Yukimi Ogawa, Pocket Interview No. 6
Yukimi Ogawa lives in a city along the western edge of Tokyo. Her stories have appeared in F&SF, Strange Horizons, The Apex World Book of SF, and the Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy. This fantastic essay by Haralambi Markov (which Yukimi references in the interview) surveys, and links, to many of her stories.
Earlier this year, Yukimi and Chris exchanged a series of letters about, among other things, monsters and beauty and language and joy. Also, Tylder Durden's ridiculous robe in Fight Club.
"Mostly my dog fighting aliens."
STORYOLOGICAL: Where are you in the world? I’m in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It's the afternoon. We just arrived for the Nebula Convention. My partner, Emma, has just found a ridiculous robe (like the one Tyler Durden wore in Fight Club) and I’ve decided to wear it on top of all my normal clothes.
YUKIMI OGAWA: Oh, I hope you have a great time at the Nebulas! I wish I could go to places like that. Do you have a photo that you can share of you in that robe? I googled "Tyler Durden robe" and was laughing pretty hard at what I found. (^皿^)
I find it difficult to think at home, so I usually go to coffee shops when I read/write. So, as I think about your questions, I move from coffee shop to coffee shop, mostly in a city at the western end of Tokyo.
STORYO: The Nebulas are pretty amazing. There must be science fiction/fantasy/writing conventions in Japan? Do you ever go to them? Do you have a writing community around you?
YUKIMI: There are a few SF conventions here, yes, but it's not like I can meet the writers who write what I usually read. There’s one convention I've been to so far, twice, last year and this year, Hal-Con1. Last year's guest of honor was Ann Leckie; this year's was Ken Liu. I got to say hi to Ken Liu actually, though a very nice interpreter did most of the talking for me. (｀∀´)
There's no one who writes around me. So writing can be a very lonely thing sometimes.
STORYO: Writing is very lonely sometimes. Sometimes I feel closer to the people inside my head than the people outside.
Why do you find it difficult to think at home?
YUKIMI: Too many distractions at home! Half-polished gemstones here, knitting project in progress there. I'm a very untidy person. And I love coffee. Home-coffee is okay, but it's always good to have someone else make coffee for me for a change.
STORYO: How were stories a part of your childhood? Were there any sorts of stories you enjoyed more than others?
YUKIMI: My experience with stories started with manga, right after I was born. My mother loves manga. Where other mothers read picture books to their children, mine read manga. She even says my first words came from Tokimeki Tonight.2
I grew up reading a lot of Shoujo Manga3. Funnily, though--and I still don't know how or why--when I started drawing manga myself at eight or nine, they were all SF stories. Mostly my dog fighting aliens. One of my teachers, when he looked at my manga notebook, said he thought I'd be an SF writer when I grew up. I said, “No, I want to be a manga creator.”
Decades later, here I am.
STORYO: How did young Yukimi come to know that writing stories was something they wanted to do?
YUKIMI: I always loved words and language, even as a school subject. I thought I was good at it. So when I realized that I wasn't, it depressed me a lot. I was around fifteen, I think, when I realized that I wasn't good at reading because I started having trouble with literature-exam questions like "How did this character feel?" or "Why did this person do this?"
I'd been writing short stories for some time (after deciding that drawing was no good for me, but that I could still make up stories), and I'd even published a few short stories in Japanese. But, I thought, how can you write, if you cannot read? So, I stopped writing stories.
But I still loved words--I was only bad with literature, not with language itself! I was a pragmatic girl, I guess.
So, after realizing that I was poor at reading, I started to study another language seriously because studying another language is primarily about learning its systems. How the words are used comes much later. English was pretty much the only choice for a country girl like me, and I decided to major in English linguistics at college, which led me to the place I am now.
I'm still no good at reading, and I have no idea how I manage writing at all. But I also wonder what made me cower away so much from literature that I had to quit writing in Japanese entirely. I'm glad I found English, and that it worked—though, again, I still have no idea how it's working at all.
STORYO: Do you feel like it's still difficult to understand why characters feel what they feel? Or why characters (or people in real life, even) do what they do?
YUKIMI: I’m sure if someone asked me "How does this person feel?”— the way they do in a literature exam question—I’d still be at a loss, even now.
Why do they--do we--write in a way that others may have trouble understanding? I'm sure that I do this, too, because I've seen many reviews of my stories where the reviewer says "confusing."
So I'm not the only one having a problem!
