Monday, December 26, 2011

Interview with TOMO Contributor Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill (author of the Tomo story “Paper Lanterns”) is a graduate of Columbia University’s MFA writing program. She often visited Japan as a child and has lived in Tokyo for ten years with her husband and two children. Her poems have appeared in The Southern Review, Greensboro Review, Prairie Schooner, and The Southeast Review is the author of the story “Paper Lanterns.” 

Can you tell us a bit about your background and your relationship with Japan?
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill
My mother was born in Sendai, and we lived with her parents in the U.S. My brother and I took trips to Tokyo to see relatives pretty much every summer, so Japan was a part of our childhood, but not really a home for us. It became a home for me as an adult, though, when my husband and I moved to Tokyo a little over a decade ago. We had our two children there, and they’ve had a sort of mirror image of my childhood--living in Japan and being raised by Americans.

Mina’s friend Michelle continues to talk to Mina, even though she has died. What inspired the banter between the two girls in this story? 
Some friendships at that age are so intense--the girls are constantly together, constantly talking, finishing each other’s sentences. I remember that us-against-the-world feeling. The back and forth was a way to revel in that closeness and show off for one another. And it seems crazy that it could just end one day. It seemed natural to me that Michelle would become the voice in Mina’s head, and that Mina would find comfort in that.

The story features kakigori—shaved ice. Are you a fan of kakigori? What’s your favorite flavor? 
I have a world-class sweet tooth, so of course I love it. Melon is king, but there truly are no bad flavors. It's the only way to deal with summer heat and humidity in Japan. 

The story takes place during the Obon holiday. Have you celebrated Obon with Japanese relatives? What were your experiences? Why did you choose to set this story during Obon? 
I chose Obon because my family didn’t celebrate it. We didn’t have any kind of ritual. We didn't even do funerals, which is probably why I find traditions like Obon and the Day of the Dead so fascinating and moving. They give you a way to grieve, to let go little by little, and to remember the dead with some joy—to still care for them. Feeding the dead, washing their graves, they’re rituals that give us an outlet for the feelings we still have, the feelings that don’t end because someone is dead.

You often write poetry. What leads you to develop a story in prose rather than, say, a narrative poem? 
A lot of my poems are very narrative, but mostly they are narratives in the service of one moment or one feeling. But characters, whole characters, seem to need more room to stretch out, and especially to speak. When I start to think about what they say, either aloud or to themselves, then it’s a job for prose.

You recently moved from Japan to the U.S. What do you miss about Japan? 
Just about everything. Not that I don’t appreciate the States, but we just had such happy times there. I will miss the everyday kindness of the people, the beauty of the place, especially at the turn of the seasons. Of course we miss our friends, and I miss seeing my son trotting off to school in his little yellow hat. There is just too much.

Do you have any message for teens in Tohoku?
I don't know how how human beings go on, or how we ever laugh again after tragedy, I only know that we do. We survive seconds, minutes, and hours at a time, until somehow joy comes back to us.

1 comment:

  1. As a fellow lover of kakigori, I'm looking forward to this story. lol.