Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Author Spotlight: Sequoia Nagamatsu

I love the unconventional structures and techniques you use in many of your stories (I’m a big fan of well-constructed stories in second person). The use of corporate headers really adds to the impact in this particular story and helps us reset as we travel backwards and forwards in time. How did you decide to use that device?

Once I decided that this story would involve a corporation, I felt like attaching a corporate structure to the arc of the story would not only provide an annual report-style history of Headwater, but also reinforce the fact that Yoko’s life (and the life of the other employees and the customers) are very much woven into the fabric of Headwater (through addiction, through totalitarian company policy). The linear nature of the headings in conjunction with the somewhat non-linear nature of the story I think also creates a dialogue between the “free” mind and the corporate mindset. The headings suggest neatness and order and progression, but Yoko’s past is anything but. And she looks back, despite the rigidness of company policy, because she has to (as a form of coping, as a form of visiting how things got to be this bad).

In our world, I think it’s easy to lose sight of the fact (because we’re all so immersed) that our social lives, our politics, and our bodies are largely beholden to boardrooms in skyscrapers. Someone is having a conversation about the next trends. Someone is deciding who will have access to certain medicines. Someone is figuring out how to get into the minds of consumers, so they’ll buy a gym membership they’ll never use.

How has editing Psychopomp influenced you as a writer?

I think because Psychopomp focuses on a particular niche of writing (genre-bending and innovative work), I’ve become much more aware of the exciting things writers are doing right now. I’ve also become more aware of the fine line between an experimental work being daring and fresh vs. being gimmicky (or simply not reconciling form with content). It’s really exciting to come across a piece that is showing me something I’ve never seen before. Similarly, in terms of genre (i.e. fantasy vs. literary with a capital L), I’ve realized that my co-editor and I have a threshold for what we see as “too genre” or “too literary.” We want work that takes the best of both worlds and that defies categorization and expectation. Part of the reason we founded the journal is because we felt there weren’t many journals out there that accepted “liminal” work (especially journals that were realistically/practically more welcoming of emerging writers). So, when we say a work is too horror or fantasy or SF for us, it really makes me think about how writers and readers define these categories. Many literary journals outright say that they don’t want genre and this stipulation comes from a very narrow view of what “genre” means, especially to the literary community (i.e. not terribly well-written, swords and sorcery, vampire love affairs etc.). To be fair, a lot of “genre” journals don’t want these stories either. In a perfect world, we’d distance ourselves from these categories (at least as writers) and just focus on telling a well-written and compelling story with interesting and believable characters regardless of whether the story is set in Kansas or a planet caught between two universes. After seeing so many stories that are so caught up in world building and the cool science (with very little character development) and so many stories with so much character development and beautiful language but with very little of anything else, I’m reminded of where I want to be as a writer (and where I’m most excited as a reader): the realm where I’m able to feed my imagination, wonder, and SF/fantasy geekiness by using the fantastic and “unreal” to comment on the human condition. And when you can marry these things with careful attention to language, allowing the words to transcend into the ether, then I think you’re in a rare and enviable place.

“Headwater LLC” explores the terrifying impact of consumer culture and capitalism, from environmental impact, classist fashion status, exploitation of Kappa, hysterical trends, and abusive working conditions. The story ends with resignation and a protagonist that only dreams of saving the Kappa; do you see spaces for hope and change against these crushing forces?

In the story, I was really torn about how things ended. Yoko resigns. Yoko doesn’t have a whole lot of power and, despite feeling really guilty and really wanting to rebel, she allows her view of the world to crush any kind of real action. She is free in her fantasy. She retreats to her memories, perhaps as a form of escape, but also as a form of self-torture/punishment. So, as a character, she’s very passive. And while I usually tell my students to avoid this kind of character, I wanted Yoko to be an unwitting participant in what would turn out to be the destruction of herself and her Kappa friends. People lose all the time. People look at the superficial and immediate and fail to see the danger looming on the horizon. People allow control. And I wanted to tell a story where the ending was a bit more doom and gloom, where a way out seemed far away.

