Storytelling Is a Search: An Interview with Sequoia Nagamatsu
Sequoia Nagamatsu wrote a spell-book. Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone is as glorious and lonesome and rattling as surviving the shipwrecking in the center of a storm. The fantastic and the domestic are painfully interlocked in this deeply moving debut. I devoured this collection of stories compulsively, enchanted with the doorways into and out of each story, the nearness of death to life, the undeniable humanity of each monster (and the monstrousness of being a person).
The collection opens with wrecking-ball Godzilla and ends in the largest exploding chrysanthemum in the sky—these sound like metaphors (and of course they are)—but they are also that inexplicably human quality that makes us profess love and pain to the nth degree. In this interview, Sequoia and I discuss zero girls, grief as a character, and the intersection of ancient myth and our world now, today.
The Rumpus: There’s such attentive compassion towards the characters from Japanese folklore in this collection, from Godzilla to the shapeshifting Yokai to the Kappa with bowl-shaped heads. What’s your favorite monster, demon, or folkloric creature of all time?
Sequoia Nagamatsu: This is a tough one. From the book, I’d have to say the Kappa. I’m really fascinated by how these creatures have evolved to remain omnipresent in a culture where industry, tourism, and technology is in constant dialogue with the remaining pockets of “old Japan” and the natural world. You see these little green creatures in anime, as toys, on street signs, and as mascots for towns. They are part of cautionary narratives for parents and local government officials, warning children about the dangers of swimming unsupervised because the Kappa might snatch them. So, this old dichotomy of the Kappa as being both violent tricksters and servants or companions to humans (due to their ingrained sense of etiquette if you help them) persists but in a commodified and often cartoonish way. Outside the book? Maybe the Loogaroo of the Caribbean. These are shapeshifting creatures who trade blood for power and are kind of a catch all of monsters that, at various times, take the form of a flying fireball, an old woman, or something akin to a werewolf or vampire.
Rumpus: Speaking of the Kappa, your story “Headwater LLC” is so wrenching for that reason you mention—the Kappa are commodified. They are chained and weep through their feet. A part of me, as the reader, wanted Masa and Yoko to escape together, to flee the company and survive somehow. But it seems even the characters were resigned to how powerful the corporate entity had become. At the end, instead of escaping together, Yoko tells Masa a story. Is story a way to save ourselves from a world otherwise bottled and distilled?
Nagamatsu: I’m not entirely sure if we can be saved from story alone, but I think story is a good first step at looking at reality through a particular lens or deconstructing it to examine the parts of our world that are particularly beautiful or diseased. This isn’t really a new idea. Magic and fantastical worlds helped Japanese authors examine the identity of a country that had reinvented itself practically overnight starting in the late 1800s.
Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, for instance, critiques Japanese life and capitalism in his novella, Kappa, where the reader explores a sometimes thinly veiled mirror of a modernizing Japan via the streets of Kappa Land. I don’t think we easily talk about our predicaments as being the product of regional, national, or worldwide identity crises. But we certainly live in a time of change and confusion. Perhaps we need stories more than ever to allow us to look at the pieces we’re using to build tomorrow’s world.
Rumpus: You precede each story in Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone with a kind of Easter egg or teaser—a one-page recipe for summertime Placenta Bloody Mary or directions to stare into a mirror until you don’t recognize yourself or an announcement from the Snow Woman that classes are cancelled due to snow. I love these “quick stories” before the stories—found myself stuck in the spiderwebs of them. Where did this idea originate? They almost feel like a second skin to the stories in the collection.
Nagamatsu: While I was putting together the collection, I wanted to find a way to make the book seem more cohesive, like an artifact someone might find in the library of a parallel universe where magic is possible. At first, I played around with the idea of a single frame narrative that was broken up throughout the book, which resembled a curator walking visitors through a museum, but I opted for single documents (flyers, signs, etc.) that could serve as a brief punctuation between stories, as well as act as a palate cleanser especially if the previous story was a bit of a downer.
Rumpus: So many of these stories have a great loss at stake or a grief large enough to suck all the air out of the room. Characters lose their wives, their brothers, their daughters, their own shake at a happy afterlife. Some carry their old age in a box. Some are even pre-grieving—they get the sense a grief is coming and so they brace for it. Joyce Carol Oates says, “Grief is the most humane of emotions but it is a one-sided emotion: it is not reciprocated.” With so many characters in these stories leaving (or dying) and coming back… do you agree?
Nagamatsu: I think the one-sidedness of grief is what allows people, our characters to shape that emotion into distinct experience. The grief isn’t just a product of something that happened to the character but it becomes the character and informs how a character moves through a story. I remember the Oates (and Meghan O’Rourke) interview you’re referring to. Oates brings up how there is this unfounded image of grief that follows a preconceived set of steps or patterns. And O’Rourke mentions how when we lose someone, even admitting that a loved one has died is a big hurdle. A grieving character may run away, confront the loss, imagine another life, pour themselves into work, or maybe find solace in someone who is also grieving. One-sided? Sure. If we consider one-sided as allowing those that have suffered a loss to use their grief to create dialogues with aspects of themselves and the dead. And I think whether or not those shadows reciprocate (and coming to terms with some answer) is part of process of healing (and often the end of a story).
