Latter-day Saint scholar Melissa Inouye reflects on her many crossings [MIPodcast #111)
This episode features Melissa Inouye, a self-proclaimed “bald Asian American Latter-day Saint woman scholar,” talking all about her “ventures through life, death, cancer and motherhood (not necessarily in that order)”—which happens to be the subtitle of her latest book, Crossings. It’s part of the Maxwell Institute’s Living Faith book series.
Melissa Wei-Tsing Inouye received her Ph.D. in East Asian Languages and Civilizations from Harvard University in 2011 and served as a Senior Lecturer in Chinese Studies at the University of Auckland. She previously served as an associate editor of the Mormon Studies Review and now works for the Church History Department with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She is author of two books: China and the True Jesus: Charisma and Organization in a Chinese Christian Church (Oxford University Press) and the imposibly-titled Crossings: A Bald Asian American Latter-day Saint Woman Scholar’s Ventures through Life, Death, Cancer & Motherhood (Not Necessarily in that Order).
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges.
In this episode we’re joined by a “Bald Asian American Latter-day Saint Woman Scholar,” to hear all about her “Ventures through Life, Death, Cancer & Motherhood (Not Necessarily in that Order).” That description is actually taken directly from the subtitle of Melissa Inouye’s book, Crossings. It’s part of the Maxwell Institute’s Living Faith book series.
Dr. Inouye joined me to talk about the book months back when it was first released. We talk about her cancer in this episode and since this episode has been recorded, she has some health updates. So, stick around after the interview and I’ll give you the latest.
Questions and comments about this and other episodes of the Maxwell Institute Podcast can be sent to me at email@example.com.
BLAIR HODGES: Melissa Inouye, thank you for joining us on the Maxwell Institute Podcast.
MELISSA INOUYE: Thank you so much for having me!
HODGES: We’re talking about the book you published here with the Maxwell Institute’s Living Faith series. It’s called Crossings—and it has a really long, really cool subtitle, which is “A Bald Asian American Latter-day Saint Woman Scholar’s Ventures through Life, Death, Cancer & Motherhood (Not Necessarily in that Order). How did this book come about?
INOUYE: It was kind of born in a panic when I was diagnosed with cancer in 2017, for the first time, and I thought, “Oh my gosh, what if my kids never get to hear me talk about grown up things?” They’re little. They’re currently 13, 11, 9, and 7 thereabouts, but before—
HODGES: You don’t have deep existential conversations with them each night? [laughs]
INOUYE: No. And this was even two years ago, so they were even younger then. I just thought, “I need to write this stuff down.” And also, in our family we’re famously forgetful. So, I thought if I just make a binder, like four versions of a binder, they’re gonna lose it. So, I need to make a lot of versions of this, so like, let’s make a book! That’s a lot of versions.
HODGES: In the introduction you use a cool metaphor. You say it’s sort of a form of “literary food storage.”
HODGES: Sort of bringing in this Latter-day Saint idea of packaging something away for a future time of need.
INOUYE: Mmm. We’re very prepared people, right? Latter-day Saints like to be prepared. So, this was kind of like my prepper mentality.
HODGES: You’re prepping ideas and feelings and experiences instead of ammunition and fruit preserves.
INOUYE: And actually, it’s kind of useful not just for my kids, but sometimes for me. I think—I’m actually currently in the middle of a cancer thing again, and it’s nice to have thought about the meaning of all this before. So I’m kind of looking at it being like, “Oh, that’s right. I did say that.”
HODGES: Yes, we wondered how much—because you did just find out, just this past week, that the cancer has returned and that’s another battle you’ll be facing. I’m really sorry to hear that. Let’s talk about that a little bit later on.
When people pick up the book, the subtitle suggests they shouldn’t expect a neat, clear narrative arc. I mean, the subtitle ends with “(Not Necessarily in that Order).” Talk about the shape of the book.
INOUYE: That’s right. Well, it’s kind of random. And again, that’s born from the circumstances that brought the book out, which is, “Oh my gosh, what can I get together to show my kids about what I think, what I believe, and who I am?” So, all of those things kind of came together.
I have always written my kids letters, often when I’m traveling. I’ll be on a train somewhere and I’ll write someone a letter and then I just save them when I come home in a filing cabinet. But again, we’re just super forgetful, we just lose everything. So, I took many of those letters and put them into the book.
I also took essays I’d written and put those in. I took lectures from my university classes and put those in. It’s kind of random. But I feel like what holds it together is what I think is important and what I’ve learned from my various experiences wearing different hats. I hope the randomness of that, the diversity of those experiences, speaks holistically.
HODGES: One of the things I like about the book’s physical design—and shout-out to Heather Ward who designed the cover—is that it kind of evokes a patchwork quilt kind of a thing. There are these geometric shapes, different shades of colors, and it fits together really well. I think that really speaks to what the book is like. It’s like a patchwork quilt. You’ve got all these pieces that come from various situations and they’re all put together in a way that makes a new thing, this new blanket of thoughts and experiences people can put on.
INOUYE: Oh, I like that! I never thought about that. But that’s definitely what it looks like.
HODGES: Do you think there’s a message about the structure of the book itself then that people can take away from this? Because again, it’s not a neat narrative arc that begins when you’re a child and takes you through maturity, going on a mission and getting married. There’s a narrative arc to your life that you could’ve put together in order. I mean, there’s a little bit of chronological order here, but the pieces themselves weren’t constructed to be together originally.
INOUYE: Right. I mean I think this is one of the major points I hope the book will make, which is that life is so messy. Learning is so piecemeal. Health and sickness are all mixed up together. Joy and sorrow are mixed up together. Everything is mixed up together and we just have to accept that that’s how life comes to us.
