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"Ruptures of Expectations and Sense": An Interview with Michael Mejia

Michael Mejia is the author of the novel Forgetfulness and his fiction and nonfiction have appeared in many journals and anthologies, including AGNI, DIAGRAM, Seneca Review, and My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me. He has received a Literature Fellowship in Prose from the NEA and a grant from the Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation. Editor-in-chief of Western Humanities Review and co-founding editor of Ninebark Press, he teaches creative writing at the University of Utah.

His story, "Three Tales from the Japanese," appeared in Issue Sixty-Five of The Collagist.

Here, Michael Mejia talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about literary mashups, narrative suggestion, and Japan.

According to your bio, “Three Tales from the Japanese” is part of “a mashup of 37 texts by Japanese authors and Western authors writing on Japan to which Michael has not added a single word of his own.” What inspired you to create a manuscript in this way? How did you choose these 37 texts?

The initial inspiration was an appropriation exercise I'd given an undergraduate creative writing class, tasking them with making a new short fiction out of three randomly chosen pages of text brought in by their classmates, without adding any of their own words. This was late in the semester, so I was pretty familiar with the students' tendencies in terms of narrative voice, tone, content, etc. What really struck me about the result was how different everyone sounded in these experiments, almost unrecognizable. The students had fun and the pieces were great.

I started the exercise myself using text from several books of Japanese fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, all sitting on a shelf together in my office. I'd collected them over time in my roles as a writer, a student, and a teacher, and I'd used many of them as part of my research for a novella I wrote some years before, "Report of Ito Sadohara, Head of Tuna, Uokai, Ltd., to the Ministry of Commerce, Regarding Recent Events in the Domestic Fishing Industry" (published in AGNI). The novella takes the form of a report by a high-level Japanese businessman working for a wholesale fishing concern at the Tokyo Central Wholesale Market, or Tsukiji. Like my students, I intended my appropriation piece to be short, three to five pages, but as I started wrestling with the language, and experiment grew to 10 pages, I realized that, because of my sources, I was really revisiting "Report of Ito" through a new lens. In the earlier novella, written in the first person, I'd had to conceal my research for the sake of creating an "authentic" Japanese voice. My Japanese narrator needed to express his cultural context fluently, like a native, so the library of sources working behind the scenes was never cited. But the appropriation experiment finally allowed the library to speak, so it evolved into a companion piece to "Report of Ito", a second novella about the same length, titled "To Visit a Place for the First Time Is Thereby to Begin to Write It." I expanded my source list to reflect a fuller range of Japanese literature, history, and culture (including English works on Hiroshima and the Tōhoku Earthquake), but, ultimately, the mashup's library is very personal, very idiosyncratic. The title, by the way, like the titles of "Three Tales," is taken from Roland Barthes' 1968 book on Japan, Empire of Signs.

Can you describe the process of creating a literary “mashup”?

Exhausting and tedious! But also really fun, like a game. I had a student assistant randomly choose short passages (about 2 pages) from my source texts and then I retyped much of that text into a new document, breaking it up into a column of single words and short phrases that went on for pages and pages. That was my raw material. Then I just started piecing things together, creating images I liked or sentences that made intriguing turns, and I crossed off words I used as I went along. Obviously, I wasn't interested in a transparent realism here, but I also didn't want the piece to be completely absurd, which would have been easy. I knew it was trying to talk about Japan and about my relationship with it as a writer and reader, and that shaped my approach to the whole work. A voice and tone were maybe the first things to develop.

There were a couple of rules of construction, as well. I wasn't allowed to add any of my own words (though I did allow myself to change tenses or number if they were available in my source document) and consecutive sentences couldn't come from the same text. While I started by juxtaposing whole sentences, the splices quickly began to occur within sentences and then word to word, so while certain characters or phrases may be recognizable from their sources, it would be impossible at this point for me to say where every word came from. That's actually a pity because now I think it'd be interesting to see a color-coded version of the piece that tracks everything back to the originals.

