’s who I identified with when I was growing up. The most important people in my life were black, and I desperately wished I was black. I never made the cut, but that’s who I wanted to be. They were cool and I was not. Everybody was poor, so I could wear a hand-me-down t-shirt and jeans and look like I was an assassin from North Korea, and my neighbor, who was black, would look cool in the same clothes, in the very same clothes.”