The Write Stuff: Akemi Johnson on Slowing Down Time

The Write Stuff is a series of interview profiles conducted by Litseen where authors give exclusive readings from their work.


Akemi Johnson is a Northern California native, now Washington, D.C.-bound. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Nation, Roads & Kingdoms, Kyoto Journal, Off Assignment, and elsewhere. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Brown University, she has taught creative writing at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa and the University of Iowa. For a long time, she’s been completing a creative nonfiction book on the borderlands around the U.S. military bases in Okinawa, Japan, which she researched as a Fulbright scholar. Once, she won the James D. Phelan Award from the San Francisco Foundation, and she wonders what Phelan—the late anti-Japanese leader who ran under the slogan “Keep California White”—would think about that.

When people ask what do you do, you tell them…?

Depends on the kind of conversation I’m having. Short and superficial: I say my day job. Long and substantial: I talk about writing.

What's your biggest struggle — work or otherwise?

Everything comes down to time.

If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?

Get real comfortable with rejection. Learn to be motivated by internal, not external, factors.

[jump] Do you consider yourself successful? Why?

Yes and no. I love all the experiences I had in my twenties — living in Cambodia, Japan, Hawaii; going to grad school — but I also wish that by my thirties I had a better handle on making money in a way that’s challenging, creative, and stable all in one.

When you’re sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better?

I’m not a cat person, but now we know cat videos are practically medicine: 


Do you have a favorite ancestor? What is his/her story?

My mother’s parents and their families were incarcerated along with all other Japanese Americans on the West Coast during World War II. I’m still trying to understand their story. They never talked about those years while they were alive.

Who did you admire when you were 10 years old? What did you want to be?

I had a Lois Lowry book in which the protagonist, Anastasia Krupnik, started a notebook with, “This is the year that I am 10.” In it she made lists like “Things I Hate.” I started my own notebook. I wanted to be a writer.

Describe your week in the wilderness. It doesn’t have to be ideal.

I love hiking around the Bay Area, but have yet to embrace overnights in the great outdoors. I think I would set out on a wilderness week with lofty ambitions — transcending the everyday, reaching some life-changing epiphany — and end up preoccupied with How is My Food Supply, What is That Noise, I Wish There Was a Bathroom.

How much money do you have in your checking account?

Enough that I just quit the day job and plan to take off some time to write.

What’s wrong with society today?

Short-sightedness, denial.

Are you using any medications? If so, which ones?

Cat videos.

What is your fondest memory?

I lived in Santa Cruz from age one to eight, and have yellow-sun-flooded memories of meadows, rock arches, the cold ocean, Monarch butterflies, eucalyptus, canyons.

How many times do you fall in love each day?

Falling in love for me is rare.

What is art? Is it necessary? Why?

We need art to slow down time.

When you have sex, what are some of the things you like to do?

It’s funny how I might answer this question if it’s “needed” in a “literary” piece. But in this context answering seems unthinkable. (Both will end up Google-able with my name anyway.)

If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?

The obvious answer: cost of living.

A night on the town: what does that mean to you?

A drink or two or three among people you love and strangers. Shouting into ears. Sliding into cars. Uncomfortable shoes.

What are some of your favorite smells?

Hawaii. Those smells you don’t think about until you smell them and they trigger a memory in the most vivid way.

If you got an all expenses paid life experience of your choice, what would it be?

I want to give a fun, quirky answer about flying over Thailand in a hot air balloon or something, but, really, I’m still just thinking about time. Time is money, writing requires lots and lots of time. I’d like an expenses-paid life as a writer. 

For events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook. This interview was conducted by Evan Karp. Follow Litseen at @Litseen

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