That was my process, but "mashup" is really just another way of saying collage, so methods of composition can be traced back at least to the cento, an ancient poetic form that draws each line from an existing work. In the 20th century, just in literature, you've got Eliot's "The Wasteland," Surrealist games, and Burroughs and Gysin's cut-ups. More recently, Jonathan Lethem's "Always Crashing in the Same Car" (in The Ecstasy of Influence), appropriates large chunks of several fictions involving driving and orders them into a new narrative. Lethem generally makes only slight alterations, so if you know the sources—J.G. Ballard's Crash, Julio Cortàzar's "The Southern Thruway," and John Hawkes' Travesty, among others—you'll likely recognize them. And Shelley Jackson's "'N'" (in Wreckage of Reason), uses the front page (both sides) of The New York Times for a particular day, plus one word added by the author. One thing I find particularly interesting in all collage forms—visual, aural, textual—is the game of recognition, what bits of text a reader may recognize in this new context and how that contributes to the experience of reading and making meaning.

To me these three tales had a surreal, dreamlike quality, with interesting language taking precedence over a discernible narrative. What is your first priority in crafting these pieces?

Great question. My priorities really changed over the course of writing the novella. At first, I was just trying to create an environment of interesting language. Sentence by sentence, the piece wanted lyricism, surprise, ruptures of expectation and sense, which explains its surreal quality.

But I was also inclined toward some kind of narrative, or the suggestion of it, and just constructing sentences seemed to compel me in that direction. The first draft implied an atmosphere of mystery and desire, violence, loss, and longing, a Japanese noir. This had as much to do with the text I started with as it did with my choices in arranging it.

Lately, rather than telling a story in full, I've become interested in narrative suggestion, trying to see just how little it takes to create an environment of narrative that is fulfilling in itself, without progression or resolution. I might describe it as a kind of spatialization of narrative, like entering an installation at a museum or gallery. Often you don't get a full story, but spending time there and gathering information provides an experience with its own significant rewards. In this context, ruptures in sense imply a lack of information. There really is something going on here, a plot, I just don't know what it is yet, or what I'm hearing or reading is a language unique to a particular group I'm not part of. If I hang around long enough, it might all start to become more clear. Or clear enough.

Each of the three tales is a complete section from "To Visit A Place." Obviously, I think they work on their own, but repeated phrases like "the body rose gently" give you a sense of the repetitions, interconnections, and recontextualizations that run through the full work. I've never attempted to articulate the novella's implied narrative for myself, but there does seem to be a larger plot, which has something to do with, in fact, a "plot" or a network of plots perpetrated by shady characters and organizations who may be something like yakuza, secret societies, fighting monks, sumo wrestlers, mad scientists, or government agencies, both domestic and foreign. Or maybe all of these at once. Appropriating and manufacturing children is involved, and this has something to do with dominion over, or perhaps the salvation of, Japan.

Also, as with any collage, the source material brings the baggage of its original context with it, for the writer certainly, and possibly also for the reader, baggage that may be both personal and shared by the culture. The character of Chief Powhatan, for example (in "The Incident"), was created from the name of Commodore Matthew C. Perry's flagship during his visits to Japan in the 1850s, which led to the so-called "opening" of the country after 400 years of seclusion. (A narrative of this voyage was one of my sources.) These three tales and the full novella, then, are really about historical constructions of Japan, Japan and the West, tensions between tradition and modernization, and the notion of authenticity.

One paragraph that stood out to me from the rest: “Submerged in tea for two days, the physical craving for a child suddenly reasserted itself. Need I say, nothing of this sort is to be realized in Western medical schools? Efforts are no doubt made, but there are good reasons why American doctors, dashing themselves against lamps at night, can't see that what lies within the Japanese cannot be verified. Here, one cannot distinguish between this moment and that according to some provisional constant!” This section seemed like a digression, but a fascinating one. Can you speak about how you chose to include this information?

