An Interview with Hiromi Goto

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Photo by Dana Putnam

Hiromi Goto is the acclaimed author of the novels Chorus of Mushrooms, The Kappa Child, The Water of Possibility, Half World, and Darkest Light, as well as the short story collection Hopeful Monsters. She is also the co-author of Wait Until Late Afternoon, a collaborative long poem co-written with David Bateman, and has published poetry and fiction in many literary journals and anthologies. Her writing has garnered the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for Best First Book (Caribbean and Canada), the Canada-Japan Book Award, the James Tiptree Memorial Award, the Sunburst Award, and the Carl Brandon Society Parallax Award, along with nominations for the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for Best Regional Book and the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. You can read more about her writing, teaching, and mentorship at hiromigoto.com.

TN: Your writing has garnered a number of awards that speak to the genres in which you work: the James Tiptree, Jr. Award, for science fiction or fantasy that “expands or explores our understanding of gender”; the Sunburst Award, for Excellence in Canadian Literature of the Fantastic; and the Carl Brandon Society Parallax Award, for “works of speculative fiction created by a self-identified person of color.”

How do you characterize the genre, or genres, in which you work? Are “science fiction,” “fantasy,” “speculative fiction,” or “literature of the fantastic” adequate terms? Do you find that one fits better than the others?

HG: We create labels or names for complex things in order to be able to speak about them, so genre labels can be useful in order to frame broader conversations of different forms of literature that perform in different ways. These categories are also useful for libraries, and booksellers, as an organizing tool. The problem with labels, across the board, is that they can be used in reductive ways. I have no control over these things as an individual. I’m aware of common perceptions of genre designations and this understanding does inform my writing, but allowing this awareness to confine my creative and intellectual process doesn’t serve me well. I’m propelled, first, by idea or concept, and the writing process is one of discovery or thought experiment as well as creative play. I am comfortable saying that my adult work falls under the umbrella of speculative fiction (although all of my adult writing is not necessarily speculative) and that my novels for youth and children are works of fantasy. But I am also comfortable saying that the terms “speculative fiction” and “fantasy” are not exclusive terms; that these terms also may include other designations such as “literary,” “intellectual,” etc. I don’t think of genres as mutually exclusive. It’s a spectrum, kind of like sexuality…

TN: You have also written a number of young adult novels: The Water of Possibility (Coteau, 2001), Half World (Penguin, 2009), and, most recently, Darkest Light (Penguin, 2012). When you began to write YA fiction, did it feel like you were tackling a new genre? By “new,” I mean in relation to your previous writing for adults.

HG: I did approach the writing of my books for a youth audience from an understanding that it was more strongly connected to fantasy in a way I hadn’t with my adult projects. But it didn’t feel like I was working in a new genre per se. A lot of my adult writing circles around the fantastic or the magical, so sliding into fantasy “proper” didn’t feel so different. Maybe what was more striking was the understanding that I was writing for a younger audience. As a result, I decided to write narratives that were more strongly story-based (beginning, middle, end, strong causal connections, dramatic sequences rather than overlong character interiority à la Franzen-itis).  

TN: In an interview with Gavin J. Grant, you speak of the dearth of books for children and young adults that feature children of colour as protagonists. You note that the majority of stories that do feature children of colour “seem limited to ‘of-ethnic-interest’ types of scenarios, or a story dealing with racism,” and that children of colour are “seldom depicted as having adventures, solving mysteries, saving lives, falling in love, etc.” You write: “After several years of frustration I thought, Okay! It’s not out there! You’re a writer. You do it! Our children want and need their adventures, too! So this item has been added to my writerly agenda.”

The Water of Possibility, Half World, and Darkest Light are clearly meeting real needs, and they seem to reveal other crucial items on your “writerly agenda” too: feminist politics; positive representation of LGBTQ+ youth and adults; frank discussions of self-hatred, violence, and self-harm and suicide amongst youth…and those are just a few that come to mind. What kinds of stories are you most interested in offering to young adult readers? What issues are you most compelled to speak to?

HG: My desire is to write stories that are diverse on multiple platforms. So, of course, diversity in terms of identity-based constructs, but I’m also thinking not only about what we story, but how we story. One of the things that has bothered me about a lot of children’s and youth literature is the rather doggedly fixed depictions of “good” and “evil” as simple binaries. I think this tendency arises from Christianity and the history of morality-based literature written for the edumacation of young minds…. But, in fact, “good” and “evil” are not distinctly experienced; the human condition (youthful and adult) is complex and muddy. So I’ve written stories that don’t replicate that “classic heroic” model. Again, this is also an idea-based exploration of a story project. I don’t know if I’m thinking of specific issues to speak to…

