“I Hope People Keep Pushing Boundaries More and More”: An Interview With Jami Nakamura Lin

Photograph of Jami Nakamura Lin

Jami Nakamura Lin‘s speculative memoir, The Night Parade, breaks genre barriers by illuminating the author’s mental health narrative with Japanese ghost stories that parallel the horrors of her bipolar diagnosis. Lin uses this hybrid template to demonstrate how brain illnesses, thought to be aberrant, are connected to a shared storytelling practice. Lin and I met over Zoom, where we talked about mental health stigma, the media’s influence on mental illness, and her exciting contribution to the speculative nonfiction subgenre. Lin even shared an impromptu craft lesson with me—Hint: it involves colored markers, a table-sized sheet of paper, and plenty of floor space.

Your essay, “The Rage,” is one of the most thought-provoking pieces in your memoir. In the essay, you compare the stigma associated with bipolar rage to the stigma around expressing rage as a woman. What inspired you to make this comparison?

I wasn’t thinking so much about them separately, but more about how the two identities intersect. For me, this meant being a bipolar Japanese American woman. In Japanese American culture, at least the one I grew up in, my family didn’t openly express anger. When I was writing this essay, I was thinking about how my different identities were and are allowed to present anger. 

Snake folklore is another avenue that conflated womanhood with having negative attributes, especially ones such as cunning, malevolent, devious. You describe a particular folktale in which a woman is initially portrayed as villainous, but as the years go on, she becomes more multidimensional. She’s a mother, a wife, a lover, and that inadvertently reflected to me how we accept someone who is bipolar. Was that something you were thinking about as you were writing it?

I think that was one of the things that attracted me to that story. At the time, people were really drawn to one-dimensional villain characters. Now, we’re starting to be interested in seeing the different facets of their personalities, like in the movie Maleficent. From the outset, these characters in folktales or legends are simple, they lack interiority. Writers and film directors can subtract different things to adapt it to the time period or cultural context, where the bones of the story are the same. People with bipolar disorder are unfortunately often portrayed with the same one-dimensionality as early folk characters. 

That’s something I’ve been thinking about lately, how people with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are presented in film and even in books. In The Soloist, we have a genius violin player. In A Beautiful Mind, the protagonist is a mathematician. It bothers me—why can’t people with mental illnesses exist as they are without having to have some special quality?

Movies and other TV shows, they want to be dramatic. Usually when people with severe mental illnesses are portrayed, it’s often really focused on the fall, or about people deciding to go off their medications. In my memoir, I wanted to portray daily life, not only the time I got diagnosed, or the time I overdosed and was hospitalized, but the realities that occur after these difficult moments. People live decades after being hospitalized and there’s not a lot of documentation about what that looks like. We can have regular lives too, and it can look a little different, but they’re not full of ultimatums and dramatic highs and lows—that’s what we always think of as bipolar, dramatic swings, but it’s not always like that.

In your memoir, you talked about how most mental illness memoirs talk about the worst kind of situations. For most of the narrative, they’re sick but there’s a little bit of recovery at the end. I think it’s neat that you create space for a new kind of mental health memoir.

When I was in grad school, I feel that my MFA thesis was mostly about my bipolar illness. I was only twenty-three when I was writing it, but I think I was so tunnel-focused onto that topic that it didn’t work out. The only way I could make it work was to think of it as part of this larger story I was wanting to tell, about grief and loss but also connecting it to all these monster stories across generations as well. 

These mythologies, they’re imperfect too, because many of them give a picture of women on the verge, similar to how bipolar characters are portrayed in the media. You’re drawing parallels with these folktales, sort of suggesting that we need a new subgenre in the mental illness genre.

I think there is a lot of cool and different stuff that’s happening now in the genre that we didn’t have when I was sixteen and seventeen. There’s a lot of space that’s been made in the genre that has allowed my book to find its way.

In terms of carving a new space, you write about how in Japanese folklore, the Night Parade occurs—demons, or yōkai, enjoy a riotous festival that scares the public. In the same way, people might view a group of mental health patients as frightening, a sort of overwhelming threat, although the sense of community gives comfort to the individuals with mental illness.

When we were in the ward, without the eyes of the world upon us, we could just be with each other in a different way, and that’s similar to how people feel in communities or support groups these days where we don’t constantly have to try to explain something. I wasn’t trying to make a one-to-one comparison with the people who have these disorders to the Night Parade of yōkai who come out singing and dancing through the streets every night. When I think about it, who or what the yōkai or people who have these illnesses are is not that cut and dry. But, like you were saying, the world often has one specific view of people with mental illness and often tries to separate people with these disorders from each other. They think that being surrounded by “normal” people will just make the mentally ill like everybody else. They lump the mentally ill into the category of “bad” without seeing the strengths and struggles of each person’s own situation.

