A Hypnotic Transitory Beauty Quest: A Conversation with Jackson Bliss

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I don’t remember when exactly my hapa radar went off and I saw Jackson Bliss somewhere on the Internet. He was handsome, confident, expressive, colorful, and most of all familiar. He’s talking about “us,” I thought. He’s talking about this life in between two cultures, languages and countries, and how it has taught us to pursue beauty every day.

Jackson (Kanahashi) Bliss is the winner of the 2020 Noemi Book Prize in Prose and the mixed-race/hapa author of Counterfactual Love Stories & Other Experiments (Noemi Press, 2021), Amnesia of June Bugs (7.13 Books, 2022), and most recently Dream Pop Origami (Unsolicited Press, 2022).

Dream Pop Origami is a lyrical memoir about mixed-race identity, love, travel, AAPI masculinities, and personal metamorphosis. It is also a collection of choose-your-own-essays and autobiographical lists, where multiracial identity is a counterpoint of memory, language, reflection, and imagination. Readers choose which chapter to read next, shaping the story as they read and deciding the level of heartache, nostalgia, joy, infatuation, and melancholy it contains, creating a dance between author and reader for the construction of meaning and identity.

I asked him all the things I’ve been dying to know. His answers are so smart and sensitive and give me confidence in embracing my own mixed-race identity. I loved this conversation and didn’t want it to end.

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The Rumpus: Do you ever have moments where you feel, “Oh, that’s my Japanese side?” Can you describe such a moment? And how does that strike you, particularly as it pertains to your sense of what it is to be a man?

Jackson Bliss: All the time! If you look inside my satchel right now, you’ll find a pencil case that looks like a bus, a Korean agenda from MochiThings, a business card wallet (so Japanese it’s embarrassing), a tiny Longchamp coin purse containing my earpods, a cheap plastic Harrods coin purse with toothpicks and breath mints, and a black Louis Vuitton wallet with my initials hot-stamped on the inside. Now, that might sound like I’m being hella materialistic, but these little things signify my own upward mobility as a mixed-race/AAPI/BIPOC/Nisei who has been poor or lower-middle-class for most my life. For many Asians I know, designer goods signify a number of things related to class performance, financial security, the search for prosperity, urbanity, and sophistication. There’s even a chapter in Dream Pop Origami that itemizes the things in my satchel for this very reason because things tell stories about people. I think that as an AAPI/mixed-race/Nisei writer, I often feel like a failure for not making more money, even though I know that’s an impossible expectation as a literary fiction writer and former academic. I mean, almost none of us are making bank except maybe Jamie Ford (love that dude). Both writing and teaching have groomed me to not just rationalize poverty but glorify it. Like I’m supposed to blurt out: “We are ugly but we have the music” every time my stomach grumbles. One thing that Dream Pop Origami does frequently and fervently is contest a lot of these imported notions of masculinity I’m constantly made aware of, especially the AAPI template.

At the same time, being AAPI/mixed-race gives me permission to violate a lot of white standards of masculinity in ways I’m deeply grateful for. I knew at an early age that it was okay to wear pink, play piano, dress well, study my ass off (i.e., be nerdy AF), and cook. I knew I could be a pretty boy and have delicate features and take long baths and dress in Eurotrash outfits and that none of those things contradicted the crushes I got on girls. As I got older, I learned through my obāchan [grandmother] that it was important to understand other people’s needs so they didn’t have to voice them. That group harmony was sometimes more important than individual needs. I also violated many Japanese cultural values. Whereas my obāchan saw relationships as damaging (which made sense as a woman victimized by men for much of her life), I found community, connectivity, communion, joy, and repatriation in my romantic relationships. Whereas she kept more of her trauma, heartache, pain, and disillusionment inside, which is very Japanese, I transliterated those things into my books. And it’s that endless struggle between competing cultural, racial, and generational spheres of identity that I try to capture, evoke, explore, and challenge in Dream Pop Origami. 