Or, maybe, I don’t think of my novels as issue-based narratives. My desire to write diverse stories means that I’m integrating an awareness of social issues that have an impact upon our daily lives (racism, ageism, sexism, homophobia, etc.) into stories—this is actually a way of bringing realism into a work. Depending on who you are, these social issues are experienced and perceived in different ways. They may not directly affect your daily consciousness. I.e. if you’re a young white woman working in a Toronto publishing house as an assistant editor, you will not be the recipient of persistent racist comment/interactions. You will not be followed around by security in a store “just in case” you shoplift. You will not have great difficulty in renting an apartment. So it may seem that racism is not “an issue” for you. It becomes a transparent social issue from your subjectivity (as opposed to, say, every day sexism) even as you are part of the system that creates this environment, even as you benefit from this system. At which point does systemic racism becomes an issue for a character like this in a story? Only if the effects of racism becomes a plot point? The word “issue” sets off in me a distant alarm bell, because I’m nervous about how readers may decode this word/idea. “That’s your issue,” people say, “not mine.”

Listen, buddy, I want to say. We’re all in this together. We’re making this world in passive and active ways all the time, every day.

I’m interested in writing stories for young readers that elicit thinking. I want to provide a window into a worldview that doesn’t replicate normative ideologies. I wish to foreground characters of backgrounds (cultures, race, sexual orientations, age, size) who have been historically underrepresented in published North American fiction. I also want to whisk away young readers on an adventure that has them feeling a broad range of emotions.

TN: On a topic related to self-hatred and self-harm—I wonder if you would speak to your aesthetic engagements with “monstrosity.” I’m thinking specifically of the ways in which physical “monstrosity” in your fiction sometimes seems to reflect the self-hatred or traumatization of your characters, as in The Kappa Child (Red Deer, 2001) and Darkest Light, but also speaks sometimes to social convention and prescriptiveness, as in your short story collection Hopeful Monsters (Arsenal Pulp, 2004). What is it about the “monstrous” that engages you, and allows for such versatile forms of representation in your work?

HG: The monster continues to fascinate and intrigue me. I think of the monstrous as having some relation to the postcolonial idea of the Other. But it also relates to notions of the Uncanny. The idea of the monstrous works on so many levels—it can be physically constructed (Frankenstein’s monster), but it can also be a spiritual or psychological state (The Talented Mr. Ripley). Monstrosity can be depicted in a physical form, but it can also be a behavior or a thought—it also can be as far-reaching as a system… For me, the nexus of the idea of monstrosity is in its relation to the self, and one’s own dogged desire to self-recognize as “not monstrous.” But the great irony is that monstrosity is an idea that we imagine into being. We are already monstrous…. When we abhor and reject the monster, we are mentally/spiritually murdering that which we do not want to recognize in ourselves. It is this endless struggle between acceptance/rejection/denial/fear/rage that continues to fascinate me.

TN: A slightly different, but related question would be: Do “monstrosity” and gender representation intersect for you in any specific ways? Are there aspects of lived experience in woman-identified bodies that lend themselves particularly well to aesthetic representations, or interrogations, of the “monstrous”?

HG: Great question! Patriarchy and sexism, recognized or not, exerts a tremendous controlling force over all of our lives no matter what your gender. Our governments, our social structures are saturated with distortive narratives. Take, for instance, the narrative of “beauty” as an example, which is assigned for women, whereas “strength” is assigned for men. And, speaking of intersections, “beauty” parses further along many other streams—so not only do we have the burden and insult of the ridiculous “beauty standard” imposed upon women’s bodies, the distortive measure degrades even further by assigning a racist, classist, ableist, ageist docking system… Fuck off!

Under this lookist sexist system, the idea of a constructed “beauty” (because beauty is a construction) as it’s imposed upon our collective imagination, is an oppressive and monstrous force. Ironies of ironies…

But as I mentioned above, I don’t think of “the monstrous” as a discrete state. The tension between the external (social, political, relational, physical) and the internal (emotional, sensorial, intellectual, spiritual) is in constant flux.

A long time ago I decided to focus my stories around the lives of women. I’m interested in bringing to the fore different ways women experience their lives. There is an inherent violence in how we experience our lives under a patriarchal system. For some the violence is physically immediate and acute. This is a monstrous condition under which we live our lives. We also internalize this inherent violence and participate in it, often subconsciously. How can we reconcile this contradiction?

This is how the monstrous, in creative forms, can become a generative entity. The monster is the chimaera of our worst nightmare, and the self… This, I think, expresses rather well how women live in this world.

TN: You have published a collaborative poem entitled Wait Until Late Afternoon (Frontenac, 2009), which you co-wrote with David Bateman. How would you characterize your collaborative process? Had you written collaboratively with another author before?

HG: I can’t speak for David, but for me this piece was a deeply personal exchange with him as it explored our own experiences (both shared and different) with alcohol, our alcoholic fathers, and our relationship with each other (David and me). We approached the project in a (very!) loose renga-type manner, each poem/stanza a kind of response or springboard for the next poem. We went back and forth, mostly over email, but a few times in the same physical space. I’d never worked so collaboratively with another writer before, so this experience was interesting and challenging and I also fell a little in love with David because it was such an intimate engagement. It’s a generative process that has you taking the writing into places you wouldn’t have gone on your own, because you’d be bound by the patterns of your own thinking. Working with someone else takes you to different junctures. Making new connections.

