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.

The stories in your collection are set in Japan. You spent two years living there. Are the folkloric creatures who inhabit your stories well-known to average Japanese citizens? Japanese pop culture influences your work, too, the more traditional monsters rubbing elbows with the likes of Godzilla. Do you think the kaiju of Japanese film have earned a place in the canon as contemporary folklore? Are these “strange beasts” influenced by earlier monsters of Japanese folklore?

Some of the stories/creatures are quite well-known (like the Peach Boy, Kappa, and the tale of Urashima Taro), but others get less airtime in mainstream pop culture (i.e. manga, anime, films, children’s stories etc.). And yes, I definitely think the kaiju have earned their place in contemporary folklore. Like many of their traditional counterparts, the kaiju stem from both societal anxieties (Post-WWII atomic/nuclear fear) and a desire to upset reality with wonder and horror for both entertainment and cautionary purposes. Outside of the kaiju films, we see monsters being created by runaway technology in the classic anime film Akira, and in the cult anime series Serial Experiments: Lain. And these are just further examples of the depiction of a societal unease and a thirst for the fantastic.

Your stories are soaked in a sense of loss. I was particularly moved by “Placentophagy,” “The Peach Boy,” and “The Snow Baby.” I thank you for writing about pregnancy loss and infertility, subjects that are too often taboo in American culture. While reading your book, I coincidentally read two essays, “The Japanese Art of Grieving a Miscarriage” by Angela Elson, and Peggy Orenstein’s “Mourning My Miscarriage,” both of which relate the authors’ experiences with the Jizo ritual during their pregnancy losses. There is, of course, no comparable mourning process in American culture. How do you think the texture of grief differs, generally, in Japanese and American cultures? When reading in Orenstein’s essay that the Japanese word for a miscarried or aborted fetus is mizuko, meaning “water child,” I immediately thought of “The Snow Baby,” and in fact, many of your stories associate loss and water. Is this connection prevalent in Japanese folklore?

Despite the pull of technology and a western way of life, Japan has always kept the vestiges of its traditions and mythology for safe-keeping. One of the most striking juxtapositions in cities like Tokyo or Osaka is that you can pass a cutting-edge skyscraper bumping elbows with a temple that’s hundreds of years old. In other words, when people need myth or an old tradition to contain their grief (or make it tangible in order to address it), they know where to look. As for the connection of loss and water, I think the fact that Japan is an island nation contributes to the prevalence of water in its mythology.

Fairy and folk tales, historically, are orally transmitted, the stories of women and children. They are the teachings of home and hearth, and have been utilized to both enforce cultural norms and subvert them. How do you think Japanese folklore differs from the Western European tales that are most popular in American culture in terms of portraying the feminine? In what ways has Japanese folklore been commercialized in modern Japan? What contemporary portrayals of Japanese folktales or folkloric characters in book or film would you recommend?

There’s not really an easy answer to this question considering that the role of women has changed in folklore over time. In somewhat modern story collections like Natsume Soseki’s Ten Nights of Dreams, we first see women as a source of comfort, a womb, a connection to the natural world. But then in the later stories/nights, we see that women have transformed into sources of anxiety, femme fatales. They become outright sources of destruction. In such a patriarchal society, it is in the realm of the unreal and myth that women are able to exert power, seek revenge, and establish the rules by which men must play.

Of course, the commercialization of folklore happens everywhere, but I think it’s especially prevalent in Japan where creatures like the Kappa can be found as toys, on traffic signs/barricades, on train stations, and on post offices. There’s a tanuki, a raccoon dog, outside of almost every restaurant or bar. Such creatures are so pervasive that it’s easy to forget about their origins. Manga, anime, and video game adoption of creatures of folklore further add to commercialization.

It’s not hard to find portrayals of Japanese creatures of folklore, but the below, with the exception of the Akutagawa novella, which uses Kappa satirically, are more “direct” portrayals based on oral traditions and texts:

Kappa by Ryunosuke Akutagawa

Kwaidan by Lafcadio Hearn (and the 1964 film adaptation by Masaki Kobayashi)

Yotsuya Kaidan (1956 film) by Masaki Mori,

Yokai Daisenso (Big Monster War) (1968 film) by Yoshiyuki Kuroda

Interview conducted by Anna Lea Jancewicz