Kelly Luce - an oracular toaster, a woman who grows a tail, and an extraordinary sex-change operation. Set in Japan, these stories tip into the fantastical, plumb the power of memory, and measure the human capacity to love
Kelly Luce, Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail: Stories, A Strange Object, 2013
Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail is a debut collection of stories from Kelly Luce, one of the most promising writers we know. Hana Sasaki will introduce you to many things—among them, an oracular toaster, a woman who grows a tail, and an extraordinary sex-change operation. Set in Japan, these stories tip into the fantastical, plumb the power of memory, and measure the human capacity to love.
“Let us all now append one more syllable to the list of the most acrobatic imaginations in contemporary American fiction: Saunders, Bender, Link, and Luce! This book in an incantation, and I adore it.” —Claire Vaye Watkins
“These stories unsettle as much as they entertain.” —Jim Shepard
“In Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail, Kelly Luce manages the impossible: each story delicate and enormous, intricate, glitteringly beautiful, never less than strange, never less than profound, ten spiderwebs astonishingly spun. Readers: here is your new favorite short story writer.” —Elizabeth McCracken
“Kelly Luce writes stories whose charm is a lasting effect. Her work is witty, unpredictable, and freshly written. There’s a genuine imagination at work here that is a delight to spend time with.” —Stuart Dybek
“Perhaps the greatest magic of all is Luce’s gift for exploring the pains people take to love and be loved. Luce excels at making the fantastical familiar and the familiar fantastic. Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail is a triumph!” —Amber Dermont
“Kelly Luce writes rings around most writers, and this is only her first book. Hana Sasaki is bold, strange, funny, and tender. These stories are just such a pleasure to read—so forget this blurb and get to the damn book.” —Victor LaValle
Luce's debut short story collection with its captivating title and incandescent prose lures readers into a land both familiar and fantastically foreign, melding Japanese folklore and traditions with strange and memorable characters. In "Ms. Yamada's Toaster," a neighborhood buzzes with the newfound discovery of a toaster producing bread toasted with a kanji character indicating how you'd die. In "The Blue Demon of Ikumi," a honeymoon trip takes an unexpected turn when Saki confesses to her husband that the real reason that they got together was because she grew a tail. Nao in "The Wisher" considers himself "something of a priest: a hearer of confessions, witness of desires" as he is able to hear each wish that is cast by coin in a neighborhood wishing fountain. In "Amorometer," Aya receives news that she scored exceptionally high on the device "that measures one's capacity to love" even as she remained ambivalent in a lackluster marriage. Each story is stemmed in loneliness and Luce's writing packs subtle charm with a sense of foreboding that lingers long after reading. - Publishers Weekly
"The tail is three inches long, and gleams silver with a lavender tinge, one end thin and flyaway, the other thick as rope." That would be Hana Sasaki's tail, and it is one of four tails, not three, despite the title of Kelly Luce's debut story collection, "Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail." The fourth tail belongs to a woman named Saki who may or may not be the same woman as the Hana Sasaki in the title story. But tails are not the strangest things growing in Luce's stories, set in Japan and threaded through with a quiet, off-kilter surrealism.
Luce, a native of the Chicago suburbs and a finalist for the 2012 Chicago Tribune Nelson Algren Short Story Award, lived in Japan for three years, first as an English teacher with the JET Programme in Kawasaki, then for an additional two years in Tokushima. Only one of the stories, "Ash," is based directly on her experiences there — an American is arrested and held without charges for several days in a Japanese prison, something that happened to Luce. However, all of the stories, whether told from the point of view of Japanese or American characters, are suffused with the floaty, slightly numbed-out sensorium of the expatriate, in which any random detail can take on a numinous glow: the sound of frogs trilling in rice paddies, the "heavy golden dust" from a volcano's hiccup, even the baked-on handle of a doughnut at a chain store in a train station.
