Hiromi Goto is an emigrant from Japan who gratefully resides in Lekwungen Territory. Her first novel, Chorus of Mushrooms, won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Best First Book, Canada and Caribbean Region, and was co-winner of the Canada-Japan Book Award. Other titles include The Kappa Child, Half World and Hopeful Monsters. Her first graphic novel, Shadow Life, was published in March of 2021 with First Second Books. She is currently at work trying to decolonize her relationship to writing, and to be a responsible resident on Indigenous Lands.
Hiromi Goto will be in an event celebrating new/ as-yet-unpublished writing by local authors, therefore no particular book is featured.
Interviewed by Ariel Gordon.
Ariel Gordon (AG): You’ve written in almost every genre: poetry, fiction for adults, fiction for youth, short stories, a graphic novel. Do you find the shift from genre to genre generative? How does it change what and how you write?
Hiromi Goto (HG): I find genre hopping to be an interesting part of the creative process. After I’ve written in one form for a while I find that my mindset tends to gel with that form. Sometimes I worry about creating too much narrative sameness. Switching genres sets me up with a new set of parameters and has me tapping into an area of interest/creativity that I haven’t yet explored.
AG: Tell me about your latest book, the graphic novel Shadow Life. What prompted this story in this form?
HG: Shadow Life is the tale of a 76-year-old Japanese Canadian woman going on the lam from a senior home and living in the gay neighbourhood. Death’s Shadow is not far behind, and Kumiko is in for the fight of her life. Meanwhile her three adult daughters are worried and trying to find her because Kumiko refuses to respond to their calls. It’s a story about mortality, love, family, community and second chances…I have always had an affinity for older female characters. It comes from my deep love, respect and admiration of my Obaachan. I think a lot about representation, in stories and in popular culture. I thought it would be a very powerful thing to have an elderly Asian hero living her daily life on her own terms in a North American context. Representation matters. Graphic novels are visual stories and representation is made real on the page. I think of it as fabulous visual reinforcement. I also thought that writing Kumiko’s story in this way might encourage older readers who have not yet explored graphic novels to pick it up. While also bringing an older person’s story to a younger reader’s life.
AG: Tell me about working with artist Ann Xu.
HG: We didn’t have an artist paired with this manuscript before signing. My editor and I arrived at Ann Xu’s evocative and sensitive drawings with such deep joy. She captured so perfectly Kumiko’s character and nuances of emotions. As soon as we saw her sample drawings (which she’d made from character descriptions and from sample pages from the script) we knew she was the one.
AG: Graphic novels are much more collaborative than any other form. How does the artist/author relationship differ from that of editor/author?
HG: There are elements of story that are really important to me as a writer. But I’m also not a professional artist so there may be gaps between what is possible in a story of words, but not so relevant for a visual narrative. This is where Ann would make choices on what was the most important thing to focus on. I could write, say, three sentences describing an action sequence—a pine cone hitting a bus then flying into the hedges. Ann would make the decisions on how to convey movement and direction through tightening the frame. Sometimes backgrounds were lost and only the object foregrounded—the movement conveyed from one panel to the next. I think the author/artist collaboration felt more like a work of translation somehow, but a cooperative translation project. It was a neat experience!
AG: What has drawn you most recently to creative non-fiction? What does it do that the other genres can’t?
HG: Creative nonfiction has been a new area of writing for me. My first reading and writing love will always be stories of the fantastic. But as a writer I came to a kind of story wall that was very very difficult to overcome. I lost my faith in stories. If you don’t believe in stories of the imagination it is impossible to write them. At least this is so for me. So I stopped reading and writing stories for a long time. Creative nonfiction does not tap into imagination and fabrication in the same ways. So I could step outside of the place that had hollowed into a word/place that exists without me—I could draw on the physical world and memory in tangible ways. CNF also speaks more directly to the material realities of the moment in a way that stories of the fantastic do not.
AG: Your recent essays, including “The Last Time I Saw You” in Brick Magazine, included photographs. What, for you, do they add to the narrative?
HG: I’ve been taking a lot of photographs during my time of story fallow. The photos capture a brief moment, and they often captures things I haven’t even perceived with my eyes until I return home and download them and can expand the image. So photographs allow me to see again, or see more. The photograph captures, but it also returns. So photographs have been an important part of my re-engagement with creativity and critical seeing and writing. I like it the most when the photographs open up thought processes instead of closing them. The images carry the potential for story too.
