Introduction: I was extremely fortunate to have met with Diana Morita Cole, Author of Sideways: Memoir of a Misfit in the fall of 2019 to discuss everything from her book and writing practices to life experiences and philosophies. It goes without any shadow of a doubt that Diana’s words of self-care practices, of overcoming doubts and obstacles, and of meeting expectations allowed me to reflect on who I am as a young writer, and I firmly believe that her words will do the same for many more. Hence, it may come as a great surprise that after our interview was over, Diana told me “when I go home, I’ll think of something else that I should have told you”.
Diana, thank you for your time, words, your great influence, and most of all, your courage.
Love, Samantha Smith
Black Bear Review
How would you define success?
I’m very happy when my readers identify with my characters and their struggles. That transference allows me to take my readers on a journey that, hopefully, will conclude with a change taking place in their consciousness—a greater insight, more empathy, and perhaps a greater appreciation for life itself. When a listener cries or laughs at one of my readings or when members of the audience remains glued to their seats at the end of my presentation, that is an accomplishment.
So, when keeping in mind the importance of the emotional value you receive from your audience, what do you think triggers that for you when you’re wearing your reader hat?
When I read, I believe the story has to engage me in a significant way. I especially enjoy humour, but the value of a story can also be found in the characters or the plot, or sometimes, if the quality of the writing is just so exceptional, I’ll find myself analysing the structure of the sentences to see what else the writer is going to do structurally. But generally speaking, I think all of these elements have to come into play in an effective way—of course this is all according to my taste. With this being said, I’ve noticed that I have become more critical about what I’m willing to spend my time reading after having become a writer myself.
Do you have any routines/rituals related to your writing?
When I was writing Sideways, I got up every morning at 4 am to make myself a cup of hot chocolate laced with coffee and almond milk. I’d then plunk myself down in front of my computer to write or edit my story. I’d routinely show my work to my husband who is my best critic and editor. I’d present my newest chapter to my writing group and make edits to my writing based on their suggestions.
These days, I spend a great deal of time physically adjusting my physical position in front of the computer, by raising my writing table in order to stand, moving away from the desk, doing tai chi, going for walks, or realigning my chair in order to keep my spine from seizing up. The infirmities of old age are not fun.
What is tai chi exactly? What does it do for you?
Tai chi comes out of Chinese Taoism, which is based on the belief of the ying and yang forces and the constant interplay between them. Tai chi utilizes these forces in its movements to increase the “chi” or good energy within the practitioner. Tai chi makes me feel grounded and aligned with the universal forces, and it has taught me a very purposeful way of walking. I am not by any means an expert, but I can recognize the calming effect that it has, and how it teaches me to let everything else go and concentrate.
Do you think this kind of structure or habit for writers is important? Why?
I certainly think it is important for myself. Keeping my focus is a big part of the battle because I am easily discouraged by comments made by people whose intentions may be well-intended, but whose criticisms and comments make me feel discouraged about my writing. Some writers may brush off comments like these, not so for me. It can take me weeks, sometimes months, to let them go as I am the sort of person that takes what people say to heart.
The benefit of purposefulness is that it teaches one to persevere regardless of one’s mood. The routine becomes automatic. Out of habit you plunk yourself in front the computer every day at 4:30 am. Regardless of whether you sit there very long or not, you are making an effort to succeed—giving yourself a chance. There’s nothing simpler than sitting and doing the hard work. Believing in yourself is tremendously important.
What exactly do you do to help you in those moments of self-doubt?
I think it is always important to remember your affirmations – those short and easy sentences like, “you can do it” or “my story will be interesting to someone out there”. But most of all, I think that we need courage. We don’t talk about courage nearly enough in our society today. We may spend hours trying to dissect a psychological problem as though it were part of a much larger mental health condition but forget to acknowledge the courage it takes to get us through difficult times. When it comes to writing, one has to be courageous enough to put pen to paper and just keep writing. And always keep in mind, emptiness and unknowingness provide the space for the most beautiful insights to emerge.
5. What is the significance of the title of Sideways?
Sideways refers to the position I temporarily assumed in my mother’s womb as she raked dead grass in front of our barrack in Minidoka. Mama’s womb was a very roomy place, having held 8 occupants before me. The title also refers to my awkwardness, my inability to fit into my family or to ever be fully accepted into American society, having been stigmatized by racism and war. The metaphor also refers to my interior frame of mind, which is has always been at odds with the values of the dominant culture that oppressed me and my community.
When writing Sideways, you focused on some heavy personal details that could be
emotionally draining to explain, how did you motivate/get yourself in a mood to
The will to meaning is a powerful motivator for learning. You are able to withstand a great deal of discomfort in pursuit of it.
I wrote Sideways in a state of physical and psychic pain. My physical discomfort was centered near my liver. According to Chinese medicine, the liver is the seat of anger. Since completing Sideways, I have been released from the ache of not knowing what turned me into such a consummate misfit. In the end, writing can turn out to be the most liberating pathway to psychological and spiritual health.
