A Cosmic Wade Through Uncertainty: Talking with Sequoia Nagamatsu

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Rod Serling famously described the Twilight Zone, that mysterious, almost religious liminal space, as “a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man…as vast as space and as timeless as infinity…the dimension of imagination.”

In his highly-anticipated debut novel, How High We Go in the Dark, Sequoia Nagamatsu doesn’t just grant us access into the chasm of human experience; he plants a flashlight in our hands and invites us to explore. Here we all are, together, navigating the dark unknown.

Set in the near future, readers are dropped immediately into the initial days of the Arctic Plague, a fictional illness that, by the end of the novel, far surpasses the devastation of our current pandemic. Reading of the Arctic Plague’s origins—an ancient virus released into the atmosphere a result of melting permafrost—my stomach dropped and my mind replayed the turmoil of early 2020, when we felt the end days upon us. I recalled when the term “COVID-19” was not yet normalized in our language, when it felt like even speaking its name could summon the invisible reaper to your door.

Though the writing of How High We Go in the Dark is the culmination of a decade-long project, the timing of its publication is significant. As our planet currently battles the Omicron variant and the climate crisis rages on, Nagamatsu’s dystopian narrative is both prescient and cathartic, an intertwining of imaginative and compassionate stories that give voice and validation to our very real grief and longing, all the while limned with glimmers of hope, virtual reality, and stardust.

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The Rumpus: The linked stories in How High We Go in the Dark progress in a chronological timeline from the first reportings of the Arctic Plague, to the rising sea levels of the post-pandemic world, to the drowned Earth in the Great Transition of 2070, and beyond. Which story did you write first? Did you know the trajectory of the novel from the outset, or did it unfold organically over time?

Sequoia Nagamatsu: A dramatically different version of “Melancholy Nights in a Virtual Café” was conceived over ten years ago while I was living in Japan. At the time, a novel of any kind wasn’t in my mind. Honestly, I had just started to embrace writing seriously with some loose sense of wanting a writing career. It’s an important story in my trajectory in a lot of ways since that incarnation of the chapter was part of an international anthology project that gave me the confidence and insight to push forward with my writing thanks to encouragement from my fellow writers and from editors at major presses that showed an early interest. The current shape of the novel unfolded gradually, and I want to stress the word “novel” here as some might call it a collection or a linked collection, which is a shame since some readers might miss some huge takeaways and not get the full experience (especially if they are skipping around). How High We Go in the Dark begs to be read in order. Yes, the characters recur, some are related to each other, and the focus on characters also shifts. But beyond thematic overarching threads, there is also a narrative backbone that comes to fruition only if a reader follows breadcrumbs throughout, prompting them to reflect on what they’ve read once they’re approached the ending. The last chapter that ties everything together in seemingly unexpected and cosmic ways started in 2011 (and the first chapter was written not long before the sale in 2020).

So, when did I see this as a novel? I suspected that my manuscript was becoming something other than a traditional collection, and then even more than a linked collection, about halfway through the process. But it really wasn’t until I was revising and expanding the manuscript with my agent that we started to use the word “novel” to describe How High We Go in the Dark. I remember my agent articulating this to me: “There’s a bigness here,” she said. And that pretty much summed up how I felt. To call it a collection almost seemed to diminish the connective threads and narrative universe that I would strengthen and layer even further post-sale.

Rumpus: Each chapter of How High We Go in the Dark is told through the first-person voice of a unique narrator, that is, a narrator with a unique job or role in society. While characters’ professions often are present in the books we read and films we watch, in my experience, they tend to drift to the background in order to allow personal or emotional conflicts to take center stage. However, in your novel, a character’s job/profession is integral, not separate, to who your narrators are and how they navigate loss and the traumas of the pandemic. We meet Arctic archaeologists, a robodog repairman, a ride operator at a euthanasia theme park, bereavement coordinators, painters, a researcher at a forensic body farm, and even sick people and animals who offer their bodies for scientific study. Everyone is contributing time, effort, energy, and their self towards the new realities of the planet. How did you land on the particular jobs of your characters and, during the writing process, how did their professions offer insight into their place in the narrative?

