Ultimately, Sequoia Nagamatsu’s anthology Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone is about our relationship with stories. It’s particularly about the ones we tell each other and ourselves—the way they reflect our best and worst intentions, our hopes and our fears. All of the characters seem to believe in some kind of myth. Sometimes that myth is one they invented. Other times, it’s the byproduct of a mysterious world, deep and treacherous and occasionally wonderful.
Rumpus: Lies are highlighted twice in this collection, in two very different ways: “The most beautiful of lies… that everything will be okay.” Later, “More lies and cameras… lies large enough to cover nations.” What (if any) are your rules about lying?
Nagamatsu: That they are necessary (or are seen as necessary by at least one character) and that this need for illusion serves to both bring the elements of a story together in a way that seems distinct and true before the lie ultimately collapses (sometimes offstage).
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.
” . . . Nagamatsu, in the tradition of Gabriel García Márquez, Haruki Murakami, and others who do not limit their literary phenomenology to the verifiable, writes with a confidence and inclusivity which show he has thoroughly explored the territory beyond realism.”
(Also briefly plugged at the YouTube/Bootube channels: Whatkellyreads and unmanaged mischief)
Ultimately, Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone is worth a read. Even if ghosts, spirits, and demons aren’t your scene, I still recommend the book unreservedly. It is a well-crafted text that should be part of conversations on great work in indie publishing right now, and never requires a love of genre to inspire love for its situations and characters. Nagamatsu is an arresting liaison, deftly slipping between literary art and ghost story, between this world and the next.
Some people write about dystopian futures, or reimagined folktales, or ghosts, or science fiction. Sequoia Nagamatsu, author of the upcoming story collection, Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone, does it all. The debut collection, out this month from Black Lawrence Press, weaves Japanese folklore and pop culture into fantastical plots and futuristic settings to create stories that illuminate the human heart in modern times.
Reading Sequoia Nagamatsu’s recently released short story collection,Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone, is like reading a dream. The stories themselves, inspired by Japanese folktales, science and pop-culture, are at times wondrous, at times absurd, and always imaginative. But as a whole, too, the collection has a keenly ethereal quality, as the stories flow into one another and echo back and forth across the pages.
These stories are undoubtedly dark, less Disney movie, more Grimm Brothers fairy tale. The difference, though, is the Japanese tradition Nagamatsu writes from. One can easily mistake these stories for a works in translation, as steeped in Japanese culture as they are. Indeed, there are echoes of Haruki Murakami’s weirdness, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s ambiguous morality. And it is precisely this that makes Nagamatsu an important addition to the expanding genre of domestic fabulism, a genre that, in the US context anyway, is not as diverse as the country’s population. Moreover, Nagamatsu takes readers away from the American landscape and asks us to look beyond our backyards.
Reading this collection of short stories rich with magical realism was such a delight while I was in Japan and afterward. For months beforehand, I had been watching a lot of Japanese TV and listening to a lot of Japanese podcasts to work on listening comprehension. One of the things I watched was a kids shows that told simplified, cartoonized Japanese folktales. So as I read this book, there were a lot of moments where I already knew the story it was based on and I feel like I got more out of some of them. But, at the same time, there were several things that were very surprising to me (such as the long neck demon Rokurokubi, which is probably even more unsettling than it sounds). Both situations were fun to be in. Each story dives headfirst into a creatively imagined world where something from Japanese popular culture (i.e. Godzilla) or folklore (i.e. the kappa) is real. I loved this book for its fearlessness and its strangeness.
If you’d told me beforehand that I’d be crying at the end of a few-thousand-word story, I’d have chortled (a word that doesn’t get used nearly enough) right in your face, but sure enough, that’s what happened.
And it kept happening, for almost the entire collection! I began to perceive certain patterns to the stories, or perhaps to Nagamatsu’s own preoccupations: nearly all the stories (except, e.g., the one about the neck-extending yōkai and the one about the Kappa) feature a three-person family from which one person has been (usually violently) ripped away, and the stories, their supernatural content notwithstanding, are really all about bereaved family members making sense of their trauma. So even if you’re not really into the notion of, say, ghost visitations by a dead son inspiring his father to make a special fireworks display, I think you’ll find the way the father and the mother separately deal with their loss quite touching.