Sympathetic readers can help the writer maintain momentum, especially if one is lucky to find one’s self in the company of empathetic writers as I did in Nelson. Working towards a deadline for the next writers’ workshop was also very helpful. Writers need an audience, no matter how much of a loner you may think yourself to be.
You need to allow the demons in your consciousness to drive you to the cliff. Anger over injustice and the compulsion to communicate motivate me to write.
My suggestion to beginning writers like myself is to learn from your emotional states and exploit them to their fullest.
I did give myself, and therefore the reader, the opportunity to retreat from the conflicts and tensions in my story. The narrative structure needs to breathe in order to reflect the variety of experiences one has enjoyed. No one’s life is lived in a constant state of pain and turmoil. There are moments of tranquility, humour, and kindness that a writer can exploit to refresh the spirit.
What is your best advice for young writers?
The best advice I’ve ever received, came to me by way of my mentor, William Minoru Hohri. He was the author of four books and an important Nikkei activist, who challenged the constitutionality of the incarceration of the Japanese Americans in the courts. He said in response to my complaints about my family: “The important thing is to think well of yourself.”
In other words, believe in yourself and your story. You have an important contribution to make to the Canadian narrative by being who you are.
Words have power to change the world, and writing is the way to self-discovery. By creating stories, I have learned who I am, what I think, and what I value. In the process, I hope to have educated my readers.
What I have found in publishing my work is that people in North America have the ability to relate to the difficulties of growing up disenfranchised, unloved, and unappreciated. My book has given me a platform to tell new stories about my family and to discuss political problems that afflict many people throughout the world—the homeless and the refugee. Also, my writing experience has made it possible for me to become a storyteller.
Writing Sideways has been the most rewarding experience of my life, and I have Canada and the Nelson arts community to thank for it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR :
Diana Morita Cole is the winner of the 2017 Richard Carver Award for Emerging Writers sponsored by the Nelson & District Arts Council and the Kootenay Literary Society. One of the jurors noted, “Diana’s a very engaged writer, presenter, teacher, storyteller, educator and organizer… I especially liked the way she has engaged with and encouraged young writers.”
Diana’s first chapter of Sideways: Memoir of a Misfit was published in The New Orphic Review and shortlisted in the Open-Season Competition of The Malahat Review creative non-fiction category for 2013. It was also nominated or the Pushcart Prize Anthology for 2015. “Mama’s Belly” and “Outside The Bath” are included in the reading list of the creative writing classes at Selkirk College.
Sideways: Memoir of a Misfit has been added to the collection of the National Diet Library upon request of the Japanese government. Sideways: Memoir of a Misfit has been selected by Professor Dennis M. Ogawa for inclusion in The Japanese American Experience lecture series at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Diana was a guest speaker at the University of Hawaii and gave a reading at the Japanese Cultural Centre of Hawaii.
Another of Diana’s creative nonfiction stories, “Two Human Rights Complaints,” is required reading for the San Francisco State University graduate social work course, Ethnic and Cultural Concepts and Principles I. Diana’s reports, chronicling her battle against the spraying of Agent Orange in Nova Scotia forests, have been cited by Dr. Mark Richard Leeming in his 2013 Dalhousie University doctoral thesis, in Defense of Home Places: Environmental Activism in Nova Scotia, 1970-1985. Diana has lobbied Parliament, advocating the banning of Agent Orange, and the US Congress, advocating against landmines.
Cole initiated projects to diminish racism and foster justice, peace, and environmental awareness. She was a co-founder of the Seventh World, an association of biracial couples that created a writing contest for London Ontario K-12 children to promote racial harmony. This program has since been implemented in several other communities throughout southwestern Ontario. This project and her work to eliminate landmines was referenced in her special feature article, “Peacetime,” written for the holiday issue of the Pacific Citizen, the national newspaper published by the Japanese American Citizens League.
Diana was awarded a grant by the Columbia Basin Trust and the Columbia Kootenay Cultural Alliance for the publication of Sideways: Memoir of a Misfit. A recipient of the JACL and Pullman scholarships, she holds degrees in Music and English Literature.
Cole resides in Nelson, British Columbia where she has organized forums in support of residential school survivors. Her articles about her return to her birthplace were published in the Pacific Citizen, the Nelson Star, and Discover Nikkei website. She is a member of the Uphill Writing Group and the Nelson Storytelling Guild. She has told the story of the Japanese Latin Americans at the 2015 Kootenay Storytelling Festival. She is a feature writer for the Pacific Citizen, the national newspaper of the Japanese American Citizens League. She has written extensively about the atrocities committed by the Canadian government against the Japanese Canadians during WWII and has spoken at the Historic Kogawa House in Vancouver
Diana is the founder and organizer of the Asian Heritage Celebration in Nelson.