HODGES: I think it’s reflective of a lot of people’s experience of how faith works too, because there are pieces in the book that are pretty straightforward about particular beliefs. You’ll have a piece that has this pretty clear moral to it. People will read it and it’s like, “Here’s kind of the takeaway.” Then there are other pieces that are more exploratory. There’s not a clear message, but instead this feeling comes through in your writing. I think we get to see you in different registers of your own faith experience, where sometimes in your life you might feel more certain about particular things, and other times you’re exploring.
INOUYE: Yes, I think Latter-day Saints are pretty aware that we’re not very “creedal.” We don’t have very strong sociomatic theologies, even when we have kind of written rules like the Articles of Faith or the Ten Commandments or whatever. We also have this understanding that sometimes rules are in conflict with each other.
There’s a tension between things and sometimes I feel like the best way to understand is not to dissect the rules or try to draw straight lines form everything, but to see bigger pictures. And so often for us, for Latter-day Saints, the bigger pictures come just from how we live our lives and how we encounter the experiences of mortality.
HODGES: Yeah. And you see that as well in the things you included from your work as a professor too, as a lecturer. Those pieces are a bit more straightforward. For instance, you spent a semester with some students and there are these particular lessons you wanted to point out from this. So those pieces are kind of more direct.
Then you have other pieces where they’re almost internal monologues. You’re exploring ideas to yourself. It’s interesting to see you work through these different registers depending on who you’re talking to, and then to see them all in the book together—it makes for a unique reading experience.
INOUYE: Right. Well, I mean some questions have no answers. You know, there’s a letter that I write to my kids from the middle of dissertation research. And right in the middle of that trip, right in the middle of writing the letter, I find out that one of my good friends, also a Latter-day Saint, has just inexplicably passed away leaving four young kids all by themselves. I just—this is one of the age-old questions people ask like, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Why does God allow some interventions but not others? And I just don’t think we have answers to that.
HODGES: Yes, but you wanted your kids to know that you were thinking about it. That was something that you kind of think along with them. One of the risks, I think, of writing letters to future children is—For example, there was a man who passed away and he’d written a series of letters to be given to his daughter each year on her birthday. But he wrote them all at a particular time in his life. That was the problem of his approach was she would open it and a year had passed and she’d changed quite a bit, and he’s still talking to her as this same person.
I think one of the strengths of this book is that it contains a variety of experiences that aren’t quite as frozen in ember. Did you think about that at all as you were writing to future kids? Whether you were able to give them that letter yourself, or whether they would need to read it in a book. Did you think, “I’m not sure how they’re going to be at that point”? Did that cross your mind at all?
INOUYE: Yes, well and that’s why I included stuff I wrote basically as a college student or as a missionary. So the writings in the book have been put together over a long period of time. So, “Long Departures, Long Returns” was something that I wrote as a senior or something in college. So, that is closer in age, maybe, to a future slightly grown up kid.
HODGES: Yeah, let’s talk about that piece in particular. It’s called “Long Departures, Long Returns.” It’s the first piece in the collection and it talks about how you went to China when you were nineteen years old. You were leaving home—in a big way—for the first time. So, it was a scary time, I think, for you and for your parents.
And I see in this essay a young woman who is struggling with the idea of freedom versus fidelity. Like, feeling drawn to your family, but also feeling like you need to jump out of the nest, so to speak. How do you think your family’s history and your own family’s culture impacted the decision you made to leave home?
HODGES: Was it hard for you, I guess? Was it an easy choice or difficult choice?
INOUYE: It was an easy choice to leave. My parents have always encouraged me to study and to learn things. So, going to China to study Chinese was pretty obvious. But I guess my struggle was realizing that I didn’t want to do everything I wanted to do because my parents didn’t want me to do some of it and I’d feel really bad if I did everything I wanted to do in a way that hurt my parents.
So, I found myself being a little more cautious than I would normally be, because I would realize that my parents were waiting for me to come back. But I’d be fine anyways, but you know it’s just—
HODGES: And they’re nervous too, because there are safety concerns. Just being so far away from someone can make a parent feel vulnerable.
INOUYE: Oh yeah, and in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language and where things happen sometimes!
HODGES: And you talk about how you could sort of “pass” in a crowd because you appear to fit right in—Chinese. But you don’t have that deep experience of a native citizen. You don’t know the language. You haven’t experienced the culture directly. So, you’re kind of incognito among a crowd that would never suspect it.
INOUYE: Yes, I’m kind of bitter about that actually. [laughs] So, my husband is this tall white guy and we were both missionaries in Taiwan. He speaks excellent Chinese, it’s way better than mine. However, he gets way more props for his good Chinese than I do because he’s tall and white and everyone’s just impressed when he says, “Hello. How are you?”
HODGES: Because, “he had to work for it, wow!” [laughs]
INOUYE: Right! I also had to learn Chinese from scratch! So, yeah.
HODGES: When you revisited that essay to prepare it for publication, did anything new stick out to you? It leads off the collection. You’re not going to start with a piece that you don’t think has much power to it, right?
INOUYE: I don’t think I changed it at all, actually. For me, it shows how I’ve always chosen to do things that have a lot of inherent intentions in them. I find that interesting. I found China extremely interesting as a university student and very attractive for all sorts of reasons.
I’m interested in problems, and problems are everywhere. China is not the only country where there are problems. America’s got problem. Every country has problems. But I guess I like that piece as the beginning because, in some ways, that was the beginning of my professional life. Language, as kind of opening the door to a new place. And I think also this problem of language—the different languages that we speak, be they actual linguistic languages or religious languages or languages of faith—all these different languages are so important in how we experience life and they really shape who we are. They shape our experiences, and when we don’t get them right, then there are these big interesting tensions as well.