Nagamatsu: It’s strange that professions tend to slide into the background in a lot of stories isn’t it? What’s the first question people tend to ask a stranger? Of course, how much a profession falls into background is a storytelling decision like anything else. Do I want to dive deep into the inner traumas and relationship struggles of a character or follow the minutia of a cubicle worker in a bank? Both could be utterly engrossing. But in thinking about how the world in my novel has been unhinged, I wanted to explore how society’s relationship with death, grief, and climate evolve while still staying close to the everyday movements and concerns of a person trying to hold onto life and move forward. The professions I chose nodded at these societal evolutions while also giving me a rich basis for considering how their jobs would elevate or influence personal struggles. And for many of my characters, the pandemic simply highlighted or fast-tracked an existing problem or inner anxiety. Beyond these considerations, I was also trying to consider the different relationships we have toward death and grief and how future technology or new business models could help provide a more layered and intimate understanding of something a lot of people (at least in the West) don’t talk a lot about without some discomfort: death; what happens to our bodies after death; and the capitalist enterprise of illness, dying, and even grief.

Rumpus: The majority of the narrators in your book are Asian or Asian American. As a Japanese American writer yourself, what were the joys and/or pressures you felt representing a range of Asian experiences and community in How High We Go In the Dark?

Nagamatsu: Most of the characters in my first book were Japanese nationals given that most of the stories were reimagining the folklore of Japan. But I’m not a Japanese national (my great-grandmother came to Hawaii as part of an arranged marriage near the beginning of the 20th century), so I wanted to capture Asian bodies and voices without necessarily calling too much attention to the “otherness” of characters, especially since the immigrant experience is not my own. Growing up I craved stories that focused on Asian characters without being about their Asian identity, but for a long time in Hollywood and in publishing most of the work (even if brilliant) was exoticizing in some way. I even remember an old workshop instructor telling me years ago that editors would love an early draft of a story of mine because it was so “worldly.” And a lot of my early work played into otherness because I thought I needed to play into the expectations of a white audience. With the rise of anti-Asian sentiments during the pandemic, I felt it was even more important that I maintain the Asian and Asian American identities in my novel during the editing phase as present but not central. These characters are just people trying to live, survive, and find love and a shred of hope like anybody else.

Rumpus: Your novel is not just about interconnectivity between life on earth. The characters are always looking skyward. The possibility of space travel and of something beyond is luminous throughout your novel. For example, in the chapter “Through the Garden of Memory” people in a purgatory-like liminal space walk among orbs of light and memory: “Some people are wandering into the lives of others as if connecting the dots toward enlightenment.” Likewise in “30,000 Years Beneath a Eulogy,” you write about Clara Miyashiro, the trailblazing scientist who died discovering the 30,000-year-old remains of a Siberian body and how her belief in the supernatural enabled her to see “things in the dirt that no one else could.”

In How High We Go in the Dark, space isn’t just a galactic realm of black holes and stardust—it’s a realm filled with spiritual potential and longing. You’ve mentioned elsewhere about your lifelong love affair with the stars. What fascinates you about outer space, and how did you approach writing about its vastness and its unknowns? I’m also curious about your thoughts on this connection between knowingness (or unknowingness) and the cosmos.

