Human Flesh - An Interview with Justin Isis
Tuesday, August 31, 2010 8:28:50 PM
I have previously interviewed Justin Isis on Edmund Yeo’s blog, but with the release of his debut collection now imminent, it occurred to me that I have not yet done the obvious and interviewed him for Directory of Lost Causes; the collection seemed the perfect opportunity.
Here is some of what Thomas Ligotti has to say about it:
If you ever wanted to experience some life-bending obsession but thus far are still waiting for one to come along, reading I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like will serve as the next best thing. In his disarmingly masterful first collection of stories, Justin Isis reports on what it is like to be young, Japanese (quite incidentally in our global culture), and hopelessly a slave to awful and bizarre attractions—eccentric enchantments that any fugitive from the conventional world would take agonizing pride in confessing to a sheaf of private papers.
- Thomas Ligotti
And here are some words from Jeremy Reed:
Justin Isis' stories read like futures videos, in their shape-shifting, voyeuristic Eurasian themes, dominated throughout by the obsessive retrieval of visual detail pulled right from the edge of one space-time dissolving into another. 'He wondered about how present he was' the narrator of the title story questions, and it's the author's ability to live parallel to what he is seeing that gives the collection an elusive, fetishistic concentration, as though Isis is trying to step into a film as a real-time participant. I love these stories for their fractionally off-world message that is always vitally, sexily modern.
- Jeremy Reed
Readers will soon have the chance to sample this work for themselves, with the release of the collection provisionally scheduled for October. In the meantime, let us settle down for a chat with the author.
Quentin: Your debut collection is coming out with Chômu Press. So, I'll start by asking you a few questions about that. The title is I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like. Do you actually often wonder about this?
Justin Isis: No, I know what it tastes like, at least when it's still alive.
Quentin: Okay. So, you were writing in character, as it were? For the title, at least?
Justin Isis: I think I wanted to have a long title that sounded awkward.
Quentin: Always a good choice.
There are three stories in the book that have variations of this title. Do you have a favourite among them? Are they related to each other by anything except the title?
Justin Isis: All the stories are related to each other and carry similar themes. There's not much variety, it's pretty monotonous, but I look at it more like a novel or complete work in the form of different stories rather than an attempt to just publish unrelated stories in one book. I'm capable of writing unrelated stories and publishing them in one book but this book is intended to trace the development of certain themes in all the stories.
Quentin: Would you say there's a thematic arc in the way the stories are ordered?
Justin Isis: There's no rational order I can explain except to say that it's the order that seemed best to me. There probably are certain subconscious reasons for the way I arranged them though.
Quentin: What would you say the themes are that all the stories share and develop?
Justin Isis: Cannibalism/consumption as a metaphor for emotional or nervous excess, the perceived impossibility of legitimate communication, social roles relegating humans to robotic functions, various "anti- life" ideas.
Quentin: What are your views on actual cannibalism?
Justin Isis: In what sense?
Quentin: Would you try it? Do you think it should be encouraged/banned/practiced by an elite?
Justin Isis: I don't have any interest in human flesh as such, although I am obsessed with raw meat of various kinds. Actual cannibalism can lead to health risks like Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, and probably isn't advisable for that reason. Morally I don't have any strong views on it.
Quentin: If I remember correctly, all ten stories in the collection are set in Japan. Is there any particular reason for this?
Justin Isis: I found it easier to pay attention to surroundings and small details while living in Japan, and I found that this made for more focused writing. I grew up in the U.S. and lived extensively in Australia and in both those countries I almost never paid attention to scenery, conversational nuances, etc. in the same way. That said, I don't have any sociological reasons behind setting the stories there, and I'm pretty sure they could just as well take place in any first-world country in the early 21st century. In this book, at least, I don't have any thesis or cultural agenda I want to make about Japan.