From Godzilla to shape-shifters, babies born from peaches to babies made of snow, and a room full of figurines representing the life that was taken too early, Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone is filled to the brim with imagination and wonder. The duality with which Nagamatsu writes true human struggle into mystical, genre-bending tales is astounding. He has succeeded in writing stories that demonstrate the rawness of the human heart, loss of children and parents, the lingering what if’s, and the circular nature of life, while also bringing a smile to every reader’s face.
Author Sequoia Nagamatsu writes in the tradition of great Japanese horror throughout the pages of his debut short story collection, titled Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone. Freed from the necessity of getting gritty and gratuitously violent, though, Nagamatsu uses his tales of the supernatural and the paranormal to examine the human condition. The result is a one-of-a-kind synthesis of Japanese folklore and modern zeitgeist storytelling—and our Independent Groundbreaking Book for the month of August.
The fantastic in literature whether it be invoked folklore or futuristic possibility has often been used by writers to comment on society and self in chaos or transition (and this is certainly true for Japan, a country that has had to reinvent itself quite rapidly multiple times). Folk as nostalgia. Folk as connection. Folk as an ambassador of a past that can no longer be reclaimed. Folk as an aspect of ourselves that we don’t want to recognize or can’t come to terms with.
If my book were an Über car ride, it would be a 1980 Toyota Celica Sunchaser Convertible driven by a sixty-eight-year-old retired Karate instructor named Toru. The GPS would fail and somehow, on your way to a concert, Toru would convince you that a childhood friend is the love of your life. When you open the Uber app again to rate the ride, you realize your driver should have been a white guy named Gene.
SP: In, perhaps, sharp contrast to the scientific elements in your stories, there is also clearly a poetic voice bubbling beneath the surface. Are you a poet? Do you have a background in poetry?
“The Inn of the Dead’s Orientation for Being a Japanese Ghost,” written as a sort of guidebook, is a bit “nontraditional.” Do you often play with structure in stories, and if so, why?
I suppose a lot of my work could be classified as “non-traditional”. But I also write a lot of very conventional (“He said/ she said”) stories, as well. I prefer to think that form should meet the needs of the story and vice versa. For The Inn of the Dead, I initially just wanted to capture the idiosyncracies of life in the afterlife while highlighting the role of Oiwa from Yotsuya Kaidan.
How did this story come about?
I was living in Japan when I wrote the first incarnation of this story, and I’ve always been fascinated with monsters, creatures of folklore, and cryptids, so coming across the Kappa was research that was already underway (many of my stories incorporate Japanese creatures). I suppose I saw the Kappa, with their head full of water, as a natural choice for humanity exploiting magic. What was different about the water in their head? What would it do to people? Once I answered these questions, the corporate structure fell into place. Using the fantastic to comment on an oppressive force is certainly not new, and I’m aware that most of my stories are working in a tradition that is somewhat related to the fantastical work of post-Meiji and post-WWII Japan — the traditional past and the natural world colliding with the West, with technology and the corporation.
The story starts with a solid impact: “My doctor always asked how I would prepare it, the placenta.” I’m curious about the genesis of that line. For some writers, first lines simply appear and the challenge is finding the story that follows, but I know others who start with a scene or an idea and then need to find a line to kick it all off. Was this first line always present in the story?
For me, I like to do a lot of “writing” in my head long before I actually put any words down. I knew I wanted to write a story about Placentophagy but it took another week or so of thinking about the idea to attach a grieving couple to the practice vs. the story focusing on folk medicine and celebrity mothers who have eaten their placenta (i.e. Alicia Silverstone). Once I had the grieving couple tied to pieces of folklore, I knew I had the necessary emotional tension plus the fun facts that interested me to begin writing.