Nagamatsu: On some level we’ve all originated from space, and yet there is also so much we don’t know about what’s out there. The sheer size of the universe is hard to even conceive. I think there’s something attractive to me about origin stories, evolution, and how the prospect of looking toward the stars can help us learn more about ourselves and our own planet. Again, science fiction certainly jumpstarted this love affair, but the hard science is just as wondrous and in some ways spiritual—those spaces where known physics seems to break down, where we are asking more questions than we could possibly find answers for in our lifetime: the nature of dark matter; the filaments that hold together galaxies like a highway; the habitability of other worlds; and if someone or something is looking back at us, wondering and dreaming. And while my pitiful math skills prevented me from pursuing those more scientific endeavors head on, there’s a parallel with writing and exploring the unknowns of space. Donald Barthelme articulates the act of “Not Knowing” in his essay of the same name as allowing a writer to wade through uncertainty in order to engage in discovery and possibility. The not-knowing where to go in our current moment is certainly scary but it’s also brimming with the potential for renewal, community, and new ways of defining a life.

Rumpus: Your work has been compared to that of David Mitchell’s. In the likeness of quantum epics like Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks, your characters are connected and reunited through time, through reappearing ancestors and loved ones, through artifacts passed down from generation to generation, through the memories we leave for those not yet born. These inherited heirlooms and ongoing legacies help your characters navigate how to say goodbye and how to remember. Speaking again of interconnectivity, what other books or media do you feel your novel is in conversation with, or were influential to your thinking and conception of the book?

Nagamatsu: Well, David Mitchell no question, and I know Station Eleven was used as an early comp title, and I think my attention toward the arts in my novel was probably influenced in some way through that novel. But beyond Mitchell and Mandel, I must definitely nod at Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics, which helped me consider how I might inhabit spaces beyond our existence, to be bold enough to even consider taking readers to a void of collective consciousness, to pivot from Atlantis to Isaac Newton within a few paragraphs. In terms of injecting emotion and humanity across the unreal, I have to look toward the work of Kevin Brockmeier (perhaps especially The Illumination and The Brief History of the Dead). Both of those books have always managed to make me tear up. Beyond literature, which I probably could go on about, I have to acknowledge Star Trek and, in particular, episodes such as “Inner Light” from the Next Gen series where Picard lived an entire lifetime on another planet within the span of a moment, a vision of a long-extinct civilization that sent out a probe eons ago in the hope that one day someone would remember them. Few other television shows have influenced me to the degree Star Trek has in terms of helping me merge my fascination with space exploration with deeply human predicaments.

Rumpus: In your acknowledgments, you touch on your research of nontraditional grief and remembrance, and your study of Japan’s innovations as the country prepares for a growing aging population. A line from the chapter “Before You Melt into the Sea” particularly struck a chord with me: “The plague has reinvented the way we die.” This line was an instant pang of familiarity, as quarantines and lockdowns have changed everything for us—how we live, how we die, how we mourn, how we honor and celebrate a life. I’m curious if your own relationship to loss and grief morphed through the writing of this novel.

Nagamatsu: I believe it has, and I think this is or will probably be the case for many of us whether we realize it yet or not. The novel began before the pandemic but was certainly influenced by my personal losses (my grandfather who helped raise me), helping me consider ways that people can say goodbye or come to terms with lost moments that you never embraced until it was too late. I lost my father last year, and not much later I lost my grandmother. These losses occurred deep within the final edits of the novel. Like Dennis in the “Elegy Hotel” chapter, an admittedly deeply personal section, I had to come to terms with an estranged relationship when I found out my father was dying. Dennis waffled around that decision as a younger version of myself had, but this time I decided to return a difficult phone call. And even though I didn’t get to have the kind of difficult talk that my father and I should have had, I’m grateful that we got to share a few moments, that we got to hear each other’s voices in his final days. But I think like Dennis in his chapter, a sense of restlessness and lack of closure remains. That said, the process of working on this novel helped me process a lot of feelings and urged me to think beyond myself and one moment. Maybe my father wasn’t perfect and maybe I wasn’t either, but like the characters in my novel, I think an effort to acknowledge the ties that bind us (no matter how tenuous they may be) can be an important part of healing and imagining a future.