The only other thing is that I think I remember Endo Shusaku saying something like, "Foreign writers who try to set stories in Japan are like flowers transplanted into a swamp, they put out strange flowers for a while and then wither." I might be remembering that wrong. Anyway, I disliked that remark, since Endo himself felt free to write about foreign characters. That may have influenced it a bit; I thought, "Fuck off Endo."
Quentin: Culture, in the traditional sense, doesn't seem very important in your stories, but are there some geographical places you prefer to others?
Justin Isis: I think like everything more or less is set within the radius of the Yamanote line. I went to Shibuya and Shinjuku all the time and I found that I kept having characters wind up in Dogenzaka or that general area. You're right that the traditional elements and aesthetics of the country have never really interested me; my interest begins in the post-Bubble period pretty much and I think about Japan in the 1990s a lot. I feel most at home in large cities where people are pressed together, often physically, in total anonymity. I don't know why, since I grew up in the countryside. For some reason that Yamanote line area interacts with my mind in a strange way and a lot of the book was written around there too, in net cafes.
Quentin: I know you're a fan of Kawabata. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech - I think it was - he talks a bit about identification with the soil of Japan, and how Japanese culture differs from Western, perhaps with an implication that the latter cannot understand the former. Do you think this attitude is the same as Endo's when he spoke about foreigners not being able to set stories in Japan? Or is it different? If so, how?
Justin Isis: My earlier comment probably sounds like I was shitting on Endo; I'm really not. I have a terrible amount of sympathy for Endo, who was raised as a Catholic in Japan and had to try to mentally reconcile two apparently incompatible thought systems his entire life. I don't particularly like his writing, but I can understand the importance of what he was trying to address. Kawabata, I think, was raised in an entirely different time period and with an entirely different set of assumptions; I'm not sure what he would have thought of Westerners setting fiction in Japan. In my experience "Japanese Culture" has become as caricatured to the Japanese as it has to the rest of the world. If I talk to Japanese people in real life about yuugen or fashion trends in the Taisho Period or Ihara Saikaku, they usually don't know what I'm talking about, since it has no relevance to their everyday lives.
Quentin: It occurs to me that there is one way in which traditional culture is addressed in I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like, and that's in the story 'The Quest for Chinese People', in which the Japanese protagonist feels excluded from a sense of Chinese cultural identity. Does this also express something of your personal feelings about 'traditional culture' as it pertains to national or ethnic identity?
Justin Isis: The sense of Chinese cultural identity in that story is deliberately abstracted to an almost mystical or esoteric degree in order to fit the story's plot and themes. I do feel that "traditional" cultural identities of various kinds present a kind of existential problem for me. I'm a "half," both my parents were foreigners from different countries than the one I was born in and I've never taken any kind of national or ethnic identity that seriously. When people do take these identities seriously in self-identification terms - and I'm aware that this is like 95% of people on Earth - I feel strange. But I'm not saying they're "bad" in any way.
Quentin: Going back a bit, does this relate to the kind of sympathy you mentioned having for Endo?
Justin Isis: I do have sympathy for Endo, yes. His key insight in "Silence" is the Japanese inability to conceive of a transcendental God, one entirely outside nature. This seems like an insight that only someone who had occupied both these cultural frameworks could have arrived at. That said, I don't feel that Endo took his project far enough or really explored its implications in the way he could have. Probably this was due in part to his temperament. But he was at least making a serious attempt to make sense of crosscultural themes in a way that I think few writers really have.
Quentin: Do you feel yourself to be afflicted - if that's the right word - by cross-cultural contradictions similar to that experienced by Endo?
Justin Isis: Not afflicted, no. I am interested in art that explores this theme, though.
Quentin: Does that mean you experience a similar thing, but not as affliction, or that you are free from such cross-cultural paradoxes?
Justin Isis: I think my approach is pragmatic, and I'm not afraid to let contradictions stand. Static systems, cultural or otherwise, bore me and so I'm always looking for some new combination of elements.
