Elisa Gyotoku

Meet Elisa Gyotoku. Honolulu based writer, of whom just moved back to O‘ahu after 11 years in San Francisco, talks to us about her start into writing. We met at local brewery to discuss her feelings of growing up on O‘ahu, the challenges of her move, and her view on the islands now that she’s returned years later.

Words: Annie Nguyen | Photography: Annie Nguyen

SIL_Y: Tell us a bit about yourself. How did you get started with writing?

Elisa: My name is Elisa Gyotoku and I was born and raised in Honolulu, Hawai‘i. I love reading and music. Since moving back to Honolulu I love going to the beach, I find it incredibly relaxing. I've always been introverted and much better at expressing myself with the written language versus verbally so writing always came very naturally to me.

SIL_Y:You are originally from Hawai'i and moved to San Francisco for 11 years and are now back. Why did you leave Hawai'i?

Elisa: I left because I couldn’t see myself living here my whole life. Not that it’s a bad thing. I wanted to explore more, I wanted to have that experience. I wanted to live somewhere that wasn’t in my comfort zone. 

SIL_Y:Does the environment you're in have an impact on your creative process? What made you return to the islands? 

Elisa: I felt like San Francisco wasn't for me anymore. Like any high profile city, it has changed dramatically especially with the tech boom.

Environment absolutely impacts my creative process.  When I'm in San Francisco, I feel inspired by people. Most people are very open to talking about anything and come from different walks of life so it's interesting to see other people's perspectives.

When I'm in Hawai‘i, I notice I focus more on setting. Scenery, and people within scenery and how it encapsulates them.  Just looking from the outside in at Hawai'i’s creative scene. Everything all revolves around Hawai‘i as far as location and image. Breaking into the arts industry here can difficult because what I’m interested in in terms of writing and media is different than what's happening here creatively. I sometimes feel like I’m at an impasse.

SIL_Y: What are some of the challenges and difficulties, if any, that you faced during your move? And how is it now being back home after living away for 11 years?

Elisa: Moving to San Francisco was scary. I’d been to San Francisco a handful of times since my aunt lives there but the transition and the difference in people were huge hurdles for me. The racism was a shocking experience. It made me really grow. It helped me realize what it means to be a minority for the first time in my life.  This is what drew me to writing about media and race. In Honolulu, you’re either local or not. In San Francisco, it was always “What are you exactly?”  The emphasis was always on your background. It made me think of what I would identify with as a person of color. I had to go through the process of discovering where I would fit in. Or maybe, it was rather, where I wouldn’t fit in.

On moving back to Honolulu, there were so many challenges! Of course the packing, selling, etc. was extremely challenging but the most difficult part was just leaving 11 years of my life behind and the little community I built for myself.  Being back has been bittersweet.  There are things I absolutely miss about my life in the Bay Area but it's been amazing to reconnect with friends and family and experience what Honolulu is like as an adult. 

SIL_Y: Did you always know you would pursue writing?

Elisa: As I mentioned, I was always better at expressing myself with the written language rather than verbally. When I was in community college, a few English professors of mine suggested I pursue English; so I did and it was magical.

“In Honolulu, you’re either local or not. In San Francisco, it was always ‘What are you exactly?’  The emphasis was always on your background. It made me think of what I would identify with as a person of color. I had to go through the process of discovering where I would fit in. Or maybe, it was rather, where I wouldn’t fit in.”

SIL_Y: Would you say that writing has shaped the way in which you approach a project, your career and outlook on life?
Elisa: Since I've gotten into the habit of writing things down a lot and taking a lot of time to think about ideas, this has definitely overflowed into how I make decisions in other areas of life. I find myself making lists for certain things and weighing different options constantly which is what I do all the time when deciding what to write about.

With regards to writing now that I’m home...I’m finding it difficult. Race and media are just not hot button topics in Hawai'i. In San Francisco, it’s heavily talked about. But here, not so much. I find that when I want to run ideas by for a new piece, I often will reach out to friends on the mainland to discuss. For example, I had an idea for an article about the one Asian dude in Get Out. Like here, I couldn’t just write a piece on that one Asian guy and submit it to any publication here, you know?

SIL_Y: Can you tell me more about what you write about? What inspired you to go in that direction?
Elisa: I started off writing event blurbs and art editorials but now days I find myself doing more social media content.  After college, I interned at an Asian American media company and it completely changed my writing content.  I've always been fascinated by race issues and representation and interning there really helped shape my values and my identity because I was surrounded by a community who shared the same ideas and passion.

SIL_Y: What are some of the influences in your work?
Elisa: For me, writing is a very intimate thing. I enjoy works where the writer makes their feel as if they are speaking to you in person, in their normal voice. Writers like Zora Neale Hurston  and David Sedaris have mastered this style so I take some inspiration from them. 

SIL_Y: What is your creative process like?
Elisa: I don't really know if I have a strict creative process. I usually dwell on topics for a while because I like to form complete ideas before actually writing anything so I know where I'm going with a certain ideas. There's a lot of notebooks and different colored pens involved in my process.

SIL_Y: Do you have any advice for individuals who want to pursue a career in writing? Particularly, for those who live in Hawai‘i and are interested in starting their writing careers.
Elisa: The most important piece of advice I have ever gotten is to write what you know and what you are passionate about. Even if it doesn't seem like your writing will have an audience where you live, there will always be other people that you will connect with regardless of physical setting.

Find Elisa Gyotoku online at her website and Instagram.

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