Jami Nakamura Lin’s The Night Parade: A Speculative Memoir (Mariner Books, 2023) is a genre-bending book that uses mythology from Lin’s ancestral background to frame her personal story and that of her Taiwanese/Japanese family. She deftly combines memoir writing, ancient legends, and in-depth research in often surprising ways to examine her own history with bipolar disorder and the death of her father when she was an adult. Each chapter is introduced by a single yokai or another ghostly creature from Japanese, Taiwanese, and Okinawan legend deftly illustrated by her sister Cori Nakamura Lin. Jami Nakamura Lin began exploring the book’s themes in her 2020 column for Catapult Magazine called “The Monster in the Mirror.” She received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts/Japan–U.S. Friendship Commission and received an MFA in nonfiction from Pennsylvania State University.
I spoke to Lin over Zoom from her home near Chicago where she lives with her husband and daughter. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Rumpus: I first started reading your work in Catapult and remember your sister Cori’s amazing illustrations for that series. I wanted to ask about your how you decided to collaborate with her on the book since the design and illustrations are so much a part of your story.
Jami Nakamura Lin: Cori and I have collaborated with each other since we were very young. From the time we were little, I always wanted to be a writer and she always wanted to be an artist. That was what our dreams were. Our parents encouraged our creativity. I think our earliest collaboration was when she was in eighth grade and I was a junior in high school, when I started making zines. Cori would illustrate the covers and also parts of the interior. It’
‘s really great that half my life later, she can actually do the cover of the book and the interior the way we did as teenagers. We’ve been working together for a really long time. When this book project came, I hadn’t created it thinking of her art in mind, but then when my agent and I were putting together the proposal, I asked, “Do you think they would let us have her work in it?” Then we made it part of the proposal.
I didn’t know how editors would feel about it. We had been thinking about doing it in black-and-white, because that’
‘s what I assumed that it would have to be, but the art she had at the time was in color, so we included it in the book proposal. The editors were very excited about that. The final book will be in color and will have special paper.
Rumpus: When you started writing the essays for your column in Catapult, were you thinking of writing a book?
Lin: I’ve been thinking about a book about my bipolar disorder for a really long time. My first attempts at creating a “book proposal” was when I was seventeen. It was a few pages long with me trying to explain and summarize what the book would be. I really loved Catapult and thought the column would be a really cool way to delve into something I’m interested in and have something regular because it’s helpful for me to have deadlines. When I wrote my proposal for the column, I wasn’t thinking of a book, necessarily, even though writing a book has always been back in my mind in different ways.
That’s one of the things I was really sad about when Catapult Magazine closed down. There are not very many outlets that do essay columns. So many of those Catapult columns became books later on. It was such a launching pad, a place for people to test out writing about something linked over a long period of time that we don’t really have in other places. So much of what happened wouldn’t have existed for me without Catapult. I miss it a lot.
Agents started to reach out to me about writing a book because of the column. That’s when I started to put together some sort of proposal. The first versions were more about me convincing myself—it was helpful in that it got me really thinking about what I wanted the book to be. I signed with my agent that I’m with right now; then, she and I really put the real proposal together.
Rumpus: How much of your book did you write after you sold it?
Lin: Most of it. I use maybe four of the essay columns in the book, but they’re all dramatically changed—except for the first and the last ones. The first and last installments of my column are the first and last chapters of the book. These were lengthened; I got to investigate things more, but they structurally are very similar. I feel like the shape of the column is retained in the book.
Rumpus: I wanted to ask about structure of your memoir. I’m also a memoir writer, and structure for me is the most difficult part. Could you explain why you chose to use a traditional Japanese four-act structure?
Lin: I chose to use this Japanese traditional form called kishōtenketsu. It’s based on a Chinese four-act form that often was used in traditional Chinese poetry and also in Korean literature. I had been working with my agent for a while on creating this proposal, and the structure was one of the things we added more towards the end. I had this idea at the beginning that I would read back and forth between present and past—a chapter about my dad dying, a chapter about my teenage bipolar years. But it just was so hard for me to focus on and think about as a whole. Structure is very hard for me because I have ADHD. I can focus only on a small chunk at a time, which is why each of the chapters in my memoir functions as a stand-alone essay because I only thought about one at a time.
