In this Interview with the Winner, we catch up with Jessica Cavero about her excerpt, “Hakuri,” published Monday, selected by Dan Chaon as the second place finalist in our inaugural Novel Excerpt Contest. Read “Hakuri” first and then the interview below!
What does Hakuri mean, for those of us who might not know?
In Japanese, hakuri roughly means peeling off or separation. There is a song named Hakuri by Japanese rock band The Gazette, and this is where I got inspired for the title. It is such a haunting instrumental piece (the album it’s from is one of my favorites). That feeling of dissociation and loneliness in the song resonated deeply with me while I was writing this story.
What led you to the fragmentary, poetic approach to this narrative?
Thank you for seeing the poetry in it! The fragmented narrative was there from the beginning but admittedly this is how I write most things. I think part of it is that I have always struggled with English and taking in large amounts of information at a time, especially in writing. Now it is easier for me to process words by shattering them visually on the page.
Early on, I realized this approach made emotional sense for the narrator. I wanted the structure to reflect her interior landscape which was often very shaky and on the verge of splitting apart.
“I was in constant, violent translation.” This is how our narrator introduces us to her time in Japan in the short preface to your excerpt. How does the violence of translation play out in this excerpt, and across the rest of the novel?
That paragraph is a strange one for me. It was one of those rare moments that came out fully formed six years ago and even now I can’t fully articulate it. But in later edits, I was thinking about identity and violence. There is the violence the narrator faces as an undocumented woman working in this club. And I was thinking of the revolving door of identities she spins through in service of her customers. What kind of rupture does that cause in a person, particularly this character, without a stable sense of self? Without connection to her home or family or mother tongue? I am still in the process of writing towards an answer with this novel, but these are some of the questions that interest me deeply as a writer.
Near the end of the excerpt, we learn that this story is set in the near future, in 2043. What was the impetus behind that decision?
When I started Hakuri in 2016, the future was associated with dystopia in my mind, partly because of the political and environmental climate that year. But I wasn’t interested in altering the landscape too much. Instead, I wanted the exterior world to illuminate the narrator’s emotional dystopia. So in this universe, the most prominent change is a thick smog over Tokyo that has blocked all sunlight. This is acknowledged in earlier chapters, but that image of a place submerged in nighttime was one of the first ideas I had before I wrote anything. It felt realistic enough to set it in 2043 rather than the distant future.
Tarantino films keep popping up: Reservoir Dogs, and Pulp Fiction, but Kill Bill seems to be of particular importance to the narrator and Elena. Is there something more to that attachment?
In an interview with Tarantino, he states that all his characters are operating under different personas, and some of the tension in his films comes from whether or not they can stay in character. I think this emphasis on secrecy and performance is something the narrator and Elena can relate to in their work. As hostesses, they must take on several roles for their clients every night, which certainly takes a psychological toll. For the narrator, Kill Bill is a place she can disappear into because it is a story so far removed from her own reality. The Bride, a white woman and assassin, has privileges the narrator doesn’t. The Bride is able to move through different spaces like Japan, Mexico and the U.S. with ease. So there is definitely a longing for that kind of agency, for the narrator to escape and remake her own life.
Along the same lines, eels appear several times in the excerpt. Is that a recurring metaphor throughout?
Yes, eels do come up again throughout the novel. Eventually the imagined underwater landscape will collapse with the narrator’s interior world and eels will take on a more sinister meaning. I also just find these animals very strange and beautiful. They are a personal obsession for me and a recurring element in my shorter fiction.
What else can you tell us about the novel?
The last third is still in its early stages. My hope for the novel is to move into a surreal space as the narrator travels towards Itsukushima, where she hopes to find her mother’s ghost. All I can share at this point is that there will be a haunted love hotel in the next chapters, which I am excited to write.
interviewed by Cole Meyer