Rumpus: I love that—using grief to create dialogues with aspects of themselves and the dead. In the collection, often that dialogue is between parents who have lost children—they grieve by planting and harvesting their children, by fashioning them from snow, or drowning the sixteen extra copies. Is your collection something of a cautionary tale for would-be parents?
Nagamatsu: I’ve never considered that. I suppose in cautionary tales, some kind of rule or law is broken, which propels a character through an unfortunate aftermath. But there’s this unspoken understanding that X boundary should not be crossed because Y might happen. But to what extent is order and foresight at play during the grieving process? I can’t blame my characters for their trajectories in the same way that I can’t blame myself for a story not arriving at the destination that I had in mind. So, I think it’s more of a collection of pathways of grief with each path being just as worthy as the other. There are no right or wrong ways to deal with a loss. The addition of magic just makes certain pathways that would otherwise go unnoticed more distinct and visible.
Rumpus: Would you rather have a Peach Boy, a Snow Baby, or a Zero Girl?
Nagamatsu: I think I’d have to go for the Zero Girl. She’s born of a shapeshifter. She’s made of possibility. Plus, she’s the central character in a novel I’m working on, so I’m a bit biased.
Rumpus: I have to ask you what a character asks himself in, “The Passage of Time in the Abyss”: “Is he creating the story or is the story creating him?”
Nagamatsu: I think to some degree story always informs and shapes the storyteller. Some of the earlier pieces were written when I lived in Japan, and this was a time when I both decided to pursue writing seriously and developed an interest in connecting with my heritage more. The fantastic in Japanese literature, anime, and horror is often a nod at the nostalgia for a past that cannot be fully reclaimed. And as I wrote these stories, and traveled the countryside of Japan to research some of these folktales, I realized that I could never fully claim that part of my identity as well. Storytelling is a search, and while these stories couldn’t take me everywhere I wanted to go, they certainly helped fill certain gaps.
Rumpus: Do you think your novel will help fill in some of those remaining gaps? Or is having gaps just part of the narrative process?
Nagamatsu: I think gaps and unexpected destinations are an important part of the narrative process both for the writer and the reader. We fill those empty spaces with imagination and our experience, but there’s never the guarantee that we’ll be completely satisfied. I wish there were more… I can’t believe we didn’t get to find out… And I think, depending on how things were handled, that can actually be a great place for a story: answering just enough to fulfill the question asked at the outset but perhaps not enough to fully understand the world. When we get up from a particularly upsetting or powerful dream, we’re occupying this space between a moment of complete immersion and understanding and a space of wanting to return to the dream, so we can unpack meaning. As a writer and a reader, I want to inhabit those first moments after getting up as much as possible.
Rumpus: Lies are highlighted twice in this collection, in two very different ways: “The most beautiful of lies… that everything will be okay.” Later, “More lies and cameras… lies large enough to cover nations.” What (if any) are your rules about lying?
Nagamatsu: That they are necessary (or are seen as necessary by at least one character) and that this need for illusion serves to both bring the elements of a story together in a way that seems distinct and true before the lie ultimately collapses (sometimes offstage).
Rumpus: Wonderful writing advice! As an instructor of creative writing, what’s the best advice you can give to new writers? And what’s the worst piece of writing advice you ever received?
Nagamatsu: Best advice? Hmm… no pressure. I think one thing I really try to stress to new writers is to push themselves to read and write outside of their comfort zone. Part of teaching writing (a big part) is helping students discover the reading material that will inform their work (and helping them realize that influential literature and film and art might fall well outside of whatever niche or genre they claim as their own). The worst piece of advice I’ve received? Probably any teacher or textbook that told me there was one correct way to write a story.
Rumpus: I’m thinking about “The Passage of Time in the Abyss.” There’s something so enchanting about a story where, under the ocean, a drowned man survives in a Dragon Palace, while floating on the ocean, a man can be texting “what r u doing?”—do you feel a closeness or a clash between contemporary life and ancient myth, between the real world we live in now and the one we return to again and again in story?
Nagamatsu: I like to think of ancient myth as the vestigial organs of the real world. We’ve come so far and yet these tales remain in our bones, a reminder of perhaps a simpler way of existing or explaining the world.
Rumpus: The last line of this book is so charged with hope. I was wondering how the book would end after all the grief and suffering and just-surviving. I thought of Yoko’s unsent letter, and the Rokurokubi wanting to wrap his wife in his neck, and how in in the title story, the speaker thinks, “It’s certainly possible that this has all happened before, that we enter life painfully unaware of who we are and where we came from, slowly coming to a boil only to do it all over again.” What do you believe—do we have a right to hope?
Nagamatsu: We can’t afford not to hope. And that goes for storytelling and our lives off the page. Even if things didn’t quite work out for most of my characters, hope is what led them to explore, reflect, and try to change their lot. Hope got them to imagine the possibility of another way.
Author photograph © Cole Bucciaglia.