Defying Genres with Hiromi Goto, Room's Short Forms Contest Judge

Interview by 
Yash Kesanakurthy
Hiromi Goto

Photo credit: Sylvia McFadden

Since its release in 1994, Hiromi Goto’s debut novel, A Chorus of Mushrooms, has won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book in the Caribbean and Canada region and was also named co-winner of the Canada-Japan Book Award. Twenty-four years later, A Chorus of Mushrooms has become a modern classic, and Goto has cemented her place in the Canadian canon. She has since published The Kappa Child, which was the recipient of the James Tiptree Jr. Memorial Award, a collection of short stories titled Hopeful Monsters, a poetry collection called Wait Until Late Afternoon, as well as three books for younger readers, including Half World which won the 2010 Sunburst Award and the Carl Brandon Society Parallax Award. An active member of Canada’s literary scene, Goto has served as writing instructor, panelist, editor, and writer-in-residence. She currently lives in B.C., where she’s working on new projects of her own.

We're thrilled to have the multi-genre author judge our Short Forms Contest this year (open now until November 1, 2018!) and took the opportunity to ask her a few questions about her award-winning novels, using magic to explore the construct of gender, and the genre-blurring qualities in her work.

Yash Kesanakurthy: In all of your stories, magic—be it the larger system of magic in Half World or sly encounters with the uncanny in Kappa Child—often appears side-by-side nature in some form. What is it about the environment that inspires the uncanny in your narratives?

Hiromi Goto: Evolutionary forces, the complex workings of ecosystems, unimaginably strange creatures exist in the world all around us. Life is fucking weird! And fantastic! Like, look at the mating process of angler fish! Or the tongue-eating fish parasite! Or the fungus that takes over insects’ brains . . . Our human imagination is no contest against the forces of nature. It’s truly inspiring. Magic pairs well with nature in story. Magic also has the capacity to leap outside the bounds of realist causality. In times of struggle and resistance having models that break out of the mundane can be a tool for radical change.

YK: When you first started publishing novels, how did you see the function of magic in books for adults versus books for young readers? Do you see the purpose of fantasy in these categories change somewhat in recent years?

HG: I started publishing in the mid-90s. Back then if there were elements of the fantastic included in your adult fiction but you weren’t writing genre fantasy, your narratives might have been labelled as magic realist. I don’t think I really thought of my books as magic realist per se. Also, I’m not Latin American so it doesn’t feel appropriate to use this term. In my adult stories magic often slipped in and out of the realist world and the handling of the magical was a combination of literal and metaphorical. In my books for younger readers the magical was more immersive—characters left the primary world through a portal to enter a secondary world. An entirely different set of experiences can be explored in a secondary world. This kind of narrative is transportative. I don’t know if the purpose of fantasy changes . . . No matter what we are writing, no matter the content, genre, time period, etc. the writing still speaks to the issues/concerns of the present.

YK: On a related note, your novels have a certain focus on gender; does magic/magical realism help you better explore/explode this construct?

HG: Absolutely! I really like to push metaphors or ideas from the symbolic plane into the literal. This helps me foreground the absurdity of social agreements that a lot of people participate in as normative practices. Assumptions around gender roles, for instance, are still keenly entrenched in all cultures. This bullshit still constrains, harms, distorts, and diminishes the possibilities for girls and all women to lead rich and equal lives (as compared to cis straight white men). Inclusion of the magical or the fantastic in mundane world interactions can cast accepted behaviours/ideas in an uncanny light.

YK: Since the release of Water of Possibility, you became one of the first voices in North America to recognize that the category of children’s literature was somewhat lacking in, not just diverse characters, but also the stories assigned to these characters. You gave young readers delight, adventure, family, darkness, and magic well before the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement took off. What compelled you to write these stories? Was it a certain conversation, was it in the making since your own childhood, or something else entirely?

HG: In the late 90s I was looking for adventure and fantasy books that I could read to my children. I loved fantasy and science fiction as a child, and wanted to share these stories with my children too. But I also wanted them to see someone like themselves as the hero of these narratives. In the local Calgary public library there were no stories of children of colour, Indigenous children, Black children as central to the text in SF/F. Especially from a Canadian context. I found this infuriating, frustrating, saddening. If I can’t find these books, I thought, I’ll write them myself. How we imagine ourselves is influenced by how others imagine us—how we see ourselves reflected in story. It’s especially important that children from communities that have historically marginalized get to be transported to magical worlds, see themselves in the future, see someone just like them overcoming evil and tyranny, slaying monsters. And these stories need to be written by authors who are Indigenous, Black, of colour—all the many ways we experience being in this world differently, distinctly, with specific histories and legacies. I’m heartened to see that there are a lot more books like this than what was available in the early 2000s. There’s much more work to be done.

YK: In a lot of ways, your writing walks the line between fantasy and realistic fiction, defying the idea of genre along the way. What is it about this balancing act that appeals to you and what advice would you give to authors who wish to similarly bend categories in their writing?

HG: I decided a long time ago that I will write what I want. Of course I’m guided by editors! The best of them support your work to be the best that it can be! My adult fiction sees most of the genre-blurring. When I’m writing I don’t really see a hard line between what’s “realism” and what’s “fantastic.” In estuaries where the sea and freshwater meet there’s a lot of life. For writers who are interested in b(l)ending categories I suggest that you worry less about what defines the categories and, instead, consider the logic or consistency of the bending . . . The story needs to be believable and support its own internal logic. Aside from that, let the imagination run free! (Although this doesn’t mean you’re exempt from critically examining any kind of assumptions or gaps you bring to the project. I.e. unexamined transphobia, racism, ableism, fatphobia, etc.)

YK: When you sit down to read a new piece of speculative fiction, what keeps you turning the page? And what do you hope will be left off the page?

HG: I can be compelled to continue reading if I fall in love or hate with a character. I can be pulled along by strong storytelling. I can be moved by beauty. Irreverence and swerve is good. Writing that takes risks. Writing that makes me believe in impossible things . . . I’m less interested in stories that reinscribe normative mainstream culture. I also love funny stories (although it’s really hard to do and humor is subjective and often culturally specific)! I don’t think there’s enough humorous stories being written, generally. Literature can be soooo serious . . .

Learn more about our Short Forms Contest, closing November 1, 2018

Yash Kesanakurthy has an MA in Children’s Literature, but writes about all kinds of stories for The Book Wars, Book Riot, and Shameless Magazine. Her and Annalise Jensen's comic “With My Hand on My Head” was recently published in Cloudscape’s Swan Song. Yash currently lives, reads, and writes in Toronto.

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