The kishōtenketsu form really called to me. The first two acts are the introduction and the expansion. But the third act—where normally, if we think of an inverted checkmark structure in Western forms—we think of as the conflict, the high peaking. In kishōtenketsu, the third act is a turn, or a shift or reversal. It often can include what we think of as conflict, but it’s not necessitated. So, in some stories, the third act would seem very different from the first two, and the fourth act brings them together, and that’s where we see how the third act relates to the earlier ones. I felt really drawn to that, because I knew the stories of my growing up and being bipolar and the stories of my father’s death were related. But I wasn’t sure how to blend them together. This form showed me that in the third act, I can shift to a different story. And then in the fourth, I can sew the linkages.
As I wrote, my adherence to kishōtenketsu broke down a little bit. The way I used it is not necessarily how it would be used traditionally. That’s true of forms generally, they undergo some sort of transformation. Having a strong backbone was really important for me because my writing slips so much in time and in space. I needed a backbone in each chapter, and in the book itself that was not time or place. For me, there was each yokai. My editor really helped me with that. She told me, “You have to keep coming back to the yokai. When everything else is shifting, you have something be the anchor. And if it’s not chronological, if you’re not moving in the same space, the yokai, the creature, has to be the anchor.” That’s how I kept trying to bring everything back to that.
Rumpus: How long did it take you to write your book?
Lin: I wrote and published the essays in 2020. I signed with my agent in December 2020. We wrote the proposal very quickly, and it sold in February 2021. And then all of 2021, I wrote the book full-time. And in 2022, I just revised. At the end of 2022, that’s when it went into copyedits.
It was very intense. At the same time, I’ve been thinking about these things for so long and had been studying yokai for a really long time before then. I’d been originally writing a young adult book based on Japanese folklore. I had spent years writing, but it ended up not panning out. I want to go back to that book later on. I spent four months in Japan in 2017 on a grant for that book. That’s where I did a lot of my folklore-type research. And my thesis I wrote in grad school where I graduated in 2013—it was about my mental illness. I wanted to write a book since I was little, and I’ve been keeping these very avid journals. I think it was very quick at the end. But I think a lot of it had just been churning around in my brain.
Rumpus: I wanted to ask you about the form of the paragraphs. You don’t use indentation, which makes it read like a prose poem. How did you make that decision?
Lin: It’s basically what is easy for me to read. The way I write is shaped by my limitations and strengths as a reader and a writer. I think a lot of that is shaped around how my brain works. For me, having that white space around each paragraph helps me read. If there’s long paragraphs in books, my eyes skip over it because it’s just too much to try to take in at once. Having the book in discrete chunks is similar to how I wrote the book—only one chapter at a time. I think a lot of the things that people think are creative choices is the only way I can do it.
Rumpus: You mentioned you did a lot of research before you started the book that you’ve been thinking about for a while. What is your actual writing process?
Lin: A big part of my process was working with my research team, Lisa Hoffman Kuroda and Jenna Tang, who are Japanese American and Taiwanese. I met them through Catapult, they both taught translation classes. I knew from doing research for the book before that there is a limited amount of stuff in English. A lot of the translations had come from white men in the early 1900s and late 1800s, or white men now. I wanted to be able to delve into the texts more. I can speak a little Japanese, but I can’t read or write anything. And nothing in Mandarin. I hired them after I knew what yokai I wanted to research. I asked them to research further about the yokai I had picked, to explore tidbits that caught my interest and to look up the source text of stories that were not in English. Without them, the material in the book would be less rich. Their understanding of contextual information was so important. Not only as translators, not only as people who speak that language fluently, but also, they are part of those cultural communities that they’re speaking about. I learned so much from them.
As to my own writing process, for each project, I have a huge notebook. I use two-by-two Post-It Notes that I write on because, again, I need to think in very small chunks. I have a double page spread for each yokai or each chapter or section. If I was doing research or reading a book, I would write a note for whatever thing it belonged to and stick the Post-It Note there. It was kind of like what I used in Scrivener. Except Scrivener never really worked for me, because if I can’t see something physically, it’s just not there. It’s hard for me to do this virtually. So I have it all in my notebooks so I can rearrange the sticky notes. Also having a little Post-It Note is less intimidating. I have a very hard time getting into writing, so if I just say to myself “I just need to fill this tiny two-by-two-inch Post-It Note,” it does not seem as intimidating as a big piece of paper.