Quentin: Just to explore this question a little further, you say that Endo was one of the few writers to explore such themes, but can you think of any others that interest you?
Or should that be, any others that actually interest you?
Justin Isis: Borges and Akutagawa both ransack world culture for settings, themes, and ideas and move freely through time and space. I think that approach appeals to me. I'm not interested in "cultural conflict" stories as such, especially when they descend into stereotypical mannerism or depend on outdated or static definitions of culture. Someone's Bengali parents are ambivalent about them marrying an Anglo-American, even though they all occupy the same socioeconomic group and the actual mindset differences are minimal. I don't care.
V.S. Naipaul is good too.
Quentin: Okay, I'm going to move in a different direction now. I was thinking that, with the shared themes in the stories of Human Flesh, maybe it could be thought of as an album, maybe even a concept album. If it was, what kind of music would it be?
Justin Isis: That's in fact exactly how I think of it, and my mind processes stories as a kind of "music." I'm not sure I can give a satisfactory explanation of this, except to say that I imagine it's similar to synaesthesia. When I read any kind of prose, not just my own, my mind processes it as having a "hard" or "soft" tone similar to musical volume, and also "texture" in the musical sense. In my head, Human Flesh for the most part sounds kind of like Mogwai except with more vocals, and occasionally sections that sound more like Melt-Banana. I'm sure this doesn't make any sense. I didn't actually listen to either of them while writing the book, but the prose "looks" that way in my head.
Quentin: Could you name any particular songs that might correspond to stories, or doesn't it work that way?
Justin Isis: It doesn't really work that way. When I say it sounds like those bands, I don't mean it sounds like actual existing songs they've written. In my head, the story "Nanako" is some kind of composition with flutes, piano and guitars that begins relatively subdued and monotonous and gradually builds to a climactic finish.
Quentin: Describe, musically, the story, 'The Quest for Chinese People'. I just want another example.
Justin Isis: That one seems tonally different from the others to me, probably since it was the first one I wrote and I didn't really have an idea of what the tone of the rest would be like. It has more I guess "major chords" and easily recognizable or cliched "melody" segments. The overall tone of the music is upbeat although towards the end it goes into a kind of bridge or breakdown section with minor key instrumental figures before threatening to reprise the main melody at the very end but not actually doing so.
Quentin: That seems like a fair musical analysis.
Let's shift the medium from music to film. The title story of the book is currently being filmed, I believe. If you had your choice of actors and director for one of the other stories.... say, 'The Eye of the Living is No Warmth', who would you choose? Also, is there one story in particular you'd like to see as a film?
Justin Isis: I always thought Thread from Heaven would work as a feature length film, and in some respects I imagined it that way from the beginning. It started out as me trying to write some kind of Korean drama or film and remove all the obvious emotional payoffs, so I imagined it as having Bae Yong Jun and Jeong Ji-hyun and all those kinds of actors in it. But I think if it were filmed as it stands now, I think Toyoda Toshiaki would be the best director, or possibly Iwai Shunji. Tsumabuki Satoshi could probably play the main character although he's getting on a bit now.
Quentin: Who would you have to play Masa and Tatsuya (I hope I've remembered them correctly) in Eye of the Living?
Justin Isis: No preference, although I always imagined the Miyuki character as looking a bit like Nakashima Mika.
Quentin: I feel like 'Eye of the Living' could be done in an anti- comedy style. I read some reviewer recently describe Gentlemen Broncos as "anti-comedy", I suppose meaning that it replaces chuckles with awkwardness and bewilderment. I feel a bit as though Eye of the Living could take this to the Nth degree, where there is completely inaudible canned laughter, as if gaps have been left for the laughter, but the laughter has been removed, and all that remains is a kind of dead bewilderment, but I wondered if you had any thoughts on this, or am I barking up the wrong tree/mad?