Setting magical realism in a distant country can seem too easy, and stories like "Ms. Yamada's Toaster," in which the appliance in question predicts the manner of one's death by toasting Japanese kanji onto pieces of bread, riff gently on Western desires for a mist-shrouded land populated with spirits. Yet Luce undermines the impulse to fetishize by constantly shifting the grounds around the concept of foreignness, reminding us that "the Japanese slang for foreigner [is] outsider" and then demonstrating just how many different ways one can be on the outside: within a group of friends, at a job, in a marriage.
In "The Blue Demon of Ikumi," even one's own country can become charged with foreignness by the presence of a new person: "The air smelled of fish, but the breeze tasted faintly sweet, like ice cream. Masa felt content; this was not something he would have noticed before meeting Saki." Masa, a middle-aged Japanese widower, has just married Saki, a thirtysomething hafu — ethnically half-Japanese, half-white — whose rejection of Japanese tradition both arouses and disturbs him. Saki perversely chooses an ill-omened day for the wedding and refuses to see their relationship as fated, despite Masa's constant search for auspicious signs, insisting, "People don't find each other. They just happen to each other."
The tail, when it appears in this story, is a reminder that no matter how close you feel to a loved one, they remain as foreign as another species, an otherness no beautiful symbolism can erase. The body is the sum total of our experiences, and we were none of us born yesterday; Saki, a modern woman, certainly wasn't. "I just told you I grew a tail, and you're more concerned about how many men I've screwed?" cries Saki, but for Masa, they are facets of the same deception.
In "Pioneers," an American husband tries to wrench his wife, Yumiko, free of the Japanese traditions he sees as stifling. Where Masa wants his marriage to be a blessed and fated union, Lou wants a self-determined, individualistic relationship with Yumiko, sealed by the perfect fresh start: a baby. Instead, Obon, the festival of the dead, looms, along with their second childless wedding anniversary. "She saw him catch sight of the calendar, its red circles like imploring eyes. She imagined its voice, a whisper: Don't you want to know what the lucky days are this month?" The cultural divide here is a metaphor for more unsettling differences. If it's impossible to surmount the divisions between people who love each other, why try?
Luce delivers a heartbreaking answer in "Rooey," the only story set in America. Maxine, a young journalist, blames herself for the bloody accident that claimed the life of her artistic teenage brother, Rooey. Wallowing in survivor's guilt, she wears her brother's favorite T-shirt, sleeps on his bed, and obsesses over his obsessions, which included cars, Japanese manga, and his Japanese-American girlfriend Lily. In life, Rooey yearned to be Japanese; now, Maxine yearns to be him, a self-eradicating fantasy that gives a devastating double meaning to the opening line: "Since Rooey died, I'm no longer myself."
The longing to inhabit the skin of the other, is, of course, a metaphor for the writing of fiction itself, a drag performance in which we step into our characters' dirty clothes and stare at their bedroom ceilings and try to have their thoughts.
Luce has created a collection in which the donning of soft skins, naked or furred, is both an act of love and an expression of the unremitting strangeness of the self. - Amy Gentry
I like well designed books and often choose what I read by its cover — despite the well-known adage, I am rarely disappointed. Yuko Shimizu’s illustration on the front of “Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail” immediately drew me in — the red-lipped, naked girl with long black hair and matching tail hinting at the oddities within.
“Three Scenarios” is a collection of 10 short stories set in, or with a connection to, Japan and is perhaps an odd choice for Austin, Texas-based publisher A Strange Object to choose as its first book.
The author, Kelly Luce, lived in Japan for three years and clearly picked up a liking for classic Japanese folk tales as many of her stories feel like they are updated fables. There’s the young wife with a mysterious past who may or may not be the “Blue Demon of Ikumi”; “Ms. Yamada’s Toaster,” which has the power to predict the way a person will die; the guilt-ridden sister in “Rooey” who transforms into her dead brother after he is killed by a shark; and the titular Hana Sasaki who casually washes the long black hair of her tail with shampoo.
In her stories Luce manages to effortlessly capture both what it’s like to be a foreigner in Japan and to write in a believable way from the perspective of a native. Her characters are lonely housewives, school kids and outsiders — gaijin, hāfu, otaku — and somewhat melancholic, yet any reader who has experienced moments of discombobulation in Japan will relate. Even if you don’t, you’re still likely to find yourself entangled in the tales of “Hana Sasaki.” - Andrew Lee
1. Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail is the debut story collection by Kelly Luce.
