Five Questions with Kaj Tanaka

MoiraMcAvoy: Your speaker in issue 9.1’s “Volleyball” is deeply layered, both sympathetic and immensely unsettling in their tightrope walk between loneliness and voyeurism, and the delayed recognition of this in the final set of images. When it comes to fiction, do you think characters have to be likeable, or real, or something else entirely?

Kaj Tanaka: “Likable” and “real” and “layered” and “unsettling” are all good things for characters to be, but if there is a magic recipe for good characters, I haven’t found it. Then again, my hard drive is full of short stories that never really panned out. Writing is a trial and error process for me (I’m lucky if I bat 300), and as soon as I think I know what makes a story good, I find I am wrong.

MM: I got to read your short “Dolly Parton” for a multi-genre workshop I took last fall and loved it. That piece (along with the other flashes published with it in PANK), deals heavily with ideas of gender and age. Although we know this speaker is older, we never get this speaker’s gender. Was that intentional?

KT: Aw gosh, I wish it were intentional, but there isn’t really a correct way to think about the speaker’s gender or age in that story. The ambiguity is not purposeful, but it isn’t a mistake either.

For me, building a character is more about the words on the page than it is about Kaj Tanaka3developing a coherent “character psychology”—I build the character as I write the story. So if I leave something out—even crucial stuff like gender—it isn’t that I’m withholding information—the story just doesn’t need to go there. Lots of writers like to purposefully withhold information from the reader to build up to a big reveal at the end or to create interesting ambiguity, but I like to tell the reader everything I know about the story as quickly as I can, and as my understanding of the plot and characters develop, I try to keep the reader in the loop. If I leave something out, I’m not being cagey; I just don’t feel it’s essential. In general, I trust that my reader is smarter than I am and probably will see through my bullshit, which I think is a pretty good policy for anyone trying to avoid bullshit.

MM: In that same set of stories, there is a story, “Chaparone,” that seems to reference, if not indicate, the speaker from “Volleyball.” Are you working on a series with this perspective? Where did the inspiration for this sort of story come from?

KT: These stories all come from a collection called Reservation Kings, it’s a linked collection of stories about living on an Indian reservation. I worked on a reservation in South Dakota for two years after I graduated college, so yeah, there are kernels of lived experience in all of these stories, though, to be clear, they are all fictional and none of them are based on any one place, event or person in particular. It was a real struggle to develop a voice for these. Most people don’t know much about Indian Country, so I felt a lot of pressure to show the reservation as accurately as I could. That’s why these stories are all written in the first person. I felt that a third person narrator would slide a little too easily into political commentary, and I have no authority to speak to that. There is an embarrassing legacy of Native American cultural appropriation that continues to be a problem in this country, and I’d hate to be lumped in with that crowd. Even so, some of the Native people I know—some close friends, even—have gotten pretty offended about the way the reservation itself comes off as a villain in these stories. And while it’s certainly true that Indian reservations can be miserable places, it’s possible that these stories focus too much on the seedy underbelly and not enough on the wealth of positive things happening on reservations all over the country.

MM: You’re the nonfiction editor at BULL. Do you find that your work ever
dances the line between fact and fiction, and if so, does it matter?

KT: I think both the best fiction and nonfiction dance the line in one way or another. So yeah, that’s what I aim to create, both as a writer and an editor—no matter the genre, people like stories that feel true, and I think most of that comes from the way a story is told, not the material it concerns.

MM: What are you working on now?

KT: I just finished a new collection of stories, so I’m taking a few weeks off to edit some of my friends’ work and write a couple of book reviews.

Kaj Tanaka’s stories have been published in Juked, PANK, Nailed and The Butter. His work has appeared on Wigleaf's (very) short fictions list. Kaj is the nonfiction editor at BULL. Tweet him @othrrealppl.