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Tasting Onigiri: An Interview With Kelly Luce

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Everything I know about Japan I’ve learned from books, films, and having watched every episode of the anime Naruto at least two times. I’ve never traveled to Japan. I don’t speak the language. So when I started researching Hiroshima for a new novel project, I quickly found out that I was working from a deficit. 

Fortunately, I’ve known Kelly Luce since we met at the Tin House Summer Workshop in 2011. Kelly chose Japanese settings for the stories of her first book, Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail. The stories deftly avoid the pitfalls of over-interpretation and generalization that are easy for an author to stumble into when writing about a culture not her own. Kelly’s brand new novel, Pull Me Under, is also set in Japan, and as soon as I read it, I knew that I wanted to talk to her about the rewards and risks of writing about a culture that we both love but to which we don’t belong.

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Zach Powers: Why Japan? What about this novel made Japan the necessary setting?

Kelly Luce: As you know, I lived in Japan for a few years. The idea for the novel came out of my experiences there; the story-seed I became obsessed with (obsessed enough to spend years writing a novel about) happened to be a uniquely Japanese one.

Specifically, I wanted to write about the phenomenon of kireru, which in Japan means “to cut or snap,” and is the term used to describe young kids, often pre-teens, committing horrifically violent acts for no apparent reason. And not just boys—girls, too. While I was living there, a number of these crimes occurred and were reported in the news. I was teaching junior high at the time and couldn’t help but think: Could one of my kids do something like this?

Which led to the question: What could push a child to do this? Why does this occur in Japan, an otherwise peaceful and relatively crime-free country? I also wanted to explore the point of view of a mixed-race narrator in Japan, one of the most homogenous countries on the planet. There’s a stigma attached to being haafu or hapa (“half”), and though there’s been social progress on this front, one need only look at the backlash against mixed-race women winning national pageant titles during the past two years to know the ideal of racial purity is alive and well in Japan. I’ve always been interested in the connection between heritage and identity—I’m the one in my family who’s always trying to dig up information about where my ancestors came from and when, to learn their stories.

kelly luce

ZP: I’m glad you mentioned your narrator, Rio. She has an American mother and a Japanese father. So while she’s an outsider in Japan, she’s enough of an insider to relate parts of Japanese culture that might be unfamiliar to Western readers—the concept of being haafu, for example. Can you talk about the role of the narrator (and your responsibility as writer) when writing about Japan for non-Japanese readers? How do you balance interpretation with storytelling?

KL: The role of the narrator in any story, whether it’s set in space or Middle-Earth or modern-day Topeka, is to relate events and ideas in a way that lets readers in. They need to be immersed in the world of the story. So that’s one responsibility of the writer, to make sure readers have enough information to feel comfortable. But you want this information to be embedded. A novel isn’t a lecture. Interpretation and storytelling should go hand-in-hand. With regards to Pull Me Under, a book being published in the U.S., this means allowing Rio to subtly explain certain aspects of Japanese culture and language on the page that aren’t part of the general American knowledge pool about Japan.

I strove to make these “explanations” feel natural, and I think they do, because after having been away from Japan so long, Rio is also explaining these things to herself. When she eats that first onigiri on the bus from the airport, she doesn’t pull out of her mode of narration to give the definition of onigiri. Through her description of unwrapping it and biting into it, anyone who’s never heard of onigiri can now feel and taste one. The same thing with the concept of haafu. In that case, I also used the other characters’ reactions to Rio being haafu to show the different ways people approach people of mixed race in Japan.

The second important responsibility of the writer is to place itself. It’s like being a guest and a host at the same time. In cases like this one, where the setting is a real place unfamiliar to most readers, I was very aware of the responsibility to Japan and its culture and its people to get it right.

ZP: As I get deeper into my own research on Japan, I’ve also become concerned with the risks authors take when writing about cultures outside their personal experience. Fortunately, there are a lot of great conversations right now on that subject (here’s a recent example). One essay that stuck with me was actually about comic books, in which the author makes a distinction between writing a story set in another culture versus writing the story of that culture. I think Pull Me Under succeeds because it narrows in on individual stories, and doesn’t coopt the broader experience of being Japanese. Were you conscious of that sort of distinction while crafting the novel?

