A Large, Spacious Meadow: Micaela Maftei in Conversation with Jason Emde

Jason Emde

Jason Emde, whose creative nonfiction piece "You Are Here" appears in the Malahat's Spring 2018 issue, discusses a 1200 km pilgrimage, paying careful attention, and how living abroad can shape you as a person in his Q&A with Malahat interim editor Micaela Maftei. Read an excerpt here.


Jason Emde is a teacher, Beatles enthusiast, amateur boxer, and the co-author (with Curtis Emde) of The Crunch Gang vs. The Deadly Zombie Ninjas of Japan.

I'm always interested in the relationship between writing and place, especially in terms of CNF. Some authors speak about the difficulty of writing a space/about a space when they’re there, as though having some physical distance is essential to capturing a particular location. Can you speak to that at all, as an expatriate, and more specifically in the context of a piece whose Japanese setting is so key?

“Distance makes the mountain blue, and the man great.” I like to be right smack-dab in the middle of the place I’m writing about so I can clamp down on live specific details, and the only way to do that is to pay sincere attention with senses on full and take tons and tons of notes. Paying attention, deep attention, which everybody knows is extraordinarily difficult, is only possible when you clear a space — in your day or in your head — and structure your attention to notice what you notice, and the only way to do that is to make everything as simple as possible. Apart from our cameras my dad and I didn’t take any gadgetry with us when we went to Shikoku — no cell phones or iPods or laptops or tablets or anything — and that helped make everything simpler, no question. And since our days were very uncomplicated — get up, walk, stop walking, sleep — we freed up a lot of mental space to notice things and be where we were. My dad’s a photographer, so he’d take pictures of what he noticed, and I’d scribble everything down in my notebook, in as much impressionistic detail as possible, and then later tighten the lens on the most useful or remarkable or telling point or feature, whatever that turned out to be. The woodblock artist Hiroshige once said, “The way to paint is to copy from nature, but adding slightly an artistic idea in the brushwork.” Which is sort of what I tried to do, later on.

But it really helped having my dad with me, because I don’t notice a lot of things because I’m used to them or they don’t seem exotic or noteworthy anymore, even though I’m trying to see what’s right in front of me all the time. But my dad’s eyes were much fresher than mine, and he’d spot little things and point them out or ask me about them and I’d realize I hadn’t been paying as much attention as I should have been or that I had problematic blind spots. So in that way he helped me make a better, more honest copy of things, and because I believed the things around us — the temples and landscapes and trashed-out karaoke palaces and abandoned love hotels — were weird and charming and intriguing, I hoped that a faithful copy of it in words would be interesting to read about. We realized early on that Shikoku was a pretty weird and wonderful place, so it became important to get it down in as much sympathetic truthful detail as possible.

How has living abroad shaped you as a writer? As a person? Where is “home”?

Living here I get exposed to all kinds of writers I might never have discovered otherwise — Japanese authors like Dazai Osamu, Kobo Abe, Kawabata Yasunari, and Kobayashi Issha, as well as foreigners writing about Japan, writers like Oliver Statler, Alan Booth, Lafcadio Hearn, and Ian Buruma  — all of whom have been instructive in their own way. And since it’s relatively easy, as a foreigner in Japan, to escape from cultural noise, Western or Japanese, I can focus on just the things and writers and books that interest me. So that’s been useful. The biggest and most important thing, though, is probably that, because of the various inevitable language and societal barriers, people generally leave me alone, which means I can relax in a kind of free-floating limbo where I engage with Japan when and how I want to and pull back when I feel like it and nobody cares. I’ll take the freedom of being left alone over belonging any day. I’ve also been thinking recently about how most of the long-time foreigners I know over here are totally free of conventional social position concerns. Our status is, to a large extent, automatically delimited by our foreignness, so there’s no need to curse and sweat to prove ourselves socially, which is nice. Just being here at all is enough, which means I get to kick free from all kinds of boring, adult bullshit and documents and people at the door trying to sell me stuff and just concentrate on what interests me.

But limbo can be tiring and it’s not always glamorous or fun being an outsider. Racial fatigue, culture fatigue, language fatigue — those kinds of things can take a lot out of you. Sometimes you get tired of the daily cultural challenges and not understanding and being permanently alienated and just want to sit on the couch and eat Kraft Dinner and watch Kiss Meets The Phantom Of The Park. So it goes both ways.

Where’s home? I honestly don’t know anymore. I’m not sure I trust my feelings about Canada — I miss it a lot but I’ve probably idealized it out of all proportion. There are places I remember all my life, though some have changed…I’ve lived all over the place and enjoyed myself everywhere, and on the pilgrimage my dad and I were essentially homeless, and I enjoyed that, too, so I can’t really say where home is. The bedroom upstairs that smells like my kids sleeping, maybe.  

You have published work with your dad, and your piece in the Malahat is very much focused on your relationship with him, and on how he responds to the environment in which you travel, as well as the greater event of your mother’s death. Is talking over your writing with him a part of your process at all?