TN: Among other things, you have worked as an editor and mentor, a writer-in-residence, and an instructor in Simon Fraser University’s Continuing Studies program. In your experience, what are some of the pleasures and challenges of literary mentorship and instruction?

HG: Working with communities of writers who have been historically underrepresented in Canadian literature is a wonderful experience. There is much power, joy, kinship, in writing from a sense of cultural connectedness, and to witness this being explored in a group setting is a great privilege.

Pleasures of literary mentorship and instruction include seeing actual improvement in writing and critical reading skills, as well as the development of a broader social consciousness as it pertains to writing. Because writing for a public/audience is a social engagement even if the writer is primarily motivated by creative process rather than completed project. I love it when the writer finally “sees” something that has previously been transparent or blocked off. I love it when a student has me see in this way!

Some of the biggest challenges I experience are talking about various “-isms” as they pertain to writing—i.e. representation, subjectivity, appropriation, diversity, cultural sensitivity, etc. For some people/students, these are not issues they consciously think about as relevant to their own lives. So to make mention of them, in a creative, cultural, and critical context, can result in students feeling uneasy/uncomfortable/confused/angry. This situation is further complicated by my own body—as a queer woman of colour I can be perceived as embodying the very things I’m trying to discuss, as if I’m “not being neutral” (as if this is even possible in anyone), or am serving my own interests. So! Complicated and complex! But this is a challenge I continue to learn from, and hopefully am getting better at exploring in group settings!  

TN: The closing ceremonies of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission this summer have provided, among other things, a timely opportunity to reflect on the conversations that the TRC generated. One such conversation is foregrounded in Cultivating Canada: Reconciliation through the Lens of Cultural Diversity (Aboriginal Healing Foundation Research Series, 2011). Edited by Ashok Mathur, Jonathan Dewar, and Mike DeGagné, the volume engages with the complexity of a nation in which settler colonialism has many “localized variants.”

This topic emerges in some of your work, as in The Kappa Child, in which the narrator’s childhood love for Little House on the Prairie provides a somewhat ironic background to her budding friendship with Gerald Nakamura, whose heritage is Blood and Japanese. In your view—or perhaps simply for you personally—has the TRC given new scope to conversations concerning relationships between Indigenous peoples in Canada and Canadians who, in Georges Erasmus’s words, are “outside the traditional settler communities of British and French”?

HG: I think the TRC was a positive start toward dialogue between Indigenous peoples and all settler communities. I’m concerned, however, that for many Canadians it will be perceived as a historical mo(nu)ment that “closes” the conversation instead, especially for those who wish to avoid the difficult and long work that is necessary for each and every one of us who are part of the colonization process. I have a feeling that many newer immigrants don’t have a cultural and critical understanding of the violence of colonization, and how this violence continues to shape our Canadian lives in different ways. If the TRC is to continue trying to do its work, then every new immigrant needs to be taught about Canada’s historical treatment of Indigenous peoples, and how this has affected Indigenous communities/individuals to this day. The findings of the TRC need to be taught as required course material in primary school, junior high, and then again, in all senior high school programs. It should also be a required course in all first-year post-secondary education, just like a course in Humanities and a course in Sciences is required, for instance.

For many non-Indigenous peoples it is possible that they may live in communities where they will never have a meaningful engagement or conversation with someone who is Indigenous. So their understanding or recognition of the TRC’s findings can be framed as abstract or, again, as an issue that’s very far from their own subjective experiences. When, in reality, their/our very lives on this land mean we are complicit and implicated in colonial violence.

This is a very simplistic example but when I participate in a fundraiser or a protest march that is in support of the Unist’ot’en’s fight for the protection of their traditional lands, I look around at the audience to see how many Asian Canadians there are. There is a mere handful… There’s still a lot of work to be done. Writers and artists can do some of this work by bringing to the cultural imagination our connections to Indigenous peoples and their traditional lands, and their/our struggles toward greater social justice. We can integrate our responsibilities as part of settler communities into our creative projects. SKY Lee was doing this kind of engaging in Disappearing Moon Café. More recently, Rita Wong has been working furiously at investigating the relationships between poetics, social justice, ecology, and decolonization both pedagogically and creatively in her books like forage and undercurrent. Cecily Nicholson’s poetry, like From the Poplars. Projects like Enpipe Line…  We need to keep the conversation alive, create an ongoing movement that has us continue to engage in critical thinking and take part in actions, be they large political gestures or small daily personal acts of solidarity.

Tina Northrup is an outgoing interviews editor for CWILA. She lives in Halifax and teaches part-time in Truro, and her articles and reviews have appeared in Canadian Poetry, Studies in Canadian Literature, Canadian Literature, Canadian Notes and Queries, and The Antigonish Review.

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