A Space to Include the Excess: Talking with Janice Lee

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Janice Lee’s Imagine a Death is a wonder of a novel, investigating layers of consciousness by following the journey of three human characters as they explore memory, ghosts, intimacy, and trauma in the face of an apocalyptic, deteriorating world. The novel integrates and uplifts the voices of various animals and plants as narrators, thus creating an inventive world of beautiful and devastating entanglement between the human and non-human characters. The intricacy of the story highlights themes of loss, beauty, and violence, resonating outward with acuity and insight. As both a writer and a reader, I was transformed through Lee’s imagination and composition, as well as guided forward with new considerations related to community, collective kinship, and self-transformation in urgent times.

Janice Lee (she/her) is a Korean American writer, editor, teacher, and shamanic healer. She is the author of seven books of fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetrymost recently: The Sky Isn’t Blue (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2016), Imagine a Death (Texas Review Press, September 2021), and Separation Anxiety (CLASH Books, 2022). A roundtable, unanimous dreamers chime in, a collaborative novel co-authored with Brenda Iijima, is also forthcoming in 2022 from Meekling Press. She is founder and executive editor of Entropy, co-founder of The Accomplices LLC, and currently lives in Portland, OR where she is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Portland State University

I was thrilled to speak recently with Janice about her new novel, the apocalypse, intentional composition, and more.

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The Rumpus: How did you first start writing the book? Was it a character you had in mind? A setting? A theme?

Janice Lee: It began as an image. Before that, I thought I was writing a different book. I thought I was going to write a novel about the technological singularity and the anti-Christ. I had all these grand plans, but it never got written. This image kept popping into my head: an image of someone washing blood off their hands. It kept coming to me and I wasn’t sure why.

Then, I went on a trip to visit my friend Brenda Iijima, who’s a poet in Brooklyn, and she has a cat named Mr. Bungie, who played a very big part in the formation of this novel. The novel wouldn’t have been written without him. What happened was that the whole time I was staying there, he was outside my door, meowing and talking. When I returned to Los Angeles, Mr. Bungie appeared in my dream. The doorbell rang. He showed up at the front door. He was covered in blood. It wasn’t his blood. But he came into the house, and I had to chase him all around the house. I had to pick him up, take him to the bathroom, and wash the blood off him, and wash the blood off my hands. When I had that dream, I realized, this is the book I have to write. I didn’t know what the book was supposed to be about yet. I just knew this scene was part of it, and so it just spiraled from that.

Rumpus: The book is coming out from an “innovative prose” series. What particular writing gestures are you employing that you think are innovative? How would you characterize your book as an innovative novel?

Lee: These terms “innovative,” “experimental”—my relationship to those terms have changed. A lot of my earlier works are more formally and intentionally experimental, with text on the page that plays with different visual modes. I think that probably the feature that appears to be the most non-conventional are the sentences and language. It was partially an aesthetic choice. I was thinking about long sentences. A writer that really influenced me is the Hungarian writer Laszlo Krasznahorkai. One of his philosophies is that he thinks we don’t think in complete sentences, we don’t talk in complete sentences. For him, it’s really a matter of spoken speech, how sentences are a kind of mimicking, how he feels like people are talking to each other. I feel similarly. But for me, it’s less about spoken speech and more about consciousness. The writing in this book is very tangential, excessive, and meandering.

This book is about that excess, and the tangents. I wanted a space to be able to include all of the excess. The extra was as important as the things usually considered to be the most important plot elements. The process of writing this book was very different from previous books. None of this was mapped out. It feels like it was channeled.

Rumpus: I’m curious about your stylistic choices in terms of your grammar, sentence structure, the composition. Can you elaborate on your revision process?

Lee: Even though I wasn’t always intentionally making choices as I was writing, it felt like I had already made the choices somewhere in my body. It’s not like it came out of nowhere, but I felt like I had an understanding of what I was doing. I just didn’t know how to articulate it yet without doing it. It’s also partially related to your question about the word “innovative,” and why my relationship to that word has changed. When marginalized writers present writing that appears to be “experimental,” it’s often positioned that their writing is in response to or resisting what the conventional narrative is. I think more and more, at least with this project, it wasn’t necessarily about resisting or rebelling against a particular form. It was more that this was a particular way for this narrative to be told, so rather than centering on what the dominant narrative is and saying this is a response to that, I’m wanting to present another valid vantage point or another way to tell this story, which is the story itself, not just the accumulation of formal choices.

