Ono Masatsugu｜Bryan Washington
I hope this finds you well. I was so surprised when I read your letter. I couldn’t believe that we’d already met! In Houston, no less!
I’m not bad at remembering names and faces, so why didn’t I remember meeting you? After reading your letter, I went back to the pictures of you that I’d already seen online so many times before. When I did, I started to feel like we had in fact met—of course we had—a few years ago, in your hometown. Memory’s a fickle thing that way, isn’t it?
I remember talking about Murata Sayaka’s Convenience Store Woman with some of the people who had come to the reading at Brazos. But the English translation of this remarkable work wasn’t published until June 2018. You and I met that April. Of course, in the English-speaking world, journalists and writers have access to many books prior to publication. It really should have occurred to me when you said that you’d read Murata’s novel that you were no ordinary reader. (I have no idea how I could have missed that!) And to think, Bryan, you’re now one of the writers who means the most to me, someone whose next work I couldn’t be more excited to read.
I have a confession to make. I have no clear memory of how I responded when you told me at Brazos that you’d read Convenience Store Woman, but I could hardly believe what I read in your letter. As you wrote, I said that I was Murata’s friend. To be sure, Murata and I have crossed paths, and we’ve spoken. She was very kind to me, too. Still, we aren’t close enough for me to say that I know her well, much less to say that we’re friends. Yet that’s what I said to you (and if that’s true, believe me, I have a few choice words for myself). I’m translating your letters into Japanese, and this part was by no means easy to translate. (Also, when you had such nice things to say about my work, that was a real challenge to translate….) Still, the word in English is “friend,” so maybe it’s best to translate it directly as tomodachi, even if my conscience says otherwise.
As you know, our correspondence is going to appear in print. The last thing I want to do is put “fake news” out in the world. With that in mind, I wrote to Nishi Kanako (another amazing writer whose work I admire) and asked her to give Murata a message from me. “Since we’ve met, I ended up saying that I knew you well.” Murata responded quickly, and she said there was no need to do anything or take anything back. She even wrote these words: “I’d be so happy if, through this, we can become friends.” If that happens, the pleasure would be all mine. Thanks to you, Bryan, I was able to receive these kind words from this wonderful writer—a very welcome rain.
Rain. At the end of your letter, you mentioned the weather in Houston. It looks like rain’s on the way, you said. But it can’t rain all the time. I can already see it in my mind. You and your person, walking the dog up the block and back, in the bright sun that comes after the rain. It fills me with something so warm, something like hope. Speaking of rain, I read a short story of yours about three people experiencing the violent rain of a hurricane. It ran in Time magazine under the title “When the Rain Stops.”
I know it’s a short piece, but it’s a very important work to me. In this story, you return to one of the important themes that I’ve noticed throughout your writing: community. You deal with hospitality, too, and even touch on another concern that has to be on the mind of every person living on the planet today: climate change. This is a piece that really makes you think.
You’ve set your story in a place you know very well: Houston. Manny, Jae, and the narrator are all preparing for a hurricane on the way. The three of them seem to be involved in farming. Manny drives into town for water; meanwhile, Jae and the narrator box and board broccoli, beans, and more. The whole area might end up flooded, and they need to do what they can. “If you’re in the Loop, then you’ll likely end up halfway underwater. And if you’ve got cash, then you’re probably safe, but if you actually had money, then you’d already probably left.” As the characters in this story live in such a place, there’s no way they’re financially well off.
These days, we can’t dismiss hurricanes as purely “natural” disasters. It’s impossible to view them as unrelated to human activity. In your story, you wrote that Texas has seen “11 straight years of record-breaking hurricanes.” We often hear about American hurricanes in the news, even in Japan. We all remember 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, leaving unthinkable tragedy in its wake. They say the strength that we’ve seen in hurricanes in recent years has a good deal to do with climate change. Global warming has led to more warm and wet air, which fuels hurricanes so that they don’t lose force even when they make land. In Japan, too, typhoons and torrential downpours strike year after year. Where I grew up, along the coast of Kyushu, we had typhoons, and they’d show up like drunken guests a few times a year. I remember watching with excitement, waiting to see what kind of havoc they’d bring—not that they did much damage. Some part of me was looking forward to that break from the ordinary, a different sort of time that typhoons always brought with them. (Typhoons meant no school, of course.) What a bad kid I was! At any rate, it’s no longer possible to view these phenomena in that kind of light—not anymore.
What’s the relationship shared by the three characters in your story? As I said before, they’re getting ready for a hurricane, but the rain also plays a large role in their meeting in the first place. The narrator appears to be a gay man from Houston. When he goes out drinking one night, he meets Manny and Jae. He goes home with them, then it starts to rain. The narrator tells himself that he’ll leave “when the rain stops,” but the rain keeps falling—for nine days or so—and he stays with Manny and Jae for that time. In other words, it was the rain that kept him there. “I thought they’d kick me out,” the narrator admits, and yet “Manny and Jae made space at their dinner table. Tossed me cushions on their sofa. I’d lean barefoot over their sink, waddling naked from their bathroom to their bedroom and back—until, one day, eventually, they felt as much of a part of my life as anything else.” It seems as though the narrator had become a core part of Manny and Jae’s lives as well. But what is it that really ties them together? Not blood, of course. Is it something closer to love? Sure, it has to be. But is that all? What they share isn’t heterosexual love, but I’m hesitant to call it homosexual love. What the three of them share strikes me as something that transcends sexuality altogether. As the three of them lie in bed like matchsticks, Manny snores loudly, and the narrator buries his ears in Jae’s chest. Between the three of them, we find a small community bound together by care and love. Isn’t this—the care and love that the three men share—what we’ve called “family”? Isn’t this what we’ve built our lives around?
