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Toyomi Igus: Multicultural Messages for Readers of All Ages

Toyomi Igus: Author and Editor

from “To the Young Writer,” Hank Nuwer

When Toyomi Gibson was fifteen, her dream was to create a magazine that talked to her, a biracial American girl of color.

“The magazine wasn’t there when I was fifteen,” said the writer, now known professionally as a writer and healthcare professional as Toyomi Igus. “There are some magazines like that

now, and I’m glad for that. But that was my motivation at the time—to express the ideas of  people like me.

“It still is. If I really want to communicate about something, I reach

out in my writings and hope readers listen to me.”

Igus is not only talented, but humble and self-effacing. Not only is she the author of children’s books on multicultural themes that  won a prestigious American Book Award, the Multicultural Children’s Publication Award, the

Jane Addams Picture Book Award, and Coretta Scott King book award, but she also has contributed to adult books that have been critically praised for their influence in presenting a balanced portrait of African-American peoples.

All that is important, of course, but her ability as a storyteller knows no

racial limitations. Igus has won national praise from critics as an elegant

prose stylist with an extraordinary sensibility for finding stories in her

own life that touch the souls of her readers.

[A Multicultural Heritage]

Although Igus has lived more than half her life in southern California,

she spent her early years in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, while her dad was the

only black man in his University of Iowa law school classes, before moving

with her family to western New York State. Perhaps because her mother was

Japanese and her father African-American, she never identified strongly with either cultural or racial group.

“I never quite felt of this earth,” said Igus, now herself a single mother

of two.  “I never felt particularly tied to any community-ever, to this

day. I never felt totally a part of any particular community—rather, more a part of a larger community—one that includes everyone.

“It’s not a bad thing, but I don’t know if it is usual. Other

people seem to find their identity by seeing oneself reflected in others

around others.  I never did.”

[A Soul for Justice]

Introspective and sensitive, Igus observed everything about her and

developed a writer’s eyes for details. Her parents protected their

daughter, and she was more a conformist than a rebel growing up, although

she had a strong social consciousness and kept up with the black struggle

for civil rights during the 1960s.

“Sure I could get angry with my parents, but I knew they wanted us

to be the best human beings we could be,” said Igus. “They were wonderful

people.  I was at an incredible advantage over other kids. My parents didn’t demean us,

didn’t beat us, didn’t abuse us.  Likewise, my kids are at an incredible

advantage over other kids who are subjected to hurt or abuse by a parent, or see their father drunk and hear their parents screaming.

“Young children under twelve or thirteen express sadness

and anger that later can become rage. You see young

women taking out their rage and hurting themselves in some way, or boys

getting into trouble and fights.”

Avoiding such trauma herself as a teen, what she did find was pleasure in

books and stories. She saw that books could amuse, change lives, educate

people, and touch the very core of reader lives.

“From the experiences with kids who are my readers, my own kids, and my own

experiences, I know how important books are,” said Igus. “My dad is an

attorney, writer and aspiring novelist. We always had a library full of

books. My childhood favorite was actor Danny Kaye’s collection of

children’s stories from around the world. That book was very special to me, because it was the first time I had ever read about other kids of color and kids of other cultures.

“Out of all my books that is the one I still have and treasure—that and a

collection of Japanese children’s stories that my mother had given me. That was the only book she could find in Buffalo, N.Y. about her culture. She found it in an Asian store. That second book has been reprinted, so I was able to buy it for my kids.  I have the original, torn-up version, and we have a couple of newer editions as well. These books are incredibly important things to me.

“My kids also have their own favorites. They both have their own libraries,

and they refuse to let me throw books out. I know how fantastic it is when

you can get a kid engaged in a story, and there is something in the story

they relate to. How powerful that is!”

[The Importance of Journals]

While growing up, journals were very important to

Igus, but they were a private place for her thoughts alone, and she showed her

entries to no one. In 1976, she wrote a piece about her mother who died, way too young, an event that? ravaged young Toyomi’s soul. Her mother had emigrated from

Japan to live with her husband, and though she was accepted by his family,

she lived in the United States in the post-World War Two period when

pejorative words for her people appeared in the press and on the lips of

strangers.

During the war itself, in a shameful display, many Japanese-Americans

unquestionably loyal to their adopted country were forced by the U.S.

government to leave their homes to dwell in forsaken internment camps.

“I know she was very lonely,” said Igus. “There weren’t a lot of Asians in

Cedar Rapids or in Buffalo—much less Japanese. She managed to find a few

friends of Japanese heritage in Buffalo. There was one Asian store that

she traveled miles to get to in order to find food and the books she wanted

to give her kids. It was important for her to share her culture with her

children, and despite the difficulties, she did it.”

The very personal essay Igus wrote about her mother was in her private

journal. For some reason, her need to know what others thought about her

work was so strong that she showed it in 1976 to a casual male friend, a

karate instructor, after her move to Los Angeles.

“I took the risk, I took the chance to let somebody read what I wrote,”

said Igus. “It was something that wasn’t written for a teacher. It was

something not written for a grade. I had to explore and test it out.”