STORYO: In an essay you wrote for The Book Smugglers4 you talked about what drove you to write "In Her Head, In Her Eyes." You mentioned an old Japanese tale, "Hachikaduki: A Girl with a Bowl on Her Head" and you listed all these fantastic questions you had when reading it as to why didn't this happen or why did that happen. Do you think that this frustration with understanding literature, or stories (or maybe the choices other writers make), inspires a lot of your stories? Are you always looking for a way to understand what others already seem to understand---or maybe haven't taken the time to understand it as well as they should because, for them, it seems so obvious!
YUKIMI: Now that you ask me this question, yes, I think that the “why’s” do make me write stories. Because not understanding something is just like the “what ifs" which often start an SFF story--aren't they?
"I don't understand this person--maybe I can understand them if they do this instead of that?"
I kind of gave up on understanding many things long ago. So it'd be nice to assume that I can turn my frustration, my ignorance, into something creative, something constructive. Yay pragmatism!
STORYO: What sort of things have you given up on understanding?
YUKIMI: People, mostly? I never learned to "read between the lines" properly, which is very needed in Japan. Especially in rural areas. Not being able to understand is very inconvenient, but then, people didn't understand me as much as I'd have liked them to, so that makes it a draw?
"...when I think there's no English word that can express a kind of feeling, I think is that because people in English-speaking countries don't ever have that same feeling? I doubt that.
STORYO: When I was teaching English as a foreign language (in South Korea and in Vietnam), I heard from students about how they found inside of different languages not only different sounds, or rhythms, but also different kinds of meaning.
I wondered if you could talk a little about that. About what kinds of meaning you find in Japanese, but not in English. Or that you find in English, but not in Japanese. Do you find yourself thinking in different ways when working in English--almost like there's another part of yourself that you get to discover?
YUKIMI: So many words, so many phrases, are just not interchangeable between the two languages!
Sometimes, when I'm trying to look up a plant name in English, what I get is a name for something that's similar, but slightly different from the plant I'm trying to find the name for. Is it because English-speaking countries don't usually have this particular plant? If so, when I think there's no English word that can express a kind of feeling, I think is that because people in English-speaking countries don't ever have that same feeling? I doubt that.
Maybe the route we take to reach something--our attitude, our approach towards a feeling--is different. That’s all. So, we just have to take a detour to find a right expression in another language. This is the thing I find the most difficult, but also the most interesting, about handling languages.
STORYO: I feel like your description of different languages is a good way to understand demons/spirits/monsters/aliens. Not as beings entirely other. Not as beings without the same feelings or fears that we have. But beings with a different attitude or approach. A different language.
YUKIMI: Do you speak Korean? I hear that Korean has a similar grammatical word-order system to Japanese. Thinking in a different word order is, for me, like re-organizing and reconstructing thoughts completely. I wonder if this is why I can’t speak English very well. It helps me write stories—this thinking thoughts in different orders--because writing a story is a lot different from usual thinking...is it not? For writers who write in their native languages, is story-writing like a part, or an extension, of every-day brain-work?
STORYO: I don't speak Korean. I know a few words and phrases. Some of which I used in class so that my students maybe thought I knew more Korean than I did. But, really, they were smart students. I'm sure most of them knew I didn't know what they were talking about if they spoke in Korean.
I think you are right about stories. Stories are a different way of thinking. But, also, I think our brains are kind of wired for stories, so it is like an extension of every-day brain work (for people writing in their native language). Even if people aren't thinking about it very much, they're always telling stories. It's just most of that storytelling is unconscious. And, as writers, we are trying to be a little more conscious about our subconscious. I think my favorite writers, in whatever language they write, push themselves to discover a new language for their stories and then use that new language to see and think about the world in different ways.
I have heard that, in Japan, Murakami Haruki's novels, which he writes in Japanese, are said to sound like English. Is this true? Also. In an interview with Strange Horizons5, you mentioned how some of your friends like how your stories are written in English yet feel like Japanese. Do you have any more thoughts on what this 'likeness' is? What makes a story Japanese and another English and another Korean, if not language or setting or characters?
YUKIMI: I didn't know this about Murakami! I'm embarrassed to admit I've never finished a Murakami book. The writing didn't get along with my brain, and this happens a lot to me, in English and in Japanese. And before you ask--I have no idea why!
