Ono Masatsugu｜Bryan Washington
I hope you and yours are taking care—once again, I’d like to apologize for my massive delay.
I spent December in Berkeley, California, working on my upcoming novel, and after my return to Houston I tried to hide out and continue apace. It’s taken about two years to work myself toward a draft, but I’ve found that changes of scenery, insofar as they’ve been possible in the pandemic, have genuinely helped the process. Of course that’s a privilege, but it’s been a very welcome one. And I think the East Bay area in particular has been especially fruitful for this book—I’m still trying to figure out exactly why that is, but I imagine it could be the area’s emphasis on outdoor space, which is entirely different from Houston (with our never-ending concrete). In either case, I’ve been privy to a breeziness in Oakland and Berkeley that’s been really fruitful for the writing. I stayed in a house beside one of the local universities. Most of my days followed an easy, unchanging routine.
So, naturally, the moment I returned to Houston I managed to fall ill. Not from COVID, for better or worse, but it took me off my feet all the same. I spent the new year holiday at home with my boyfriend and the dog, and while we were fortunate to have fireworks and video calls with friends, the circumstances still felt entirely surreal, partly due to the shift in routine. I usually spend the holidays in Kansai, visiting friends. Those travels have always been my way of demarcating (very quietly) one year from the next. Without that movement, the end-of-year festivities seem to have molded together in a way that’s been a bit destabilizing (more than once, 2021 simply felt like an extension of 2020), but mostly just strange all the same. Once an individual sense of time folds into itself, at one point is it jounced back into place? How have the past few years impacted your sense of time and distance?
But I have to say that I’m so heartened to hear you enjoyed “When the Rain Stops”! In many ways, the story is an extension of some character experimenting I’ve worked through en route to the next book. It was another attempt to experiment with found-family character dynamics. This idea of a queer family whose internal rhythms fluctuate with the weather—both internal and external—is a narrative thread I’ve been pretty preoccupied with; partly, maybe, because I think of myself as the product of found families, and partly because the mere notion of found families—even without context—is such a useful device for navigating themes outside of a particular unit of people.
Because so many folks of the queer experience find themselves in new kinds of context as we grow older, it’s not at all uncommon for the question of “what” or “how” a family comes together to be continually expanded and inclusive within these communities—even if it’s only implicitly.
Within that story, the elasticity of care and its different forms is another idea I’ve been trying to work through. I think the way(s) that characters identify care say as much about who they are as why they are the way that they are. And if we’re thinking of community, I’m also interested in the ways that a community’s differences exacerbate their points of connection; or how/if they become more tenable. Like, when we’re coming from different origin points, whether literally or metaphorically, how do we calibrate our senses of care accordingly? What role does ethnicity hold in the equation (the protagonist of that story, as you noted, is Black, but his family members and friends in the narrative are not)? And, Ono-san, how has your own idea of community changed over the past few years? What kind of role do you think our identities play in the formation of these communities?
I think that the found-family story model allows me to parse other questions that I find myself returning to: like, what is loyalty? What debts exist beyond blood? And I wonder if it’s the same for you—but when I’m working on a longer piece of fiction, I often find myself looking for opportunities to explore narrative threads that are proving particularly difficult to unspool through shorter, parallel projects. Sometimes, it’s a character’s voice. Or a particular setting. Or maybe a minor (or major) tonal shift that I can’t quite stick the landing on. I hazard to say that writing short stories in the midst of longer projects is “simply my process” (because if I’ve learned nothing else, it’s that my process seems to adapt itself, albeit haphazardly, to each new work), but it’s something that keeps happening, so perhaps there’s something to it. Are there particular routes or routines that you’ve found yourself continually turning to when working through an idea? How do you know when you’ve arrived at the “voice” of your characters?