Rumpus: Connected to the violation and cultural and racial codes of masculinity you mentioned, your social media is always so stunning visually. Can you tell me how you developed a sense of aesthetics and what is beautiful to you? Maybe start with your influences, but could you also share if you have a philosophy about beauty?

Bliss: I’m deliriously happy you noticed. You’d be shocked at how seldom people ask men about their own aesthetics, as if we don’t or couldn’t possibly have them. I definitely do. I think my aesthetics are a refraction of Japanese culture, family snapshots of Tokyo and Osaka, shonen manga brought back from Japan, dream pop vibes, high school romance tropes, and video game worlds. I spent an obscene amount of time in northern Michigan, Chicago, and Southern California playing video games and reading and exploring forests in the winter, biking to the lake in the summer, having picnics, kicking it with friends on the beach, shit like that. I don’t have great technique, photographically, but I do have a sense of perspective that I think is influenced partially by a Japanese perspective of nature, urban spaces, visual quietness, but also vibrancy, harmony, balance, and color. I love the contrast between darkness and light (my wife, for example, complains that I don’t turn enough lights on in the room). I love empty streets. I love quiet perspectives. I love spatial narratives. I even created one chapter in Dream Pop Origami where readers can take a couple breaths and do nothing if they want or tear the page out and fold it into origami. That feels hella Japanese to me!

I realized growing up that my relationship to beauty was fundamentally different than it was for most teenage boys. They weren’t emotionally affected by beauty the way I was. They didn’t even notice it half the time. Beauty didn’t disrupt their lives and it didn’t hit them as hard. For me, my hands got clammy. I couldn’t breathe. I felt euphorious as if witnessing the sublime. Sometimes, a music video played inside my head for days. When I saw a girl I was crushing on, I could see sparkles around her face. I’ve always been emotionally vulnerable to beauty in ways that felt normal to me, but I learned later that most boys weren’t moved by beauty. Like, it didn’t haunt them the way it haunted me. Likewise, my relationship to nature feels Japanese to me. There were moments when I went sledding in our backyard during blizzards as a kid, just as the sun was setting, and I would look at the horizon with the snowflakes spiraling to the ground, the sky and the ground mirroring each other, the buttery sun glowing in that frosted frame of winter, and I would just start crying because of the silence, the sun glowing through the clouds, the whispering snowflakes melting on my face, the white shimmering powder covering every square inch of the world, the cold serenity of that ephemeral moment before the light changed. I felt the same way when I played in the rain. When I spotted deer peeking their little noses behind branches. When I held hands with this girl in the middle of a rain shower, halfway between agnosticism and adolescence. I eventually learned that my relationship to beauty defined me in ways that I thought were universal but weren’t. And whether it’s my IG feed or my experimental memoir, I think you can see a vulnerability to, and even a talent for, discovering the beauty of this hypnotic and transitory dream world we’re all living in.

Rumpus: Is there something about California that speaks specifically to your Japanese heritage? We share being hapa on the West Coast, and I often hear Californians say that this state is more “Asian.” I go back and forth on this and I am not firmly settled on any of these points of view. And since I know few people who share my identity, as you do, I never get to really hash this question out!

Bliss: After leaving and returning to the Best Coast, California eventually became my adopted homeland. I moved to Encinitas when I was sixteen and was so overwhelmed by rich white girls driving BMWs, surfer dudes with sun-dyed hair, alternative kids and speech and debate nerds, Latinx students, supermodels, and countercultural classmates in Doc Martens and black clothes, who fled to their hoopties to smoke cigarettes and listen to The Smiths in melancholic fellowship. And Californians speak in cultural clichés. That’s rad! That totally shreds! It’s hella good. I remember dudes on the beach calling me “bra” and looking down at my bare chest. Once I returned to California to start my PhD, I knew that my love for California and its bustling multiracial cities, deserts, mountains, parks, and beaches, for its green spaces, endless coastline, and surfer towns, its plentiful juice stands, taco shops, bookstores, yoga studios, and cafés, would never go away. And while there are many issues about California that I absolutely want solved, like homelessness, the lack of affordable housing/gentrification, food deserts, thwarted mass transit, wealth inequality, shitty infrastructure, the militarization of the LAPD, the California corrections system, etc., most of these issues exist in some form all over the country, whereas most of the things that I love about California are Californian.