In terms of editing and revising, it was hard because I had to think about relevancy while also preserving the excesses of these consciousnesses. I had to do a lot of reading out loud. The way lines sounded, and the rhythm, helped me understand where I could cut things.

Rumpus: To me, there were so many layers of themes, so it was profound, in terms of a reading experience, to think of the book from a craft perspective. In terms of the thematic pieces—death, loss, intimacy, memory, trauma— I’m curious about your process of making sure the meaning was coming through.

Lee: For the most part, in my previous books, I’ve done a lot of mapping and while I don’t use outlines, I would definitely have a kind of visual map. This is a book where I didn’t do that at all. I was thinking about the themes very consciously. There were ideas I was studying. I work with inherited trauma and the concept of han a lot. I think about ghosts and haunting. I’m kind of obsessed with the apocalypse as a concept. Not as an event, but as an anticipatory state—that it’s not actually an event that’s final, like the Biblical apocalypse, but more like, what does it mean to be thinking apocalyptically?

Rumpus: I also want to comment on the lyrical and evocative language, the beautiful sentences, along with your intentional word choice. It seemed that the way the book was crafted synchronized with the narrative. It felt like a natural way to tell the story.

Lee: It makes me so happy to hear you say that. That was a huge thing for me: that the sentences and the whole structure mirrored each other. It was also one of the points of the most resistance for early readers. When I was initially sending this out, many editors and agents thought it was too esoteric, the sentences too long, the book not accessible enough. That was the feedback I kept getting. But that’s literally what this book is. It can’t actually be rewritten in another way. I was thinking a lot about the sentence as a form and as a form that actually has a lot of privilege and colonialism built into it. We don’t necessarily realize how we tend to prioritize certain types of sentence structures in English. In American literature, there is a prioritizing of certain narratives and ideologies and stories, but it’s not just stories and narratives that we privilege. It happens within the sentence structure as well; in particular, when we say, this is what a good sentence looks like.

Rumpus: I appreciate your commitment to your artistic process. I think, to me, that’s where art holds up and embraces longevity. Can you talk about the process of giving animals and plants voices and their connection with human characters as well?

Lee: I really wanted to de-center the human protagonist. Even though humans take up the most space, because that’s actually what they do, it was really important to me to include all of these other vantage points. Without those vantage points, without the plants and animals, humans literally don’t exist. For instance, the writer, she doesn’t necessarily admit it, but she’s really codependent on her dog. The plants provide air, and no one would exist otherwise. I really wanted to show that entanglement. I also wanted to move away from having a single hero or heroine.

Also, I was reading writers like Robin Wall Kimmerer and Charles Foster. And Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World. Tsing talks a lot about moving away from the individual. What if the landscape was the protagonist? What if all these other ways of being were the protagonist? I think this book was still really human-heavy, but it’s about human trauma. Humans are always in the third-person, though, and the animals and the plants often get first-person. Even though their parts are smaller, they get to speak, though mediated through me as a writer. But I did want their views to be included in a way that felt like they were essential.

Rumpus: Can you talk a little bit about how you crafted setting?

Lee: The settings really followed me, which was not my intention. I wrote the bulk of this when I was living in LA, so the city in the book is based on the city of LA and the desert surrounding it. Some of the things that were happening in the book when I first started writing it still felt a little bit fantastical and then towards the completion of it, almost all of these things have happened/are happening. The writer’s move to the woods almost mirrored my move from LA to Portland. It wasn’t intentional, but I think that the move from those landscapes stirred something up for me that was related to what it was also stirring up in the writer. It wasn’t just about the change in environment. She needed to get out of the city in order to find herself. It’s actually an arrival back to herself.