As for us in the real world? I think it’s certainly possible to fight against the types of forces you mention, to question various authorities. I come from a fairly activist background, so of course I think this. It’s important for people to question what allows them to live a certain way (to acknowledge our very real children of Omelas in factories overseas) and to rise as a community if something in one’s way of life is seen as morally wrong. For Yoko, she saw herself as largely alone. And I think that was a big problem for her. While people can do their part individually, change comes from many voices representing different walks of life.

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.

You have a Bachelor of Arts in Cultural Anthropology and an MFA in Creative Writing. How has this shaped your work?

Anthropology has stayed with me in terms of my interests in folklore, cultural collision, and deconstruction of space and identity. A lot of the themes that emerge in my writing are largely inspired by my interests in how culture works, how people work. I also tend to be pretty methodical with regards to story planning, and I imagine this could be traced to a background in the social sciences.

In my MFA program (at Southern Illinois University), I learned a lot about craft, and I had time to experiment and fail. But I think most of all I was given permission to be a writer, which is pretty huge. I was in a community that expected me to write and read a lot. And as a recent graduate who is now teaching, I’m still expected to write and publish, which helps me look at my writing time as productivity time (and not just something that can be put off).

As someone who publishes speculative fiction and literary fiction, how do you navigate your way around these two genres/subcultures?

It can sometimes be pretty tough to decide where I’m going to send. Sometimes I send to both types of markets. Sometimes I see a story as being more saleable at a speculative journal if certain elements are more obvious. But I try to take turns submitting to both types of places because I want to be relevant in both worlds and converse with different audiences. I want/need the academic legitimacy of literary journals. But I also am deeply excited about the content of markets like Lightspeed and longstanding journals like Asimov’s. I think the fact that I publish in both worlds (and I feel like a lot of my stories could have ended up on either end of the spectrum) illuminates the porous nature of the wall we like to put between the various genres.

As a person raised in Hawaii and San Francisco, what have been the challenges for you writing stories set in Japan?

I’m a third-generation Japanese American (half Japanese). My great-grandmother, who came to the United States via an arranged marriage, was the only person in my family who could really speak Japanese fluently. I lived in Japan for about two years teaching ESL, and I took a year of Japanese in college. Of course, there are other things about my upbringing that stem from a Japanese heritage — the temple I used to go to with my grandmother (Tenrikyo faith) and smatterings of Japanese phrases. But I largely had to read and do on-the-ground research for the stories I write. And I try to be aware of this fact, the discourse between my identity as an American, the heritage of my family, and my experiences as an ex-pat in Japan. The stories I tell are set in Japan, populated by Japanese people and creatures. There might be Japanese sentiments and themes at play. And, as I mentioned, I’m certainly working in a tradition that has its roots in the Meiji era. But I’m still a Japanese American, and I think the voice of my stories is very distinct from Japanese writers. I view my stories as existing in a realm between all of these experiences/perspectives/cultures. And, in a way, I think that’s appropriate for the time we live in, for the culture Japan has become.

What projects do you have coming up?

I’m currently sending out a collection of stories inspired by Japanese folklore and pop culture (of which “Headwater” is part). I also have a second collection in the works revolving around the evolution of societies via social epidemics and a novel about the genetic copy of a girl who retains her memories after global catastrophes rob most of the populace of their personhood.

Where would you like literary and speculative fiction to be in ten years?

In bed together on a houseboat on Titan. I’d like to see less endless debate on why this or that kind of writing is any less or more important. I think more and more speculative work is making its way into literary journals, and I hope this trend continues (and for more fantastical writing with strong literary sensibilities to end up in more speculative markets). I think speculative writers and literary writers have a lot to teach each other, so even though we might not always dig what each other writes, I think more conversation and more exposure to different kinds of work can only be a good thing.

What needs destroying in literary and speculative fiction?

Gigantic egos. Us vs. Them mentality.

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Liz Argall

Liz Argall (photo credit Right Stage Photography)

Liz Argall’s short stories can be found in places like Apex Magazine, Strange Horizons, Daily Science Fiction, and This is How You Die: Stories of the Inscrutable, Infallible, Inescapable Machine of Death. She creates the webcomic Things Without Arms and Without Legs and writes love songs to inanimate objects. Her previous incarnations include circus manager, refuge worker, artists’ model, research officer for the Order of Australia Awards, farm girl, and extensive work in the not–for–profit sector.