Rumpus: In your novel, the melting permafrost is discovered to be the root cause of the Arctic Plague, unleashing ancient illnesses into the water and air. Why was it important to you to discuss climate catastrophe in conjunction with plague, and what do you think eco-conscious novels can do to stimulate the environmental movement that scientific studies cannot?

Nagamatsu: I’ve been teaching a climate fiction course for several years now, and I’ve seen a noticeable shift in my students regarding how we should treat climate change. They’ve moved from wanting to stop climate change completely to preventing further planetary damage and mitigating consequences. In other words, there’s an acknowledgement that whatever measures we take to prevent further damage, we’ll have to adapt to an irrevocably changed world and evolve to maintain that world. At the heart of our conversations is a focus on community ethics and societal system change, and I think our pandemic has highlighted cases of people coming together just as much as it has highlighted societal and community dysfunction. I think eco-conscious novels will likely be preaching to the choir in many cases, but I think there’s more room for someone who may not directly engage with climate conversations to immerse themselves in a narrative where they can better empathize with the plight of others and perhaps further understand how climate disasters highlight systemic problems and inequities. Literature of this type can help foster deeper, more humanistic conversations about climate change that can work in concert with the work of scientists and nonprofit/grassroots organizations.

Rumpus: I loved how art constantly swirls throughout the novel. We meet muralists, tattoo artists, ice sculptors. A dying man and a forensic researcher listen their way through a rock and roll playlist. The narrator in “A Gallery a Century, A Cry a Millennium” is the artist Miki, who paints portraits of plague victims and paints murals on the spaceship, U.S.S. Yamato. Miki says, “As artists, we could transform the sterile walls of this ship into a home, preserve our journey for those who never woke up…I could help us move on.” In your experience, what is the role of art and music during crisis? How can art help us, save us even?

Nagamatsu: Thinking back to the early days of our pandemic, a lot of us were binge-watching, maybe not always what we might call art, sometimes just shock and spectacle. But the ability to remove ourselves from reality for a few hours, whether it be through film or literature or music, is such an important outlet for escape, allowing us to forget about resting anxieties. But beyond escape, I think art is a rich vehicle for critique. We’ve all been forced out of our everyday lives in a way that allows us to both create and consume art from a quasi-outsider perspective—maybe more objective, maybe more thoughtful about who we used to be, what the world used to be, and how we’ve all changed in the past couple of years. What do we miss? What do we never want to go back to? How were we surprised at how much we adapted to a particular aspect of lockdown? Who did we talk to? Who did we want to reach out to? I feel like a prolonged crisis allows for these questions, and the unique isolation of a pandemic allows for a certain deliberation of those questions that climate change alone couldn’t provide because our lives kept moving. With the above in mind, I think art during crisis can remind us of who we really are and help us imagine the possibilities of how we might become better versions of ourselves.

Rumpus: Despite the darkness in your novel—the death and illness, the lost loves, the regrets, and the environmental devastation—there’s a recurring word that appears in almost every chapter, a word that sparks lightness and hope for our individual and collective futures: “possibility.” Possibility is another planetary system. Possibility is a mural that can outlast a human’s lifetime. Possibility is a memory programmed into the wiring of a robodog. Possibility is throwing a neighborhood block party “to break the silence, to begin to heal.” What gives you a sense of possibility these days?

Nagamatsu: While there have certainly been moments over the past year that may have temporarily diminished my faith in the human species, I think what gives me a sense of possibility are my students—young, smart people who legitimately care about the planet, are already doing so much for their communities, and are thinking intentionally about how their chosen disciplines might help provide for a better future in even small or unexpected ways.

 

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Photo by Lauren B. Photography


Cameron Finch is a writer and editor based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Finch’s writing and interviews have appeared in various journals including The Adroit Journal, The Common, CRAFT, Electric Literature, Fiction Writers Review, Isele, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Rumpus, and Tiny Molecules. Read more at ccfinch.com. More from this author →