In one way, I think this novel is a long meditation about how you leave and come back. There’s this failure, but at the end, you come back to yourself. There’s a returning. I think about meditation as a practice of failure, especially because for most of my life, I was so resistant to it. I felt I was bad at it. It took me a long time to understand that it’s just about bringing your awareness in. That when it wanders, you just return. You just keep returning. That is the practice, the practice of return, which is a practice of failure. That’s also what the novel is—there’s this constant reaching and wanting to change, but it’s not actually about the change. It’s actually about how do you come back to yourself amidst the change?

Rumpus: I thought another fascinating part of the novel was the commentary on the writing process, and especially in terms of rule-breaking, for instance, personifying animals or the longer sentences.

Lee: I think one thing I was thinking a lot about with the writer character is that as she evolved, she had to live inside other people’s expectations of her, which I think is a really common thing that many people have to live with, especially women. And then, if you have any label on you, that becomes a bigger thing. Whether it’s a label of being a certain type of victim or having a certain type of identity, those things end up defining you and how people perceive you. I think it’s really hard to get out of those labels sometimes.

In terms of the writing process, I think, not so secretly, the writer’s process of writing her book was mirroring me trying to write the book that she’s in. I read Matthew Salesses’s book Craft in the Real World earlier this year, and he talks about how craft is really a set of expectations. It’s the way that we judge other people based on our own expectations of how we were raised to read, or based on our own ideologies. Sometimes people will prioritize character or prioritize plot, or they believe that if the character doesn’t have agency, it’s a bad story. All of this actually comes from their own ideologies and cultural biases.

I realized I had been struggling with this throughout my whole writing career. I’ve always been writing things that were not going to be accepted by establishments or institutions. I think when I was younger, I justified it as purposefully resisting “the man.” But now, I really believe in the things that I’m trying to say. A lot of this isn’t about resistance. It’s a valid way of seeing the world. I think that’s also why my relationship to the terms “innovative” and “experimental” have changed, because it’s not just about taking down institutions. It’s taken me a really long time to articulate how I see the world.

Rumpus: I appreciate all of the philosophy that’s explored in the book—morality, survival, death, intimacy, uncertainty, power, the sacredness of nature and ecology. It’s very timely as we reflect on the degradation of the physical landscape and our culture through distance, separateness, domination. Were there other influences that you wanted to mention that went into the crafting of the novel?

Lee: I mentioned Laszlo Krasznahorkai. Writers like Robin Wall Kimmerer. An essay that I read by Bayo Akomolafe really influenced me. I read it when I had already finished a draft of the book, but it still resonated. It helped me as I was revising. He asks, how do we approach something like climate change, not as the problem to be solved, but what if the way we try to fix the problem is actually part of the problem? If we see it as external to ourselves, then we’re only looking at what needs to be fixed. The reality is that climate change actually is very human. It’s been human for a very long time. It’s not this new thing and this new event, which is really the way I think about the apocalypse. The apocalypse isn’t a single event. If you think about it that way, then there’s also a belief in finality and about redemption, which I don’t really believe in. But I do believe in apocalypse as revelation. Oftentimes the revelation is internal. It’s already there. So, it’s a state rather than an event.

I also realized after moving to Portland that I could also learn a great deal from doing nothing, like from being in the garden, from sitting in the woods or from being near a body of water. I began to think about the question of what does urgency mean in a time of crisis? What does crisis mean when crisis is actually the mode that we’re always in? Do we need to react to the crisis with such urgency? Or is there a different outlook that we can have? Can we accept that this is the state of the world and mourn what we’ve lost, but also have gratitude for everything that we have? It’s a very different way of being.

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Photograph of Janice Lee by Janice Lee.


Melissa Matthewson is the author of a memoir-in-essays, Tracing the Desire Line (Split/Lip Press, 2019), a finalist for the 2021 Oregon Book Award in creative nonfiction. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Guernica, Longreads, Oregon Humanities, Literary Hub, The Common, DIAGRAM, and American Literary Review, among other publications. She teaches in the MFA Creative Writing program at Eastern Oregon University and in the Communication program at Southern Oregon University. Find her on Twitter at @melmatthewson and Instagram at @mazzymaple. More from this author →