Phantasm Japan is a first for us, just as it is a first for contributor Lauren Naturale. It’s our first time publishing a fiction debut, and her story of turn-of-the-century Japan, “Her Last Appearance” is her first published piece of fiction. (It pays to be courageous and when you see an opportunity, for go for it!) It’s a great and contemplative piece of urban fantasy that you definitely need to read.
“Her Last Appearance” is your short fiction debut. How long have you been writing and submitting?
I’ve been writing forever, but this was only the third story I’ve ever submitted. Mostly, I’ve been working on novels; I went to Clarion in 2008, so I wrote short stories for the workshop – and again when I took fiction workshops in grad school – but short fiction doesn’t come naturally to me. I’m ABD in a Victorian Lit Ph.D. at Berkeley: I like long, messy novels with tangents and subplots and 200 characters.
One cool thing about publishing “Her Last Appearance” is that I feel like I might have finally learned how to write a story less than 20,000 words long. So that’s exciting.
One thing that stood out about your story was its historical milieu. When people hear fantasy, they often think of a feudal past or an ultracontemporary setting. How did you settle on 1900?
I wanted to write about a fictionalized Kairakutei Black towards the end of his career. He’s most famous as Japan’s first foreign-born rakugoka, but he also published cultural “translations” of English sensation novels which abridged and retold the stories for a Japanese audience. So people would read these novels to learn more about English culture, but the specific details which were the most foreign had been ironed over and edited out in the name of accessibility.
I knew I couldn’t write a story About Japan without feeling like an impostor, so I built the story around that question of authenticity. Black is in a tough position, because he grew up in Japan, but he can never belong there; he’s a perpetual foreigner. His family tried to send him “home” to the UK, where he wasn’t born and had never lived, but it didn’t stick. Instead, he tries very hard to Become Japanese at the same time that Japanese culture is becoming more Western, which means he’s really just trying to live in his own fantasy of what he thinks Japan is supposed to be like. It turns out that Japanese people aren’t interested in running a queer orientalist theme park? The kuroko has his own version of this problem, because he’s a country boy with romantic ideas about city life, and together they raise Shizuko to fit their ideas of how a sophisticated woman ought to behave. Meanwhile, Shizuko latches on to the English stories Black tells her. Everyone in the story is a giant fake in one way or another, but for most of them, it’s a survival mechanism. How the hell are you supposed to be “authentic” when everyone’s telling you you don’t exist?
Do you have a performance background at all? What sort of research did you do for the story?
I do, though I hadn’t made that connection – I was a theater student for most of college (as a writer, not a performer), and I’ve done a lot of academic work on melodrama. The real research I did was to read a lot of books. I read Ian McArthur’s book on Kairakutei Black, plus everything else about him that I could find, and I read about women’s lives and women’s fiction during the Meiji period. I also spent a lot of time looking through photo archives like Harvard College Library’s Early Photography of Japan archive.
Something that hurts my head: My girlfriend’s mother wrote one of the books I read for research, Women Writers of Meiji and Taisho Japan: Their Lives, Works and Critical Reception, 1868-1926. We started dating after I submitted the story, and I didn’t actually figure it out until a month or so ago. Life is weird.
Have you seen a rakugo?
I haven’t! I haven’t seen a Victorian spiritualist act either. I thought I saw a kuroko in Brooklyn the other night, but it was so dark, it was hard to tell.