Archive | June 2015

Evgeny Tonkha at the Mojica Hacienda

A week and a half ago, I was lucky enough to attend a cello concert in a unique setting. I went as the guest of a fellow student in my department who is also an Oxford alumnus; the concert was an Oxford alumni network outing (though not exclusively–most of the people in the audience weren’t Oxford folk). It was held at the Mojica Hacienda, a house on an estate in a lush and secluded neighborhood of Santa Monica, near the mountains and the ocean. The house belonged to tenor-turned-priest José Mojica and was apparently a hangout for the Gershwin brothers, Hollywood stars, and Albert Einstein, among others. The grounds are maze-like, with really lovely gardens: fuchsias and hollyhocks, water lilies in the pond, a wall draped in Thunbergia alata (yes, I had to look that up).

We took a look in the small chapel, which had many small plaques expressing gratitude to the Virgen de Guadalupe or some saint for a miracle or for recovery from an illness or an injury. They had texts in Spanish and painted depictions of whatever had befallen the individual in question (one showed a person being thrown from a horse). The house was filled with tapestries and silver and had a miniature movie theater in addition to the specially built concert room where (we were again reminded) the Gershwins had played. It was an intimate space, reminding me a bit of a Syriac church in Paris where I attended another cello concert years ago.

The concert itself was great. The cellist was Evgeny Tonkha, and he played a variety of short pieces, half of which I’d played myself in some form or another and so was familiar with. The program included the prelude, sarabande, and gigue from Bach’s third suite for unaccompanied cello, the first movement of Schubert’s arpeggione sonata, an arrangement of Sibelius’s Valse Triste, Bartók’s Romanian Dances, a modern composition entitled Intro Version (the composer, Anna Drubich, was at the concert), and finally arrangements of a Gershwin prelude and Rhapsody in Blue. Tonkha’s spiccato was impressive.

The one disappointment was that the program was supposed to include this chaconne by Giuseppe Colombi, supposedly the first piece ever written for cello. I’d never heard of the piece or the composer and was looking forward to hearing it, but for whatever reason Tonkha didn’t play it.

Afterward, there were refreshments in the garden, and my colleague and I met a few other Oxford alumni who were all now also at UCLA. One of them told us a story about his friends who punted to London in their white ties after the Magdalen Ball. It took them three days. Also, it turned out the reason the concert was an Oxford alumni outing at all was because the person in charge of the Mojica Hacienda’s classical music programming had been a Rhodes scholar at Oxford (he also bore an uncanny resemblance to Gérard Depardieu).

Anyway, as you read this I may have just arrived in Oxford myself! I’ll be in England through the end of June.

Mixed Remixed 2015

I spent all of Saturday at the Mixed Remixed Festival, which, in the organizers’ words, is a “cultural arts festival celebrating stories of the Mixed experience”. It’s part literary festival, part film festival, part symposium, and 100% amazing. I don’t remember how I stumbled upon it originally, but I had made a note of the date in my agenda, and when I noticed it was coming up, I looked it up again and decided to go. Am I ever glad I did!

The festival was held in Little Tokyo at the Japanese American National Museum, a place I have visited before. I picked up my name badge and a goodie bag that included a giant box of Milk Duds and free samples of shampoo specially made for “mixed heritage & multi textured curls.” For, you know, my super curly hair. Then I made my way into the museum for my first session, Writing Fiction with Jamie Ford.

Jamie Ford is the author of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, a historical novel about the friendship between a Chinese-American boy and a Japanese-American girl during World War II. I read it several years ago and liked it very much. One of the reasons I’d been drawn to it was because I had been a Chinese-American child with a Japanese-American best friend. Anyway, I was excited to have the chance to attend a workshop with the author.

The session turned out to be less a workshop than a discussion about storytelling and a Q & A about the writing life and breaking into traditional publishing, but Jamie Ford was very funny and engaging. Plus it was my first opportunity to see who else was at the festival. It felt a bit like being at an event with this organization I belonged to in college called Multi. For once, you’re among people who, while they all have different backgrounds, are also somehow fundamentally like you in a way that most people aren’t. And for once, people like you are in the majority.

Next, I headed to Putting the “M” in LGBT!: Writing Mixed *and* Queer, facilitated by Clare Ramsaran. This workshop was great. It was a smaller group, and we sat around a boardroom table and all got to introduce ourselves briefly. We watched a Youtube video of Staceyann Chin performing her poem “All Oppression Is Connected” and then did three writing prompts. Some people read from what they had written, and we had some interesting discussions, including one about what constitutes passing. The funniest moment was when one guy, a festival volunteer, talked about how he and his partner were trying to have a child. They wanted a mixed race egg donor but were being told most egg donors were white because that’s what people wanted. Then he looked around the room at all the workshop attendees, the vast majority of whom were young women, and repeated, “I’m looking for a mixed race egg donor.” We all laughed.

There was a break for lunch. I had brought my own, but there was also some sort of Family Free Saturday thing going on, which included free Korean-Mexican fusion food, so I got some baby bok choy and spicy meatballs with polenta. I was still scarfing these down when I slipped into the panel Cracking Open the Dialogue of Our Families: Racial Microaggressions & Whiteness. The panelists were all transracial (in some sense) adoptees, one an international adoptee from Korea and the other two domestic adoptees. There were almost no adoptees in the audience, on the other hand. It was interesting nevertheless to hear about the three panelists’ experiences, which were quite divergent.

During the next break, I ran across the way to the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy, where Skylight Books was selling all the festival authors’ books. I snagged a copy of Jamie Ford’s second novel, Songs of Willow Frost (more Chinese-American historical fiction, yay!), and had a nice chat with him as he signed it.

