From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Viva l’Other: Jerome Stueart

Jerome Stueart is a graduate of the 2007 Clarion Workshop, San Diego. His work has appeared in Strange Horizons, On Spec, two Tesseracts anthologies (9 and 11), and other magazines and journals. He worked this summer for the Arctic Institute of North America as a communications specialist — which meant interviewing cool scientists at their base camps in the Arctic. And some summer nights, he performed in a vaudeville revue. He lives in the Yukon Territory and teaches a fantasy writing workshop for teens.

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What was your inspiration for “The Moon Over Tokyo Through Leaves in the Fall”?

As hokey as this sounds, I had a dream. In the dream, my friend and former political science professor accepted the award for a wine he created, “The Moon Over Tokyo Through Leaves in the Fall.” I remember him coming to the front where the three or four judges stood around a table showcasing his wine. I woke up and wrote down the name of the wine because I thought it was so evocative. The name made me “see” the moon over Tokyo even though I never got transported to Tokyo in the dream. In essence, then, the story begins where the dream left off — after winning the award.

The meat of the story — the relationship between Matsui and Yumi — was inspired a bit by my own struggle of approaching middle age — enjoying life but also seeking relevancy, quick.

There have been many controversies over the years relating to writing the “Other” or writing with a voice outside of one’s own natural experience. “The Moon Over Tokyo Through Leaves in the Fall” is written from the point of view of a modern Asian-American female. Did this create a challenge for you? What steps, if any, did you take to verify the authenticity of your voice in this piece? What tips do you have for other writers out there working on pieces where they are writing from the perspective of the “Other?”

Hmmm . . . This is a hard question for me because I think every character you write about is an “Other.” I do understand the argument, that writing something completely different from you is more challenging. But unless you are writing memoir, the characters have completely different childhoods, desires, relationships — all the characters, not just the POV one. So they all take a lot of work to understand and “get right,” so to speak.

But if someone wants to write a character which is “other” I wouldn’t stop them. Instead, I would encourage them to stretch themselves. I certainly don’t immediately identify with, or always find accurate to my experiences, the white, rural, college-educated, religious gay male characters I find. And I don’t always want to write that character. I would hate to stop someone else from writing them though.

So I think that’s my first tip: Feel free to be whoever you need to be for the story, without holding yourself hostage to criteria. Criteria can turn into stereotype. I remember once writing a poem about Theodore Roosevelt surviving the Amazon River. A fellow writer said that I had no albino catfish in the poem and that it was a weakness. If I didn’t mention them, I would be called on the authenticity of place. Even worse may be the authenticity of race or gender or sexual orientation — since we are multi-faceted people. I go back to my first statement: Everyone in your story that isn’t yourself is an “Other” . . . and you are required to be careful with all of them.

I think writing a nasty, mean, selfish gay character might be an accurate representation of one particular person, and might make a funny character, but I would trust that character more in the hands of a gay man who knows the consequences of pushing a bad stereotype in a culture that seems to want to believe the stereotype, than in someone else’s hands. I tried hard to be sympathetic to both Matsui and Yumi equally — showing their flaws, their desires, and hopefully helping a reader side with both at different times.

So, not that you have to always treat your Other characters with kid gloves, but that you make everyone understandable and as authentic as a human being as you possibly can through research, and through infusing them with your own flaws/desires. I infused Yumi with some of my own doubts about my relevancy/impact on the world, my own relationship experiences, the sometimes clash of cultures I find with people older than me. The story doesn’t have my exact experiences, but the shades of feelings are right, the tone is right, the need to be loved and validated is right, I think.

Run the draft through a close set of writerly friends to check for bias. I did run this through Clarion 2007 in San Diego, past a rigorous group of fellow writers, half of them women, who had some questions about the way I wrote Yumi, and I followed their advice. Not that a character can’t make bad decisions, or have perceptible flaws, only that they should be unique, individually motivated and free from OBVIOUS bias.

Be open to learning what it’s like to be someone other than you. It’s really difficult to shed Jerome in order to take on Yumi or Matsui, but I try. Like an actor taking a role.

I think if we only wrote within our experience we’d really limit our stories, and ourselves. I remember once writing from the perspective of my brother, and I learned a lot about what it felt like to have to make some of his decisions. The story moved radically away from my brother’s actual deeds, but the writing process allowed me to feel empathy and understanding for him in a way I had never felt before writing about him.

The process allows a writer to “put themselves in someone else’s shoes” and that’s good, both for the writer — who learns something outside him/herself — and the reader — who doesn’t have to put up with a bunch of main characters who are sci-fi movie buffs. Viva l’Other!

You seem very knowledgeable concerning the minutiae of certain Japanese tradition. For example, you wrote:

She wore a cotton kimono, with maple leaves on the sleeves, which meant she was unmarried.

What steps did you take to research your story?

I took representing Japanese culture very seriously, and tried to do my homework. I read a lot about Japanese culture. I think one of the books was actually called Modern Japan. And I did some internet searches for people who were blogging about Japan, visiting Japan or those who talked about Japanese Culture — and I looked up traditional kimono wearing in Japan. I wanted to get the past right, but also what the trends were right now — so that a story set slightly in the future, as this one is, would still have some connection to things people might recognize. Again, Clarion helped round out some of my first attempts — especially since I completely messed up the gender of different Japanese names (Thank you Julie!!).

I also read a very good research article on what happened in Japan following WW2, especially the rewriting of Japanese textbooks, which I found fascinating and which became the core of the story — how people rewrite histories for you. And this became not only the literal rewriting of Japanese history that Matsui’s grandfather is responsible for in the story, but also Matsui’s rewriting of history in the wine, and really, Matsui’s and Yumi’s rewriting of their relationship with each other.

