Sequoia Nagamatsu is the author of the story collection Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone (Black Lawrence Press). His work has appeared in Black Warrior Review, Conjunctions, Tin House, and elsewhere. Originally from Hawaii and the San Francisco Bay Area, he was educated at Grinnell College and Southern Illinois University. He is the managing editor of Psychopomp Magazine, and an assistant professor of creative writing at St. Olaf College in Minnesota. He is currently working on a second story collection and a novel.
Sequoia Nagamatsu’s story collection Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone is haunting and watery, full of tales of love and loss, but it also has bright surprises of wit and whimsy. His stories are set in Japan and populated by monsters of both traditional folklore and pop culture sci-fi, from the yōkai with its elastically fantastic neck to the atomic and iconic Godzilla.
Growing up as a third-generation Japanese American, what kind of exposure did you have to Japanese folklore? Were Japanese stories part of your family’s connection to their culture?
Apart from some of the more famous tales, such as Momotarō the Peach Boy, I never really encountered Japanese folklore as a child. No one except for my great-grandmother spoke Japanese, and it was difficult for many of us to find a link to our heritage through her. That said, I did attend temple every weekend as a child (my mother was a member of one of the so-called “new” religions), and services consisted of songs and dances that told tales of sorts.
When did you become interested in learning more about Japanese folklore? How do you feel the folklore of Japan has influenced the development of your personal ethnic identity?
I’ve always been fascinated with myths and legends from an early age, but it wasn’t until I reached college that I started to explore the tales of other cultures as an anthropology major. Even then, it wasn’t until I moved to Japan that my interest in Japanese folklore really took off (in part as a way to explore my heritage). The fantastic in literature, whether it be inspired by folklore or otherwise, is often part of a tradition of critique—social, psychological, emotional, individual. Folkloric monsters can serve as an allegory and a lens into modern life, emphasizing aspects of the human condition and society while, especially in the case of Japan, being a reminder of an old world that can never completely be reclaimed. As a Japanese American whose family has in many ways lost touch with our heritage, my foray into Japanese folklore was an effort to at least dip my toes in the magical ponds of my great-grandmother’s home.