Ken, welcome back to Lightspeed! Your story “Mono no aware” first appeared in The Future Is Japanese, edited by Nick Mamatas and Masumi Washington, and has been widely celebrated. Can you tell us how this story came to be?
Thank you! It’s great to be back in Lightspeed.
This story began with my interest in narratives that don’t follow the supposed “rules” of storytelling. There’s a lot of advice out there for genre writers, often phrased as universal laws. For example: The hero of the story must actively work at solving a problem.
I’m very skeptical of these kinds of absolutist pronouncements because I think often they just reflect the narrative conventions of particular times and particular places. A lot of folktales and fairytales, for instance, don’t follow this “rule.”
And that led me to consider the meaning of “hero” and whether the concept is also fluid and context-dependent.
How were you first introduced to the phrase and concept embodied in “Mono no aware?”
Many of the Chinese and Japanese stories I read don’t follow the “rule” I describe above. Instead, they aim to create in the reader an appreciation for the wonders of experiencing life in the moment, fully aware of the impermanence of all things.
To pick one example, the manga Yokohama Kaidashi Kikō contains many episodes that are simply descriptions of daily life in a post-apocalyptic landscape, with little in the way of what we in the West would recognize as “heroes” overcoming obstacles. Nonetheless, the reader learns to empathize with the characters and their calm acceptance of life in a world slowly falling into ruin.
I can’t remember exactly when I first encountered the Japanese phrase “mono no aware,” but as soon as I learned about this sentiment—an empathy for the inevitable passing of all things—I had a phrase to describe the aesthetic of those Chinese and Japanese stories that I liked.
I wanted to write a story that embodied this aesthetic and also redefined the concept of the Western hero.
I should emphasize that it is inevitable that my interpretation of the concept and the portrayal of Japanese ideas in the story contain gaps and errors. No matter how much research is done, an outsider’s perspective can never substitute for an insider’s.
To be respectful to the source culture, I used a narrative trick. I wrote the story from the perspective of a man who is not a true insider. Hiroto’s experience of life in Japan came to an end at the age of eight, and his knowledge of Japanese culture is thus largely second-hand and mediated. A lone survivor among a dominant culture very different from the culture of his childhood, he is fiercely protective of the legacy and memories of those he loved. Thus, he constructs a Japan in his mind that is necessarily distorted, idealized, incomplete, and yet, in an important sense, real to him.
In this way, “Mono no aware” is also an immigration story: It is about the inevitable passing of the immigrant’s homeland from his memories as he integrates into his new home.
Comparing the kanji character to the vessel with the solar sail seemed particularly inspired. Was that something that came to you after you already had the story fleshed out, or was it your starting point?
That was my starting point, actually.
The kanji for “umbrella,” 傘, can be decomposed into a cover spread over a frame with multiple embedded copies of the kanji for “person,” 人. It thus seemed a perfect metaphor for the story’s generation ship, the shelter for the last remnants of the human race after unimaginable disaster. I had that image in mind before writing down the first word.
The preservation of culture is a theme that comes up often in your work. How do art and life intersect for you in that respect? Are there specific things about your family’s heritage that you are making a point of passing on to your children?
After having children, a lot of things I used to take for granted—my Chinese literary heritage, my knowledge of East Asian history, my comfort with Chinese culture’s diversity and internal conflicts—suddenly took on a new light. For my children, these things will not come to them effortlessly, to be imbibed from the surrounding culture like air and sunlight. Instead, if I want them to benefit from any of it, I will have to make a conscious effort to teach them. How to do so effectively is a challenge with which every parent is no doubt familiar.
What are you working on now, and what can your fans expect to see next from you?
I have a few exciting things going on: I’m revising my novel (set in a fantasy world that my wife and I created together), working on a (still secret) translation project, and looking forward to having a couple more stories come out in Lightspeed later this year. I hope readers like them as much as I do.