So, I like that piece because it talks about language; it talks about the ambivalence; it talks about being a stranger, but also being at home at the same time.
HODGES: Yes, and this is one of the pieces like I mentioned earlier, that doesn’t end saying something like, “And thus we see that such and such is the case.” It doesn’t have an overt lesson at the end. It’s something people will sit with and have to think about—these ideas of language, translation, and also family and home and connection, and the crossings—which is the name of the book—you left home and crossed the sea.
INOUYE: Yes, the piece ends with this image of a father and daughter on a bike in the crowds outside this bus I’m riding. And that was so powerful for me. This feeling of a sort of universal connection amidst all this difference. And that has always stuck with me as well.
Even today, China as a geopolitical force is very controversial. Of course, people feel a lot of ambivalence toward China. I feel a lot of ambivalence toward the various political, legal, even cultural arrangements in China. But at the same time, I know there are people I love in China. I have friends. I know that we’re all children of God and I just hope we keep on developing relationships and figuring each other out as people and not demonizing each other.
HODGES: And those enormous feelings gets evoked by your simple description of a man and his daughter on a bike. You don’t have to draw it out more. It’s a really beautiful piece.
You also have some Japanese heritage as well. Has that informed your relationship to China? Because there has also been tensions between those two powers.
INOUYE: Right. Well originally when I went to China, I used my Japanese last name because it has Chinese characters in it, so I thought, I should be like 井上(jingshang), “on top of the well” is Inouye. But I learned about Chinese history and I switched my Chinese name to my mother’s side’s last name because that history is so fraught.
You know, my parents met at BYU and my mother is Chinese American. My dad’s Japanese American. At BYU, those kinds of national differences don’t matter so much because there’s this phenomenon which we call “pan-Asianism.” So, in certain cultural contexts, the national boundaries don’t matter. Like in America, no one can tell the difference—white people can’t tell the difference between Koreans or Japanese or Chinese. Nobody cares. They just see person with black hair, and maybe when you’re in elementary school someone made “Ching-Chong” jokes about you. It doesn’t matter if you’re Japanese, Korean, or whatever. At BYU there’s this famous ward called the “Asian ward.” It’s like very famous. Very historic ward.
HODGES: The Asian ward?
INOUYE: The Asian ward. And Asians, it’s like an ethnicity segregated ward. And it’s still sort of enforced today. And that’s where my parents met. That’s where so many people I know met and they don’t really care about these national distinctions anymore, they are just are looking for someone who’s like them, who eats rice. That’s what I think. [laughs]
HODGES: So, you grew up in a home where you had a mother and father who demonstrated this pan-identity. Then later on you had to reckon with some of the differences between those cultures. Was that a surprise? What was that like?
INOUYE: When you actually go to China and actually go to Japan, you’re like, “Oh! The Chinese are Chinese, the Japanese are Japanese.” But at the same time, our family has preserved many of our ancestral traditions. In some ways, the Japanese side of the family argues that we’re more Japanese than the Japanese because our family’s Japanese is kind of frozen in the early twentieth century.
HODGES: When they first came over, they brought that and then—?
INOUYE: Yeah, so it’s before Pokémon and—
HODGES: Anime cartoons and stuff.
INOUYE: Yeah. So, it’s interesting.
HODGES: Let’s talk about another piece in the opening section. This has a more direct message than the previous piece. It’s called “Faith is Not a String of Christmas Lights,” which is a powerful metaphor here. Of course, most people don’t automatically think of comparing faith to Christmas lights to begin with.
INOUYE: Well I have many frustrations with Christmas lights, because I always remember how at Christmas time, we get ready, we get all the decorations out, and we put them on the tree. Big moment! You plug them in and then—nothing happens! It’s so anticlimactic! And I know that nowadays Christmas lights can avoid that, they’re better engineered. But this did happen to me. And I always remember that disappointment. And they’d say, “Oh, well a bulb is out.” And I was just so insulted that one bulb could mess up the whole strand.
So, the basic point of that essay is that in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, sometimes people will find out some things about church history that seem very ugly to them. That makes them very uncomfortable. And that kind of ruins their whole feeling that we could be on the right track. Because if we were so wrong in the past, if this big mistake was made, how can we possibly still be directed by God or led by prophets or susceptible to the Spirit?
Kind of like the book itself, I just don’t think those kinds of neat narratives—where one thing leads to another—are the way God works with people. We’re always making mistakes and we’re a living church. The church’s history itself isn’t made of events in which one leads to another in a perfect string made out of people’s experiences and their relationships and prayers and their faith and their big mistakes. So, all of those things are together. We’re a living organism.
HODGES: What’s an example of some “Christmas light thinking” that you’ve experienced in the church, perhaps that you’ve even held to in the past? I don’t know if you always felt this way or if this is something you came to as your faith adjusted and you aged.
INOUYE: Okay, right. So, there’s a negative version of the Christmas light thinking, which goes, “If Joseph Smith wasn’t completely forthright with his wife about polygamy, then he wasn’t a prophet, therefore the Book of Mormon is fake, therefore the whole church project is bogus.” It’s like a chain reaction, right? One broken thing leads to everything being bogus.
Now there’s another version of that, which is just like the reverse, where people might say, “The Book of Mormon is true therefore—I have this feeling the Book of Mormon is true— therefore, the church is true, therefore we cannot possibly make mistakes.”
