Ryka Aoki’s novel “Light from Uncommon Stars” shines on a diverse San Gabriel valley – Orange County Register


In Ryka Aoki’s novel “Light from Uncommon Stars”, an essential instrument of the plot is a real instrument. The violin goes down in history as part of a nefarious market, a source of competition and a tool for empowerment.

A piece of speculative fiction set in the San Gabriel Valley, “Light From Uncommon Stars” merges elements of folklore and science fiction as three women struggle to balance tradition and modernity: Katrina Nguyen, a young transgender violinist fleeing a home abusive to start a new life; Shizuka Satomi, a music prodigy turned teacher with an ulterior motive; Lan Tran, owner of a donut shop and mother who was a spaceship captain.

Aoki, who grew up in Rosemead, said she was drawn to the writing about the area in the book. Describing the differences and diversity of the Monterey Park neighborhoods in San Marino, she stumbles upon real-world landmarks such as Donut Hole de La Puente, Santa Anita Plaza Arcadia, and the San Gabriel River Freeway, aka Highway 605. , among others.

“Because we’re so dispersed, places like the San Gabriel Valley can thrive and create these very vibrant and in some ways self-sustaining communities that mirror the people who are there,” she says. “I wanted to bring some of that perspective to readers. “

It pays homage to local events, such as the Temple City Camellia Festival and its more than 75-year history. Aoki notes the consistency of local events, how details may change, but they continue for years after they start.

“I think we’re hungry, no matter where we’re from, for a sense of tradition,” says the author, who is now based in Hollywood.

Aoki writes with such a deep understanding of the violin that it’s surprising to learn that she’s actually a pianist. She learned the violin as part of her research for “Light From Uncommon Stars”, and her enthusiasm for the instrument, both in the book and in our recent phone interview, is infectious.

“The violin does well everything the piano cannot do. It can vibrate. It can glissando, ”she says. “He can do all kinds of interesting things.”

Aoki visited violin shops, learned how the instrument is constructed, and smelled the smell of varnish in the workshops. But it was actually playing the instrument itself that had the most impact on the novel. For months, she turned away from the piano to concentrate on the violin.

“That kind of research, I think I had to earn it by learning to play the violin,” she says. “I must have had my calluses.”

In the midst of his research, Aoki had a deep moment of self-discovery that ultimately would help shape one of the themes of the novel. Aoki, who is transgender, explains that she uses her upper vocal range as we speak.

“If I go to my lower register, I experience a bit of hearing dysphoria – it doesn’t sound like the voice I want to have,” she says.

As she played the violin, she noticed how the instrument also functioned as a voice. “The violin is so delicate, but so nuanced and so powerful, I could play it, sing through the violin and sing with abandon actually,” she explains.

It was a moving discovery for Aoki. “I don’t think that’s the quality of my game. I don’t think I’m there yet,” she said of the reveal. “I think it was the freedom, the potential, the idea that here I could finally have a voice that matched the voice in my head. It was good,” she explains. “So I wanted to give that to one of my characters, Katrina, because I know what it’s like to monitor her voice 24/7 and it’s really hard.”

As the characters came to life on the pages of “Light From Uncommon Stars,” Aoki leaned on the insight she had gained while teaching at Santa Monica College.

“I teach students with all kinds of background stories, all kinds of different abilities, all kinds of different strengths and weaknesses. Some of them have been marked by other teachers or by their school. Some of them like English. I kind of have to turn this into a cohesive class and have everyone learn something, ”she says. “What I try to do sometimes is just listen. Eventually the class will tell me what it is. It has served me well for many years.

Ultimately, that experience led to a book full of richly developed characters from diverse backgrounds, existing in a world that was both fantastic and deeply rooted in a real place and time.

“If you read my book, I’m happy. But what I wanted to allow in the book is to let you be your contradictory and multifaceted self, ”Aoki says of his readers. “Maybe it will help them see themselves a bit more in my work.”

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