I think that Manny, Jae, and the narrator are tied together by circumstance, and sexuality, and shared struggles to a degree—but, as you noted, I think their love for one another is what defines their relationship. And the trickiness of defining the “what” of that love, in the face of so few models for it, serves as both an engine and a point of tension between them. But multiple things can be true at the same time, and working to continually embrace simultaneity is another narrative (and personal!) shift that’s been really important to me the last few years. It was strange to find myself attending a protest one day, attending George Floyd’s funeral in Houston (at a Christian church that I grew up attending, and ultimately turned away from entirely) the weekend afterward, and to be receiving videos from friends in Osaka from their own impromptu vigils in solidarity within minutes of leaving the funeral. The immediacy and elasticity of these connections have really underlined how so many of these events are linked with one another—none of them occur in a vacuum. Which feels deeply heartening to me! And also a little stabilizing. But your work has been a genuine north star for me as I’ve thought through how to embrace this connectedness, between seemingly but never truly disparate events—is this something you think about, too?
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention reading At the Edge of the Woods—the book is such an achievement! I’ve found myself thinking of it daily since I finished reading the English translation. The ways in which your characters carry hope and dread in tandem with each other, while simultaneously making their way through their daily lives—the extraordinary bits as well as the minutiae—are balanced in a manner that reads as entirely masterly. And perilous! And invigorating. And yet you’ve executed this seamlessly in your prose. As the family unit (!) in this novel navigates their new home, they also reevaluate their prior stations in life, reckoning with the past in the present. And alongside this shift of geographic context comes the literal, physical altering of how these characters relate to one another.
Your book deftly and carefully weaves threads through so many ideas that preoccupy me in my own work: the conflict between a character’s relationship to place and the people occupying these physical spaces; and our relationships to the projections placed upon us by our communities, particularly as we find ourselves moving from one context to another. Because a question that preoccupies me—and one that I’m curious about how you approach—is what happens when someone realizes that those projections no longer align with who they are? What in their life is forced to shift? And what is the residue of that realization?
How do you go about establishing this in your prose? Is it an idea that you’ve found yourself having to constantly unspool, particularly as our pandemic states continually upend contexts and perceived planes of stability? And, simultaneously, what role do you feel that place has in this question of what’s remembered, what’s experienced, and the rifts in between? Do you feel that coming of age in Kyushu distinctly impacted how you view ideas like place and community?
Mostly, truly, I hope that you and your family and your friends are taking care. I’ve been following the pandemic’s numbers in Japan alongside the stats in the States—it’s been disheartening all around, and I’m really feeling for folks caught in the middle. Prior to the Omicron outbreaks, I’d been planning on visiting in March—but of course that’ll have to be pushed to an indefinite future. In either case, it’s made for something to look forward to, along with your correspondence, in a moment where it’s more difficult to find such things—they’ve both felt like massive gifts.
And also: hearing that you and Murata-san were able to connect puts the biggest smile on my face. I received a very early copy of Convenience Store Woman in translation from a friend—for
many months afterward, that novel was as much a component of my daily routine as my phone or my wallet. Like your own work, it illuminated my life a little brighter.
with very warm regards,
Printed by permission of SLL/Sterling Lord Literistic, Inc. Copyright by Bryan Washington
Printed by permission of SLL/Sterling Lord Literistic, Inc. Copyright by Bryan Washington
Bryan Washington is a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree, and winner of Dylan Thomas Prize and Ernest J. Gaines Award Literary Excellence. His first book, the story collection Lot, was a finalist for the NBCC’s John Leonard Prize, the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize, the Aspen Words Literary Prize, and the New York Public Library Young Lions Award. Lot was a New York Times Notable Book, one of Dwight Garner’s top ten books of the year, and on best-of-the-year lists from Time, NPR, Vanity Fair, BuzzFeed, and many more. He has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, BuzzFeed, Vulture, The Paris Review, McSweeney’s Quarterly, Tin House, One Story, Bon Appétit, GQ, The Awl, and Catapult. He lives in Houston.
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.