And I think both of those versions of explaining the value of our religious project are flawed because if you knock out any one of those junctures, then the whole thing blows up. And I do think that in our church, we do make mistakes, because we’re people. I’m part of the church and by being part of the church, I have made it very flawed because I’m a very flawed person.
HODGES: Do you think your academic work about studying about other countries and your own—countries that you’re deeply connected to through heritage— do you think that’s affected your view of how the church works? In other words, if you see something troubling in Chinese history, that’s not the whole story for Chinese history.
INOUYE: Yes, I think when you study any history you see how people mess up spectacularly. And then I also study religious history in particular. And I have such admiration for so many religious traditions, for the good things I see. But when you see their histories, you also realize that they are also the product of both divine and human hands. People are involved at making religious history and people mess up. But people still find religion enormously valuable.
So, in the perspective of all the world’s religions, I think the Latter-day Saint tradition is as beautiful and as problematic as the other traditions I see. And of course, being a Latter-day Saint myself, I have a special fondness for our tradition, and I see the things that we do really well. As an insider, I feel very deeply the power of God here in our tradition. So, I just think that faith and truth are real, and things that are real are necessarily messy and often kind of contradictory.
HODGES: And when you take away that metaphor of the Christmas lights—I think it’s a pretty common way of thinking about faith in the church—what do you then replace it with? If people can’t rely on this line of facts, that if you agree to one, then the next one, then the next one, then the next one, then the next one, then what does faith become? What is it replaced with? What kind of view do people have instead of Christmas lights?
INOUYE: Well, so in the essay I use this metaphor, a counter-metaphor of sourdough bread, which is awesome bread created through a very complex and interesting process that is moved along by what we usually think of as things decaying or going bad or becoming rotten. Like, fermenting is stuff going off, right?
But that process of having this sourdough starter, and this culture of bacteria that you introduce into the flour unlocks the potential of those starch molecules and it creates really awesome bread. And I’m not a professional baker, but just as a kind of amateur bread baker, it’s so complex and the starter is so awesome and it’s alive, the bread is alive! There’s like these little colonies of microbes growing in the bread.
So, I just feel that when we think about our church and our religious tradition not as a mechanical thing, but as a living organism, then those kinds of contradictions—different strains of being who we are—make more sense.
HODGES: That’s Melissa Inouye. She’s a senior lecturer in Asian studies at the University of Auckland. She received her PhD in Chinese history from Harvard and her research focuses on the history of Chinese Christianity, modern ideology in Modern China, global charismatic religious movements, women and religion among other things.
In addition to her new book, Crossings, she also published a book called China and the True Jesus: Charisma and Organization in a Chinese Christian Church. That was published by Oxford University Press in January 2019. And in a future interview, we’ll talk to her about that book as well.
Melissa, I wanted to talk to you more about some of the book’s more personal writings. There are letters for your children for example, as you mentioned. There’s also a remarkable prayer that was composed by a group of women who are your close friends from California.
INOUYE: That is one of the best parts of the whole book. And I have to say that in the audiobook version, it’s even better, because the audiobook version has twelve different women’s voices and it is awesome. It’s really cool. And we recorded that in a studio, all at the same time, standing in a circle around the microphone. Many of the women who were involved are just like, “Wow that was so powerful.”
So, anyway I think that’s really cool. It’s kind of like an artifact of how awesome Mormon women are. And how rich their minds and spiritual experience can be, even when they’re jiggling babies at a playground.
So, in Los Angeles, in one of the wards I was in when I had pretty little babies, we had this kind of weekly park day, and we all just talked about things. And we started to discuss this article in the Journal of Mormon History which had recently come out by Jonathan Stapley and Kristine Wright, talking about Mormon women’s blessings for women who are about to give birth. And one in our group was, I think, eight months pregnant at the time. And she had read the article and she said, “That would be so amazing to get a blessing from sisters who had had a baby.” And so, I thought, “What’s a way in which we can express that amazingness while showing deference to the church’s current policy governing blessings?” And so, I said, “Let’s write a poem!”
So, for Mother’s Day, for the occasion of Mother’s Day, each person contributed one section of a poem, and then we put it all together and eventually, Segullah— how do you pronounce it?
HODGES: It’s something that I often read—
INOUYE: They used to have a pronunciation guide on their website, but I couldn’t find it again! Anyway, eventually this Mormon woman’s writing blog published it and it’s been there ever since, and I just think it’s so beautiful and powerful.
HODGES: It stands out in the book as something that was written by a group of people rather than just one person. And the decision to include that, was there any—
Women in the church don’t give these blessings anymore. How did you introduce that into a book that’s published by the Maxwell Institute, partnered with Deseret Book?
INOUYE: Well, it’s a poem! And it’s specifically structured that way to show deference to the church’s current policy. As literature, I think it’s so beautiful. And it’s a representation of the richness of Latter-day Saint women’s lives and our tradition of doing things together. We do cool stuff together.
HODGES: That’s part of what it—like, the communal element of being a Latter-day Saint.
With your research on China, obviously, communalism is also a really strong value in China as well. What are some comparisons you would draw there? Communalism is such an important value. There can be downsides to it; there can be benefits to it. Your work on China, has it shed any new light for you personally on how the church as a communal organization works for you and for your faith?
INOUYE: One thing I would say is that one of the major points of similarity between Chinese culture and Latter-day Saint culture is the strong emphasis on roles. Certain people have certain roles and responsibilities and those roles are hierarchically arranged. In many contexts, hierarchy is seen as a really bad thing because it gives some people power over other people, and because that power is not always benevolent.