To her amazement, the reader broke into tears as he finished the story. “This is wonderful. You are a wonderful writer,” he said, moved.

She looked at him, saw sincerity in his eyes. “That’s when I knew I could

be a writer.”

[A Long Apprenticeship]

Knowing you are a writer and getting publishers to believe it and pay you

are not one and the same. Luckily, she had editing skills as well, and

managed to scrape by during the late 1970s and 1980s. Wed for many years to

actor Darrow Igus before the marriage winked out, she worked with him on

plays that showcased his talents as a mime, comic, and serious performer.

Their best-known collaboration was titled “Zeke! From ‘Birth of a Nation’

to ‘Jungle Fever’: A History of Blacks in the Movies as Told by Zeke

Wallace.”

The husband-wife team created wonderful theater experiences that were

expressions of her and of him. “It was important that I took the time to do it,” she recalled.  Zeke Wallace’s character was a janitor and sometime actor who gives a young

boy a lesson in black history and entertainment that was moving and comic by turns. The Iguses’ play told a story of black life in the movies against a backdrop of the black struggle for equality. Darrow Igus, a master impersonator, brought such unlikely characters to life on the stage as dancer Fred Astaire, the Rev. Martin Luther King, and actor Jim Brown.

[Recognition at Last]

By the late 1980s, Igus worked as an editor and later publications

manager of the Center for Afro-American Studies at the University of California, Los

Angeles. Much of her work involved the editing of scholarly manuscripts,

but she managed to make some key publisher contacts that gave her the

opportunity to write multicultural books for children and young adults.

In nonfiction, she was one of the co-authors of “Great Women in the

Struggle,” a volume in the “Book of Black Heroes” series for young readers.

In addition to the stories of magnificent African-American women of the

past, such as anti-slavery speaker Sojourner Truth, Underground Railroad

freedom fighter Harriet Tubman, and civil rights activist Rosa Parks, the

book contained entries on notable contemporary women such as novelist Toni

Morrison, performing artist Ella Fitzgerald, and entrepreneur and media

giant Oprah Winfrey.

In the area of children’s literature, Igus reached into her own life to

write books with black characters that children of any race loved and

embraced. “When I Was Little” was on the surface a simple tale of a

grandfather and young grandson celebrating the youngster’s first catch of a

fish, but on a deeper level it was an affirmation in the power of one black

family to pass on oral tradition as their ancestors had done—even in times

of slavery.

“The Two Mrs.Gibsons” was Igus’s autobiographical paen to

family life and a tribute in story form to her Japanese mother and black

grandmother, her father’s mom.

“I think the differences between cultures is very interesting. When I write

I always look for the common similarity, and it’s true, I always do find it.

Behind any ritual or tradition, there is always some human motivation or

emotion that other human beings, regardless of race or culture, can relate

  1. I like to point that out to people.

“People can get very hung up on the superficial differences in race and

class and gender, whether it is skin color, or type of music you like,

male-female differences, or the way you dress.

“But there is always a thread that holds us all together. If  I can point

that out every opportunity I get, that’s what I am here for.”

[“Life in a Day of Black L.A.”]

In 1992 Igus gained print and TV exposure after she wrote the text for

“Life in a Day of Black L.A.,” and served as its co-editor and co-curator. Some of the

finest African-American photographers in Los Angeles descended on the city

with their lenses on every imaginable aspect of life as lived by local black Americans in such areas as sport, music, religion, politics, activism and the arts.

“Life in a Day of  Black L.A” was put together by UCLA’s Center for

Afro-American Studies at a time when the black community of Los Angeles was

feeling particularly misunderstood,” said Igus. “For that matter, the city

of Los Angeles itself, I think, is not well understood by the rest of the

country, and it definitely has been stereotyped.

“A group of black photographers in L.A. had a message, and they just needed

someone to help get it across to people. Their message was in these

photographs, but they didn’t know how to package it and put it together.

My role was to help build an identity around the project and to convey a

message that people would want to hear, read in the book, or see in a

traveling exhibit.

The book depicted African-Americans at all class levels, including the

too-often overlooked middle- and upper-class blacks. The message of Igus

and the photographers was this, she said: “We are not at all different from

one another, but we keep focusing on the differences. It seems like such a

simple message to understand, but many people don’t get it, or at least

they don’t embrace it. That’s why I repeat the message over and over again.”

[“I See the Rhythm”]

In 1998, Igus again was involved in a distinguished collaboration, this

time with black painter Michele Wood, that celebrated African-American

accomplishments in music over the past five centuries. In it, readers learn

about such widely different black successes in African drums, jazz, blues,

soul music, rhythm and funk, rap and hip-hop.

Igus’s body of work in about a ten-year span brought her great

satisfaction and a number of prestigious awards, but she did not make enough money to be the main support of her family following her divorce. Consequently, she became one of thousands of writers who work in corporate, editing, and even menial jobs, while working on her true calling in the dead of night and other odd hours.

“I don’t think we in America as a culture tend to value those who work in

the fine arts such as writing, painting, or music,” said Igus, now a corporate

communications executive by day and mother and writer all other times. “We

as a country use a lot of entertainment and creative talent and build whole

industries around it, but I don’t know that we’ve done enough to try to

nurture it in our young people so that creativity can flourish.”