2. It fits on a bookshelf of modern Japanese writing somewhere between Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge and Banana Yoshimoto, maybe even one shelf up from Haruki Murakami.
3. The only thing is that Kelly Luce grew up in Brookfield, Illinois.
4. How strict is the “write what you know” edict? On Big Think, Nathan Englander reminds us that this advice is too often misconstrued. It really means we should write from a place of emotional familiarity, not that we’re limited to autobiographical writing.
5. But are there limitations when we talk about writers depicting foreign cultures? This story collection seems very Japanese (if a book can even be “very Japanese”) and yet, it’s distinctly American, too.
6. When I was nine I was flipping through channels and caught the end of Akira on basic cable. I had no clue what was going on, but in the weeks, months, and years to follow I found that it left an indelible mark on me—a predilection towards the uncomfortably strange.
7. A Strange Object is the name of the independent press that published Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail. They’re based out of Austin, TX. This is their first book, too.
8. This is strictly conjecture, but Japanese culture affords for a strangeness that is uniquely its own. Look at all of the Japanese fiction out there: Akutagawa and Mishima, Ryu Murakami and Haruki Murakami, and the scores of manga and J-horror.
9. The characters in Kelly Luce’s collection are outsiders. Many are Americans who move to Japan for work or to connect with the culture that they find so entrancing. Some are only half Asian, an anomaly to the native Japanese—not gaijin, but not Japanese, either. Others are fully Japanese, but do not fit in as with the Japanese school girls who seek refuge from the tedium of their lives through a unique karaoke machine and with the Japanese widower who invented a machine that measures a person’s capacity for love. All are lost. All are searching to fit in.
10. In ninth grade, I ordered a t-shirt with the kanji for gaijin on it. I wore that shirt proudly even though no one at my school in West Tennessee understood what it meant. Looking back, I think I was so drawn to Japanese comic books and cartoons because it was a way to embrace my otherness as a nerdy, awkward white boy.
11. Maybe my white male privilege affords me the opportunity to worry about things like white privilege and post-colonialism.
12. I want to argue that Kelly Luce is writing about people and the Japanese names and locales are just a way to establish place. And who doesn’t like a story that has a strong sense of place? It shouldn’t matter what ethnicity or nationality a character is. Emotions ought to be the same regardless of nationality, right?
13. Luce’s collection really hits its stride in the stories wherein she strikes upon these familiar pangs of human nature with equally familiar characters—a sister’s tailspin after her brother’s death, an American woman reeling from her time in jail, bored and unfulfilled housewives.
14. However, some of the strange elements (a toaster that scorches how one will die on the bread, a girl finding her beating heart in a room filled with all of her lost possessions) seem contrived as if Luce felt like she had to jam a quirky element into every story.
15. But this is a sin quickly absolved when the pathos of Luce’s work overshadows these technical quibbles.
16. And yet, I’m still left wondering if it’s ok for her as an American women—even one who has lived in Japan—to write from the perspective of Japanese characters.
17. If the portrayal of Japanese characters were caricatures, it would be a lot easier to answer the whole “can authors write about other cultures” question. But Kelly Luce’s portrayals of Japanese life seem so sincere. She’s focusing on individual people and not using broad strokes based on cultural assumptions.
18. I feel guilty—as if my definition of acceptable and PC creative output is too constrictive. I want to believe that anyone should be able to write about anything, but I’m still left feeling squirrely about this whole situation.
19. In my undergrad creative writing classes, the strangest writing came from the anime nerds. Poems about fish being used as axes, short stories with whale rape, all with a surreal imagery incomparable to anyone else in the program.
20. As an art object, Three Scenarios is stunning. I’m a big nerd for nicely assembled books. I mean, it has red, embossed endpapers!
21. Yuko Shimuza’s cover illustration is absolutely gorgeous. In fact, I think a Shimuza cover guarantees that I will read the book, whatever it is. They’re just that exquisite.
