Unexpected Cambridge: An Interview with Rosanna Yamagiwa Alfaro

Playwright Rosanna Yamagiwa Alfaro has been writing plays from her home in Harvard Square for over forty years, a fact that comes in handy since her latest is set there. She recently talked with us about writing, her town, and the surprises it holds.

When did you move to Cambridge?
I started college at Radcliffe in 1956. I grew up in Ann Arbor so I've always been fond of living in college towns, not that Cambridge is just a college town, but we live in Harvard Square so it feels that way. My husband Gustav and I met here as students in 1958; our two children Anna and Pablo grew up here. We've lived in Berkeley, Stanford, Halifax, Salamanca, and London, but we've been in Cambridge 46 years and counting.

When did you start writing?
I've always liked to write. In many ways, it seems more natural to me than talking.

Who influenced you? Who forged you as a writer?
My parents were a little sad I didn't go into science, but they weren't unhappy that I majored in English instead. After all, my father was a professor of Japanese literature. I wish they were still alive to see Before I Leave You at the Huntington. Two of my creative writing teachers at Harvard left their mark — Monroe Engel because of his warmth and encouragement and John Hawkes because he was a strong advocate for bold metaphors and subtle violence. John's office was always full of cigarette smoke, and his writing class was affectionately called "S Square," referring to sex and sadism. I'm sure none of his students has ever quite been able to shake the notion that, in writing, perhaps that was the way to go.

What is your process like? Are you ever blocked?
I write in bed in the morning with my papers and books spread out in front of me. I always write first in longhand, which matches the speed of my thoughts. I've never been blocked for long. I find most problems can be solved by a nap or a good night's sleep.

What are you hobbies?
I play the piano about ten minutes a day. I belong to an Asian-American women's book club, which is much more about eating and gossipping than reading books. I religiously watch the University of Michigan football games on television.

What don't most Bostonians know about your neighborhood?
Most think of Cambridge as a place full of college kids, but it's the perfect city for the old. Our friends in their sixties and seventies are still painting, playing chamber music, birding, sailing, and kayaking when they're not traveling to remote corners of the world. I'm afraid I do none of those things, but it makes one think the world is still full of endless possibilities.

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