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The Unbound Book Festival comes to downtown Columbia each spring. They aim "to bring nationally and internationally recognized authors of world-class renown to Columbia, Missouri, to talk about their books, their work, and their lives."

Sequoia Nagamatsu on How High We Go In The Dark: ‘I think it's strange for writers to completely ignore that we're living in dystopic times.’

Lauren B Photography

Sequoia Nagamatsu has recently published a short story collection: How High We Go In The Dark, in which he explores climate change, the pandemic and grief through multiple perspectives. He spoke with KBIA's Tadeo Ruiz.

The Unbound Book Festival is coming up on Saturday, and KBIA has been talking to some of this year's authors in a series we're calling "Unbound Authors."

Tadeo Ruiz: You know, whenever you're looking at a science fiction story or fantasy story, you tend to want to escape from reality.

Sequoia Nagamatsu: Right.

Ruiz: But here, you sort of forced us to look at it through a different lens. So, why did you choose to write a book tackling these themes?

Nagamatsu: I think it's strange for writers to completely ignore that we're living in dystopic times, you know, pandemic aside – politically, in terms of our environment – I think in some ways, science fiction has ceased to be what we think of as a distant, made up beast.

It's really become realist fiction.

So, I think that's part of my impetus for tackling difficult issues; I acknowledge that some readers might not be ready for that.

But, I also, you know, believe that reading about something that's reflective of the moment can also be cathartic, and can also be a place for action, for thinking about, you know, what comes next, you know, both on a personal level or a societal level.

Ruiz: Yeah, and you know, writing this book, you got really personal with these characters in how they dealt with grief because so many people die in this book. So, was this some form of therapy for you in a way?

Nagamatsu: I mean, a little bit. Like, I mean, not everything was, but I think certainly some of it.

I wrote “Melancholy Nights” not long after my grandfather passed away and he helped raise me. So, you know, some of those early chapters, I think were just kind of explorations of how do you move on from something? How do you kind of move past any kind of guilt that was associated with a death?

“Elegy Hotel” was certainly kind of a pretty autobiographical [story] in a lot of ways, and I think that one – while I don't think sort of therapy was in mind – I think, when I was revising it, it certainly played a role in helping me move past some family issues. To talk to my father before he died.

I was able to make that decision, even though my character wasn't.

Ruiz: So, at what point writing these stories were you like — “Oh, I have to make a book. I have to compile all of these stories, I'm going to connect them, and I’m gonna…”

Nagamatsu: Well.

Ruiz: How did you envision this happening?

Nagamatsu: I mean, I knew it was at least a collection – there was the grief tying them together. There was Asian American identity connecting them.

The plague wasn't even a glint in my eye until 2014. Like that major element, or backdrop, wasn't part of the project until, halfway through, and I came across this article in The Atlantic about scientists uncovering these ancient viruses.

So, that fascinated me, but I also didn't want to write a book about that, you know, I didn't want the virus to be the point.

But I thought it could be an interesting way of framing the other stories I had been working on, you know, being a vehicle for that grief or that death.

So, once I kind of decided on that I had to write the first chapter, and I knew something was missing, but that first chapter came very late, because the virus needed to be introduced – even though I was going to kind of go away from that for much of the novel.

Ruiz: Any final thoughts?

Nagamatsu: I guess, just read the book, when you're in a good headspace and ideally in a sunny room and do not listen to the audio book in public – because you will cry.


Tadeo Ruiz is a Freshman in the Missouri School of Journalism from Mexico City. He's a reporter and producer for KBIA.
Rebecca Smith is an award-winning reporter and producer for the KBIA Health & Wealth Desk. Born and raised outside of Rolla, Missouri, she has a passion for diving into often overlooked issues that affect the rural populations of her state – especially stories that broaden people’s perception of “rural” life.