I googled, and soon found people complaining that Murakami's writing sounds like "translation." Some others (who don't like his writing) say there's too much metaphor in it. Maybe this is like our monsters? We try to understand something, and when we do this unconsciously, sometimes there are things that don't feel right in our brain, like a monster from another part of the world. Some people like this feeling. Some don't. Am I making sense? This is so hard to explain.
There might be something I'm doing when I write, where even though I don't translate my thoughts into English when I write stories, maybe some piece of me, a person who grew up in this place called Japan, gets caught in the writing. Some Japanese people can find this piece and let it settle in them. Some may never find that piece, or some feel this piece isn't somehow right. Japanese piece, Korean piece, American piece. All of these pieces in a story and something pops out and into you and melts there like ice, if you let it. Okay. Sorry. Am I making sense?
STORYO: This mostly makes sense, I think? And it is hard to explain! Metaphors and monsters are there own sort of language. So maybe Murakami uses metaphors that feel like a different language (something not quite English or Japanese?).
And I think what you're saying at the end is that when, for example, a Korean person reads your story in English, they might find in that story a Japanese piece of you and an English piece of you, and it stabs a bit, maybe, like ice, but, if you relax, it melts into you and becomes a part of you? That's how I feel, I think, actually, when I read books, or watch films, from cultures different from the one I was raised in. Like Amelie. That's a movie I love more than anything. But I had to watch it twice before it felt like it melted all the way into my heart.
There probably isn't an answer, so much as an experience. Which is what I love about your answer. How you try and get at the experience of writing and reading across languages and cultures by talking about monsters and metaphors and ice. Are you fascinated by ice?
YUKIMI: Amelie is my mother's favourite film! I don't understand films the way she does (do I ever understand anything?)
And yes, something like that! The melting of the piece from another culture. I think? It's so hard to word something that hasn't been in me as words. Thank you, really, for trying to understand.
I didn't realize until you asked, but yes, I think I love ice. They are like the clearest gems, and they don't stay if you hold them in your hand.
STORYO: Tell me more about why writing in English helps you write stories. Is it that in trying to write in English you slow down and notice things more? Like writing in a different language than the one you grew up with gives you enough distance from your thoughts that you can shape those thoughts more easily?
YUKIMI: The slowing down, and the distance, is helping me, I think. Maybe storytelling is like an extension of every-day brain-work, even for me, but filling in the gaps and cracks, and adding layers to the base material of a story, requires more thinking for me. Like using another part of my brain that's not used in my every-day life. I think I really need to slow down, or look at the base material from a distance, to do this.
Also, my story-telling brain doesn't get along very well with written Japanese. I think it's about the rhythm--my native dialect of Japanese has a lot of sounds for creating a rhythm that is slightly different from that of our standard speech, or written language. Just like your Korean students said, English sounds a lot like songs, and my brain likes that when it's trying to tell a story.
"Beauty always needs an eye, even if it's only one eye, I guess."
STORYO: A lot of your stories, I think, could be read as a romance of monsters. Not necessarily, or not always, in the romantic love type way. But in the way of an interest in beauty and attraction and the relationships between ghosts/demons/monsters and people. Like in "Rib". That relationship between the skeleton woman and the boy. Or in "Perfect," the way that monster ends up trying to steal, or collect, beauty from the world, tearing the face off of one person and the hands from another.6
What interests you about beauty? About the conflicts and questions that you can explore around beauty and monsters? Is beauty a kind of ghost or monster? Are ghosts or monsters kind of beautiful?
YUKIMI: Ha, yes, beauty must be a kind of ghost to me: something that I could never have for myself, but also something that has always haunted me.
When beauty is handled around our own bodies, I think it tends to be more about what we ourselves look like. What that beauty can do to, or for, us when we wear it.
From a monster's perspective, I guess, beauty can be more easily handled just as beauty--not as something to please others' eyes, but something that you care for. Or something you make use of, rather than something with which you let others judge you.
STORYO: What do you mean that beauty has haunted you, or that beauty can do something to us?
YUKIMI: Aren't we all haunted by how we look, how we want to look? Why did you put that funny robe on?
I've never found myself beautiful, or been found beautiful by others, and I gave up trying very early on (YAY pragmatism).
In many of our folktales, we see a female yokai haunt or mesmerize a man who accidentally walks into her territory, using her beauty. It is often the female yokai who decides if the man can survive. I like it when the female yokai knows what she can do to men with her beauty; when she knows that her beauty is a weapon that she possesses. But to some humans, humans like me, in order to have that kind of weapon we have to wear something, rather than try to shape or re-shape ourselves. Or do we not?