AG: Of this recent work, you said: “Shifting the lens to a broader biome. A love letter to the living world. My first love. My forever love.” Can you expand on this a bit?
HG: Before I even came to be able to read stories written by people, I was a child in the living world of plants, insects, animals, and it was a place that filled me with utter joy and wholeness. I have never felt this way about the city. And I’d lived many many years in the city. I hope that returning to this site as a writer and thinker might do some good for this living world… Because capitalism and humans are making a mess of it.
AG: The urban ecosystem in most cities is more extensive than people think. For instance, there are approximately 3 million trees in Winnipeg’s urban forest. And then there are all the birds and insects and small mammals and fungi that live in/around them. What is the urban ecosystem like in Vancouver where you lived for many years before moving to Lekwungen Territory just outside of Victoria?
HG: I was very much interested in urban flora and fauna in the city. There’s a lot of life in a park like Stanley Park and wetlands like Burnaby Lake. But humble locations like back alleys can also be ecologically interesting. The edges of industrial zones after work hours. Horsetails bust through concrete, lush and green. In daylighted streams salmon sometimes return in the fall….
I really appreciated the back alley that my apartment balcony overlooked. The neighbour on the other side had an overgrown yard filled with bramble and tall grass and a pine tree directly beside my balcony—rich micro-habitats. I observed raccoons growing into young adults, Cooper’s hawks, rats both brown and black, crow families and so many hummingbirds.
There are certain locations I’d seek out seasonally. Along E. Pender Street between Victoria Dr. and Nanaimo St. enormous glorious Amanita muscaria grow when the autumn rain and sunshine happen in the best of ways…. There is life everywhere in the city.
Five years ago I started an online project—posting a photo of mostly nonhuman life called A Little Beauty Everyday. I did this to honour and appreciate the many lives near to us—a lot of it in the city. I no longer live in Vancouver. I appreciate the city for the city things it does so well, but I was finding it more and more difficult to live inside the noise of it.
AG: To return to “The Last Time I Saw You,” which is a powerful essay about place and family, did it ever occur to you that instead of claiming or naming a hometown, you’ve made a home for yourself in the natural world?
HG: My relationship to the idea of furusato or hometown is a complicated one. I am a queer feminist woman of Asian descent living in colonized lands, on Indigenous territories. The colonial state that is Canada is built upon a foundation of genocide, and structural racism. Yet I’m also implicated in this colonial violence. Furusato is about identity and origins and belonging. So I experience conflict and tensions in imagining how to figure myself in human place and time. My spirit feels most complete when I’m in habitats not dominated by humans. To my mind the natural world is and is not an apolitical place. This land, too, and all the living beings on it has been severely impacted by environmental colonialism. I would love to be able to say that the natural world is my home but I don’t know that I live within natural relationships with this world. In many ways we humans live “unnatural” lives., i.e. the scale of resource extraction. I wonder if the natural world would claim me as a member?
AG: Do you feel that there is a different kind of urgency in this new work, given the extinctions and rapid change of climate change?
HG: I’m deeply concerned about climate change, the melting of permafrost (the word will become extinct once it melts for god’s sake!), melting glaciers, desertification, drought, more intense storms, ocean acidification…all of it. Frightening implications for so many species. Including us. I’m worried that so many people “don’t believe in climate change” or, more likely, refuse to believe in it. I’m afraid that warnings and studies and new stories about these changes aren’t changing people’s hearts and minds. Their actions. If warnings don’t inspire more changes to human behaviours I wonder if love might? I have no idea. But this is what I can do right now. Write urgent love letters for this beautiful life on earth.
AG: I worry that the pandemic has walked us backwards in terms of behaviors that impact the climate: single use everything, all the extra packaging of ordering online or getting take-out. But I think it’s also pushed a lot of people outside, made them slow down and see the natural world more clearly. So, like always, I’m ambivalent. But I think writing urgent love letters to the world is one thing that writers can do, besides organizing.
But let me ask this: if your readers could take one action right now, what would you want it to be?
HG: Find something very local and take part in nurturing and sustaining / protecting—be it red-legged frog habitat or old growth trees, picking garbage along the river or resisting a pipeline. Find something that speaks to your heart. Be a part of the living world. Give more than you take.