Cicadas: Author's Commentary
Part of a continuing series wherein I make commentary on my stories from a craft, narrative theory, and general writing perspective. If you haven't read the story, I recommend heading to my fiction page and reading it first. All the stories discussed here are available there—most for free.
The Author’s Take: (high probability of spoilers with small snippets of craft wonkery)
Most stories take rigorous effort and nearly endless revising to reach a finished form, and for some of us, if we’re incredibly lucky and good to the muses, a story will drop onto the page nearly fully realized, as happened to me with “Cicadas.”
I was fussing about with another story that wasn’t cooperating to my satisfaction (I can’t remember which). I had a story due on Monday for workshop; it was already Friday; and the thought of putting that uncooperative story into my colleagues’ critical spotlight was untenable. The answer was to write a totally different story, and out came “Cicadas.” What changes I’ve made since then are so minor I wouldn’t even call them revisions, more like copyediting.
It helped that many of the scenarios explored in the story were inspired by real-life events I either experienced, witnessed, or had narrated to me by friends during the year I spent in Japan. Some of the responses I got from an American readership was that this stuff was unbelievable, and I think it’s a common experience for writers, that when they write about experiences from their lives, it’s usually the stuff they actually witnessed that readers are far more skeptical about.
Talking car—“Sure, let’s go there!” Wizard walks through wall—“Awesome!” Blonde undead bride annihilates 100 black-suited yakuza with a samurai sword in a single battle (and also Go-Go Yubari, btw)—“That Tarantino guy is a genius!” Pretty American girl gets stared at and catcalled four times a day on the streets of Japan—“I don’t know; I mean, this all seems a little far-fetched. Like, I’m not sure I’m buying it.”
Joking aside, though. Verisimilitude is the author’s problem, not the reader’s, and sometimes the hardest things to make believable are real things. It’s one of the reasons the phrase “stranger than fiction” is such a cliché. As a writer, you do your best to make your work believable, and if it’s not, that’s on you.
One of the reasons I resisted the urge to change much with this story is that I heard something you almost never hear in an MFA workshop from multiple readers: “Don’t change anything. It’s done.”
That echoed what I felt about it, and quite frankly, very smart and creative people in a critical environment will find ways to criticize merely because it’s the expectation of that critical environment. Not surprisingly, I often found this environment counterproductive for that reason.
If more than one person in a workshop tells you not to revise because the story’s finished, listen. They’re probably right.
What I had hoped to convey with “Cicadas” was the inherent difficulty of crossing cultural chasms—how clumsy and humbling and ridiculous it often is for all parties involved. It’s ultimately a story about failing to adapt, trying again, and failing more epically in the next go-round.
Some of that is echoed, quite intentionally, in the in-text translations of the Japanese language (see: “the imitative fallacy”). It was a challenge to make it distracting enough to convey the difficulty of being a non-native speaker of the dominant language while not making it so distracting that the text itself becomes annoying and unreadable. Different readers have reported different tolerance levels in this regard. Where it’s choppy, I like that it’s choppy. I hope that it conveys some of the missteps and moments of confusion I experienced with my Japanese friends, love interests, and many strangers.
Too often these days, westerners regard cultural missteps as these enormous, unforgivable sins that render a person irrecoverable and morally untouchable. Anyone who’s actually had to try and bridge a serious cultural divide realizes that failings on these grounds are inevitable.
These failings are also necessary in order to have any reasonable hope of communicating in a genial and cooperative way. We have to allow others their failings and forgive. And we have to forgive our own failings when we recognize them as such. That’s just the perspective of one person who has bridged a few gaps after falling into at least as many. Judge as you will.
This story can be read both charitably and uncharitably, both toward the characters and the author. I’ve had reader feedback from both perspectives and understand both clearly. I’m pretty satisfied hearing that people read and judge this story in vastly different ways: it reflects the reality of my complex memories of Japan about as well as I could have hoped. Verisimilitude, perhaps?