Phantasm Japan runs the gamut of the genre of fantasy, from retellings of classic tales to pop culture subversions to terrifying visions of a future so extreme that humanity is unrecognizable (and much slimier). One of the most interesting stories, structurally, is “Thirty-Eight Observations on the Nature of the Self” from new writer Joseph Tomaras. He’s published several stories online, but Phantasm Japan is his dead tree-debut. He talks, a lot, with editor Nick Mamatas here:
How did you first come across the Japanese concepts you used in your story?
It was in some listicle about “untranslatable words”. It may even have been in Cracked, of all places. Being a former philosophy major, I am drawn to metaphysical concepts, like a magpie to shiny objects. I deposit them in my brain, and pick them out occasionally to gawk at them. Occasionally, they resonate with something that I have observed in social reality. My encounter with tatemae and honne was particularly timely, as I’ll explain when I get to your question about Maine. To map that resonance between concept and reality you need an instrument that is more sensitive than, say, an essay, which is better at mapping correspondences than resonances, showing how the concept describes reality. Resonances are more about situations where the concept provides us with a way of understanding reality that transforms the reality by intensifying already latent phenomena. The instrument for mapping the resonance is fiction, the writing of a story.
Most newer writers tend to stick to tried and true structural formulae and traditional themes. You went for an innovative list-structure “Thirty-Eight Observations on the Nature of the Self” and dove right into a theme that most genre fiction magazines warn people against submitting. What the heck, Joseph?
I am only a new writer with reference to short fiction as a form. My job in the grants office of a small college requires great volumes of writing, not just of grant proposals or portions thereof, but policy documents, institutional correspondence, etc., and that has been the case with all my jobs for the last fourteen years. Bureaucratic spoor is the prose that we all speak without knowing it. Against that background noise, people whose job it is to write persuasively–not just grant writers, but marketers, advertising copywriters, and the like—are the unacknowledged poets of our age, evoking intimations of the sublime through descriptions of measurable objectives and project outputs.
Nor is my experience with persuasive writing limited to the “day job;” for a comparable span of time, anonymously or pseudonymously, I have written geomtery dash game online reams of prose published through various blogs, internal bulletins, small-circulation magazines, and episodically photocopied leaflets, on the margins of the already marginal radical left. Since the type of radicalism to which I had formerly wed myself, Trotskyism, is a kind of alternate history in the field of political action, the transition to speculative modes of fiction was almost a given.
I never set out to make a career for myself in the writing of fiction. I enjoy the work I do, for which I am paid much better than most working writers, and I suspect at times that my off-hours would be better spent campaigning for candidates of the Maine Green Independent Party than trying to submit my work for publication. It’s just that in the last three years, I have written more than twenty stories. I re-read them periodically to try and convince myself that they suck. Too often, I fail at that, and find myself still enjoying the piece and wishing that more people could read it. So I am trying, for now, not to let all that work go to waste, acting as a kind of Yenta the Matchmaker for my brood. I may never write another story, or I may live another fifty years and write a few hundred more. I write what I want, or what I feel compelled to write, and if it gets published, wonderful!
As for the theme: Many, though not all, of my stories draw upon past traumas, though usually they undergo more than a bit of sublimation and transfiguration along the way. I certainly understand why a magazine editor, weary of lazy depictions of traumatizing events, might impose a blanket ban on such themes. (I prefer it when such taboos are clearly stated in the guidelines, rather than left for the reader to infer.) But the net effect of such bans is to silence much of human experience.
You moved to Maine a few years ago and it is the setting for a couple of your stories. Was it difficult to place a Japanese cultural concept within such an archetypically American setting?
I made it easy on myself by setting it in Maine. For one thing, it seems like I have an easier time selling my stories set in Maine than those in other settings. I have multiple guesses as to why that might be the case, each of which is probably at least partly true. It is, as the Althusserians say, overdetermined.
But there are also some similarities between Japan and Maine. They have in common a relatively high degree of xenophobia. The statistics on both are well-known. Japan has the smallest immigrant population of any wealthy nation, proportionally, and is second only to the U.S. in the proportion of its citizens who speak no second language well. Maine, in turn, is the whitest state in the U.S., and has the smallest proportion of immigrants of any state. There is, further, the Maine concept of “from away.” It is a status that is easy to assume and near impossible to shed. The husband of a former dean of mine once told me that, though his family had lived in Maine since colonial times and he had lived here nearly all his life, he would always be “from away” since he had had the misfortune of being born in Massachusetts. Even my infant son, born in a freak April snowstorm, will always be under suspicion of being “from away,” what with his foreign-sounding surname and New Yorker parents. (The story of my origins is more complicated than it is interesting, but for all practical purposes, I am a New Yorker.)
I encountered the conceptual dyad at the core of the story, honne/tatemae, just as we were getting ready to move into our house, in a small town that is not named “North Glamis” (for there is no such town). I was anxious as to whether we would get along well with our neighbors, in a place where getting along well with one’s neighbors was both possible and necessary in ways it had never been in the City. There was more cause for such anxiety than simply being “from away”. For example, the town in which I live is, by some measures, the wealthiest in the state, and yet I am a communist. The place practically defines heteronormativity, yet I identify as queer (even though my life is, to all appearances, as heteronormative as any). To the extent that I try and get my writing published, I put this stuff out there. The anxiety was, in part, an anxiety about being found out and the impact that could have on my family.
It would be impossible to write a story about the honne (the true self) set in New York City. New Yorkers don’t give a fuck about anyone’s true self. If it ever shows, they’ll just assume it’s another constructed front (tatemae), put on for some sort of performative advantage. Mainers, though they would rather not be exposed to the true self, if it shows, they’ll talk.
The first version of the story was terrible, too many correspondences and not enough resonances, too much like an essay. I knew I would have to radically rewrite it for it to ever be worth publishing. Around the time I started rewriting it for Phantasm Japan, my parents were going through an ugly and overdue divorce, in the course of which things came to light about my father that showed him to be an even greater asshole than I had hitherto believed him to be. There is nothing in the story that is crudely camouflaged autobiography or family tell-all, but the situation enabled me to be more creative in thinking about the manifold ways in which relations between fathers and sons, or between spouses, or between a person and his community, can fall apart when someone loses track of their own desires.