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"A Place of Embarrassment": An Interview with Kaj Tanaka

Kaj Tanaka's stories have been featured in Longform, selected for Wigleaf’s Best (Very) Short Fictions and nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He is the nonfiction editor for BULL Magazine. He lives in Houston. Read more of his work at kajtanaka.com.

His story, "Understand," appeared in Issue Seventy-Six of The Collagist.

Here, he speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about MS Word, Borges, and how we relate to our readers.

Where did this story begin for you?

I read things and don’t understand them all the time, which is embarrassing to admit. I’m a very forgetful and lazy reader. I wanted to write a story about that. I think a lot of my best stories come from a place of embarrassment.

How do you compose your stories? Do you compose them in your head, like Borges and the dream man, or do you compose on a computer or paper? How do you think the medium we use to write our stories affects the form our stories take?

I do all of my writing on MS Word. My hand isn’t accustomed to writing with a pen, and my handwriting is almost completely illegible unless I concentrate. The nice thing about writing on a computer is that my stories are very malleable. I can cut, copy, splice, and delete very easily, and I use those tools all the time. It adds another dimension to the composition process. Maybe because of that I don’t plan my stories out in advance. This story, for example, was quite a bit longer at one point, and the paragraphs were in a different order.

I love that the first line, “A person can read something and not understand it at all, even something simple,” sets me up to question my reading of your story. As a writer, is it important to you that readers understand your intent, or are you open to the multiple interpretations they might bring to your work?  

I don’t usually worry about making sure readers understand what I’m trying to accomplish. I know, as a reader, I read things into stories all the time that the writers probably didn’t intend. It doesn’t take away from my enjoyment of the story, and sometimes when I find out what the author was actually trying to accomplish, I’m slightly disillusioned. I think when you publish a story you give it away, in a certain sense. People take what they want from fiction, based on who they are and what kind of day they‘ve had. No writer can control for those things. The best a writer can hope to do is write interesting and robust sentences that have the power to appeal to a diversity of people.

Who are some authors that inspire or inform your writing?

I think this story was a riff on a Lydia Davis story. I’m not sure which one, but I was reading a lot her at the time, and I was really taking her into heart. I also look at Richard Brautigan, and Isaac Babel when I’m stuck. They’ve been a big influence on me. Also Borges.

What projects are you working on now?

I’m writing a novel about taekwondo kids in rural North Dakota.

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