Kelly Luce and Karan Mahajan spent three years studying together at the Michener Center for Writers in Austin, Texas, where they both earned MFAs. FSG recently published Luce’s debut novel, Pull Me Under, which tells the story of a Japanese-American woman who cannot escape the darkness of her past; as a twelve-year-old in Japan, she snapped and killed her bully. Mahajan’s second novel, The Association of Small Bombs—a heart-wrenching tale of “minor” terrorism’s effect on families and communities—is shortlisted for this year’s National Book Award. To celebrate their recent achievements, Kelly and Karan caught up via e-mail, discussing false shoplifting accusations, culture shock, and a woman’s right to express rage.
Karan Mahajan: Describe your experiences in the Japanese penal system.
Kelly Luce: To make a very long story as short as I can, I spent a week in a women’s prison in Yokohama during my first year in Japan. I was arrested on suspicion of shoplifting—which, I assure you, is a crime I have committed; as a junior student I used to steal troll dolls from a local shop—but in this case, I was actually innocent. I had made a mistake in carrying a few items—a scarf, a water filter, and a DVD—from one department to another in a Kmart-like large store, instead of paying for each item separately in its own department, so while this was against store policy, it wasn’t a crime. I had two cellmates; our food came through a flap near the floor, and we were allowed out of the cell for a few minutes each day to brush our teeth and wash up at a long sink. I was advised by a man from the American embassy, who visited me after a few days, to confess to whatever crime I was accused of once I was allowed to see the prosecutor. He explained that in Japan, over ninety-eight percent of cases that go to trial end in guilty verdicts. If I fought the charge against me, it was highly likely that I would be found guilty and sentenced. When I did see the prosecutor, I gritted my teeth and signed a confession—a confession in Japanese, which I couldn’t read. I was released. This was a relief, of course, but I did have to resign from my teaching job. (It’s rare to actually get fired in Japan; it’s assumed an employee who has screwed up will resign out of shame.)
A few weeks later, I received a letter of apology from the security guard at the store who had “caught” me. She’d lost her job after her supervisors had reviewed the video footage and realized that I hadn’t left the store (the actual definition of shoplifting). However, this exoneration didn’t get me my job back. The Board of Education had lost face over the accusation. The accusation itself was my downfall—my guilt or innocence, in a way, didn’t matter. However, there’s a happy ending to the story: I stayed in Japan and found a new job in a beautiful part of the country—the island of Shikoku, where Pull Me Under is largely set. And while I was there, I met my now-husband.
KM: How good is your Japanese and how did learning the language affect your writing in English?
KL: I became conversational when I lived there, to the point where I was thinking in Japanese, and at my best my reading level was around a junior high schooler’s. It’s been more than ten years since I lived in Japan, though, so it’s atrophied. I still have a decent vocabulary, but I no longer think in Japanese and I have a hard time forming sentences without a lot of effort. And my reading level is probably a little kid’s.
I’m not sure how learning Japanese has affected my writing. It’s an interesting question. Maybe it made me realize the importance of clarity and simplicity. And precision. Learning a new language, especially one with a very different grammar and orthography from my native language, I realized how much I took for granted when I made an English sentence.
This reminds me of a trick my then-boyfriend, who was also a native English speaker and studying Japanese at the time, discovered during that time. If we had a fight we couldn’t resolve, we would argue in Japanese. This helped us get to the bottom of a fight more quickly than in English. Turns out that having limited vocabulary and grammatical possibilities available forces you to express yourself more directly and succinctly. You can’t rely on nuance and subtlety and hope your partner will pick up on the undertones.
KM: Every novel has a second system of symbols and signs and memories underlying the plot; the plot can be an obscure instrument to unite these secret memories. What part of your experience in Japan did you most hope to preserve?
KL: What a beautiful idea. You’re absolutely right. For me this system includes the natural beauty of Shikoku, my friendship with Shinobu, who is based on a real student of mine (whom I can’t find anywhere today, unfortunately [link to Powell’s essay on Shinobu]), and the sense of being a cultural and racial outsider. I’m white and I grew up in suburban Chicago, so Japan was the first place where I experienced what it felt like to be in the social minority. I was rendered functionally illiterate, and was unable to speak or comprehend the speech around me; this, combined with my cultural ignorance and unusual physical appearance, made for an intensely lonely experience.
