A Conversation with Daisuke Shen and Vi Khi Nao About their Collaborative Novella, Funeral

By

Funeral, the first collaborative novella between Daisuke Shen and Vi Khi Nao, is overwhelming in the best way: dizzying and ecstatic to such a degree that a basic summary feels impossible. One could say it is a book about Hell, but a Hell so similar to Earth in its mundanities that it might be indistinguishable (within the text, some suggest that Hell may be preferable). It would also be fair to say that Funeral centers around a tumultuous romance that blooms within Hell, between Eddie—protagonist of the 1969 film Funeral Parade of Roses—and Xing Jin, who portrayed the antagonist in the Thai martial arts film The Protector.

However, any such basic summary would be a disservice to Shen and Nao’s breathtaking and often hilarious work of metaphysical realism. Most importantly, despite its strangeness, Funeral offers some of the most realistic depictions of love and friendship I’ve encountered. It’s a brilliant and moving work that demands experience, not summary. I had the pleasure of sharing a Google Doc with Shen and Nao, where we discussed the nature of their collaboration, existence as performance, and the characteristics of Hell and death.

***

The Rumpus: What was the seed of this book? What was the seed of your collaboration?

Daisuke Shen: Before there was Daisuke, there was Vi. Vi Khi Nao was born in 1979 and wrote and produced art, all sorts of art, for many years, without ever knowing or predicting Daisuke Shen’s birth in 1994. Daisuke Shen made art haphazardly for a couple of years on and off, and then they met Vi Khi Nao and things started to make sense. Writing started feeling interesting again, like it was worth it after all, and not just a boring thing that ate ham sandwiches on white bread for every meal and whose favorite book from last year was [Redacted] by [Famous Author], which remained on the NYT Bestsellers List for what felt like forever. When Vi asked Daisuke what film they should watch to base the novella around after Daisuke won a grant from the NYFA [New York Foundation for the Arts], Daisuke suggested Funeral Parade of Roses, which Daisuke’s friend Jesi Gaston recommended to them many months beforehand and eventually became Daisuke’s favorite film. At this current point in time, Daisuke does not remember what year Jesi was born.

Vi Khi Nao: I was told or I read somewhere that durians (the wonderful smelling fruit that should be at all airports and hotels and taxi cabs) tend to fall nocturnally. The seed of Funeral did not fall like oranges, but like that of a jackfruit/durian/underwear-tofu tree. In the tenebrous darkness of the pandemic. And in its earliest birth, we don’t recommend anyone to roam under us, in the midst of our respective, alternating creative production, as our falling fruit (manuscript) could give sleepwalkers concussions. Funeral must have waited for the weather severity prevailing within the hypothermic clarity of our mutual existence to emerge. Meaning Daisuke floated on a Bed-Stuy mattress of frozen chè trôi nước for months and years and I must have been at a point in my life where I can’t climb stairs anymore.

Rumpus: I’m not familiar with Funeral Parade of Roses. What about it resonated so much with you?

Shen: A fake documentary centering around the bara zoku [a term for gay men in Japan] of the ‘60s that slowly merges and becomes a “real” documentary that makes up the film. I feel like people in the US are sometimes very surprised to learn that Japan had and continues to have a very large and flourishing LGBTQ community. [Director Toshio] Matsumoto’s usage of the mockumentary as a device makes the other parts of the film feel more emotionally intimate, meant for our eyes alone—and yet we are still voyeurs and active participants just like everyone else (SPOILER ALERT: The film ends with Eddie walking out onto the street in Tokyo with people simply watching her stumble around as blood pools out of her eyes). And then there is, of course, a lot of drugs, a lot of sex, a lot of trauma, a lot of stuff concerning the political turmoil happening in the ‘60s. We see throughout the film a schism being created between “traditional” Japan and the new, emerging culture that young people are creating. Leda [a madame] is growing old, she is losing clients, losing her lover: she’s always shown wearing a kimono and has a lot of traditional Japanese art and furnishings in her home, whereas Eddie [a transgender sex worker] is this beautiful young girl who represents the “new.” It’s a darkly humorous and emotionally gutting masterpiece.

Autobiographically speaking, I feel connected to the film in many ways. Eddie is Eddie and Leda is Leda and I am myself, for better or worse. And all of us have had issues with men.