My brother and sister are published writers too, so we’re a pretty bookish family and there’s always a lot of literary crosshatching and helping and reading and editing going on. I run everything I write by my dad and he’ll usually have something intelligent and useful and commonsensical to say. He used to teach journalism and he works part-time as a reporter so he’s good at solid factual structural stuff. Plus he loves me and thinks I’m interesting and that helps a lot. It’s beautiful to have somebody who says, “What you’re doing is great, tell me more.”

Are you writing anything at the moment?

I went back to Shikoku five times after that first pilgrimage and wrote a book about all of the trips called Infinite Path: Modern Reports From Japan’s 1200-Year-Old Buddhist Pilgrimage that I’m still tinkering with, and my brother and I just finished a parodic action novel called The Crunch Gang Versus The Deadly Zombie Ninjas Of Japan. I’m also working on some pieces about an old and adored friend of mine, Stanley Czerwonka, who died in 2013, that are wrapped up with China and Vernon and all kinds of deep private personal historical stuff. Not sure yet what it’ll become but in the meantime I just keep powdering away.

There’s a moment in your piece where you write: “I’m working hard but I’m not really doing the work because I’m hoping the path will do it for me while I enjoy myself walking around.” What is the work that you are and aren’t doing in that moment? I feel the piece handles many kinds of work – physical exertion, working through of grief and memory, working to capture memories and time, and a subsequent labour of writing. Was it your intention to draw attention to ‘kinds’ of work, and is the piece (and the pilgrimage) a way to show how these….work together? (Please forgive me for that one).

There’s something interesting about how and where the outer and inner work intersect, yeah, but it’s still pretty mysterious to me. I think I was thinking about things like, what is the pilgrimage about? What does it mean? What do I want it to do? I don’t know if it’s a peculiarly Western problem or a human problem or a Jason Emde problem but, in Shikoku like everywhere else, I was battling noisy fretful monkey mind chatter: ‘You’re a chump! You f*cked up! You’re imperfect! Do something!’ There’s that urge to jump up and fix everything, to clang and hammer all night and day. To work. But Shunryu Suzuki says that the way to control your cow is to give it a large, spacious meadow; give it the space to move around, and watch it, and then you’re in control in the widest sense. A lot of the pilgrimage, for me, I think, was learning how to give the cow its space in the meadow. Weird work, in a way — work without working, almost — and I didn’t think I was doing enough. Do something! Hurry up! But just walking every day, sometimes as much as forty kilometres, with a heavy pack, up and down mountains — it starts to sort of murder a lot of the chatter and clutter in your skull, somehow. Things get very simple and primal and clean. “One does less and less until one does nothing at all, and when does nothing at all there is nothing that is undone.” That’s Lao Tzu. It takes a lot of walking to get to that kind of simplicity and focus. The real work, maybe, is getting to the point where ego and expectation and the chattering monkey shut up and spirit is free to wander where it wants. You eat your rice and you wash your bowl. I don’t know if I can put it any better than that. But it turned out, for me, anyway, that a lot of the real work was getting to that point. If there were some totally reliable and easy way of getting there I’d go more often, but walking 1200 kilometres seemed to work pretty well.

I found the moment in the story where your dad recounts the story of your mother’s broken collarbone profoundly moving; it shook me. How do you see this working in terms of the form/structure of the story? Does it shed light on events/characters? Or serve as a climax or key point in the narrative arc? I wonder if it’s difficult to take something that must have such import in a personal sense and discuss it in terms of its function/role/job in a piece of writing?

The best writing, for me, anyway, is the most revealing and painful, but it’s valuable because it does the most to connect and soothe and show that things are bearable, that things are workable. I was shaken by my dad’s story, too — staggered, actually — but it opened up whole new possibilities for a far richer, more complex understanding of both of my parents, and I think that a clear-eyed, bigger, more complete image of your parents is one of the things you need before you can get on with the serious business of being an adult yourself. It’s how you grow up, or part of it. My thinking about my parents was based on outdated maps that I was trying to follow anyway; new information, no matter how shocking or upsetting, meant I could update my maps. All of that walking and freedom in Shikoku had freed up some space and I had room to absorb more truth. You clear out some of the tedious old grinding bullshit in your brain and you have space for greater, more sympathetic understanding. You can take it in. You can take it. So I thought that showing my dad telling me this story — which was clearly very, very painful for him, he’s not a violent guy at all and the whole incident was an aberration, a terrible aberration — and me being able to handle it, or actually both of us being able to handle it, would not only be the honest thing to do, it would underscore what the whole pilgrimage turned out to be about, for us: strengthened connection thanks to increased clarity. We’d stripped all kinds of tiresome bullshit from our lives and that made real connection possible, which was why I’d proposed going on the pilgrimage in the first place. So I thought it was worth mentioning.


Micaela Maftei

Micaela Maftei

* * * * * * * *