Life story

Nobuko Miyamoto’s memoir, Not Yo’ Butterfly, tells the life story of a visionary leader in building multicultural connections through art and activism

Reading the enlightening and inspiring memoirs of artist and activist Nobuko Miyamoto, Not Yo’ Butterfly: My Long Song of Moving, Race and Love and Revolution, feels like being regaled by a beloved relative sharing her wisdom through stories from her life. A pioneer of Asian American arts and advocacy, Miyamoto is a border-breaker and bridge-builder whose remarkable family, cultural, and political journeys offer valuable lessons in transformation, courage, and integrity.

Regardless of whether or not readers are familiar with the genesis of the Asian American equity movement, which began in the late 1960s, Not your butterfly is an incredible first-person account of how young people were at the forefront of developing Asian American identities and political power. The book also offers a rare look at the struggles of Asian American performers during the years when it was a novelty to see Asians in theatre, film or television productions.

Organized into three “movements,” like a piece of music (but also a sly allusion to the political movements in which Miyamoto was a cultural vanguard), Not your butterfly covers three major periods in the life of the artist/activist of more than 80 years. The first “movement” focuses on Miyamoto’s childhood, youth, and early career as a professional dancer and singer. Los Angeles-born Nobuko JoAnne Miyamoto claims a lineage of rebellious women. His paternal grandmother, a white Mormon, married a Japanese immigrant. On the other side of her family, Miyamoto’s mother chafed at her Issei parents’ expectation that she would confine her adult identity to his wife and mother. Instead, she studied art and married a mixed-race man.

When Miyamoto was two years old, she and her family were incarcerated at the Santa Anita Racetrack along with other Japanese Americans from Southern California. But their stay at the camp was brief. Miyamoto’s father volunteered to pick sugar beets in Montana, taking his wife and child with him. Miyamoto’s family was nomadic for several years, moving from Montana to Idaho and then Utah before returning after the war to Los Angeles, where the family lived in four different homes before settling in the neighborhood of Mid-City, a neighborhood where Japanese American and black families live. lived side by side.

Encouraged by a Utah Symphony Orchestra concert she attended as a child, Miyamoto inherited her father’s love for music. Young JoAnne danced to her father’s classic records and her mother enrolled the five-year-old in dance school. Miyamoto recalls, “When I was dancing with the music, I didn’t feel like a lost, lonely, rootless wanderer. Dance gave me a sense of belonging, a way of being in the world. . . . Dance was my first language, my first voice.

In Los Angeles, Miyamoto studied dance seriously, attending dance classes every day after school. One of his teachers, a respected choreographer who created the ballet Billy the kid, bluntly told her 14-year-old student that she would have to be twice as good as other dancers if she hoped to make a living. Miyamoto understood that he said this because she was Asian and there were few opportunities for people of color in professional dance companies.

Nonetheless, Miyamoto became a professional dancer while still attending high school. She appeared in the film versions of The king and me and West Side Storystaging of Kismet and Flower Drum Song, and in television and Las Vegas shows. She experienced sexism and racism inside and outside the performing arts world, but had no conceptual framework or language to express her feelings. “I was part of the confused generation that looked Asian but felt American. I felt trapped by this dichotomy and the limits it imposed,” she explains. The dawn of her political consciousness began when she appeared on Broadway in the original production of Song of the flower drum. She realized that the musical sounded like chop suey (the title of one of the show’s songs): an American invention, not something authentically Asian, intended for consumption by white American audiences.

The book’s second “movement” focuses on Miyamoto’s political awakening and the development of his social justice activism. The catalyst was his relationship in 1968 with an Italian filmmaker who was producing a documentary about the Black Panthers. Interacting with members of the revolutionary group, Miyamoto understood that they were working towards larger social and political goals. Accompanying her boyfriend to New York to continue working on the film, she met Yuri Kochiyama, a Nisei activist who was steeped in revolutionary political organizations in his Harlem neighborhood and beyond. Through Kochiyama, Miyamoto met Asian Americans like no other she had known before: They were politically radical and accepted her for who she was. In their company, she did not feel like a minority. For the first time, she knew she didn’t need to be twice as good to prove she was worth it.

Miyamoto conveys the breathless excitement of his developing political consciousness, which allowed him to understand how his individual experiences of racism and sexism fit into larger systems of oppression. She captures the thrill of meeting like-minded people, especially young activists, involved in movements to end the Vietnam War and to fight racism in the United States. She shares the excitement of meeting young Sansei activist Chris Iijima, and channeling their talents as singers and songwriters into becoming bards of a social movement. The duo, who eventually teamed up with guitarist Charlie Chin, performed primarily at Asian American universities, churches and temples, and community gatherings, connecting with young people across the country in a common identity as than Asian Americans. Thanks to the advocacy of Yoko Ono and John Lennon, Miyamoto and Iijima performed on The Mike Douglas Showa popular daytime television show in the late 1960s and early 1970s, troubling the program’s producers that the couple’s groundbreaking song about Asian American identity would upset white suburban housewives.

Much of the book’s second movement centers on Miyamoto’s activism in early 1970s New York City, including protesting the displacement of low-income Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and blacks from gentrifying neighborhoods, and taking over abandoned buildings, turning one into an Asian American. drop-in center and another in a multicultural cafe and community gathering space.

In New York, Kochiyama introduced Miyamoto to Attallah Ayubbi, a black Muslim activist with whom she had a son, Kamau. Ayubbi encouraged Miyamoto to use his Japanese first name, Nobuko, instead of his English middle name. Ayubbi was murdered 10 weeks after Kamau was born. As the parent of a black-Japanese son at a time when mixed-race children were rare, Miyamoto had to contend with anti-black sentiment among Japanese Americans, including his mother.

After living in New York for several years, Miyamoto returned to Los Angeles with young Kamau. The book’s third movement largely focuses on Miyamoto’s growing cultural activism. Initially teaching community dance classes at the Senshin Buddhist Temple upon his return to Southern California, Miyamoto has expanded his work by integrating the arts and activism through collaborations with Asian American musicians, dancers, writers and actors to create shows that captured the realities of Asian American life. . A grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1978 enabled Miyamoto and his artistic partners to form Great Leap, a nonprofit arts organization through which Miyamoto developed and produced cultural performances for over 40 years.

Miyamoto has partnered with other artists of color on various projects. In response to the 1992 uprising in Los Angeles following the acquittal of police officers who brutally attacked black motorist Rodney King, Miyamoto worked with black and Latino artists to create a play that shared the stories of people of color. Great Leap toured the show to schools and universities nationwide. More recently, she co-created with Latinx musicians a multicultural participatory event, FandagObon, which mixes Mexican and Japanese musical and dance traditions.

Miyamoto’s conversational voice makes Not your butterfly a pleasure to read. The compelling stories she shares are invaluable, documenting over 50 years of progressive Asian activism and cultural production.

About two-thirds into his book, Miyamoto explains, “I was a person who always seemed to break away from normal. Sometimes you have to disrupt normalcy to create the world you want to live in. “Whether we have seen Miyamoto perform before or not, we have benefited from her disruptive work, as she has been a visionary leader in building multicultural bonds through art. Not your butterfly she shows us why and how she did it.

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