Review of Sequoia Nagamatsu’s Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone (USA: Black Lawrence Press, 2016)
by Andrea Yew
We’ve been at it for days now, and despite our hunger and thirst, the pain coursing through our bodies as if our veins have been infiltrated by miniature swords, we know we must continue to dance. The world outside of our party is plagued and wretched, but here we are smiling and laughing.
The passage, from the eponymous story of Sequoia Nagamatsu’s beautifully whimsical debut collection, Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone, captures the essence of Nagamatsu’s endeavor—to represent the experience of trauma as a simultaneous awareness of suffering and the desire to transcend it. Across the span of twelve short stories, Nagamatsu’s collection is also a sustained mediation on the relationship between trauma and storytelling. Where Do We Go is a touchingly optimistic, yet realistic answer to our experience of trauma.
Nagamatsu’s collection brings together an eclectic medley of genres that draws from myriad sources, from Japanese folklore to popular culture. However, to call his collection a twist on traditional folklore would not do justice to its brilliance. Rather, tradition and modernity are woven together as folklore is deployed to illuminate our quotidian condition. In his writing, Nagamatsu artfully marries the uncanny to a sensitive portrayal of our private lives. In doing so, Nagamatsu redefines the position of folklore in our modern society. Folklore is no longer a prescriptive parable for what we ought to do or not. Instead, in Nagamatsu’s work, it becomes both a space for reflection and also a balm for our modern maladies.
This is perhaps most aptly seen in ‘Rokurokubi’, which follows a man with the supernatural ability to elongate his neck as he navigates the evenings of Hokkaido with a seemingly floating head to trail his wife whom he suspects of having an affair. Whilst at first glance, this may seem like a page straight out of a horror story, Nagamatsu sidesteps the genre of horror by marrying the uncanny with the everyday. For instance, as the narrator states, after one of his nightly ventures through the city,
I stretch my neck back home…squeezing my head into the toilet, and make my way to suburbia, using the pipes beneath the city streets as my own personal metro.
The horrifying image of an elongated neck squeezing through a toilet is coupled with the quotidian idea of a metro, beautifully exemplifying Nagamatsu’s shuttle between familiarization and defamiliarization. It is in this realm between two seemingly polar opposites that Nagamatsu creates a space for the representation of our private pain. Trauma is horror that resists representation. Thus, it is no coincidence that the subjects of Nagamatsu’s collection—river demons, Godzilla, vengeful ghosts—walked straight out of our nightmares and onto the page. The horrifying nature of Nagamatsu’s characters parallels the abjection of trauma. However, by humanizing these characters and thus detracting from the horror of the image, Nagamatsu paves the way for sympathy through the engendering of understanding. Because trauma is so hard to communicate, victims suffer from social and psychic isolation. Thus, by humanizing the abject, Nagamatsu creates an emphatic bridge between victims and witnesses of trauma.
This is most beautifully illustrated in the story’s concluding scene in which the narrator imagines his wife returning home to him.
I picture Sayuri back home, my neck hovering over the living room as she walks in, her trembling hands pointing house keys at me like a weapon. I take the keys away and wrap her tight within my arms, the arch of my neck and the proximity of our bodies forming half a heart. I tell her it’s me.
The uncanniness of the scene unsettles the reader in the distortion of a familiar image (‘neck hovering’), paralleling the experience of trauma, which resists understanding precisely because it resists the familiar in its lack of a referent. However, Nagamatsu turns this feeling of uncanniness on its head. If the reader is unsettled by the defamiliarization of a familiar image, Nagamatsu once again familiarizes the image by associating the scene with the more usual desire to be understood and loved for one’s complete self. The marrying of the uncanny and the familiar is most evidently seen in the final image of‘the arch of my neck and the proximity of our bodies forming half a heart’. Critically, neither image is predominant. The story does not end with utter absurdity nor with complete normality. Ultimately, it is the conflation of the unfamiliar and familiar that engenders a new sense of empathy in the reader.
Nagamatsu’s collection also grapples with another central conundrum of trauma—the simultaneous awareness of one’s pain and the impossible desire to transcend it. In the scene above, Nagamatsu gives the reader a glimpse into the narrator’s pain and his heartrending hope. By foregrounding the scene as an imagined one (‘I picture’), the author reminds us of the reality of Sayuri’s affair and the narrator’s poignant desire for an alternate reality. The narrator continues,
I hold onto this silent image of us, caught between truths, until our bodies are enveloped in darkness, as I pull away from the window.