Another thing—I definitely feel like there is a special joy about being an Asian, hapa, and a mixed-race writer in California. Since this is a Latinx majority state, white spaces can be optional and/or easy to collapse, which is a big fucking deal! Further, living in a state with so many AAPI communities in LA, the Valley, Pasadena, San Diego, and the Bay Area means the world to me. I feel understood. I feel spiritually and physically nurtured. Sure, I have to explain my origin story as a hapa, but the difference is that AAPI Californians embrace me when I tell them I’m the son of Japanese immigrants while most white people in the Midwest just looked confused, annoyed, and then hostile that I got to excuse myself from their own work. One reason I started my first draft of Dream Pop Origami in California is because LA is a perfect symbiosis of my childhood and early adolescence in the Midwest as a racially estranged/sublimated hapa kid and my late adolescence and adulthood as an AAPI/hapa in California. It was in LA that I slowly became the AAPI writer, intellectual, and artist that I am today. It was in LA that I studied fiction with Aimee Bender, TC Boyle, Percival Everett, and Viet Thanh Nguyen. It was in California where I felt like I became Asian, since, for most of my life, I didn’t feel I had a right to call myself Asian since I didn’t read as Japanese American.  I knew I was part Japanese, racially speaking, but I didn’t think I could call myself Asian. And there were plenty of white people happy to remind me that I looked like them. But in California, I witnessed so many variations of Asian, mixed-race, and hapa identity. It was here that I slowly realized that there was room for me and my racial and cultural hyphenation too.

Rumpus: That’s interesting because I feel like there is this weird relationship between California and Asia that I haven’t untangled. I often hear how California is on the Pacific Rim, which is why many Westerners feel the influence of Japan, for example. And yet, I felt that influence from my mom! So I wonder sometimes if I am “feeling the influence” in a way that is both personal, but also generally cultural. I wonder how/if these things might be different.

Bliss: Like you, I felt the strongest Japanese influence from my obāchan. She was the matriarch and the muse. She was the diffuser of the motherland. I saw tiny wisps of Japan everywhere around her like tendrils of incense: in her language, in her unique intonations of English words, above her tiny lacquer Japanese table (which is now in my living room), in her old vintage photographs of Osaka, Yokohama, and Tokyo, in the folds of her eyes when she laughed, in her little Subaru, in her daily habits of Folgers coffee and miso shiru, and all of that was in Michigan! The longest essay in Dream Pop Origami is “The Blood Transfusion of Yukiyo Kanahashi,” which tells you how important she was to me and my Japanese American identity, and how central that essay is to the memoir.

My mom and obāchan moved to California in 1989 and 2001 respectively. Living in California uncorked my Japanese identity and it wasn’t a coincidence that it happened here. It’s one thing to feel Asian American in the diasporic wonderland of California but it’s another to feel Japanese American in America, and that just took time for me. I struggled with my own racial illegibility for such a very long time. As a hapa boy in Northern Michigan, I often wished I’d had my own community. For most of my life I wondered if I was allowed to say I’m Asian when I read as white. Should I identify with my Japanese roots when I had different experiences than other Nikkei people in America? But California helped me realize that racial, diasporic, and cultural identities are not fixed, they’re negotiable, shifting, and complex. I’m not sure I’d have come to this conclusion if I hadn’t lived in California where racial and cultural identification are both in and outside our control. I learned here that white people didn’t get a vote on my racial identity, that their limited understanding of mixed-race identity was not my problem to fix. I learned that my hyphenated identity was fine, but my internalized white gaze was not. I’m one-third Asian and the son of Japanese immigrants on my mom’s side, how the fuck could I not be Asian? I never felt more Japanese American than after I’d finished my PhD because Doctor Bliss, bitches! But also because I’d finally excavated and later cultivated my own Asian, mixed-race/hapa voice as a writer and scholar, which was incredibly empowering for me.