Nao: In 2021, and not lately, sad films do not move me anymore, but the melancholy in Funeral Parade of Roses echoes something [like] Yasujirō Ozu with embodied Western mythologies, but the film still retains its Japanese cultural impulses.

Synopsis: Toshio Matsumoto, the Japanese New Wave chef, inserted Oedipus Rex, Peter, Osamu Ogasawara, Yoshio Tsuchiya, Emiko Azuma into his anachronistic blender with the pre-peeled, pre-washed fruits of suicide, childhood sexual abuses, masks, gay bar, some transgender women, roses, and the soymilk of inky marijuanaesque characters Eddie, Leda, and Gonda into it, and then he blended three or four times until this arthouse smoothie is softer than Buddha’s butt cheeks. And when you drink this cinematic potion by watching, it is capable of curing suicide, patricide, acne, and preventing sex with one’s mother.

Rumpus: Despite Funeral being a collaboration, it feels like the product of a single voice. Could you discuss the collaborative process a bit? Are you each able to pick apart your individual contributions, or are they so interwoven as to be indistinguishable?

Shen: One very funny moment I’d like to share: While we were driving to Iowa City for ten hours from Louisiana, I gave Vi our manuscript to look over and double-check for any copyediting errors. When Vi got to the ending that she wrote, she suddenly exclaimed from the back of the car, “Oh my God. This is so wild. Which one of us wrote this!?” I feel that I can recognize my own voice very well, and recognize Vi’s voice very well, but I found that very flattering. In the manuscript, things are pretty calm for a while before suddenly moving in a more campy direction, which is all Vi. She is by far one of the best writers I know, and the best at what she does: a mathematician who can think of formulas for any and every possible solution, ones which others would have thought impossible.

Nao: The collaborative effort/process is similar to being in a kitchen in a Google Doc. Daisuke and I are the molecular gastronomy head chefs. Daisuke prepared the first literary dish: a deconstructed smoked almond, and then I made something numerically gelatin and extremely thinly sliced, alphabetic radishes with hell rhubarb and bullet-trained catfish, and then Daisuke added to the literary buffet table by making something Tony Leung with seafoam and “emulsification, gelification, and spherification” —we do this for over three months straight until we have a language gallimaufry of everything.

Daisuke is an awesome, intuitive chef, always knowing what ingredients to add to offer the best flavor/tongue/palate combo. They always bring a large sharpened butcher knife the size of an air fryer. And, they are very efficient at chopping the radishes into very thin slices. And, they inspired me to always want to make a dish that no one ever wanted to try to make before. They are also good at food preservation by air-freezing them with a few clacks of hands. Daisuke always electronically turned to me and said, “Vi! This dental floss will hold all the slabs of beef meat and pork sirloin and cauliflowers into one stack so they won’t fall apart in the oven!” Daisuke is a life saver.

Rumpus: What was your mode or ritual for communication between one another throughout Funeral’s writing? Did rules need to be established? Or were the boundaries of what is/is not the novella more fluid?

Shen: Just like with this interview, Vi and I created a Google Doc. Neither of us knew where the other was going beforehand, we would simply tell each other when we had completed a section and move on from there. I think that it was perhaps the first time I’d ever felt truly free in making art. Having Vi to collaborate with—someone who loves making mistakes in art, who does not have time to worry about how things will turn out in the end—has been an incredible teacher.

The only rule that I know of is that Vi does not enjoy lateness, another quality I admire in her. She can “chop chop” the hell out of anyone and will, because she believes in creating constantly, in thinking about art as something you can do with immediacy so long as you have passion and commitment. There is a voice recording from her that I have on my phone (which I requested) that goes like this: “Chop chop, Daisuke! Chop chop, Daisuke! Chop chop! Chop chop.”

Nao: Regarding ritual-engaged, ongoing dialogue and exchange, I echo what Daisuke said above. But, Daisuke left one thing out: Daisuke had a canoe docked on the Pacific ocean and whenever they needed to tell me something important about the plot of our manuscript, they emailed it to a corn detasseling wolf who inserted the message into a corn cob and dropped that corn cob into the canoe for it to be transported to Denver, Colorado. The canoe sat on top of a water buffalo. By the time it arrived, a flock of migrating birds had eaten all of the corn and Daisuke’s message and I was left to make unpopcornable popcorn with my partner in our Denver loft.