22. I wonder if artists (and I’m using the term as a catch-all for any creative type) with an inclination for the strange are drawn to Japanese culture because it mirrors their own aesthetic or if their aesthetic is forged by this strange culture.
23. For me, the literature of the strange was an escape. An escape from a home life filled with rage, a refuge from a school with few friends. It was a way to disappear, a way to come to terms with my adolescent body, mutating like that snippet from Akira seen so many years before.
24. Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail is not an escape. It is a confrontation. It takes the feelings of disconnect that we all feel from time to time and it normalizes them. The characters populating this collection think nothing odd of a girl with a fine-haired tail, a volcano blanketing their town in a thick layer of ash, of a fortune-telling toaster. By normalizing the odd, Kelly Luce is giving us permission to exist—to be who we really are, to embrace out true, malformed selves.
25. It’s a good book. You should read it. - Quincy Rhoads
Why is it that I think of Kelly Luce as wearing cowboy boots? Is this because, during the brief but tempestuous period during which I taught her, she was continually hog-tying me after class and kicking me in my ass with Tony Lamas while I sang Jewish folk songs?
Actually, I’m not going to speculate on that.
Whatever the reason, she’s there in my brainpan, wearing boots.
Perhaps for this reason, I was not entirely shocked to hear that she had a collection of stories coming out with the Austin-based press, A Strange Object. It’s called Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail.
If it weren’t such a goddamn cliché, I’d write something snappy like: “Luce is attempting to reinvigorate magical realism by launching a full-scale invasion of Murakami’s homeland.” But I’ll keep it simple: the book is totally weird and totally enthralling.
After politely requesting that Ms. Luce remove her cowboy boots, we sat down to discuss where it all comes from…
***The Rumpus: Please offer some brief words that will help the reader understand how profound a literary influence I’ve been. (Limit: 2000 words).
Kelly Luce: I have a notebook of Almondisms from our Tin House workshop. A line I use a lot, usually without giving you credit, is “build the ramp, then slow the fuck down.” In other words, resist the urge to rush through a story’s big, emotional moment(s). You can make a reader feel something by lingering in an uncomfortable place, just noticing. But it’s hard because you have to go through the discomfort yourself, on top of the general discomfort of writing.
Your insistence on clarity in story setup also stuck with me. You got extremely pissed when a story withheld important practical information. In a story about a pregnant woman, you argued that we needed to know who’d knocked her up. “She didn’t just trip and land on an ejaculating dick!” you shouted, slapping the table. [Author’s note: I slapped the table with my hand.] Or remember the story from the POV of an omniscient sperm? I forget what I learned from you on that one; I just wanted to say “omniscient sperm.”
Rumpus: Yes, you’ve said it twice now. But tell me this: the last story I saw from you was a pitch-perfect rendering of Chicago tough guys at a racetrack. I loved the stories in Hana Sasaki, but I couldn’t help noticing that they are set in Japan and do not involve racetracks. What gives?
Luce: People have been curious about this. My basic answer is that, for the themes I was writing about—death, magic, nostalgia, impermanence—Japan felt like a natural setting. I think it’s accurate to say that Japanese people are more comfortable with ambiguity than Westerners—or maybe that they’re comfortable with a type of ambiguity Westerners are not. Setting stories there let me examine those themes through the lens of a totally different worldview. That was my way in; it brought the spark. And it probably led me to be more imaginative than I would have if I’d set the same stories in Illinois.
They say you write your first book about your childhood, whether you mean to or not. In obvious ways, a Jehovah’s Witness with a psychic toaster or a Japanese gardener who can hear strangers’ wishes don’t have much to do with my early life. But as I get older, I realize what an insular kid I was, a happily self-absorbed only child who didn’t notice what was going on around me because I was preoccupied with the imaginary, fantastical world in my head. I moved to Japan right after college and spent three years there—years that ended up being a second, more permanent, growing-up. When you arrive some place functionally deaf, mute, and illiterate, with no friends, you have a lot of time to notice things about yourself that suck and need work. But on the flip side, you have this distance from reality that makes everyday stuff—learning a new phrase or going to the fancy laundromat—magical and interesting and inspiring. So maybe this first book is about my childhood, sort of.
