Author Q&A:
Sequoia Nagamatsu 

How High We Go In The Dark

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Dr Cliff Miyashiro arrives in the Arctic Circle to continue his recently deceased daughter’s research, only to discover a virus, newly unearthed from melting permafrost. The plague unleashed reshapes life on earth for generations. Moving through them we meet an aspiring comedian, employed by a theme park designed for terminally ill children, a scientist who, having failed to save his own son gets a second chance at fatherhood when one of his test subject pigs develops human speech, and a widowed painter and her teenaged granddaughter who must set off on a cosmic quest to locate a new home planet.

You wrote How High We Go In The Dark before the Covid pandemic. Has it been a blessing or a curse for the novel and did you make any Covid-informed changes, for example the racism your Asian characters experience?
Any racism my characters experienced wasn’t changed during edits. I just made sure that I maintained that my characters were Asian or Asian American but that their race or nationality was never privileged in the story. I felt this was important in a climate where anti-Asian hate rose during the pandemic. I needed readers to see Asian bodies and voices simply living their lives and holding on just like anybody else. For a long time in literature and film the only stories about people of colour (and particularly Asians) either exotified them or cast them to the fringes. I want to add that I have little to say about Asian stories of immigration and of war because they are not my stories. My great-grandmother came to Hawaii from Japan in the early 20th century for an arranged marriage. My grandfather was relocated to an internment camp in California during WWII. I was raised disconnected from my heritage in many ways, which is one of the reasons why I have sought to explore this identity in my art (and to ensure that more Asian stories beyond the immigrant experience are portrayed).

As for it being a blessing or curse to publish this book during Covid? I think blessing is probably the wrong word, but I’m thankful that this book was able to be published given the state of the world (in large part to partners who understood my vision) and that it might become part of needed conversations and reflection people need to have or are already having about grieving, hope, catharsis and imagining a better future for ourselves. I hope that beyond the darkness in this book readers can find some comfort.

Science backs up so much of the story. Tell us about your research for this and how you managed to create scientific descriptions that are fictional yet authoritative.
The early research for the novel mostly revolved around investigating alternative funerary and mortuary practices. I was living in Japan at the time and became fascinated with innovative ways the country was trying to face obstacles of space and cost given the exceedingly large elderly population in the country. In places like Tokyo funerary skyscrapers and hotels for the dead where families can reside for prolonged goodbyes do exist. But in terms of the science, nearly everything in the novel is grounded in some truth, whether it be theoretical research of physicists, known data of exoplanets from Nasa, or the ongoing research and projections of climate scientists. I spent a great deal of time ensuring, for instance, that I was selecting a planet that could be habitable while acknowledging the obstacles that would prevent life on other planets. I explored how a different colour star would impact flora on an alien world, how they would appear to human eyes. Beyond internet research (and some on the ground explorations at a mortuary expo), I also spent a great deal of time in virtual reality, immersing myself in outer space and virtually walking through Siberian forests.

While you couldn’t have predicted the pertinence of the pandemic storyline, the book also addresses climate change, space travel and capitalism. Why is speculative fiction a useful tool in helping us reckon with reality?
Speculative fiction can act as a lens that helps us articulate who we are, where we’ve been, and where we might go by giving us a vantage point more conducive to critiquing ourselves and the world. The speculative is of course often alluring and filled with wonder, so these stories invite broader audiences that might be otherwise unwilling to engage in direct discourses about subjects like climate change. And through story perhaps some readers may be able to empathise more with particular communities, particular realities. And I think it’s this acknowledgment of our fellow human being that is a crucial step in moving forward for our species, whether it be actions for the wellbeing of our planet or how we might responsibly step forward from our planet and into the stars.

While the story may seem far from reality in many ways, themes such as grief, survival and hope are very human. Is there an essence of being or, if stretched far enough, will the nature of humanity itself change?
I think if our species lasts long enough that there probably will come a time where we’ve stretched ourselves far enough, whether it be biologically or technologically, that how we process reality may alter what we consider to be human emotions and human relationships. That said, I’d like to believe that humanity would choose to hold onto certain aspects of self like hope and community (and what is grief but a loss of connection?) no matter how much we change as a species or society.

Your short stories in Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone were interlinked and your chapters in How High We Go… can stand alone. Was writing a novel a considerably different process to writing your stories?
Well, the stories in my first book weren’t necessarily linked in any way other than theme and the fact that the stories all drew inspiration from Japanese folklore and pop culture. I had included some interstitial artifacts between those stories as palette cleansers (and to provide the sense that the stories existed in a larger fictional world). For How High We Go In The Dark, each chapter is linked by themes, an inciting incident, recurring (and often related characters), as well as a cosmic and ancient narrative thread that runs throughout the book that isn’t fully realised until the very end. So, while a reader could read a chapter out of order and perhaps engage with one particular narrative, they would be missing the evolution of the world, the nature of how characters are related, and likely major hints that would help them appreciate the novel’s ending.

The process of writing How High We Go In The Dark began in much the same way as my first book, but this changed over time as I realised that what I was working on was much bigger and more complex than a story collection. When I started calling my manuscript a novel in earnest, I began the work of mapping character relationships, considering how society would change over generations, and dropping hints and Easter eggs throughout the book that would help build to the final chapter. It was a very kaleidoscopic endeavour that both dug at my short story roots while also pulling me toward longform narratives.

Where We Go… was rooted in the past while How High We Go… is set in the present. Pandemic aside, do you feel compelled to write about the present day?
Yes and no. I think time to reflect and understand a moment is important for a writer (or anybody for that matter). Would I have written this book during Covid? Probably not. But this is not a Covid book as it was born over ten years ago, regardless of how timely it might seem. The themes in How High We Go In The Dark can speak to the moment we’re in, of course, but they also aren’t particular to our moment. I never wanted my characters to fully dwell in the present – all of them, in their own ways, tried to reach for something else, someone else, some future (while also coming to terms with the past). But for writers who are thinking specifically of this moment, of Covid, I imagine we’ll be seeing more and more of this work, and I think we should. Maybe not everyone will be ready, but we’re approaching year three of Covid and it seems strange for artists to ignore our reality and how we have already begun to change in big and small ways.

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