Tell us something of the inspiration behind “The Elements of Her Self.” What first sparked the idea for this story?
This story was inspired by the Japanese fairy tale, Kaguyahime, or The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. Kaguyahime was one of my favorite stories growing up, and one of the earliest I can remember from my Japanese heritage. It was also inspired by a desire to pay honor and tribute to the six women of Asian descent who were murdered in their workplaces in Atlanta in March 2020. In the days following the shooting, conversations around whether or not these women were sex workers seemed to overtake the fact of their murder on multiple occasions, and served to further highlight the ongoing issues of racism, anti-Asian racism specifically, and misogyny in the U.S. I wanted to draw attention to the ways women, and particularly Asian women, are conceived of, defined, fetishized—even boxed in—by determinants external to themselves.
I love how you drop the reader into the story with the immediacy of the sensory impressions in the first few lines. They are so evocative of a forest and the slow burn of a story on the horizon. When crafting a story, how much attention to detail do you give to the setting? Is it a secondary consideration or do you keep the need in the forefront of your mind?
The setting was very important here. In fact, this story began with the smell of the rain on a stormy afternoon, while I was reflecting and grieving over what had happened in Atlanta. Kaguyahime’s story is rooted—both literally and figuratively—in the forest where she is found, in the daily life and physical labor of the community she is raised in. She’s also not from that community but is, in a sense, an immigrant. I felt it was very important to show the distinction between lines of safety and community, as opposed to lines of oppression and confinement, and starting with the sense of place in the forest of her origin, and retaining that as a touchstone, seemed the best way to do that.
The story has a lovely, almost fairy tale-like voice, the short narrative bursts peeling away bits of the past and present to reveal both horror and love. The suitors are insistent, the parents kind. The story weaves in and out of fear and anger. Why did you choose this narrative form? What was it about crafting a darker sort of tale that called you to unfold the plot like an origami piece undone?
I have often said what I love about fairy tales is that they tell us what it means to be human. Even in darker forms, they give us hints of what it means to be brave, wise, good. Which is what we need in frightening, confused, and unsettling times. This story plays out in the narrator’s recollection and experience of objectification, dehumanization, literally being changed into an object in a box, and that required a certain staggered pace and unfolding of her memory. We’re able then, I hope, to share in some of that, and the story she tells herself, as she moves through understanding what’s happened to her, and what limited options she may have left.
The vivid nature of the scene where the main character recognizes her suitor and captor, the cruelty of his casual “I’m sure once you adjust. . .” evoked a true chill and a sense of dread. Here you open a crack in the story, shining a light on the worth of women as wives, trophies, property. Her suitor-cum-master is willing to believe she is content, honest, just ask him. Which do you consider the most horrific, the dominance or the physical butchery?
The physical butchery, while literal to the narrator’s experience, is symbolic of the ways that womxn are entangled by so many competing demands and expectations, even sometimes defined wholly by the words, actions, and choices of another person. So, I suppose, both. That isn’t to say that womxn are without agency, but that options and outcomes can be very different for female-identifying people—we have only to look at which politicians are considered too “emotional,” the competency/likability bind in the workplace, the virgin/whore dichotomy seen all over, the fatherhood bump and motherhood penalty in wages, and on and on, to see that. The question in all of this always comes to agency and consent—who gives it, who has it, where does power lie in a given context, and how do we rightly negotiate those things.
You have a love of fairy tales and other whispered magics. What can readers look forward to from you in 2022?
I hope to share more fantastical and magical tales soon! All of my stories and occasional musings are shared on my blog (bit.ly/3FvbDXL). And I always share new stories and announcements on Twitter, I am @ThatKiyomi. I love to connect with good people around good stories!
Spread the word!