This is a long way of saying that I have no idea why I wrote a book of stories set in Japan or why I’m writing a novel partially set there, too.
Rumpus: Given your tremendous range as a writer, I’m curious about your influences. Though this will be difficult, please don’t include me.
Luce: It’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between what a person consumes and what influences them. Growing up, I was addicted to The Babysitter’s Club and Sweet Valley High series, among others. When the new Babysitter’s Club book arrived, the bookstore would call and my mom would take me to get my fix immediately. But the first book that made me anxious to write was Lois Lowry’s The Giver. I love stories about the nature of memory. Our ability to forget (or lack of ability to forget) makes us human. That book—god. It’s highly imaginative and entertaining in terms of world-building, but it’s also stocked with these characters who love and fear, and there’s an eeriness to the atmosphere that made me feel like I was in on a secret. Yeah, I cried at the end of Where the Red Fern Grows, but the emotional place Lowry tapped was different. It felt almost dirty, a feeling not unlike sexual discovery.
For a while I tried to write like Aimee Bender. (I know this is not very original.) I diagrammed the stories in Girl With the Flammable Skirt and then plugged in my own details, thinking maybe I could transpose her brilliance with plot, character, observatory details, onto my dumb ideas. It was reading her and Calvino and George Saunders in my early twenties, that I began to see how you could talk about serious things through fantastical means. Stuart Dybek also influenced me tremendously, both as a writer and a teacher. His stories and poems have so much heart. People revere him for many reasons, and deservedly so, but for me, his most impressive feat is the way he pulls off nostalgia without sentiment. There’s that line in “Blight” where a group of street kids are drinking beers and cruising Lake Shore Drive, and one of them is overcome with the excitement and energy of the city and blurts out, “I dig beauty!” You know he’s gonna get shit for that for the rest of his life, and the fact that he can’t stop himself breaks my goddamn heart.
As for non-literary influences, my undergrad education in cognitive science definitely affects my writing. Maybe not the sentences themselves, but the bigger ideas. Cog sci is the study of how brains do their thing. And what is fiction if not a witnessing of that process? Doing science and writing fiction come from the same impulse: to pick at truth.
Rumpus: How’d you come to publish this collection with A Strange Object? They seem like a super cool press.
Luce: They are super cool. When Jill Meyers and Callie Collins were running American Short Fiction a few years ago, they published a piece of mine. I corresponded with them on edits and this fun map-a-story project Callie put together. When they started A Strange Object last year, they e-mailed and asked if I had a book-length manuscript they could see. I waited as long as I could after receiving their e-mail—maybe seven minutes—before sending them the collection I’d been submitting to contests for two years. They took it a few months later, and I drank my body weight in cheap champagne.
A bonus is that, last year, I happened to move to Austin, where A\SO is based. So I get to see them in person sometimes, which is great because they know all the best bars. It used to be that you had to live in New York if you ever wanted to see your agent or publisher. That’s changing.
Rumpus: Aside from the requisite memoir about having been a student of mine, what’s next on your dance card?
Luce: My most urgent goal is to finish revising my novel, which I’ve been revising for a couple of years now. It’s about a Japanese-American woman who, as a child in Japan, murdered her bully. In the present, she’s settled in the States, has a career and husband and a kid and a Volvo, but has never told anyone her secret. Her estranged father dies in Japan and she decides to sneak back into the country, and things unravel from there.
I have two more years of grad school, a.k.a. security. One of the things about the UT Writing Program is that you have to study a secondary genre. So I’m also learning screenwriting, which until recently was totally foreign to me. It’s a great counterpoint to fiction writing—novel writing, in particular—because a screenplay is considered a blueprint, not the finished product. You can write a screenplay, sell it for half a million dollars, and if it’s actually produced, a team of other writers are going to rewrite it. Just imagine if you could sell an outline of a novel for half a mil and then someone else would finish it.
I’m also doing fiction editing for Bat City Review, and I love it. We already have one with an omniscient sperm narrator, but other than that, anything goes.