However, both my family cultures—Japanese culture and Chinese culture—also have this sense of very well-defined family hierarchies and roles and responsibilities. And as I look back on my life and also the challenges that I currently face, those hierarchical differentials are also a source of great positive power for me. So, for example, facing cancer again, when my uncle tells me to do something, like, “You’ll be fine. Just accept the challenges as they come and overcome them one by one. Try to rise them the best you can.” That has so much power with me. And it gives me power. So, I think that the rugged individualist approach to having faith is not the only way there is.
HODGES: So, a person sort of striking out, building their faith, finding out who they are, and it’s all custom built for them individually?
INOUYE: Yeah, I mean, some people say—especially people who are really concerned with structural inequality or people who are concerned with gender inequality in particular will often say, “All I need is me and God.” And I do think that that relationship between me and God is at the core of my faith. But I also need other people. And I also feel that relationships have certain differentiated responsibilities.
So, for example, as a teacher, I feel my responsibility is different in my relationship to the students, and theirs is different in relation to me. So, I don’t know if this is a Confucian thing or a Latter-day Saint thing, but I do think hierarchy can be the source of human flourishing as well for various reasons—though often it’s unfortunately abused. But I do think there’s great potential there. And it has, in many ways, been a thing that I fought against in my life, but at other times, at certain times, it’s been something to which I cling because I need it.
HODGES: Would you say there have been times when there’s been difficulty too? What do you do in those moments, when there might be an abuse of an inequality of power? What kind of things have you done, or do you suggest that people do to deal with that?
INOUYE: I think we can try to say what’s true. So, if there are abuses of power, that they shouldn’t be there, and we can point to common beliefs and values that we have and show how those abuses of power are deeply harmful. How they actually harm the standing and the overall project of the people who are causing those abuses, or condoning them or overseeing a system in which they take place regularly.
I think one of the other good things about Chinese culture and the church is that they’re held together not by this idea of popular sovereignty. There are these other things that we believe hold the church together. Just as in traditional China, people felt that the Emperor himself had to have the mandate of Heaven. You know, I think there’s a lot of power in a kind of moral voice and appealing to the common values that we have. But we can’t just say, “There’s more of us than there are of you, so sit down and shut up,” or something like that. It just doesn’t work.
HODGES: That actually takes us to the next piece I wanted to talk about, which is called “What Anna Said.” Anna was a young girl who made some observations to you about her experience at church. And this is one of the longest pieces in the book—“What Anna Said.” So what did Anna say?
INOUYE: Anna is a pseudonym for a girl in my cousin’s ward. In Primary in the middle of a Sharing Time lesson on the priesthood, she raised her hand and she said, “But women don’t get the priesthood,” and something like, “and the men are in charge of the women.” And my cousin said, “What would you say in response? I didn’t know what to say to that.” So, that essay is kind of about working through what we tend to say and maybe why the things I’ve often heard said aren’t really sufficient nowadays for the Annas out there.
HODGES: What kind of things are those?
INOUYE: There’s the usual thing which kind of equates motherhood with priesthood and says, “Well, men have the priesthood, but women have motherhood.” But the big problem with that is that at the age of eleven, a boy can have the priesthood and can begin to sort of progress that way spiritually, but we do not want girls to become mothers at the age of eleven, that’s very bad. So, there’s got to be something else.
HODGES: And there’s also the fact that the parallel to motherhood would be fatherhood?
INOUYE: Yes, right. Exactly. You say women have motherhood and men have priesthood, but what about fatherhood? Doesn’t that kind of sell fatherhood short? I mean, that’s supposed to be really important and awesome, too. So, I just don’t think that works as kind of descriptions of men’s and women’s ultimate sacred purpose: Men do priesthood stuff; women do mother stuff. Because again, women don’t necessarily have control over whether they can bear children or raise children or find a spouse with whom to raise children and so on. So, I think we can figure something out that gives women and girls more sacred purposes at church.
And there are other things. Some people say, “Well, men have the priesthood but that’s because women are so spiritual they don’t need it.” Or, “Men have the priesthood, but behind the scenes women do all the work and are actually more powerful because of the work that they’ve put in.” And it’s definitely true that women are spiritual because we are spiritual beings and half of us are women and I do think that Latter-day Saint women work so hard within structures of power at church. And not all power structures at church are vertical, many of them are horizontal and women play an active role within those.
Nevertheless, that wasn’t the problem. The problem was Anna was noticing just from what she saw that men and women didn’t have the same visibility and the same kind of access to decision-making power at church. And since young people, including young women, are the investigators of the church—they’re the real investigators of the church—what they see matters. And if we want to show them the beauty and the power of the gospel, we have to realize that they see things we didn’t see when we were growing up. And that makes me feel really old. But I just didn’t see that when I was growing up! I was extremely involved in my ward. I was like the junior ward organist—
HODGES: This is in California?
INOUYE: Yes. And I just felt very involved. I just didn’t really care. But people nowadays, like young people—women and men—are trained to count. And they can look at something at a glance and kind of give it a gender reading. And they now associate things like sexism with very bad things.
So, I think there’s so much we can do to make it more obvious in our structures, our institutions, and our language that we value women. And to the extent that we have not done this, I guess it shows we weren’t paying attention to these things.
Now that we see them, we can definitely fix them because we definitely don’t want to give the appearance of disrespecting women. That’s just bad optics. And it’s just bad! We don’t want to disrespect people, and half of us are women! So, I think we can fix that.
HODGES: What are some suggestions you make in the book about how to begin doing that?
INOUYE: Well, in the first place we have this super awesome secret weapon doctrine of a Mother in Heaven that we have had for over a hundred years—since the beginning of our church, nearly. And we could start using that doctrine more! That’s really cool.