Another great question. One of the easiest things to do, and my first impulse faced with that long list of raw materials, was to create action. But I wanted my narrator to pause, withdraw, and reflect, as well, to attempt to explain or think through his actions or the actions of others for his auditor, in his own language, as we might expect of any fictional character. As always in the piece, this moment of withdrawal is spiky, unpredictable, motivated by mental associations we cannot discern, though the contours of its implied metaphors (doctors as moths, national character as an equation) can be articulated. It's not that the narrator is crazy, rather his manner of thought is wholly his own, formed by his culture as well as by his own creativity, which we don't quite understand and therefore appears alien. He speaks with a confidence that suggests others understand him, so let's assume they exist. These moments may feel comic because of their seeming incomprehensibility, but they're spoken as earnest philosophical, cultural, or aesthetic reflections, in the mode of, say, Kōbō Abe, whose work I really admire. This particular passage returns to a repeated trope (does the craving for a child reside in the narrator or is it an independent entity? is it a craving to bear a child, to acquire one, to consume one?) inspired by the narrator's observation of the Lieutenant and the teacher. But it develops into an ongoing diatribe about the distinctions between Japan, America, and the West in general, about Japan's inaccessibility to the West and, as a unique and sovereign nation, its superiority. The whole mashup—with its sources chosen by me and my appropriation of centuries of Japanese literary voices, my construction of a clearly inauthentic, conglomerate Japanese persona, echoing, even satirizing, my attempted authenticity in "Report of Ito"—is an expression of anxiety about being overwhelmed by the West, about being appropriated, mistranslated, exoticized, erased, all of which, in my making of the work, in my conceiving it, has already occurred.

What other projects are you working on?

When I was writing "To Visit a Place," I'd still never been to Japan, and I thought it'd be interesting to write a third novella, a nonfiction-fiction hybrid, in which I go to Tokyo, visit Tsukiji and other places that appear in the first two novellas, and use the resulting experience as an opportunity to reflect on my lingering questions about authenticity and appropriation, about the very different aesthetics of the first two novellas, and about my long-term preoccupation with Japan. I'm finishing that third novella now and plan to publish all three together.

What have you read recently that you’d like to recommend?

Mostly I've been reading bits and pieces of things, a lot of historical and cultural work related to Japan. Of the things I've read front to back, I'll give you one old and one new.


The old is Mori Ōgai's long story "The Abe Family," a historical fiction set in the Tokugawa Period (1603-1868), and written in 1912, the year of Emperor Meiji's death. As the emperor's body was being removed from the palace, General Marusuke Nogi, a famous war hero following his capture of Port Arthur during the Russo-Japanese War, committed junshi, a final dedication of oneself to one's master through seppuku, a choice of death over serving someone else, a practice that had been banned by the shōgun in the 17th century. As a representative, like Emperor Meiji, of Japan's era of "Civilization and Enlightenment," General Nogi's archaic act was pretty shocking for Japan and the West. "The Abe Family," like Natsume Sōseki's Kokoro, attempts to make sense of it by examining the historical argument for junshi in a modern context. The story mainly concerns the aftermath of an important daimyo's (a vassal to the shōgun) death and the procession of suicides that follow. Ōgai's mapping of the emotional, ethical, and political calculations that shape the decision to die are fascinating.

The new is Haruki Murakami's Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. Sort of another story about death, I'm afraid. Death in life, isolation, loneliness, and abandonment. I'm generally a pretty slow reader, but I blew through this, caught up in the main character's philosophical considerations of his solitude, which begins with a devastating and sudden rejection, but ultimately comes to seem constitutional, self-generated. I really loved Murakami's orchestration of comings and goings and the book's demonstrations of the inability to know others, even intimates, maybe them least of all, and how information is never quite as revelatory as we might expect. In the best ways, the book raises questions all the way to its end, something it has in common with "The Abe Family," both works leaving us to continue to consider their mysteries.

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