Justin Isis: I think if you filmed that story with a high degree of literalism, a lot of people would interpret it as a comedy. One of my friends, who's dyslexic and has proof-read most of my stories, has so far interpreted them all as comedies and did start laughing out loud several times during "Eye of the Living." I think if there were long shots of the characters doing nothing it would probably work as a comedy.
Quentin: Yeah, it's all in the pauses, I think.
You mentioned Akutagawa earlier. I think that Japanese writers are often cursed by their translation into English, and Akutagawa strikes me as a prime example of this. I wonder if you have anything to say to English-language readers (non-Japanese readers) about Akutagawa and his translations?
Justin Isis: The only Akutagawa translation I've liked has been the Will Petersen translation of Aru Aho no Issho, which I think is now out of print. Whether that translation was "accurate" or not is beside the point for me, since Petersen was able to create striking poetic moments and phrasings which more recent translations seem to have missed entirely. In general I think I prefer slightly awkward or poetic (in English) translations to strictly literally accurate ones. I think a lot of the recent Japanese translators seem to love cliches and are desperate to reduce any kind of awkward or possibly "untranslatable" elements to the safety of an English-language cliche. I prefer older translations, perhaps because of their slight awkwardness, which for me creates an interesting estrangement effect.
Quentin: Can you think of any other examples of interesting translations of this kind?
Justin Isis: In general I'm a fan of things like the Arthur Waley Genji, the Scott Moncrieff version of Proust, etc. I'm aware that they're inaccurate in numerous ways, but they still have an interesting "effect." There should probably be two translations of everything, a literalist version and then one that tries to be stylistically interesting in English.
Quentin: Once Human Flesh has come out, do you have any plans regarding what you want to do next with your writing?
Justin Isis: I'm working on two other story collections, one of which will be like the sequel to Human Flesh in terms of continuing the thematic progression, but hopefully in a more mature and satisfying form.
Quentin: That's Girl Revolution, right?
Justin Isis: Yes.
Quentin: You showed me an interesting photo a while back of a kind of Wailing Wall of Japanese hostesses. I can't remember the story behind it, but you kind of suggested it might make a good cover image for Girl Revolution. Can you remind me what that image was all about?
Justin Isis: It was a group of hostesses mourning the death of porn star/television personality Iijima Ai, who in death I guess has assumed a kind of patron saint-like role. I think all the Girl Revolution stories will contain hostesses, girls vomiting, and some kind of reference to the Catholic Church.
Quentin: Sounds like a great combination.
And the other collection is... retarded science fiction?
Justin Isis: It's a collection of science fiction stories tentatively called Welcome to the Arms Race. The earliest ones I wrote when I was like 19 or so, so the quality is going to be all over the map. It will be totally disjunctive, no connection between any of the stories at all in terms of writing style or subject matter, different from the other books.
Quentin: Will there be any "strange ones in the Dome" in Welcome to the Arms Race?
Justin Isis: They appear in the story "M-FUNK VS THA FUTUREGIONS OF INVERSE FUNKATIVITY," yes.
Okay, if you're ready, I'm going to try a kind of word association thing. First of all, maybe I can say some names, and you just say what they mean to you in however many words you like.
Justin Isis: OK
Quentin: After that, maybe we can do the other kind.
So, to start... Robert Aickbon.
Justin Isis: Probably the best writer of all time in a lot of ways, or at least very close to my understanding of it.
Quentin: Tanaka Aina.
Justin Isis: Seemed thinner in real life than in her photos, but otherwise no different from those photos, which seem like an external organ in the same way a writer's body of work is a physical manifestation or secretion. Tanaka Aina reminds me of a mechanical caterpillar which is trying to cocoon itself in images in order to graduate from time.
Quentin: Martin Amis
Justin Isis: I always wondered why there weren't more father and son novelists, or grandfather and father and son novelists. Genetic material only seems to want to write infrequently. Maybe writing is an immune response to the genes fighting off some kind of infection, I don't know.
Quentin: Lemmy, out of Motorhead.