The other day I was at my home and some people from this local church came, and they’re kind of like Jehovah’s Witnesses, but not Jehovah’s Witnesses, they were like a local group. And they said, “Did you know that Elohim means ‘the Gods’ and that we have a Mother in Heaven?” And I was like, “Yes, yes I believe that!” And they’re like, “What?” [laughs] But I think it’s really cool. It’s something that we have. So why don’t we deploy this weapon more often?
I noticed that in President Russel M. Nelson’s conference talk last General Conference [April 2019] he used the term “Heavenly Parents.” He said, “The covenant path back to our Heavenly Parents.” So, if President Nelson can do it, we can! When possible, let’s say Heavenly Parents since we believe, in fact, that we do have a Father and a Mother in Heaven. And that’s a way to communicate to our girls that there is a path for them to become like God, not become a male deity, but to become glorified like Heavenly Mother.
HODGES: How about day-to-day church experience? You’ve mentioned an example of a doctrine people can think about. You book also talks about—
INOUYE: Well, it’s not just a doctrine. Like, in day-to-day church experience, we can just say the word “Heavenly Parents.” We can like talk to the young women and the young men about Heavenly Mother. Just stuff that is day-to-day!
HODGES: Oh, I don’t mean to downplay what it is! I guess the distinction I’m making is, that’s a powerful paradigm and idea that we have to discuss and to talk about. But it doesn’t necessarily change who unlocks the door to let people into the church or who conducts a meeting or something. You have some practical things as well that you talk about in the book.
INOUYE: Right. Well, there are so many things we can do. And people, like Neylan McBaine, have written more extensively about actual concrete things to do, like in her book, Women at Church.
But my basic point is that so many of the things we do or the way things are done are just habits, it’s just ruts that we’re in. And the time has come to find new ways to do things. I mean, if you look at church history, we have made some drastic, not just policy changes, but doctrinal changes and significant changes in administering things.
And I think President Nelson’s very dynamic changes—like, in changing the format of the meeting and changing how we do visiting with other people and all these kinds of changes signal that the policies or the habits that we are in are not sacred cows. It’s just ways of doing what we think is important. And I think we can change it. We don’t have to worry about it.
HODGES: That’s Melissa Inouye. She’s talking to us today about her new book, Crossings: A Bald Asian-American Latter-day Saint Woman Scholar’s Ventures through Life, Death, Cancer, and Motherhood (Not Necessarily in that Order).
INOUYE: That’s a really long title. [laughter]
HODGES: Yeah, it’s good!
So, you call some of your work in the book “fix-it work”—that’s a term you use. And fix-it work is kind of noticing something about how things operate and then working to see if change, whether that’s something that happens in your local congregation or whether that happens church-wide. You just mentioned a few that the First Presidency has instituted.
You know, this fix-it work doesn’t always sit well with people. If can be uncomfortable for Latter-day Saints to talk about things that aren’t quite working for them at church. I’m interested to hear you talk about your process of fix-it work and how you tend to talk about it in your own ward and dealing with some of the discomfort that comes along with talking about it.
INOUYE: So, the currency in a Latter-day Saint ward is trust, right? And so, it’s so important to develop relationships with people so they know you have their best interests at heart, that you love them, and that you want to work with them so we can all succeed together in coming closer to Christ. So, it’s really important to develop relationships in the first place. Relationships of trust.
HODGES: I remember that from my days in the Missionary Training Center, BRT, build relationships of trust, that’s the old missionary stuff.
INOUYE: Right. But I think when things are possible, things that are sensible, things that are good, it’s not too hard to see them. I mean, you have to know the audience. So, my ward in Auckland is very different from some of the other wards that I’d been in.
So, for example, when my husband was in graduate school at UCLA, we went to the UCLA student ward which is a very different demographic from where we are currently in West Auckland. It’s mostly Samoan, Tongan, Maori. And the range of people in different kinds of professions—there’s like two lawyers and a lot of teachers and then people who do kind of other jobs or working with their hands. So, I think it’s really important to be part of your ward and to realize that who you are is not all of who you are as useful to other people all the time. Does that make sense? So, people don’t want to hear long lectures on the history of religion or anything like that.
Just for example, in the Primary’s Children’s Songbook, there’s that song, “My Heavenly Father Loves Me” like, “Whenever I hear the song of a bird…” So, in that thing there’s something that says, “Walk by a lilac tree” and I don’t know really what a lilac tree looks like anyway. But being in New Zealand, the kids really didn’t know what a lilac tree looked like, so we were thinking, “What’s a really awesome tree?” So we thought of a Capri tree. Like, the New Zealand Capri. Everyone knows the Capri trees are huge, they’re really beautiful and they’re currently threatened. So, in our Primary we singe “Walk by a Capri tree” instead of “Walk by a lilac tree” and just little things like that.
There’s another song recently, it’s a maxim by Benjamin Franklin. It’s “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy and wealthy and wise.” Something like that. So, I just went to the song leader and said, “Can we change ‘man’ to like, person?” And in those days, like in Benjamin Franklin’s days, “man” is supposed to have meant everyone. But nowadays, when you say “man” like, people think man. Like the kids think of a man. So now we sing “Makes a person healthy, wealthy, and wise.”
Just reasonable things, right? That we can change so the kinds can understand what we’re actually trying to say.
HODGES: But it doesn’t always go smoothly I assume. What do you do when it doesn’t go smoothly?
INOUYE: When it doesn’t go smoothly you just graciously say “okay,” and you live to fight another day.