I write most things longhand first. Also because of fear—opening a document just seems like too much. From the time I was little, I wrote everything longhand in my journals. It’s what I’m used to. This embodied process of having the writing come out of my hands. It’s slower, so it makes me think more. I like having my body really connected to that process. It’s the only way I can do it. I had to figure out how to make it work for me.
I think one of the hardest things is that I have a terrible memory. It was very hard for me to keep things straight in the book, which is why I only did things chapter by chapter, because that’s how much I could take in at once. My editor would help me streamline things and made sure I wasn’t constantly repeating myself because I would just forget what I wrote somewhere else.
Rumpus: I noticed that you use different points of view in the book, which I found fascinating. How did you come to this decision?
Lin: I think it was in the pieces where I was having a harder time writing, draft after draft, thinking, “This isn’t working.” I realized I needed to try something new. It was a way to try to punch myself out of that. The chapter that’s in third person, “The Offing”—it was really hard for me to write. I wrote it so many times, and my editor said it wasn’t working. And I could see why it wasn’t working. She said, “What if you wrote it in third person?” Because it’s material that’s difficult—talking about suicide—she said that it would help me with distancing. She also told me, “Reality, isn’t your strong suit, lean into the weird.” It felt very freeing to get that validation from her because that’s what I really love to do. I love speculative fiction, I love that type of work. To be able to write in this different way made me want to go to the page, whereas otherwise, l felt so stuck.
Rumpus: I was really struck by the “Oni” section. It’s like a folktale of its own, and you bring in all this history, while a younger version of you as a character is on a boat with your grandparents. It felt very different from other parts of the book.
Lin: That chapter was the hardest one for me to write. I think it was because of this feeling of wanting to be able to tell the story of Japanese American incarceration in a way that was representative. I was fearful of leaving things out. I felt like: “Oh, now it’s not just my story, but it’s a story of us as a community.” I didn’t want to let people down. Often people from marginalized communities feel this way about writing their own stories. I struggled with that for a long time. And I think two things that were helpful was Cori saying, “It doesn’t have to be you who brings in all these things. There are other books, you do not have to take on everything.” I realized I don’t have to tell this entire story of incarceration. I can just tell my story of how my family went through it.
I remember walking back and forth in this hotel room because I couldn’t write this section. So I went to a hotel for two days, twenty minutes from my house. I called my mother crying. I was so upset about not being able to write and being so afraid of writing this, and she calmed me down as she always did. She said something similar to what my sister was saying: “It does not have to be every story.” The journey down the river was the only way I could break through all these mental blocks I had. I tell it in this dreamlike state of “What do I wish I had known from when I was younger that I didn’t learn until I was older?”
Rumpus: I think it works really well.
Lin: It’s funny because the parts that people really like are the parts I wrote at the very end that were the hardest to do. I think because they required some type of stylistic shift to help me through that block. . . . I feel like I still have that toddler point of view that’s in the “Oni” section. So many times, I ask myself: “What’s going on? I don’t understand.” I think bringing that point of view feels very honest to me and how I feel a lot of the times. I feel like when you write a book like this, people just expect you to know so many things. What I wanted to get into the book was this idea of searching.
Rumpus: I really appreciate your questioning in this book. Near the end, you say that you imagined your book as a “book length essay form suited for my constant uncertainty.” And then you quote, Leslie Jamison, who says, “Essays are inherently political because they’re committed to instability,” which is just such an amazing quote.
Lin: When we think about political rhetoric right now, so much of it is extremely forceful with no facts behind it necessarily, or very shoddy facts. It seems like the shouting has no doubt behind it. I love the essay as a form because like Leslie says, it’s committed to instability, it’s committed to showing doubt. The works I’m most drawn to are the ones where you can tell from the beginning that the writer is genuinely uncertain, is genuinely trying to figure something out. And at the end, we might not find out the thing. We might find out something else, but we’re on this thought journey.
I’m a slow writer because I think about things for a really long time. And then when it actually comes to the writing of it, it can be pretty fast. But I’ve been thinking about it [the subject] for years. Because they’re unstable, there’s a certain level of precariousness about essays, and it’s that level of precariousness which shows that something is at stake. The essay is my favorite form.
Author photograph by Ananda Lima