Next was a reading with authors Jamie Ford, Mat Johnson, and Marie Mockett and poets James Tyner, Bryan Medina, and Michelle Brittan. Now, I’m not always the biggest fan of readings; I tend to prefer to read words on the page myself rather than hear them read aloud by their authors. But this reading was incredible. Especially Mat Johnson reading an excerpt from his latest novel, Loving Day. I could picture every instant of those scenes. I could see the greenhouse and the Japanese temple in Marie Mockett’s excerpt too, and I really liked Bryan Medina’s poems. There was fun Q & A afterwards, and the three poets joked about there being something in the air in Fresno that produces so many poets.

After a reception, it was time for the Storyteller’s Prize Presentation & Live Show in the Tateuchi Democracy Forum. Three people/entities were being recognized, and in between the presentation of the awards there were various performances. First up was KAIA, the stage name of musician Kayla Briët. She sang and played guitar, keyboard, and guzheng (a Chinese zither), the latter two sometimes at the same time, and she used a loop machine, which was pretty cool. Apparently it was her first live show, and I was blown away by her talent and poise, especially since she’s only eighteen. The crowd loved her.

The three prize winners were Jamie Ford, Al Madrigal, and Honey Maid (yes, as in the graham crackers; their representative’s acceptance speech made for a weirdly corporate moment, but I admit their ad was pretty heartwarming). My other favorite act was Willy Wilkinson, a trans multiracial Chinese-American writer and advocate who performed some great spoken word poems.

After the show, everybody mingled over cake in celebration of Loving Day. I had of course heard of the 1967 Supreme Court case Loving vs. Virginia which struck down all remaining laws against interracial marriage, but I hadn’t realized there was a day dedicated to commemorating this event. Loving Day was June 12, the day before Mixed Remixed.

Thrift Shop Fiddle

So, I hate shopping. My whole family is allergic. Consequently, it is an unusual day that sees me entering a store to buy anything other than groceries or perhaps books. However, I also covet musical instruments. And so a week or so ago, when a couple of violin cases appeared in the window of one of the National Council of Jewish Women thrift shops in my neighborhood, I noticed.

I’ve kind of wanted a violin for a long time. In orchestra class, I’d always ask my violinist and violist friends to let me play their instruments. Toward the end of high school, a friend of mine lent me her violin for a summer so I could really figure out how to play. And then at the end of my senior year of college, a friend from Folk Dance Club lent me her violin for that strange in between period after classes had ended but before graduation, and another folk dance friend and I wandered the dormitory playing “The Wren” on penny whistle and fiddle, respectively.

In fact, it was because of Folk Dance Club that my interest in acquiring a violin intensified. I discovered oodles of jigs and reels I wanted to play, and though I could play some of them on the cello, there’s less scope for fiddling on the cello than there is on the violin (Natalie Haas notwithstanding). But I knew I wasn’t going to pursue the violin seriously enough to make it worth going out and buying an actual good instrument, so I just waited and learned to play lots of tunes on cello.

Fast forward to those violin cases in the Council thrift shop window. It immediately occurred to me this might be my chance to get hold of a violin cheaply. On the other hand, I barely had enough time to practice cello anymore, so why was I considering picking up another musical instrument? In the end, I couldn’t resist stopping in the thrift store. I tried not to get my hopes up, telling myself the cases might be just that, empty cases. Who donated violins to thrift shops? (On the other hand, there was also a grand piano in this thrift shop, and last fall I saw a Mason & Hamlin pump organ in the Goodwill down the street.)

I squeezed into the space between the jewelry case and a belt rack and picked up the violin cases. They felt too light to have anything inside, but when I unzipped them, there they were, the violins. One was missing the G string, and the other was missing both the D and A strings, but neither was broken. I tightened and loosened the bows, twisted the fine tuners, examined the pegs, plucked the strings, and peered through the F-holes. I’m decidedly lacking in expertise, but the instruments didn’t strike me as pieces of junk. So I decided to buy the three-stringed violin. As I was discussing the price with a clerk, a small group gathered, apparently impressed that I was buying a violin in a thrift shop. A woman even started to ask me for advice as she considered buying the two-stringed violin for her fifteen-year-old daughter.

I took my new violin home. The next day, I carefully tuned its three strings, applied some Magic rosin to the bow, and gave it a whirl. Turns out I’m kind of rusty. The neighbors are probably thinking, Oh, no, the resident of #8 has another stringed instrument now? And this one she can’t even play? I sawed out “Wachet auf” and “Finlandia,” but it’ll probably take some time (and a new string) before I work my way up to “Curvy Road to Corinth.” 


My new three-stringed fiddle

If I am an amateur cellist, I am a dilettante violinist. I don’t aspire to play Bach partitas. In Sparkers, though, Marah plays the violin, not the cello. Why? I’m not really sure. I think I pictured her tromping all over the city with her instrument, and I couldn’t really see her lugging a cello around. But in Book 2, which I’m currently revising, the main character is exactly like me. She’s a cellist by training, but she likes to mess around on her brother’s violin too. So putting myself in her shoes can be my excuse for spending time playing my new violin. Now, how many years will it take me to acquire a nyckelharpa?

What I’ve Been Up To

Baking, apparently.


Apple crisp


Oatmeal chocolate chip cookies (next batch needs more oatmeal)

Also, I turned in my master’s thesis a week and a half ago! I’ll probably make a few tweaks, and I may or may not be adding in one more statistical analysis, but… it’s more or less done. Which means I can rededicate myself to the revision of Book 2! I’d abandoned it for a bit, but now I’m back into it and wishing I could spend every minute on it. (Alas, I can’t quite. I still have an experiment to propose on perceptual compensation for intrinsic pitch in English and Yoruba vowels…)