Woodshop Talk: Gen Del Raye
Gen Del Raye is the author of the short story
“Incredible Lifelike Whale Comes Up for Air, Again and Again,”
and winner of the Inkslinger Award in fiction for Issue No. 12.
Here we chat with him about his process and his art.
This is Woodshop Talk.
BUFFALO ALMANACK: Why write about yourself? What aspects of the writing process are transformed when dealing in self-critical reflexivity?
GEN DEL RAYE: I think the very fact that you knew to ask this question is a big part of it. What I mean is that there is a sense of honesty that comes through when you write from your own experience that is very difficult to fake. For example, when Amy Hempel writes about what she calls “earthquake weather,” you know immediately that this phrase is not something she thought up while typing into her computer in her study but something that came to her in the aftermath of an actual earthquake. You don’t need to look up the author bio in the back of the book to know. Or Lucia Berlin has this recurring line in a few of her stories where she mentions that her mother joked in her suicide note that she would have used a rope, only she couldn’t get the hang of it. I think there’s a huge amount of power in the ability to write narratives that are fiction but at the same time so close to the truth, and I was hoping that I could make use of that in my story. Of course, the other part is just that I couldn’t help it. I started out for example using my own name in the story as a placeholder, with the intention of making up a new one later. At a certain point, I just got too far into the story to change it.
BA: I’m interested to learn more about your experiences living part-time in Japan and part-time in America. How has transnationalism shaped your life?
GDR: That’s a tricky question because I feel that the burden and opportunity of what you call transnationalism are real but also incredibly easy to exaggerate. Growing up in Japan, I saw a lot of people and a lot of families struggling to deal with it. I think what it is is that even small hardships can become too much if you have to deal with them at the wrong moment, and living in a place that views you as a foreigner, or where you feel yourself to be a foreigner, is a hardship that is always there, just waiting for that moment. Personally, having grown up with it I think it is less of an issue for me than for those who immigrate late in life. Even still, seeing people like my grandmother, who by the time I met her could barely remember her children’s names, has made me see how brutal certain things that seem trivial at first glance can be. My father used to say my grandmother died of homesickness, and if I hadn’t grown up the way I had, I don’t think I would have been able to see the truth in that.
BA: What about the toy whale makes it a good metaphor for the ideas at work in this piece?
GDR: Even though the toy whale is an inanimate thing, it resurrects itself by pulling itself to the water’s surface. I like the balance between the hopefulness and the meaninglessness of it, the sense that the dead can live on but also that the living on can be a smaller comfort than you might expect.
BA: “Incredible Lifelike Whale…” deals explicitly with your career goals. If you’re not headed into politics…what’s next?
GDR: Actually, that is one of the things that I made up, although a lot of the details surrounding that section are true. I do like politics, and I follow it pretty closely, but I’ve spent the last five years as a marine biologist. I never ran for class vice president, although there was a guy in my high school who did and I think his motto really was “Let Me Be Your Hero.” He gave a good speech, but also it was something of a gimmick centered around his name. In his case, it was his first name that you could mistake for hero, not his last. As for my career goals, I’ve decided to try writing fiction more seriously, and I will be starting an M.F.A. with S.F.S.U. in the fall.