Rafu Staff Report
Momoko Iko, a Nisei writer and a pioneer of Asian American literature, passed away on July 19 at her home in Los Angeles. She was 80.
“Momoko Iko is most known for her play ‘Gold Watch’ (1972), a work originally conceived as part of a novel about a character similar to Iko’s own father,” said Andrew Way Leong, assistant professor of English at UC Berkeley. “When ‘Gold Watch’ was excerpted in ‘Aiiieeeee!: An Anthology of Asian-American Writers’ (1974), it played a crucial role in defining the sensibilities of Asian American writing.
“Iko retained a strong sense of the integrity of her writing and of theater, refusing to engage in the forms of commercialization and self-promotion that characterized the work of many of her Asian American male contemporaries. Perhaps as a result, her many other plays, such as ‘When We Were Young,’ ‘Second City Flat,’ ‘Hollywood Mirrors,’ and ‘Flowers and Household Gods,’ are less well known, but no less vital.
“Through her participation in Pacific Asian American Women Writers West (PAAWWW), Iko was a valued peer and colleague for many other Asian American women writers.”
Poet Garrett Hongo described “Gold Watch,” a play that he once directed, as “a monumnetal work of early Asian American theater.” Noting that Iko is the latest member of PAAWWW to pass away, he said, “I’ve yet another reason to gaze up at the long river of stars. He mana’o he aloha…”
In a tribute to Iko posted on Facebook, actor Keone Young wrote, “Like all writers do when they work, she was alone. In Washington Heights at 80 years of age, her heart gave out. A woman who gave her heart to all of us in the Asian American diaspora.
“At the age of 2 she was interned in the American concentration camp at Heart Mountain, Wyo. … She was one of the first to write about the camp experience and how it affected the JA family and community.
“Her name translated is Peach Child. For us, sweetness and delicate. But for anyone who knows our culture, out of a peach came a legendary child named Momotaro who along with a monkey, dog and a pheasant, defeated all the demons in the world. Yes, her voice was sweet and delicate but it was a fearless thundering voice who gave us characters who were passionate, angry, defiant, yet who would give their all for their children in the new land called America.
“Her play ‘Gold Watch’ was eventually filmed for TV in the mid-’70s … Unlike the exotic Orientalism that pervades our mainstream culture of false gods and decadent sexuality, she wrote about real people. People with desire, passion, and hope … people who work to better ourselves and this country.
“She was a writer. She was my teacher. She was my friend.”
Poet Amy Uyematsu called Iko “a gifted playwright who inspired and encouraged so m any of us. Mo was one of my first writing teachers when I took her JACCC workshop in the early ’80s. Wishing you peace and light, Mo.”
Playwright Velina Hasu Houston posted a photo of PAAWWW members and wrote, “Here we are so many years ago, a band of women warrior writers. First Sue Kunitomi Embrey left us, then Wakako Yamauchi, and now dear Momoko Iko has crossed the bridge. We were so fortunate to have each other to inspire us.”
Mystery author Naomi Hirahara said, “Momoko Iko has meant so much to my creative life. It began when I met her through her work, ‘Gold Watch,’ when I was at Stanford as an undergraduate. I played the female lead, Kimiko, in our campus production and it was as if Mo’s heart inhabited in my body.
“A few years later, I got the opportunity to really know the person Mo after joining Pacific Asian American Women Writers West. She had an indomitable spirit, a searing mind and strong personality that didn’t put up with any foolishness. I’ll miss her face crinkling into that Mo smile of hers, the breaths of laughter revealing that separate from the seriousness of this world there was a place for fun.
“She encouraged me and my writing — not in a cloying way, but in a thoughtful, no-nonsense manner that moved me to keep going. Our literary grandmothers such as Hisaye Yamamoto and Wakako Yamauchi have passed on and now to lose one of my mentors and creative aunties is a terrible loss”.
Hirahara added, “In 2016. the New York Women in Film restored the PBS production of ‘Gold Watch.’ I hope that the restoration is made available on some platform so that all can see Mo’s heart and genius.”
A tribute from fellow PAAWWW member Miya Iwataki appears in the “Columnists” section.
Iko was born in 1940. Wapato, Wash. The family farmed in the Yakima Valley, growing watermelon, squash, tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers on Yakama Indian reservation land. Because Issei couldn’t own land, the Native Americans were the only ones that would lease the property to them.
Iko was the youngest of six children. She had two brothers, Tets and Kei, and three sisters, Yae, Mina and Sono. Sono passed away a year ago and Mina is the only surviving sibling.
Under Executive Order 9066 in 1942, the family was rounded up and sent to the Portland Assembly Center. After several months, they were relocated to the Heart Mountain concentration camp in the middle of Wyoming, where the lived until 1945. They were the last family to leave the camp because they didn’t know where to go.