What’s most wonderful about “When the Rain Stops” is that this circle of care and love is by no means limited to these three characters. The weather gets worse and worse. And as it does, the neighbors start to visit, one at a time. Fernando asks what they think about the rains. Julie drops off a jar of broth. When she does, she and Jae gossip in Korean. Mabel brings food, Leticia stops by with extra batteries. From the sidewalk, Mai’s son asks if they have any water to spare. Everybody in the area is thinking about their neighbors. It reminded me of the extraordinary communities in A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnit, except in your story this community seems to have already existed in some loose form; the approaching hurricane has only brought it into focus.
When the night comes, the wind picks up and the house starts to shiver. Before long, Mai’s son comes over with Tupperware full of che chuoi to thank them for the water. It’s where things go from there that really touched me. Before the kid could run home, Jae asks him if he wants to join them. Then the four of them eat, beneath the drizzling rain, standing in the doorway, the warm dessert maybe still steaming. Bryan, I can’t help but admire you for having imagined the beautiful kindness that we find at the heart of this scene.
You wrote that Japanese people have been exceedingly kind to you. I can’t tell you how glad I am to hear it. Then again, it seems to me that the people of Japan are not at all used to living with people who speak different languages and hold different religious views (I don’t want to use the word “race”). At the same time, looking at Black Lives Matter and widespread discrimination against Asians and Asian-Americans throughout the pandemic, it seems as though living with the other is no easier in America. That’s part of what makes your fiction, especially this short story, so special. Just look at who came to visit Manny, Jae, and the narrator. Fernando is presumably Latino. Julie is Korean, same as Jae. Judging by the che chuoi, Mai and her son are likely Vietnamese-American. I can imagine the narrator being Black. Still, as you often include Japanese characters in your work, it’s equally easy to imagine him being of Japanese descent, like Mike in Memorial. The characters in “When the Rain Stops” form a community of care made up of people from different backgrounds. (By the way, I couldn’t help but notice that the illustration of three people standing among hurricane-battered buildings that accompanied your story in Time was drawn by an artist with a Korean name.)
Maybe you’ll tell me you were just depicting Houston as it actually is. But faced with the same reality, people see things differently. Some will find richness and potential where others see only chaos and disorder. There were truly countless ways in which you could have written a story about people living through a hurricane, yet you chose to highlight above all else the beautiful warmth that emerged among your characters. The looming disaster could just as easily have led to new tensions or strains, or created a deep rift between Manny, Jae, and the narrator. But your imagination didn’t guide you toward anything of the sort.
In your letter, you wrote that all of your work is queer and Black because you’re queer and Black. As you said, this is in no way limiting or defining. In fact, it seems that, for you, being queer and Black means opening your imagination, your sensibility, and your intelligence as a writer to a diverse range of identities and ways of living that differ from your own.
Of course the hurricane leaves “the usual debris” behind. Mangled branches, overturned plants, stray piles of trash strewn across the road. Did the vegetables in the shed make it? Jae keeps digging until he manages to pull a single plant from the rubble: a tomato, bright and shining. In his joy, the narrator calls this “a miracle.” It’s the tiniest miracle, found there among devastation stretching out as far as the eye can see. And that’s exactly what you do through your writing. I don’t know if Manny, Jae, and the narrator ended up eating that tomato together, but I’m certain that you’re always sharing with us the miracle that you have in your own hands.
I apologize for the late reply. I hope all is well where you are.
雨。最初のお手紙の最後であなたはヒューストンの天気に触れていました。どうやら雨が振りそうだと。でも雨のあとには晴れの日がやって来るものです。その雨上がりの明るい日差しの下を、あなたとあなたの大切な人が犬を連れて歩いている姿がありありと目に浮かび、心のなかに温かい希望が広がりました。そういえば、あなたは「雨」、具体的にはハリケーンの激しい雨を体験する若者３人を描く短篇を書いていますよね。「タイム」誌に掲載された「雨が上がったら」(“When the Rain Stops”)です。
Ono Masatsugu, born in 1970, is the author of numerous novels, including two published in English translation: Lion Cross Point and Echo on the Bay (both translated by Angus Turvill and published by Two Lines Press). Ono won the Mishima Yukio Prize with Nigiyakana wan ni seowareta fune [Boat on a bustling bay] and the Akutagawa Prize with Kyunen mae no inori [A prayer nine years ago]. He has also translated works by Édouard Glissant, Amin Maalouf, Marie NDiaye, and Akhil Sharma.
The translator's profile is not available as requested.