Rumpus: I sensed a theatricality throughout the text, with certain passages structured like dialogue within a play, others like character descriptions preceding a play. Are either of you from a theater background?

Shen: In high school, I played one of the ugly stepsisters in an adaptation of Cinderella, perhaps my biggest role. Otherwise, I am not an actor, though I am a big fan of watching films and reading plays. Vi is a filmmaker, and I am an aspiring one (currently working on a project with dear friend Mara Iskander, former editor of Homintern). Tony Leung decided he wanted to make an appearance. He saw what we were writing and said, “Okay, I need this role.” Others also started auditioning and though some were worse than others (Machine Gun Kelly passed out drunk and naked on the floor; Awkwafina demanded that we give her one hundred thousand dollars more in payment but settled for two small appearances instead), I think that our cast worked together pretty well despite the bumps along the way.

Nao: I struggle to read stories or books written in the traditional dialogue formatting. I always get confused as to who is speaking and to whom. Because Funeral is quasi-Funeral Parade of Roses influenced, it makes sense to script part of the manuscript in a playful, play-like structure. It can even echo the language of screenwriting.

Rumpus: A finished book often looks completely different from the process that birthed it. Funeral, to me, feels like a work of incredible imaginative freedom. It feels like the product of a creatively unbridled state. Is there any truth to this? Or is it the result of disguised constraints?

Nao: If a dog introduces itself as a boar and ours introduces itself as a rhinoceros turned cauliflower, I think the birth of our book has a bi-product of creative autonomy and chaos. And, at times, is it merely an artifact of opportunity materializing itself as measured impulse.

Rumpus: Life and death, heaven and hell—are these just variations of a soul’s performance?

Shen: Yes. Our souls (even those who are seemingly emotionally stable and secure in their relationships) are melodramatic and have attachment issues. They can’t stick in one place for too long. Maybe my soul will be more active once I’m dead, who can say? Maybe it will learn how to do all of the things I wanted to do in this life but didn’t: for example, master an instrument or be really good at math.

Nao: On earth, the human soul has many opportunities to close its door to life. If it sticks to life, it suffers. And, as if it has a choice, if it chooses death, it’s no longer in conversation with itself. And, its relationship to death is always constant, uninterrupted, and sempiternal. To access hell, its doors are the [human] mouths and eyes and ears. To access heaven, the [human] genitals. My soul has exited and entered these corporeal gates, these material orifices a million different times, in a million different ways. It has walked across the forest of my pubic hair, the lake of my belly button, the desert of my belly, the mountains of my nipples, the valley of my heartbeats. Are these performances or just pantomimes pretending to possess a soul? “I am soulless, but I still write. I don’t have a body, but I still eat”—are these the quotidian dialogue/statements of a soul? If I had volition, I wouldn’t be here. I was pushed out of another heaven’s/hell’s gate into the sea without a life jacket.

Rumpus: Is hell primarily a matter of social class?

Shen: This reminds me a bit of questions concerning morality or ethicality. I wrote this down from a phone call I had with Vi just the other day: “Everything is ethical when you spend so much time horizontal.” I won’t speak to Vi’s pain, that is her story. As for myself, my pain demanded perfection from me for many years. And I demanded perfection from others. Then it becomes very apparent that your pain does not love you and does not want what is best for you. Fear and shame create indignation and sanctimony, so the opposite of that would be to allow for people to present themselves in imperfect lights, and to allow that for yourself as well. At the end of the day, you’re going to hate who you hate and like who you like depending on your beliefs, but you don’t get to be the judge of where they end up. Everyone has strong beliefs—if someone claims to lack them, they’re just telling on themselves. Heaven is for the elite, the famous, the polite and long-suffering and well-beloved whose shit could be sold for millions of dollars. These people may, like hell-dwellers, be badly-behaved and short-tempered, but in a way that is boring. They are protected by way of money and scenes and what have you. Hell is for the people whose shit is not very valuable, and it stinks, but at least it’s the real thing.

Nao: Hell doesn’t have a social class. Unlike a laundromat, it is not coin- nor hierarchy-operated. Some say if one is wealthy and healthy, one may visit hell less. Others say everyone visits hell and hell visits them. It’s a very reciprocal relationship. My life gives my soul a stopwatch, pain. When I am in pain, my life stops. Everything stops. But, why does the soul measure how long it has been walking? Where is the race? Hell must be a race and it rewards the winner pain when the soul arrives there first.

