Exciting news! Megume and the Trees has been named a Lambda Literary Awards (a.k.a. “Lammys”) finalist in the “Lesbian Debut Fiction” category! I am honored, and so proud of my novel! (When something goes well, the book gets all the credit – when something goes wrong, that’s on me.) You can find the complete list of finalists here. The winners will be announced at the awards ceremony in New York City on June 4th. I’m also very excited to be participating in a finalists’ reading in Los Angeles on May 20th! We’ll be at the West Hollywood Public Library at 5:00 PM, so come join me in New York or L.A., or check out another finalist reading around the U.S. or Toronto!
What I love about the Lambda Literary Awards is that the list of finalists is always a fantastic reading list, and it makes me realize that there is, actually, quite a lot of LGBT writing out there. We all have ways in which we feel different, and in which we are culturally different, from the “mainstream.” The problem is when that difference makes us feel isolated, and unrepresented by the art and depictions of others we see around us. Whether that sense of difference comes from your sexuality, gender, ethnic background, skin color, hair color, religion, political views, a feeling you feel, or any combination of, well, anything, it’s awful when you feel alone. It’s awful when you can’t find a book or film or song or anything that just makes you feel like somebody out there knows how you feel.
Believe me, I know. Someone once called me “a Swiss Army knife of diversity”: Japanese-American, gay, female, not brought up with any particular religion – which is all very good, until I just want to see myself depicted in a story I’m reading or a movie I’m watching. Then it often feels like, at best, I’m getting pieces of myself represented, but not necessarily the whole. Which is when I start writing, knowing that, if I’m feeling it, somebody else must be, too. The beautiful thing about art is that it transcends – often it’s the story that doesn’t necessarily represent us on the surface that expresses just how we’re feeling. But the surface is never really just the surface, either, now is it? Everything about ourselves that we identify ourselves with or others identify us with is tied up in a whole lifetime of assumptions, comments, and experiences – that’s why not finding pieces of ourselves represented in art and media can be so damaging; it reinforces that sense of difference, that dissonance between our personal history and the seeming history of everybody else.
When I first realized I am gay and went looking for a book that represented all of the feelings I suddenly felt, or acknowledged for the first time that I was feeling, I only knew of one book to look for: Sappho, in the Classics section. Luckily for me, I found Anne Carson’s If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, which is actually a lot better than just finding Sappho. But it’s mind-boggling for me to think about now. I was a lesbian, suddenly, and the only book I knew to look for was Sappho? For those of you who need a refresher course in the history of lyric poetry, Sappho died around 570 BCE, and only one of her poems remains in tact. So I was a lesbian and, in the whole breadth and history of world literature, I only knew of one nearly two thousand and six hundred year old poem that might express how I felt?
But then, I grew up Japanese-American, so that lack of representation wasn’t new to me. I’ve wracked my adult brain trying to remember all of the representations of Japanese-Americans I was aware of as a kid. The fantastic children’s book author Katherine Paterson has a few books set in Japan, but I think The Sign of the Chrysanthemum was the only one I was familiar with in childhood (although I also loved Jacob Have I Loved, Bridge to Terabithia, and Rebels of the Heavenly Kingdom). There was Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes by Eleanor Coerr. Maira Kalman’s Sayonara, Mrs. Kackleman was, I think, the first book that took me to Japan – just before my first trip to Japan, when I was five. I read somewhere recently that Stacy from The Babysitters Club is Japanese-American; I read a few of those books, though I’d since forgotten that Stacy was Japanese (my childhood best friend’s favorite character was Stacy, mine was Dawn, who was more like my blonde best friend). And…That’s it. I had Winnie the Pooh and Tigger, Too in Japanese on VHS, from that kindergarten visit to Tokyo to spend Christmas with my grandparents. The only meaningful representation of Asian-Americans on TV I can remember was the show All-American Girl, starring Margaret Cho, Amy Hill, and Jodi Long – oddly, the sitcom is about a Korean-American family, but I remembered them as Japanese. Frequently, “Asian-American” was as close as I got to seeing someone like me. Anything Asian made me feel like I was getting closer to my own identity (All-American Girl, Rebels of the Heavenly Kingdom, another book, Shen of the Sea).
Fortunately, my bookshelves have grown beyond Sappho and a handful of Japan-related children’s books. It started with Yukio Mishima, Banana Yoshimoto, Haruki Murakami, and Lillian Faderman, Sarah Waters, Emily Dickinson (I actually started to like Emily when I found out she wasn’t quite the recluse high school English teachers make her out to be), Emma Donoghue, and Shamim Sarif. Now those same bookshelves overflow – onto my desk, the kitchen table, the entertainment center, and into my pantry and linen closet, in fact.
Maybe some emotions are harder to find adequately represented in art, which is funny, since art really is emotion expressed. I wasn’t just depressed and suicidal as a teen, I knew other teens who were depressed, suicidal, who cut themselves (something I did not do, though I shuddered in horror to see the slices on their bodies). It seemed to us that everything that broached the subject of how we were feeling took on a decidedly “after school special” melodrama – which was not how we were feeling. If there was one thing I absolutely knew I had to get across in Megume and the Trees, it was that sense of being so despairing, so aching that you feel you’re going to die. You think you want to die, and you feel like it’s not even necessarily a choice in your hands. It hurts so much that it’s going to kill you, and killing yourself is just ending that pain. I needed to get that across in my novel because I have felt that way. And I know that when you feel that way, even when you know other people who feel that way, it still seems like you’re the only ones. And that can make it easily feel like suicide is the only way out. I wanted to show that I know that pain, inside and out, and then, well, then, if you feel that way, too, I can offer you a story that hopefully you’ll think about. I can offer you the thought that there’s another way out, that there’s more to life than what you can see and feel right now, more to life than you can even know. Because there’s always more. At least, that’s what works for me.
If I’d killed myself at any point between eight and seventeen, which I often wanted to, I would never have known I’m gay. I would never have known what real attraction feels like. What a kiss feels like. What the autonomy and freedom of adulthood feels like. What taking your passport and your bag and getting on a plane to a country you know nothing about without anyone you’ve ever met before feels like. A lot of religions and spiritual practices treat desire as a bad thing. And I understand their overall concept that getting so caught up in want can lead down some very bad roads, to places like jealousy, anger, possessiveness, ruthlessness, and brutality. But I think there can be a positive side to desire, too, because, for me, wanting to not die is actually tied up in a very active wanting of life. I always want another experience. I wanted to write a novel. I did and do want recognition for that novel, in ways like the Curve interview and being shortlisted for a Lammy. But I want more, and not in a “never satisfied” way, but just in that I’m not done yet. There is always more to see and do in life. There’s always more to live. I very much like the phrase joie de vivre: joy of life. I am actively in love with living, with writing, filling my apartment with books and films that speak to me, travelling (which I always spell the British way, with two “l”‘s, just for future reference). Even on bad days; even on the worst days. Because I’m not done yet, and that is my very happy antidote to all of the years when I could never imagine making it to these years. Living, and writing Megume and the Trees, is my answer to my own need and sense that somebody needed to actually show what depression and suicide can be like before we can seriously talk about not letting it happen to us.
And, in case you can’t tell, between the published novel, the Lammy shortlist, the upcoming travels, the bookshelves that have overflowed onto every flat surface and into every closet, the next novel forming on the page for me, and the sleeping dogs beside me (can’t go the whole long post without mentioning them, can I?), I’m very happy, and very determined to keep showing us, all of us, as we are in literature and film, so that everyone can feel their cup of representation runneth over. And if nobody else seems to be showing you in art or the media, well, dear, what’s stopping you?