***Photos courtesy of Kelly Luce. - By Steve Almond
Kelly Luce's debut collection, Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail, is a pleasing mix of fantasy and delicate, intricate description, a tiny volume bursting with stories representing a deft sense of timing, imagination and wit. Luce sets these tales in Japan, in a slightly alternate reality that pushes boundaries of what is possible, and offers winking suggestions about what might have been.
Luce's characters are real, familiar. Or are they? There is the literal play on tails and the tale in "The Blue Demon of Ikumi," equal parts story about a honeymooning couple and mystical water demon legend. This idea of the tail surfaces again in the title story, "Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail," which itself is another wink at the idea of interpretation. Luce plays with language and meaning, and she lets us in on her fun.
It is the variation of these stories, though, the balance of humor and sadness and structure that make Hana Sasaki such a pleasure to read. The world of Luce's characters is one where toasters can foretell a character's death and the "Amorometer" can measure one's "lovingcapacity." In the hands of a lesser writer, perhaps these contrivances would feel trite. It is a testament to Luce's storytelling that her imaginative writing underscores a deeper kind of emotional truth for her characters, rather than trivializing it. Luce's use of magical realism engenders a kind of emotional truth that feels more real than perhaps a strict literal truth.
Death and grief play as much of a part in her collection as love, and the balance of emotion that runs throughout the book lend it gravitas. In "Rooey," a tale about the transformative powers of death and guilt, Luce opens with the line, "Since Rooey died, I'm no longer myself." On its face, the line is a passing glance, the kind of thing most of us say as a throwaway, but Luce thrives in subtlety.
While the deacon said things like, "The Lord takes first whom he loves best" and "To die young is a blessing," images of that day slideshowed through my mind -- Rooey's head, just above the water, snapping back on his neck, Rooey's eyes wide and black as he looked at me the last time, while I treaded water a few feet away. I wondered if he knew he was dying, that when he closed his eyes on the pain, they would never reopen. I thought of this as the deacon droned, as my mother's pale jaw clenched and unclenched, her eyes like ice -- she had not cried yet -- and I stood up in the pew and whispered – "Bullshit."Rather than just exploring death and its aftereffects, this story asks the reader questions about the blurry line between empathy and sympathy, about "taking on" the guilt of something versus becoming something entirely different out of grief. "Rooey" is just one example of how Luce shines, particularly in carrying a hint of mysticism to the end of a story.
Luce's characters are often caught in situations where they're confronted with loss, or with their displacement or imprisonment in situations that they cannot control. Relationships are strongholds, but they are also sometimes bonds that can't be escaped. In "Ash," Luce writes of a character who is falsely imprisoned for bike theft, and held captive until she signs a false confession. Upon her release, she meets a woman, Eiko, who says, "There's a lot that's unexplainable. When you feel alone, so many things become possible."
"Yes, I can do anything," she thinks, "even things that I don't want to do." "Ash" is a story of displacement, of Americans living in Japan for a year and of one woman's brief imprisonment. But the way this experience sticks with her and changes her family is indicative of how Luce's other characters are shaped by moments, too. In "Pioneers," "The Blue Demon of Ikumi," and "Amorometer," Luce also explores this idea of the connections between us, and what keeps us where we are. Luce seems to want us to consider how we keep a hold on each other, and why.
"Amorometer" plays on this idea of connection, mixing allusions to Anna Karenina with the magic of a machine that can read one's capacity to love. Aya leaves her hometown to meet Shinji: "Aya had insisted on coming to Tokyo. The person she was hoping to become could not exist in Iida; she could only transform with distance. And though it terrified her to think of herself lost on the streets of an unfamiliar place, she felt certain that once she arrived, she could be anyone she wanted."
Though the allusions to Tolstoy give the story an undercurrent of foreboding, it is ultimately Aya's transformation -- like that of Luce's other characters -- in a world just slightly different from reality that strikes the deepest chord.
Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail is a pleasing read, one that hits highs and lows and shows skilled attention to clever detail. Kelly Luce makes her mark by creating a world that gives her access to deep emotional truth and offers her the opportunity to tell stories that are interesting and fresh. - ather Partington