Justin Isis: I thought he was gay, but actually I was thinking of Rob Halford.
Quentin: Stephenie Meyer.
Justin Isis: Seems to be writing from unconscious or subconscious motivations, similar to the original surrealists. Obvious success of her project and its worldwide influence is proof of this. Her physical appearance reminds me of the sitting figures in Renaissance paintings for some reason.
Quentin: Freddie Mercury.
Justin Isis: A Parsi. Zoroastrianism. The Manichean heresy. I am immortal, I have inside me blood of kings. Fried chicken.
Quentin: Oscar Wilde.
Justin Isis: Morrissey pointed out that Jonathan Ross had Oscar Wilde's haircut, and I wondered if Ross was actually Wilde in disguised or reincarnated form, except he had changed his approach to speech after deciding that the epigrammatic format he had employed in the 19th century was based on one-note paradoxes and he wanted more "texture," so he had decided to always say the opposite of what he really meant with total conviction, a strategy that only a few insightful viewers would be able to recognize...I remember the YouTube footage of him meeting Fujita Shiho/Sifow and her gyaruo friends identifying him as a "cool bad guy"...at that moment I felt the tiredness and exhaustion of Wilde's Melmoth years.
Quentin: Beth Ditto.
Justin Isis: Physically resembles Leigh Bowery, "I think punks usually smell" quote reminds me of ogyaru (with the 'o' taken from 'kitanai'). Should create a more beautiful human race by having children in a machine with Leigh Bowery, even though he's dead.
Quentin: Rob Halford.
Justin Isis: Still confuse him with Lemmy all the time, may be due to superficial similarities in clothing and album artwork. His forehead reminds me of Philip Larkin's forehead.
Quentin: Emily Dickinson.
Justin Isis: Sometimes her haircut seems prescient of a flapper haircut, but much more disciplined.
Quentin: Thomas Gabriel Warrior.
Justin Isis: I like his name, and the Celtic Frost album Into the Pandemonium. I do wonder why they had a song called "I Won't Dance," though. He should have danced. I feel like in that song, Thomas Gabriel Warrior is like a teenage girl standing on the edge of a dance floor and saying “I Won’t Dance” but actually hoping someone will invite her to dance.
Justin Isis: Always thought the monad concept was plausible, and works as a psychological metaphor as well.
Quentin: Okay, one more. Choose one name to respond to out of Gustave Flaubert and Eudora Welty, unless you can find some way of linking the two.
Justin Isis: Never read any Welty but Flaubert is a great influence. I would like to read his books from the alternate universe in which he transcended his hatred of the bourgeoisie and went on to write more books in the style of The Temptations of Saint Anthony, St. Julien the Hospitalier, etc. I feel as if his 'Realism' is one of those Gnostic prisons, in that he realized it better than anyone before or since, but it held him back from fulfilling the path he was on when his friends criticized The Temptation of St. Anthony and he started writing out of contempt.
Quentin: Now, for the final section.
Let's have a word association consisting of fifteen interactions (just so we know when to end). I'll start with a word, you write the first word that comes into my head, and I'll write what then comes into your head, etc., and we'll repeat this process fifteen times. I don't know why, but anyway, are you ready?
Justin Isis: Yes
Justin Isis: Chocolate
Justin Isis: Emperor
Justin Isis: King
Justin Isis: Space
Justin Isis: Bacon
Justin Isis: Flood
Justin Isis: Drifter
Justin Isis: Grate
Justin Isis: Silence
Quentin: Endo Shuusaku
Justin Isis: Christian
Justin Isis: Baleful
Justin Isis: Prawn
Justin Isis: Case
Justin Isis: Neurogenetic
Justin Isis: Parthenon
Justin Isis: Tzadik
Justin Isis: Soy
Justin Isis: Bale
Justin Isis: Rosencrantz
Quentin: Richard Upton Pickman
Justin Isis: Jail
Justin Isis: Undead