Tets had relocated to Chicago. Kei had enlisted in the U.S. military. Yae left camp early to join a group being trained as nurses in Philadelphia. A Quaker family sponsored the rest of the family and they moved to a farm in New Jersey in July 1945. When Tets came to visit them, they returned to Chicago with him.
Iko grew up in Chicago on the south side and eventually moved to the north side. Her father would often take her to the Chicago Art Institute to see the great paintings in the collection. She was raised mostly by her dad and older sisters as her mom worked during the day.
After high school, Iko earned a BA in English from the University of Illinois, then taught high school English in Chicago. In the mid-1960s, she was admitted to the Iowa Writers Workshop, led by Nelson Algren and Kurt Vonnegut. But she left the program and moved to New Mexico and then Mexico.
In the early 1970s, Iko was a founding member of the Asian Liberation Organization in Chicago. At the same time she began writing plays, including “Gold Watch,” which was first produced by Inner City Cultural Center in Los Angeles and then produced for television by KCET in Los Angeles and aired nationally in 1976. The cast included Mako, Shizuko Hoshi, Jesse Dizon, Richard Narita, Robert Ito, Nobu McCarthy and JoAnne Lee. “Flowers and Household Gods” was staged in New York in 1981.
Iko moved to Los Angeles and was a founding member of PAAWWW, with whom she did readings at community events, including a Hiroshima-Nagasaki commemoration held in Little Tokyo by Asian Americans for Nuclear Disarmament. “And There Are Stories, There Are Stories,” a prose poem memoir in which she traced her family’s journey and her own, appeared in Greenfield Review and The Rafu Shimpo. She worked as a corporate writer at McKinsey & Company, a management consulting firm.
Her other plays included “Boutique Living and Disposable Icons” (1987-88).
“Gold Watch” is included in “Unbroken Thread: An Anthology of Plays by Asian American Women” (University of Massachusetts Press, 1993), edited by Roberta Uno.
Iko’s niece Jana Yuen provided the following remembrance of her aunt:
Auntie Mo. Auntie Momo. Mo.
A free spirit compared to our parents, her brothers and sisters. Loud. Unapologetic. Incredibly compassionate.
She has 20 nieces and nephews (Sansei), 29 great nieces and nephews (Yonsei) and 2 very young great-great nephew and niece (Gosei). Those who knew her best were her Sansei nieces and nephews.
The Chicago nieces and nephews grew up with her nearby. She saw them when they were babies, grade-schoolers and teens. She wasn’t the kind of cuddly aunt that praised you on your cute hair or shoes. She wasn’t that kind of aunt. But she was the “fun” aunt because she let you do things that the parentals probably would not have allowed. Like sneaking onto the private beaches north of Chicago that were only for residents of that community. Or scrambling around on the massive boulders along the lakeshore.
She made them cream puffs and let them help. And they thought she didn’t know how to cook. And because she was an artist, a writer, she took them to shows and plays when they were older and because she was not their parent, they engaged in more intellectual conversations.
The Washington nieces and nephews got to know her from her many visits to the two farms. She was startling to me when I met her as an 8-year-old. She swore all the time in everyday conversation and she talked the same to us as she did to anyone else whether we understood what she was saying or not. She was loud and she didn’t back down.
But she asked curious questions and was genuinely interested in you when she talked to you. The questions. So many questions all the time. I learned from her that it never hurts to ask; the worst anyone can say is “no.”
Drama seemed to follow her or she made the drama; I’m not quite sure. A car stuck in the field. A kitchen fire. Some broken ribs for my mom, her sister. Oh and let’s not forget the hysteria when her dogs fell into the concrete spillway, a 6-foot-deep and 9-foot-wide vertical-walled canal. They survived.
She enjoyed the calm and the serenity of the farm and took long walks. She loved the fresh, ripe flavors when she ate produce right out of the fields and would say so with almost orgasmic moans when she ate. “OHHH, that is so gooood.” Surprisingly, she wasn’t afraid to get dirty or to sweat in the fields. As cool and smooth and “hollywood” as she seemed when she came to the farm, she always left with a little more patience and softness and appreciation.
After she moved to L.A. from Chicago, the California nieces and nephews got to enjoy her cooking and baking around the holidays. They, too, learned her curious ways and questions; questions that if you were having a bad day felt rather demanding. She just always knew what she wanted; you could always say “no.” She wouldn’t care.
She found her soul mate, James “Jimmy” McCloden, while living in L.A. and despite a long stand against the institution of marriage, they eventually tied the knot and continued to live happily, taking care of each other as they each began to feel the pains of getting old. Jimmy passed away in 2003 and for as long as she had a landline, she kept his booming voice on the answering machine recording. Those kind of things mattered to her.
She was feisty and she wished she could’ve joined in on the #BLM marches. She was never afraid to stand up for others.
Luckily, we all got to know her as adults and we became more endeared because we grew up or because she actually became more endearing.
She always signed off cards, letters and emails with “Love and Later.”
Love and later, Auntie Mo, love and later.