Igus stressed that all writing, editing, marketing and public-relations

writing has putting out a message as its common intent. “Effective communication is always my goal,” said Igus. “I stay disciplined to contain my message within the limits of the assignment.

“If I can find the common denominator between my targeted reader and me, I

know people will listen to what I have to say, whether they agree with it

or not. I don’t do anything different with my children’s books except that

it is generally on a more spiritual level than anything else I write. I

always try to find the place where people can connect.

“When I write, I don’t think about gender.  I don’t think about race.

Even though I may be writing about race and culture, I want to

find a way to express that so any reader, regardless of heritage or race,

will receive the message.

“I like to use what skills I have to promote causes and to bring awareness

to various subjects. I try to bring awareness, not only to kids, but also

to parents and teachers about how kids might see the world in different

ways that they can then express themselves.”

[Igus in the Classroom]

Igus has seen first-hand how students respond to her work. Her publisher

has involved her in classroom and Internet experiences with her readers. “I

tell the students, `Just keep writing, just keep expressing yourself. Start

with the words, not the structure. Don’t worry about writing a story that

meets all the normal criteria.'”

“Writing tends to be such a personal thing. I see kids who get turned off

by it, because some teachers above all want to correct the grammar and

spelling. What I tell my own children is to write and feel comfortable

putting down their feelings and thoughts on paper. `Once you’re

comfortable,’ I say, ` now take it to another level.’ Or I may say, `You

have a great character, and I want to know more.  Build a story about him.’

“Any child who tries to express himself in any way should be respected for

that.  Any words they write or and creative things they do to try to share

themselves with the outside world should be encouraged. Kids in the teen

years have to be courageous.  It is difficult to open yourself up to people

and the outside world. Try to express yourself to them and know that what

you say is valuable. Maybe the person you’re talking to at the moment won’t

get it, but somebody else will.”

[A Draft in the Mind]

While creative writing during her corporate job is next to impossible, Igus does allow

ideas to germinate and grow there in her mind without putting any words on

paper.

“The job is why a lot of material sits in my head.” she said. “That is why

I work in my head all the time, because I don’t have the time to sit down

and put it all on paper. Ideas collect in my head all the day, and I force

myself and train myself to keep them there during the day until they are

ready to be released.

“I don’t put anything on paper until I’m ready to start writing,” continued

Igus. “The ideas are in my head, always working, always churning, even if

I’m doing other things. When I feel it’s ready, I sit down at the computer

and the words start coming.

“I can’t start writing and just hope something will happen right away. It

actually has to take shape first in my head. That usually means reading

about the subject I’ve chosen, talking with others, immersing myself in

it.”

“I do need more time to write, and it’s not easy. You have to carve out

time, I think.  It’s something even I must do more of. Some nights when I

come home, I don’t have anything left except time for my kids. You deal

with it year by year, even day by day. You try to give your family as much

security as possible, and it is a constant balancing act.

“I have made concessions because of my job. I may not have always gone

after the most high-stress, high-profile position, because that is not where I want

to be. I would take less money if I could trade that for more freedom to

spend time with my family and my writing.

[Future Projects]

Interviewed at a particularly busy time in her life, Igus said she hopes

to find blocks of time to write about the difficulties facing the Japanese

in World War Two. A Japanese couple she knows as neighbors spent the war in

internment camp, and she hopes to communicate their story. “It is amazing

to see them come back and live their lives after having lost everything,”

said Igus. “Instead of anger and rage, they’re a kind, gentle people.”

Having met a friend who works with HIV-positive young people and AIDS

patients, she has given that subject much thought, too. When she immerses

herself in such a project, she finds herself trying to act the part of

adult role model for young readers.

“Do I feel a responsibility to my readers—absolutely. I do feel the need to

continue writing for them and speaking to them.”

Yet even a writer who is secure in her areas of expertise may feel some

trepidation about boldly writing where she’s never gone before.

“My personal experience is this: I write daily, I write for a living, I’ve

practiced my craft for a long time. But I still have creative fantasies of

going into adult creative short story writing one day,” said Igus. “I’m

insecure about that because it’s something I’m not trained to do.”

But given her amazing output the last ten years, even as she raised two

children and worked a day job, few would bet against Toyomi Igus. One

day she knows she will pen a literary work that will continue her mission to end

misunderstandings between the races.

Like all great writers she is driven to tell the stories in her head. And, to paraphrase the poet Robert Frost, she has many to tell before she sleeps, many to tell before she sleeps.

 

By Hank Nuwer

Hank Nuwer is the Indiana-based author of Broken Pledges: The Deadly Rite of Hazing, High School Hazing, Wrongs of Passage and The Hazing Reader. He has written articles or columns on hazing for the Sunday Times of India, Toronto Globe & Mail, Harper's Magazine, Orlando Sentinel, The Chronicle of Higher Education and the New York Times Sunday Magazine. His new book is Hazing: Destroying Young Lives from Indiana University Press.

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