Rumpus: Do you think that you are in any way more attuned to what we might call the supernatural in the west? I’m thinking, specifically, of how Japanese culture venerates ancestors and how natural this is. But ghosts are seen as part of the “woo-woo” here, even in California.

Bliss: I can safely say not enough! Most of my AAPI friends in California are totally into supernatural phenomenon and I can’t help but feel like that’s connected in many ways to the Asian American understanding of history, colonialism, hegemonic occupation, the brutality of war, and the dehumanization of AAPI peoples throughout history—imagine talking about history and cultural identity with a Korean American poet, for example, and not talking about han or haunting or trauma or ghosts. Imagine a survey lit course in AAPI lit that didn’t include Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior either as a primary or secondary text. I mean, can we even conceive of Japanese cinema without Miyazaki’s Spirited Away? In Viet’s war and memory class, we read two books that I still think about sometimes: Avery Gordon’s Ghostly Matters and Grace M. Cho’s Haunting the Korean Diaspora and there’s common arguments connecting both texts about how so much of the sexual violence against Asian women in relation to Japanese colonialism and/or the American occupation was never culturally litigated in the public imagination, so it lingers in both Asian and diasporic communities. The ghosts of these women, the ghosts of their trauma, hovers like Gordon’s “seething absence.” Even in the movie The Ring, the mom saves and protects her kid by teaching him to make a VHS copy of the poltergeist’s trauma to essentially demand memorialization as a condition for survival. The copy becomes the memory, which saves our lives.

On the other hand, I think about my ancestors all the time, often as a confusing abstraction. I was the last person to spend time with my obāchan before she passed. I was holding her hand, whispering in her ear in a mix of Japanese and English, doing my best to guide her to the other side. I told her I loved her. I told her she was our light. I promised to take care of my mom. I said she was the center of our family and that we would take care of each other. I still think of her all the time. Sometimes, I can feel her presence. Like a lot of second-generation Asian Americans, I sought understanding and context in the study of Asian languages, religions, and cultures. I went through a brief Confucius stage—an entire secular religion predicated on filial piety and ancestor worship. Those hierarchies, though.

Even now, I can’t help but think of all my ancestors in Japan, how we try and fail to feel, hear, and understand them in this plane of our existence. Sometimes, as I meditate, I follow this one Buddhist exercise that encourages you to imagine your ancestors lined up in rows, delighted at your discipline and concentration. I want so much to believe it’s true. And I think about Shinto too. I search for it in the world. I think about the trillions of deities everywhere, in everything, in every place. Sometimes, I wonder if the world is less lonely when I imagine us surrounded by an infinite number of spirits. But I can’t help but feel that for the AAPI community, ghosts are much more complex than they are for other communities because we can’t conceive of a world in which there is no history or culture before our own existence. It feels like ghosts are, on one important level, historical signifiers for Japanese Americans connected to our past and their haunting stops us from forgetting our history. While many Californians are obsessed with “living in the moment,” most Asian Americans I know live in a complex cultural space where “the moment” is the superstructure and history is the base. I won’t ever lose that. As a writer, I can’t bear to.

 

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Author photo courtesy of author


Marie Mutsuki Mockett was born to an American father and Japanese mother. American Harvest: God, Country and Farming in the Heartland (Graywolf) won the 2021 Northern California Book Award for General Nonfiction and is a tribute to the complicated and nuanced history of the United States and its people. Her memoir, Where the Dead Pause, and the Japanese Say Goodbye, (WWNorton) was a finalist for the 2016 PEN Open Book Award. With Kiese Laymon, she a series editor for the new imprint “Great Circle Books” from UNC Press, which aims to publish emerging writers of nonfiction. She lives in San Francisco and teaches at the Bennington Writing Seminars. More from this author →