Interview: Sequoia Nagamatsu

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.

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Sisters

by A. Marie Carter

My sister and I play a game. It’s a game of a sovereignty of sorts, and it’s played out inside the front cover of every storybook our family owns. Her name is written in neat print, at the top, there first, claiming ownership from the start. My name is always scrawled underneath; the desperate scribble of the second sister who came after all the gifts had already been given. I too own this book, it seems to say. But she’s always the first, three years my senior. Her name is always already there.

It’s inside an exquisite copy of The Twelve Dancing Princesses that her name irks me most. I adore this book, a present from our grandmother, with its intricate illustrations by Errol Le Cain. Each sister is drawn in a gown embellished with a different fruit or flower, and her dresses, her headwear, even her delicate dancing shoes, are themed to match. I spend countless hours examining these pictures, trying to decide which sister I want to be.

Am I the youngest princess, whose dresses are adorned with flowers of orange and tangerine? Or can I be another one? I can’t be the one who wears wine-dark grapes in her hair because she is the eldest and my own sister is already just like her, quiet and wise, while I, like the story’s youngest, am all clamour and noise. Standing in between them are ten other women, in varying shades of our own selves.

The youngest sister in this story is terrified of noises in the dark, scared by the snap of a golden twig, by the footsteps of an invisible soldier. I don’t want to be that sister. I don’t want to be the one who is always afraid, who is frightened by things she cannot see. So I try hard to be the boldest, to be the bravest.

But when our grandmother dies I am the one who sits stupefied by her bedside, unable to speak anything but sobs, while my sister says all there is that needs to be said. The thank yous, the admissions of love. The acknowledgment of things that pass between girls and grandmothers. For all my bravado, it is her that takes the burden even though, strangely, I wanted it. But I can’t begrudge her that.

Just like in all the fairy tales, it’s the eldest who inherits the throne.


A. Marie Carter is an emerging writer from Adelaide, South Australia. Her short stories have appeared in Seizure and the Review of Australian Fiction. She teaches English Literature and Creative Writing at Flinders University, where she is also completing a PhD on monstrous mothers in varying folkloric contexts.

Illustration by Errol Le Cain from The Twelve Dancing Princesses (1981)

Editor’s Note: Ancestral Hunger Pangs

My mother’s kitchen cupboards are stocked with ancestral memories; crammed with what may look like ordinary jars and cans, boxes and bottles—but I know better. These are her hunger ghosts, I think to myself every time I open the cupboards, doppelgangers of old wounds and inherited hurts.

The same goes for the freezer and fridge, the fruit bowl, even the jar for cat treats. My mother hoards food. She consistently buys too much, as if she’s still cooking for a household of eight or preparing for a food shortage or a spell of famine. She overcooks too, long used to making large casseroles that needed to stretch into a couple days’ worth of leftovers. My father and I have tried talking to her, telling her to scale back, that we cannot possibly eat everything before it spoils and it’s a sin to waste food.

But I think she really is preparing for a famine, or reckoning with the haunting of one. My mother descends from the Famine Irish, the generation that left Ireland in the mid-19th century for their lives, escaping starvation and fever, mass death, and the devastation of centuries of British colonialism. Hunger is the reason she’s here, in America, and half the reason I’m here too, along with my brothers, sisters, and all my maternal cousins.

In Irish folk belief there’s a type of grass called an féar gortach, the hungry grass. Some say it’s a different shade than the green that famously carpets Ireland, more silver in color, or patchy and withered. Others say it looks like any other grass, and you only know you’ve stepped on it too late, when a great hunger suddenly comes upon you and nothing can cure it save a bite of some bread tucked away in your pockets (if you had the forethought) or a bit of your own shoelace (if you’re really stuck). It’s said hungry grass grows wherever a corpse has been laid down or someone has died. The belief predates An Gorta Mór of the 1840s, the Great Hunger. But an féar gortach took on a new, ghastly meaning then, in an era when famine victims were found in fields and on roadsides, a ring of green around their open, lifeless mouths after a last, desperate meal of grass.

As Ireland’s potato crop failed and its people starved, its other crops were harvested and exported by the shipload to serve on British dinner tables and fill British bellies. At least a million Irish died during the Famine, their bodies buried in mass graves wherever their lives gave out. In a sense, all Ireland’s green countryside turned to hungry grass, a landscape of want and loss, of lasting trauma and emptied beauty. At least another million emigrated, became refugees, exiles, Irish-Americans, Irish-Canadians, Irish-Australians, hyphenated people, diasporic, hungry.

Growing up, Mom spoke often of her family’s history, sang and played us Irish folk songs, explained to us the Famine, dressed us in green on St. Patrick’s Day. Maybe it seems a stretch to suggest my mother’s food compulsions have anything to do with an event in another country her ancestors left fadó fadó. But some events are simply too large, too traumatic not to eat into the blood, the DNA, the collective cultural memory of a people.

Mother’s ancestral memories transferred to all her children, but might have absorbed most deeply into me, her last-born child and the only one to go live in Ireland years later. I am the child who’s never married, never had children. Who’s struggled with her weight, eats when she’s not hungry, and bakes when she’s sad or simply bored. Who collects cats, books, and passport stamps like they’ll fill up some loss, some second-hand but deep-rooted want and need. The famished one, always looking for some patch of grass where the hunger finally makes sense.


This editor’s note was written by Tiny Donkey editor René Ostberg.