KM: The bones of a travelogue—one set along the Shikoku pilgrimage—show through the plot. Was the travelogue a form you considered or have worked in before?
KL: I hadn’t thought of it that way. I certainly read a number of travelogues about the 88 Temple Pilgrimage as I researched the novel, but it’s not a form I’ve worked in myself (unless you count the blog I kept sporadically when I first moved to Japan). But I specifically didn’t want the novel to read like it had been structured around a trip and its component stops. I wanted the structure to derive from character and its component motivations.
KM: The novel defends, in a sense, the right of women to express rage—particularly in a repressed culture. Was this the intent of the book from the start or something you approached with successive drafts?
KL: I think that seed was always there. It’s a big part of what drew me to Chizuru/Rio as a character. I feel like often when girls and women are portrayed darkly in books or TV and film, they’re often either evil, jealous girlfriends or catty, Mean Girl–style gossips. As if real brutality is reserved for men. As if they’re the only ones society really gives permission to lose control. So it was the intent from the start, yes. And I ramped it up with each draft, which gave me a sort of maniacal feeling of freedom—and glee.
KM: You’ve mentioned to me that you write amid interferences and noise (a little like John Ashbery, whose phone calls go into his poems). How does this affect your fiction? How does one write a sentence with a Twitter break between clauses?
KL: I do that sometimes, yeah. Part of allowing myself distractions is that the distractions, at least on a good day, create a pattern of attention—like doing sprints with short periods of walking in between. It’s interval training for the brain. Studies show that the brain maintains attention and peak productivity for about fifteen minutes at a time. This feels true for me. Sometimes I get stuck on wording a sentence, or I lose the story thread when I’m writing, or I don’t know what will come next, and I get a sense that pushing it will not help—in fact, might hurt. So I let my brain free for a few minutes by going on Twitter and cracking a joke, or going outside and staring at trees, or eavesdropping on the people at the next table, and that helps. Twitter is especially great because I get this tiny satisfying pleasure of having created something that reaches people. I also do a lot of cooking when I write. Books take forever to finish, but I can make pesto in twenty minutes and feel gratified.
KM: You’ve also told me that you want writing to be fun. How do you preserve that sense as you become more and more of a professional writer?
KL: Mostly I don’t. Ha. Ha.
KM: Are there any modern Japanese novelists you recommend? And who is writing well about Japan from America?
KL: If you like crime/mystery novels with female protagonists, Natsuo Kirino’s Grotesque or Out are great; she has a wonderfully dark sensibility. For something short and nostalgic and sweet, try Takashi Hiraide’s The Guest Cat. Suzanne Kamata’s Gadget Girl: the Art of Being Invisible is an excellent YA novel by an American woman, who lives in Tokushima, about a girl with cerebral palsy.
Sarah Bird’s Above the East China Sea is an incredible novel about, in part, young women working in the Okinawan cave hospitals during World War II. Malena Watrous’s If You Follow Me is also a beautiful novel set in Japan. And I absolutely adore Ruth Ozeki and Karen Tei Yamashita.
KM: What are you up to at Harvard at the moment?
KL: I’m working on my next novel. It’s still early in the process, but it involves female homelessness, prenatal memory, the so-called conflict between science and faith, and a Franciscan brother who is an astronomer at the Vatican. (Yes, the Vatican has astronomers, and quite an amazing observatory!)
Kelly Luce is the author of the short-story collection Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail, which won the Foreword Reviews 2013 Editor’s Choice Prize for Fiction. A native of Illinois, she holds a degree in cognitive science from Northwestern University and an MFA from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin. She is a fellow at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and a contributing editor for Electric Literature. She lives in California’s Santa Cruz Mountains.
Karan Mahajan was born in New Delhi. His second novel, The Association of Small Bombs, tells the story of two families in a world plagued by terrorism. Karan not only explores how terrorism shakes its victims, but how those responsible are affected as well. His debut novel, Family Planning, was published in nine different countries and won the Joseph Henry Jackson Award. His writing has also appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker online, Granta.com, and more. He resides in Austin, Texas, where he is currently diving into his third novel.
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