One truth is the reality of trauma, the other truth our desire to move beyond it by seeking refuge in stories we tell ourselves. It is significant that the narrator in ‘Rokurokubi’ finds solace in ‘between truths’ as the space privileges neither pain nor storytelling as a cure. Rather, the path to moving forward (‘pull away from the window’) is found in both a recognition of pain and a desire to transcend it.
Instead of being a cure for trauma, storytelling is presented by Nagamatsu as the flipside of trauma. It is as intrinsic to the experience of trauma as pain is. The currency of trauma is most constantly flipped in the story ‘The Snow Baby’, which depicts the birth of a baby made of a snow who slowly comes to life, and melts, only to be reborn again. The story begins with the death of the infant: ‘On a lone mountain, the snow baby melts in its mother’s arms…The mother weeps’. The cyclical nature of storytelling and pain is evident in the story’s end:
The snow baby’s heart beats the ice around it into flesh. The snow baby is…
If the snow baby is a metaphor for creation and hence storytelling, the cyclical structure of the story suggests that storytelling and trauma are two sides of the same coin. The story trails off into ellipsis, also suggesting a continuous cycle. Since there is no conclusive end to the story, there can be no conclusive truth, once again reinforcing the notion that emotional release is found ‘between truths’.
The nuanced relationship between storytelling and trauma is further explored in ‘The Passage of Time in The Abyss’. In the story, a fisherman named Hori takes his two grandsons, Tami and Kogi, out to sea with him when thunderstorm is brewing. The boys have just lost their father. Throughout the voyage, Tamo tells his younger brother stories of the Dragon Palace, which is located deep in the sea, as legend has it. While storytelling is presented as a reaction to trauma, Nagamatsu makes it clear that it does not supplant the knowledge of pain. As he states of Hori, the boys’ grandfather:
like Tamo, he wants to believe the stories. He pictures his son drifting beneath the waves and looking up at the world he’s left, forgetting the truth: that he had to fish parts of his son’s body out of the ocean after it had been mangled by propellers.
The irony of the final sentence captures the futility of presenting storytelling as a cure for trauma. As such, perhaps consolation lies somewhere in between. This is illustrated in the story’s end, which presents two endings, in the wake of Tamo’s fall overboard during the storm, in a desperate echo of the father’s death. In the first ending,
From beneath the waves, a large sea turtle emerges and draped on its back, as if he were peacefully sleeping, is Tamo… And lying in his grandfather’s arms, Tamo’s eyes begin to open, staring up at sky.
The hopefulness of this ending speaks of the comfort storytelling can bring in its ability to provide an alternate reality for both victims and witnesses of trauma. However, the paragraph is immediately followed by an alternate ending, in which
Lying down, curled into himself, Hori imagines Tamo, drifting into the deepest passages of the abyss, his body mingling with the lost remains of his father.
Here, Nagamatsu is careful to highlight that storytelling is not always synonymous with hope. The heartrending image of an old man, ‘curled into himself’ suggests isolation in the wake of the traumatic loss of both his son and grandson. Critically, both endings put forth two vastly different scenarios, one which ends on hope while the other, on pain and loss. Here, Nagamatsu deliberately moves away from a one-dimensional presentation of the relationship between storytelling and trauma. The fact that both endings are products of the characters’ imagination, and neither seems to hold more truth than the other, leaves the reader wondering which is the true ending, or if there is one at all. This brings to mind the collection’s epitaph, ‘What isn’t remembered never happened. Memory is merely a record. You just need to re-write that record’. By recording down both endings, a move reminiscent of Schrodinger’s experiment, and refusing to privilege either state as true, Nagamatsu offers a form of consolation. In this epistemic gap, the author sidesteps the conundrum in the desire to believe in something you know to be fiction. If it is impossible to supplant reality with a more comforting fiction because of the memory of a ‘true’ series of events, perhaps the solution lies in never determining which is truer.
Perhaps, therein lies the true power of storytelling.
Andrea Yew graduated from the University of Edinburgh and is currently an educator based in Singapore. She is a participant in the Young Critics Mentorship Program. Her creative work has been included in the inaugural issue of Sacroscant, a publication by Singapore’s Book Actually. Her academic work can also be found in Southeast Asian Review of English. Andrea does Brazillian Jiu Jitsu in her spare time when she is not buried under a pile of marking.