I also read a great book on Science in Japan, especially on women in science professions, and a book about the life of Yukio Mishima, an author I really liked — as well as his book, The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea. And, of course, many hours researching how wines are made, plum wines in particular, and the correct Japanese terminology.

Your story revolves around the central idea that through the delicate art of making wine, one can capture memories and images to create a kind of virtual reality. Why wine?

Well, wine was in the dream. But too, wines are advertised as marking events in our lives. We open them for special occasions anyway…and this version of wine just preserves the occasion itself. I figured this was a natural extension of their role in society, celebration, and in memory.

A span of years separates the couple in your story. Matsui fell in love with Yumi because of her modernity, a trait she feels he grows to resent as he begins embracing the traditions of his roots. Yumi, the protagonist and central point of view of the story, feels left out as Matsui embraces and tries to recreate his past through his wine. What is the bigger gulf growing between this couple — the years themselves or their differing values? Or are the differing values and the separation of years both part of the same gulf?

I think you’re right — it’s a combo of both. The gulf in their shifts of values, comes out of, and is complicated by, their age difference. They’re in different stages in life — which aren’t incompatible, but they trigger in this story a downward spiral of response/reaction — especially in Yumi. I think for a while Matsui enjoyed Yumi because of the vitality that a younger person can give, but after his brush with his grandfather’s past, his need to leave a legacy, his need to be relevant became stronger — especially as he realized that he was growing older. And therefore, Yumi’s modern lifestyle, with its separation from the past, its move towards the “next” thing happening, seemed frivolous and selfish because it left out what he considered important — it left out him.

Age differences aren’t responsible, though. Lots of people have wonderful relationships with age differences — but it takes a lot of work if the two people make their age difference a divide. Yumi and Matsui critique each other’s generation, each other’s age . . . which just exacerbates the problem. In this relationship they seek a validation that extends to their whole realm of differing experiences and differing generations. Yumi’s embrace of everything new, and her disinterest in the past — except for her own past — can seem like a rejection of Matsui himself, and the culture he now wants to recreate.

Matsui’s sudden rejection of his own tendencies towards spontaneity, fun, modernity, feels like a rejection of Yumi — which is only compounded by his new obsessions with the past, with becoming more traditional, and with doing something important and wide-reaching. It’s a tragic and ironic miscommunication. She actually wants to preserve their marriage; he wants to do something new and important — but they just can’t seem to see the other person’s interests as anything but a devaluing of their own.

I’m going to let your character, Matsui himself, ask the next two questions. Without giving anything away, at one point in the story, Matsui asks: “How can one person see the same image as another and miss the point? How does this happen?”

We are such different people. Fascinating. We love the differences in the people we love, but we also long to be understood. I wish I knew how miscommunication happens — and how to prevent it. I’m guilty of it all the time. I read several books by Deborah Tannen, That’s Not What I Meant and You Just Don’t Understand, which highlight how different communication styles can affect relationships. People can talk about salad dressing and really be referring to their relationship — or sometimes they’re just talking about salad dressing and someone reads into it.

Matsui also has another angle with this question: he has hardened his point of view into the “right” point of view. So the “point” of his question there implies that only one view is correct, or favored, and that Yumi’s different perspective is wrong.

Maybe if we talked about our points of view more with each other and listened more, we might not have as many misinterpretations of moments…

Matsui asks:

Very few of us know what is important. Walking along with the girlfriend through cherry blossoms makes a nice scene, a good wine. But sometimes we must strive for more?

Do you agree or disagree? As writers, is it not our responsibility in some ways to “strive for more”?

Yumi’s right in her argument that love and enjoying the moment (which is the whole point of the wine, ironically) sometimes trump trying to build a legacy.

I think as a writer, though, I feel obligated to create something that lasts. Something of quality, something of “importance,” to leave a memory in a reader’s mind of my story.

I strive for the balance — and even more as a writer, since I’m obligated to write about life experiences for characters who are “living” life. I need to be accurate. The “strive for more” part for writers should be the lengths to which we go to tell our stories, and practice our craft. And it should also make us see time differently too. If I found myself just hanging out, doing nothing, always having plans and never fulfilling them, I’ve wasted time. If, on the other hand, the striving to do something important makes me neglect the moments of joy, love, intimacy, with another person or people, then I’ve given up life for a legacy — or for duty.

So, I’m stuck right now in the transition between just following my passions, and suddenly looking around and trying to forge a career at 40, or trying to do something “important.” I’ve flirted with another degree — a more relevant one, like Environmental Energy Policy — that might net me a better job, bigger pay, more security, and help the world. I believe strongly, though, that writing can change the world — it’s done it before. So maybe I’ll stick with writing stories and not energy policy.

So, what’s next for Jerome Stueart?

I got a lot of interesting material from my summer at the Kluane Lake Research Station working for the Arctic Institute of North America. I’m working on expanding that into a novel. A story of mine comes out in the vampire anthology, Evolve, next spring, and I’m working on getting a few more short stories and articles accepted this year, some of which center on my immigration to Canada. And now, up north, we gear down for the Winter, a nine month cold snap filled with friends, festivals and lots of snow.

T.J. McIntyre has seen his short fiction and poetry published in numerous publications including recent appearances in Everyday Weirdness, Ruthless Peoples Magazine, and Scifaikuest. He is a member of various writing organizations, including the Science Fiction Poetry Association (SFPA), and serves as a moderator for the Lobo Luna writing community on LiveJournal. Until earlier this year, he published Southern Fried Weirdness, an anthology and web zine celebrating speculative fiction and poetry with a Southern perspective. He lives in a busy household in the muggy heart of rural Alabama with his wife, two young sons, an aging Doberman mix, five tiger barbs, and three salt-and-pepper catfish.

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