HODGES: Another one of the essays was written in the wake of a church policy that was established in 2015, restricting the baptism of children who have a gay parent who is married to a gay partner. What were you trying to do in that piece? Because it was written at the time that the policy was announced. And now the policy has been rescinded and the piece is here in the book.
INOUYE: I was trying to show, much like other essays in the book, to show the complexity of righteousness and integrity within the church. And I believe that there were people, when that policy came out, it was heartbreaking to so many people. But I wanted to recognize that the intention of the people who created the people was not to break hearts, either.
So, I work with this group called the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy, which is founded by Randall Paul. It’s a Utah-based organization. Their dialogue methodology and their kind of overall philosophy about religious disagreement is very sound. And the point is that when people are willing to challenge each other on very sensitive issues, it often comes from a place of deep integrity and love, because if you think that what someone is doing is actually deeply wrong, it’s a very loving thing to honestly tell them that you think it’s deeply wrong.
So, what I was trying to do in that piece is show how we were, as a people, struggling to work through this very complicated new issue. It wasn’t just a matter of some people being homophobes or some people being heretical and not having faith. It was so much more complicated.
And in that piece, I talk about this tension between charisma and institution building, which I also talk about in my academic book, and the point is that we need to have rules. This was a boundary keeping policy, right? You may not go this far. We need to have rules. Religions cannot not have rules. They don’t survive if they don’t have rules. But they also need to have charisma, which is that deep power, that deep joy we feel when we feel the spirit. And the balance between the two or the co-existence of the two is a real source of tension. But they’ve both got to be there.
And so, I was confident at that time that we would keep working through things and I think the cancellation of the policy shows that we are indeed still working through things. When that was announced, there was an acknowledgement that President Dallin H. Oaks said he hoped that this would be a positive thing that would help families and help Saints follow the Savior’s directive to love each other. So, I think that we’re working through those tensions as a church, which is good.
HODGES: That’s Melissa Inouye. She’s a senior lecturer in Asian studies at the University of Auckland. She received her PhD in Chinese history from Harvard University. She’s also a member, I should mention, of the advisory board here at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute at Brigham Young University. And a lot of her work for Latter-day Saints is focused on reinforcing the relationship between faith and learning as a positive thing.
She’s been published online in different places, also in print in Patheos, the Washington Post, Meridian Magazine, the Ensign and other publications. She and her husband Joseph have four—she calls her children “noisy and joyful—botanically nicknamed Bean, Sprout, Leaf, and Shoot.”
Melissa let’s talk a little bit about cancer. The book follows your progression in treatment of cancer. Again, it’s colon cancer in particular. And not too long before you were diagnosed, your mother died from cancer. So, you brought her experience to your experience of your own battle. What was it like writing about this for an audience, or even just for yourself?
INOUYE: It is kind of weird to publicly discuss your colon with people. At the same time, so many of us have had lives that are touched by cancer. So, it seems in some ways to be the most, to me, to be one of the most accessible parts of the book because we all know how that goes and how terrible it feels.
And also, what happens when you live far away from home is that you end up writing lots of personal things in emails. So, the things that are already written in the book about cancer are the emails, the actual emails, that I wrote to my family and friends overseas. So, they’re already publications in that sense because so much of the communication is just more efficiently distributed by the written word anyway.
HODGES: But I should say, they’re not just—when you say “they’re emails,” yeah, that’s true that you sent them by email. But these are very well thought out messages. These are kind of more like old school letters where you really spent some time on it. You say some big things, and it’s not just “Hey, what’s up? This is what’s going on…” And then like an auto signature. They’re emails, yes, but they’re more than that too. And they’re really personal too, dealing with your health.
INOUYE: Well, yes, I do love letters. I think letters are great. Again, this is just a function of living so far away. People never call me. Like, my family members never call me in New Zealand, except for when my father calls me in the middle of the night, like at 2am.
HODGES: Yeah, I was gonna say, is that a time zone things too maybe?
INOUYE: I think that is, kind of like people are afraid to call because of the time zone thing. So, a lot of that personal communication between me and my family happens in the written form anyway.
HODGES: And you kept them updated on the diagnosis, the treatment, and the book ends with a somewhat optimistic view—things are looking pretty good. But with these type of cancers, people aren’t ever really totally out of the woods. Your mother had a reoccurrence of cancer that ended up taking her life— she was treated for cancer, things looked to be heading in the right direction, then it came back and she died.
So, it struck me as I’m reading those pieces that there’s always that fear of that possibility, that it could come back, and you were reckoning with that in real time as the book was being created.
INOUYE: Yes, and there’s an actual piece called “On Fear,” and I think about fear a lot. I feel it a lot and I deal with it a lot. And I think the point is that it’s unrealistic to think that you cannot be fearful, that you cannot have fear in your life. But as I say in this essay on fear, since fear is inevitable, since we’ve got to have it, we might as well do something productive with it like write a book or learn how to train your mind in different ways or learn how to fix your mistakes.
HODGES: There’s a quote here that has stuck with me because I’ve felt this as a parent. When I wanted to be a parent, I never thought about fear. I didn’t think that being afraid was part of being a parent. I didn’t think it wasn’t, either. I just didn’t think of it—it just wasn’t on the list of things that I would’ve written on “How being a parent is.” I wouldn’t have put fear on there. But there’s this moment here you say, “To come to love another person is to feel fear on a whole new scale. The world becomes brighter and darker at the same time. The colors pop and zing, but the shadows are deeper.”
INOUYE: That’s why it’s so horrible to die! Dying is fine. But then if you leave your kids, that’s super horrible.