Rumpus: Death seems to be much like childhood. Why do you think this is?

Shen: Inès Cagnati, who wrote the book Free Day, says in an interview something along these lines: “No one cares about children. Or crazy people.” There is a way to die even if the body is still, in all appearances, present. In Naoki Urusawa’s 20th Century Boys, there is a point where one of the characters—a charismatic, manipulative kid who uses weaker, lonely kids as ways to provide him with attention and power—tells another that he died, that he no longer exists. And so he comes to embody that belief. That nothing he does matters, that no one is there to care about him, that he is invisible to everyone around him, and it affects him for the rest of his life.

Depending on the type of childhood you have, the types of death that you can experience are very different. Everyone is affected or traumatized by something at some point, but perhaps the death is the kind where there was some kind of hope to grasp onto afterward. And then there is the type of childhood death where you can never trust what will happen next, where everywhere you turn is just another type of hell. None of the living can see you or hear you, or maybe even worse, they can and simply choose to pretend otherwise. But at the end of the day, you decide whether or not to make your way out of it.

Nao: Death has no childhood. It comes into being as a precocial entity: fully formed/fully dressed. I have not seen death flicking a marble ball with its fat thumb into a hole nor snap a Barbie doll’s head into two. I have only seen death’s front teeth and its excellent jawline and, speaking from experience, I have flossed death’s teeth and it’s super easy to.

Rumpus: There’s a notion throughout the text that as much as humanity tries to understand and interpret the gods, they are inherently unknowable. The same could be said of all humans. Is this what connects humanity to the gods—an inability to understand one another?

Shen: I might actually say that it’s the opposite. We understand too much about the gods, and there is danger in too much knowing. The same goes for humans, I think. People are afraid of “crazy people”—people with too much emotion, whether that be fear or anger or sadness or anxiety—not because they do not understand, but because they understand all too well these so-called sicknesses of the soul. We are supposed to keep our private parts hidden and in exposing them, know the concept of shame. But what to make of people who display things in excess, who are bold in their presentation of brokenness? For this reason we see Eddie, in the film, plunging the knife into her eyes after witnessing the aftermath of her desire. And her desire for her father was Eddie simply trying to understand too much of herself, of her father.

Nao: I asked God a couple of times if it’s okay to die and he said, “No.” Apparently, he doesn’t know me very well and is a bit unreasonable. The best way to exist, to have an exemplary, infallible understanding, a magnificent connection with God(s), is to never ask such an entity for anything. It is like learning martial arts or certain life-saving military techniques such as strangling an enemy with one’s thighs, but never to use it or take it upon oneself to apply it empirically.

Rumpus: That’s extremely interesting. Is that one of the reasons creating and publishing art is so appealing, that it is one of the only socially acceptable ways to reveal oneself when they are experiencing too many emotions?

Shen: Yes, I think so. I’ve always been an anxious, emotional person. I trip over words and have trouble finishing or continuing a thought. People have referred to me all my life as “intense.” It’s something I used to really hate, but then I feel better because the two writers I love the most—Osamu Dazai, Qiu Miaojin—were deemed by their contemporaries and lovers as intense, pathetic people. And really, they’re anything but. When you read their work, it’s just a collection of raw nerves pulsing on the page. The willingness to admit themselves as addicts or sick or obsessive or vindictive or unstable or selfish or antisocial or sensitive or cowardly, coupled with their determination to better these parts of themselves, is exactly what makes them such fantastic artists. And admirable humans at that.

Nao: Speaking from the standpoint of successfully revealing oneself, the commerce of confession in publishing is a needle-in-a-haystack ordeal. To use/exploit the art form to help people accept who we are. When we want to retain our privacy, we want the needle to be a hay straw, not pretending to be one. There is no rhyme and reason to why we think we can clothe ourselves with a few needles and a few hay straws when we are completely and utterly naked. People judge. That is what they do. We can’t pretend to hide ourselves in anything. Let alone art.

 

 

***
Author photos courtesy of author and by Scott Indermaur


B.R. Yeager is the author of Negative Space (Apocalypse Party), Amygdalatropolis (Schism2), Pearl Death (Inside the Castle), and the forthcoming collection Burn You the Fuck Alive (Apocalypse Party). He resides in Western Massachusetts. More from this author →