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Q/A With Ken Liu (and the return of Intern Kathleen)

by nickmamatas

We are all very excited that prolific author Ken Liu received a prestigious Hugo Award nomination for his short story “Mono No Aware” in The Future Is Japanese. We decided to ask him a few questions about the story and life as an award-nominated author!

Q. Congrats: what was the genesis of the story “Mono No Aware”?
A. This story began as an experiment. Claims are often made about the universalism of certain narrative conventions: the hero must be active; there must be conflict; the individual must strive and overcome obstacles and define the self against the larger society. I get annoyed with these kinds of “rules” because they are not universal at all. Storytelling conventions in non-Western traditions often are very different.

In particular, I was intrigued by works like Yokohama Kaidashi Kikō that try to pursue an aesthetic primarily oriented towards creating in the reader an empathy towards the inevitable passing of all things: a sentiment known as mono no aware in Japanese.

So I wanted to write a story in which that was the dominant ideal, and to redefine heroism along those lines.

Q. You’re a prolific writer of short stories. What attracts you to the form?
A. The main reason is one of time. With two young children, it’s hard for me to sustain the prolonged period of focus and attention necessary to produce a novel. But short stories allow me to work through an idea quickly and see immediate results, which encourages me to write more.

Q. Speaking of your rate of production, were you surprised that this story, out of all you published in 2012, was nominated for the Hugo? Why do you think it appeals to Worldcon members and supporting members specifically?
A. I am indeed surprised. However, I’m generally not very good at predicting how well my stories will resonate with readers, so I’m not surprised by my surprise, if that makes sense. Right now, I’m just grateful that enough voters liked this story to nominate it, which is a great honor.

Q. What research did you do on Japan and Japanese cultural mores for the story?
A. Well, I did the usual: lots of reading, lots of watching, and lots of talking to people who know something about Japan. My wife majored in Japanese and lived and worked for years in Japan, so she was an invaluable source as well.

However, and this is a point I want to emphasize, I do not presume in any way, shape, or form, to have “gotten” the Japanese concepts right. No matter how much research is done, an outsider’s perspective will never have the same quality as an insider’s. Reading about a culture is not the same as growing up in a culture.

To be sure that I’m respectful to the material, I employed a narrative trick: the story is told from the perspective of a Japanese child whose experience of his homeland ended at the age of eight. His knowledge of Japan is thus a combination of hazy memories, what outsiders have told him about home, and his own fierce desire to protect the memories of the people he loved. It is necessarily an idealized, filtered, distorted, incomplete image. He is constructing a Japan in his mind.

The choice thus provides the reader with an explanation for the gaps and errors in his construction. And the story, in a sense, is really an immigration story. Every immigrant constructs an image of home that may not be very close to the original.


Q. Nostalgia is a recurring motif in your work. What drives you to integrate nostalgia into science fiction settings?

A. Some of the science fiction I’ve read evinces a deliberate contempt for the past, as if history doesn’t matter, as if we have to only decide to look forward and the task is done. But our lots are inextricably linked to the fates of those who came before us, and their choices determined the choices available to us. I wanted to bring some empathy with the past into the science fiction I write, to acknowledge the importance of memory and continuity with the past.


Q. If you win the Hugo this year, what will you do with the tin rocket trophy?

A. Probably put it on a very high shelf so that my daughters don’t hurt themselves by playing with it—that tip is sharp.

Q. When are you going to publish a novel anyway?
A. Working on it… working on it…

The hope is to be done with my first novel later this summer. Wish me luck!

Good luck, Ken!

Also, as mentioned the other day, the ebook editions of The Future is Japanese is on sale for a mere $3.99 for the month of April. And that’s not all! As it turns out, ebooks are made out of electrons, and can be kept in slim little boxes. I mean, look at poor Intern Kathleen struggling under the weight of the mighty paperback:



So…many…stories…all excellent…must…read

And now here she is with her ebook reader!


Heavy reading is totally lightweight with this ebook reader!

So remember, not only does The Future is Japanese contain Ken’s award nominated story as well as work by Toj EnJoe, Bruce Sterling, Catherynne Valente, and Hideyuki Kikuchi, for the month of April the ebook version will be as light on your pocketbook as it is on your back!

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One Response to “Q/A With Ken Liu (and the return of Intern Kathleen)”

  1. JMS says:

    I was delighted to see this story in the Hugo nominees list! Best of luck to Ken Liu.

    Intern Kathleen is a superstar.


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