HODGES: Or, if something was to happen to a child, too. There’s this fear—like love and fear are a lot more connected to each other sometimes than I like to think, I guess.
INOUYE: Right, absolutely. One brings the other.
HODGES: And this particular letter, “On Fear”, was written to your children. Is that something that you see any of them being able to negotiate right now, or is that a letter for later?
HODGES: Because it’s a deep concept. Like I said, I don’t remember ever having a discussion as a child or adolescent or growing up that fear and love went hand in hand. Obviously, I experienced it. My father passed away from cancer when I was fifteen, but so I guess I’d never heard it articulated, even though I’d experienced it.
INOUYE: I think when my first baby was born, my husband’s parents sent him a note that said, “Now that you’ve had your own child, you know how we feel about you.” So, I think that is something that you really absorb when you’ve actually had your own child. It didn’t register for me until I did.
Or, I guess, it can also apply when you’ve fallen in love with someone. That person comes into your life in that really significant way, that’s also probably a time when fear comes in in that same way.
HODGES: Or the potential of a friend, like a dear friend—I have a dear friend who moved to a different state, and I was afraid, and I was sad, because it was a dear friend. So, I see this happening in a lot of different types of relationships.
The book ends, like I said, kind of at this place where we see you coming out of the treatments. Things are looking good but now things aren’t looking so good again. So, you’ve got a fight ahead of you again.
INOUYE: Yes, a big pain in the neck, but I’m definitely going to do it. So, we just have to do what’s in front of us. And in the scope of problems in the world, it’s a pretty small problem. I have a very easy life.
HODGES: And what have you got planned now? You’re going to be doing some events for the book. We have a lecture coming up tomorrow here at the Maxwell Institute, and by the time this episode comes out that lecture will be available on our YouTube channel. If people haven’t heard it already, they can check it out. You’re doing some other media events, talking to different people. Any other projects that you’re going to be working on to keep busy at all?
INOUYE: No, just staying alive. I could burst into song right now—
HODGES: We’ll put a music cue in right there. [laughs] Cool, well thanks Melissa. I appreciate you taking the time to talk about the book. It’s called “Crossings: A Bald—“
Oh, I do want to ask one more thing here. The very first descriptor you give here in the subtitle is “bald.” That’s something we share in common!
INOUYE: That’s right!
HODGES: You’re more clean shaven than me. In the book, you talk about how this—when you shave all the way, that’s kind of like your most distinguished dress-up look. Talk about your baldness. When people hear you have cancer, they might assume baldness comes hand in hand with that, but that’s not the case.
INOUYE: No, it’s just an autoimmune condition I’ve had since before my second kid. So, about eleven or twelve years?
HODGES: And it just kind of came on out the blue, like, you just lost your hair.
INOUYE: Yep. Hair today, gone tomorrow. [laughter]
HODGES: It looks good.
INOUYE: Yeah, well it is useful for some things. I think it makes me look older. People always think I’m super young so it’s nice to be a little older, relatively speaking.
It’s nice at interfaith gatherings, people think I’m Buddhist. They just love me ahead of time. I guess if I’m thought of as Mormon ahead of time, I’m not sure they would love me so much. [laughs]
It’s very easy to maintain, very efficient— it’s probably saved me weeks of productivity, just not having to deal with hair.
HODGES: Yes, that’s the upside, I think. And I think it’s probably more so for me because of different cultural ways that hair works for men and women differently.
INOUYE: Well, it is quite awkward to be bald among the beautiful, where you walk into the store and they say, “Next sir.” And you’re like,” Okay!” And they’re like, “Oh, I’m so sorry!”
HODGES: Oh, no! Yeah, I don’t have to deal with that. But as a fellow bald person—I will say I do miss the feeling of wind going through my hair. I do miss that. You can’t replicate that pull. The weight of having hair on my head. I can’t replicate it.
INOUYE: I just miss the warmth. That’s really helpful.
HODGES: Yeah, I know how you feel. Solidarity with you.
That’s Melissa Inouye, offering a Bald Asian American Latter-day Saint Woman Scholar’s Ventures through Life, Death, Cancer, and Motherhood (Not Necessarily in that Order).
Melissa, thanks for doing the interview.
INOUYE: Thanks for having me. And now it’s “Life, Death, Cancer, Motherhood, and Cancer” again, but I guess it’s not necessarily in that order!
HODGES: Thank you for listening to another episode of the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I reached out to Dr. Inouye during the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic to get an update on her health since it’s been a while since this episode was recorded. In August 2019, Melissa and her family moved to Draper, Utah, to be closer to family. She’s currently working as a historian in the Church History Department for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She says, “I’m still doing chemotherapy treatments, but I’ve had a big surgery that puts me in a really good place for a patient who’s had a stage four diagnosis.”
Thank you for that update Melissa, we all wish you well.
And you can check out her Maxwell Institute Living Faith lecture on our YouTube channel right now. It’s called “Making Zion” and it was also printed in the Maxwell Institute’s 2019 Annual Report which is also available on our website. Check it out at mi.byu.edu/about.
Okay, on to our review of the month in Apple Podcasts. This one comes from “Shanystu”—I think is how you pronounce that one. They gave five stars and said, “This podcast is, by far, one of my favorites. The host is excellent, but what I really love is learning from the guests who offer so much to think about both spiritually and intellectually. I feel elevated while listening and then I can attack my scripture study with new skills after listening. Thank you!”
Alright, well thank you for that review, Shanystu! I hope to see more reviews soon. You can review us in Apple Podcasts, leave a comment on YouTube or Facebook or wherever else you see the show. Until next time, I’m Blair Hodges and this is the Maxwell Institute Podcast.
The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)