KL: Well, no, it wasn’t something I consciously thought about because I never considered the novel about “being Japanese” (or Japanese-American). It’s about being human. Maybe that sounds trite. But everything I write is driven by this passion for human connection. For empathy, as Brandon Taylor says. Isn’t that why we read? That’s why I read. And the best way I know to showcase and explore humanity is to delve deeply into the life of an individual.

That said, I tried to remain as aware as I could of possible missteps. Did I make damn sure details of Japanese culture and language and tradition were correct? Absolutely. But getting the facts right of a place and culture is different than getting the story right on a humanity level. It’s the difference between accuracy and truth.

The hours and years I spent on this book, imagining the characters and scenes, were hours and years spent remembering and reliving experiences I had in Japan, and people I met there. All the feelings and memories came back, for better or worse. I could never set a story in a place where I haven’t spent significant time. I need to be imprinted by a place before I can conjure it in my imagination.

This leads me to something I’ve been wanting to ask you, actually. I’m curious about the novel you’re writing. It’s set in Hiroshima, a place you’ve never been. Obviously, Hiroshima has a unique and important history, but so do many cities. So, why Hiroshima? Why a place you’ve never been to? And do you plan to go there? Do you think it’s necessary, like I do, to have spent time in a place in order to set fiction there?

ZP: Many of my early stories and my first novel manuscript were set in a nameless, made-up city. I always thought of it as something like Superman’s Metropolis, a near infinitely malleable setting that I could adapt to the needs of a given story. In the novel, for example, there’s a giant Godzilla-type monster who that emerges from a bay, but that bay didn’t exist until I realized I needed it. So I craft setting in service to other narrative considerations. A giant monster has to come from somewhere.

For the Hiroshima novel, I’m writing about the city as it was on August 6, 1945 at the moment the atomic bomb was dropped. I actually chose the bombing almost casually, and it wasn’t until I got deeper into my research, as the abstract concept of this massive tragedy became more concrete in my mind, that I realized the responsibilities I would shoulder with such a heavy topic. While I’ll never be able to live in historical Hiroshima, I do plan to visit, funds permitting, and I want to treat the city and its people with as much respect as I can muster.

So is it necessary to have lived somewhere to write about it? I don’t know. I think there’s a critical mass of understanding that empowers a writer to write about a subject, but I hope that kind of understanding can come from second-hand sources as well as direct experience, at least for fiction. With fiction, if I need a particular setting, I’m just going to make it up, anyway.

One final question. If someone finishes Pull Me Under and wants another book set in Japan, do you have any personal recommendations?

KL: If you like crime/mystery novels with female protagonists, Natsuo Kirino’s Grotesque or Out are great; she has a wonderfully dark sensibility. For something short and nostalgic and sweet, try Takashi Hiraide’s The Guest Cat. Suzanne Kamata’s Gadget Girl: the Art of Being Invisible is an excellent YA novel about a girl with cerebral palsy. On the non-fiction side there’s Essays in Idleness, written in 1330 by a monk named Kenkō, and Junichiro Tanizaki’s tiny volume, In Praise of Shadows, which is on Japanese aesthetics. Tanizaki’s passionate commentary on Japanese toilets as places of spiritual repose is worth the read alone.

ZP: Thanks, Kelly! Pull Me Under was such a pleasure to read, and I can’t wait for everyone to get a chance to pick up a copy in November.

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Kelly Luce grew up in Brookfield, Illinois. After graduating from Northwestern University with a degree in cognitive science, she moved to Japan, where she lived and worked for three years. Her work has been recognized by fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, Ucross Foundation, Sozopol Fiction Seminars, Ragdale Foundation, the Kerouac Project, and Jentel Arts, and has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Salon, O, the Oprah Magazine, Electric Literature, Crazyhorse, The Southern Review, and other publications. She received an MFA from the Michener Center for Writers at UT Austin in 2015 and lives in Santa Cruz, CA. She is a Contributing Editor for Electric Literature and will be a fellow at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies during the 2016-17 academic year. Her debut novel, Pull Me Under, is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Zach Powers lives and writes in Savannah, Georgia. His debut story collection, Gravity Changes, won the BOA Editions Short Fiction Prize, and will be published in spring 2017. His work has appeared in Black Warrior Review, Forklift, Ohio, PANK, Caketrain, and elsewhere. He is the co-founder of the literary arts nonprofit Seersucker Live (SeersuckerLive.com), and he leads the writers’ workshop at the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home. Get to know him at ZachPowers.com

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