STORYO: What do you think it means to care for beauty?
YUKIMI: Ha, I don't remember exactly why I used the words “to care for." But when beauty is not something you can only show off, but something you want to (or have to) own, then you have to care for it? I feel as though when you stop looking at it, beauty becomes something less, so you have to keep looking at it and maintain both the beauty and your feeling towards it. Beauty always needs an eye, even if it's only one eye, I guess.
STORYO: Does Japan have a saying like beauty is in the eye of the beholder? It's an old saying here. It’s often taken to mean that beauty is a matter of perception, but I like how your words make me think of a different truth. That beauty needs a beholder or it becomes less beautiful.
YUKIMI: That saying reminds me of something that goes, directly translated, "Pockmarks can be (seen as) dimples." But this is something kind of comical, kind of mocking, used when you tease someone who loves a person or a thing that doesn't look very good to the eyes of others. I think we need something more serious, like yours. We really do. Which leads me back to that idea of "reading between the lines."
I heard someone say that in Japan, our ancestors had to cooperate with each other quite closely in order to grow enough rice. Thinking differently, or acting differently, could pose a lot of danger to the community's unity, its survival. So maybe we are taught to find beauty in the exactly same thing, in exactly the same way, as other people in the community. And if you do think just like the others, you'll have no trouble guessing what others are thinking. You shouldn’t have any trouble at all guessing what others are thinking. So you don't have to say certain things out loud.
STORYO: What do you find beautiful in life? Can you think of anything you find attractive which others might find monstrous? Or something you find monstrous that others might find attractive?
YUKIMI: Colors! Patterns! Gemstones! Pretty much the things I write about. But much as I love patterns, I'm not very keen on patterns where tiny identical things are spread out uniformly--like small round bugs covering a surface, or lotus seed pods. Ugggg.
I don't like bugs that much, but I used to like silkworms a lot. I used to like letting them crawl over my t-shirt, or hearing them eat their way through mulberry leaves, making a faint noise like very, very small ripples.
STORYO: Do you still feel connected to nature? Or are you a city person now?
YUKIMI: I live in a suburban area of Tokyo, where there's enough nature to keep me breathing but not as much as I’d like. Often I have to fight the urge to go running into a grassy area along a river that I pass everyday to and from work, where there are the same large birds flying that I used to see back home.
I keep winning, but, I can never resist crushing needle ice under my feet whenever I find it.
"I want to believe the world is filled more with joy, than sadness or anguish."
STORYO: What scared you as a kid? Monsters? People? People in monster costumes?
YUKIMI: I don't remember being particularly scared of anything. My mother and sister were the types who loved scary films and horror houses, but me, the only thing I remember being scared of was the kind of legend where they said if you can’t stay up till midnight on New Year's Eve, a monster would come get you. I was a child who went to bed pretty early (I still do) and so this was a problem.
I did like reading about yokai (Japanese folklore monsters) but this came from my love for traditions and folklore, I think. I sometimes wonder if my not believing in ghosts and monsters (even when I was very young) allowed me to read and write about them. Maybe. I don't know. ( >皿< )
STORYO: Why do you think not believing in ghosts and monsters allowed you to read and write about them? Is it a matter of perspective--of distance? Like, it's really hard sometimes to see your parents as real people because they're your parents?
YUKIMI: Exactly! Also, I think, by not believing in them, there’s more room for my imagination to fill them in. If I believed in a Kuchisake-onna (split-mouth woman)7 as a small child, what people said about her would have been all I'd picture, but from a distance, at an angle, I might start to see other aspects of her...life? And, also, I get to wonder why people are so scared of her, which can lead to a story.
STORYO: One of the things I loved about the monster in "Perfect" is that they hungered for beauty and joy, and they searched for it, and they found it, in their own way.
So many narratives give us monsters that are tortured souls. Brooding vampires. Frankenstein's lonely monster. Tony Soprano. All monsters who torture themselves and who are tortured, and who--even when they torture others!--we’re supposed to sympathize with because of how they suffer.
In so many of your stories, though, the monster smiles. They find joy. We sympathize with them because we know what it is to hunger for beauty and joy. We know what it is, maybe, to feel like a monster and still believe in happiness.
Do you think you are more interested in exploring and writing about demons and spirits and monsters from a place of desire, of joy, and not as much from a place of a tortured soul? If so, why? Or if not, then, at least, talk to me about why you write about monsters who smile.
YUKIMI: But--everyone has to smile, don't they??
About the way I write about monsters, Haralambi Markov wrote something very interesting last year at tor.com.8
Western stories about spirits, beasts, and guardians of forests and rivers, the ones I’d grown up reading and watching at the very least, are stories of segregation. The otherworldly has been driven off to its own realm, allowed to return only at specific times, as if there had been a decisive battle that we’d won long ago. Any subsequent visitation of the preternatural into our world is seen as violent and predatory, as impotent vengeance. A single-entity insurgence.
Reading Ogawa’s stories, especially the ones about the yokai, I see a different narrative, one based on coexistence and intermingling. The spirits in her world haven’t gone anywhere, they’re still part of the world and an aspect of life that humans know about and have accepted, even if they don’t come to recognize the phantoms roaming alongside them or have moved on from fearing them.
I'm not very familiar with western monsters, and until I read this, I didn't even realize what I was doing: to me monsters are part of our world, they are beings that are just a little different from us. Well, "just a little" may not be accurate, but.
Our folklore monsters are not always harmful. Even harmful ones, they still feel desire, they still feel joy, even if that is a kind of desire or joy that we humans cannot comprehend. It's easier to explore their lives from this foothold. I want to believe the world is filled more with joy, than sadness or anguish.
And--just like you said before:
I feel like your description of different languages is a good way to understand demons/spirits/monsters/aliens. Not as beings entirely other. Not as beings without the same feelings or fears that we have. But beings with a different attitude or approach. A different language.
This is exactly how I see our folklore monsters. Some of the yokai were created to explain phenomena that were not explainable otherwise--strange noises were attributed to monsters, an unknown animal's fossil was believed to have been a monster's claw. Maybe if we compared typical monsters from each region of the world, we'd get a fair idea of how people of each region tend to see the world, how it differs from that of people from other parts of the world?
"...grass on a summer morning."
YUKIMI: Thank you for having me for this. Thank you for saying (writing) many of the things you said. I really really enjoyed this conversation-like stuff, and I think I really really needed this.
STORYO: You're welcome. I've really enjoyed it, too. ^-^
I end every one of our interviews with a questionnaire.
This questionnaire comes from a show called Inside the Actor's Studio. They took it from another show that was on in France a long while ago. So, I guess, in a way, this questionnaire is a translation of a translation that gets different each time people decide to use it.
The questionnaire goes like this. It’s 10 questions. Answer without thinking too much.
Keep it short and magical. ^-^
What is your favorite word?
YUKIMI: The Japanese word "kusaikire" popped up to my mind. Maybe because it's hot. This is a word for the fragrant, or pungent, air that rises from grass on a summer morning, the dew on the grass warmed up by the rising sun. I love how this word alone can provoke a scene in my mind, of a peaceful beginning of a summer day.
STORYO: What is your least favorite word?
YUKIMI: Mmmmm. Maybe the English word "year," just because, after all these looooong years of trying, I still cannot pronounce it easily. (´д`)
STORYO: What is your favorite smell?
STORYO: What is your least favorite smell?
YUKIMI: Lily. For me it's the smell of toilet.
STORYO: Let's pretend your life has a soundtrack. What song is playing when you are happiest?
YUKIMI: This is a hard question for me, who tends to listen to the same kind of music over and over and over again. Maybe "Put Your Hands Up" by Nerina Pallot9. But I guess I like the video that goes with this song.
STORYO: What do you wish you knew more about?
YUKIMI: Science and chemistry! Recently I joined the product compliance team at my day job, which involves reading about a lot of chemical substances. If I knew more about chemistry that'd not only make my day job easier, but together with what I have to read everyday, that'd also give me more new story ideas, I think.
STORYO: What do you wish you knew less about?
YUKIMI: Gemstones? My untidy room is already too full of them, and I still want more...
STORYO: What is your favorite kind of story?
YUKIMI: Two people (either human or non-human) trying to understand each other despite their differences.
STORYO: What is your least favorite kind of story?
YUKIMI: Two people just talking on and on, about their feelings I'd never understand. (-_-)
STORYO: William Faulkner said this thing once. He said that the only story worth writing is a story about the human heart in conflict with itself. If Faulkner came back from the dead, to write the story of your life, what would that story be about?
YUKIMI: I think he'd just give up after a few tries. If he said that, he wouldn't write about a person who keeps giving up on understanding or being understood. Would he? (^皿^)