You talked a little bit about how you didn’t learn the history of trauma and mental illness of your immediate family until later. Did you use folktales to make sense of your illness without the family history?

I think it was a way for me to make sense of things when I was crafting the narrative. That was when I was much older, in the past few years. When I was younger, I didn’t know about these stories, I didn’t think about them in the same way. Lacking the knowledge, I definitely found things through books and through television.

In terms of not having a guiding story, you cite Carmen Maria Machado, who does something similar to you in her memoir: she weaves in these folktales. You also quote Leslie Jamison, who suggested that the essay is a naturally unstable form. You then say something along the lines of, “How much instability is allowed before I’m committed?” How did you combine these two ways of thinking?

It didn’t seem intentional. I love that you pulled out that quote, because it is one of my favorite lines, and often when people are asking about the book it’s mostly about the content and not so much about the essay or the form. But I’m also ADHD, and I didn’t find that out until I was writing the book. My mind works very associatively, and I think that’s why I’ve always been drawn to the lyric essay form, where you can kind of blend and braid stuff together. I think the struggle has been coming to terms with working in this form of bringing things together rather than trying to fit it into this straightforward or linear narrative. The struggle was trying to undo the things I’ve been taught.

That was hard for me in school—there was a type of essay they wanted me to write, but people learn in different ways, and I think that’s what makes your memoir so special, because you’re doing something new. I don’t think you should have to fit into a box.

I think that’s one of the most frustrating things: we’re often taught one dominant mode of writing. I feel that instruction is getting more flexible in MFA programs, but when I was in my MFA program, they would say that my technique didn’t work. What I try to emphasize to people now is that you can do your weird thing as long as you keep practicing and working on it to do it well—give your reader enough handholds so that they can come along with you. My book moves around a lot in time and place so it really needs the yōkai as its backbone, because without the yōkai it would be very confusing, and the reader wouldn’t feel grounded. I think that’s how a lot of my work was, and people who were workshopping me were right that it wasn’t working. 

Well, it definitely works in your memoir. As someone whose helping shape the genre, how do you see the future of speculative nonfiction?

I hope people keep pushing boundaries more and more. I would love to see novel-essays, books where parts are completely invented, and other parts are memoir-based. I think a lot of that innovation is coming through in smaller presses. My next project is more of a straightforward novel, in that it’s not drawing form my life. Structurally, I think of it as an essay, because if I don’t think of it as an essay it won’t work. There is going to be a lot of research. It’s basically an essay written as if I was someone else. I think that’s the only way I can finish this novel.

Some of your earliest writing endeavors were your journals, and you talk about how if anyone were to look at them, they would think that your life was complete negativity. You make the same observations with your dad’s journals too. How do you think that relates to psychiatric diagnoses? I think the medical community, and our society in general, tend to rely on diagnoses and these written portraits of people, and they give a distorted view of who a person is.

I do think that if someone doesn’t have lived experiences with people with mental illnesses it often can make them very wary, especially if your experiences with bipolar are from TV, then you think every person who has bipolar is like that person you saw on TV, that the person has no other attributes. Like you said with the journals, if what we’re portraying is only the dire circumstances then the people observing think that the dire circumstances encompass the whole person, when that’s not true. In the book, I wanted to show some parts that are light-hearted and joyful—I didn’t want to only show this litany of every bad thing that happened to me.

I think that’s one of the most successful things about your book. You have a way of bringing in the different qualities of who you are. You also bring multiple dimensions to what it means to be a bipolar parent. I read one of your articles online where you reached out to a fellow bipolar mother, and it opened up new ways of looking at your own capacity for motherhood.

I didn’t know any bipolar mothers. I think that’s one of the sad things, an extension of how when I was in the hospital—they didn’t want us to contact each other. But it can be such a source of support when you see one successful person with the illness you have. Knowing one other writer who was a bipolar mother who was thriving in her life, I felt that it was possible for me too. It was huge for me to not be so afraid, because, when I was younger, I told people I didn’t want to have kids. I was in my late teens and early twenties, I was so afraid, I thought I would be a terrible mother. I became a camp counselor when I was twenty-two or twenty-one and I was in charge of all these high schoolers and one of the people in my group had told me, “you know, I think you’d be a good mother.” That was the first time that I thought that maybe I could be a mother.

A lot of what we see are memoirs by the children of bipolar parents whose illnesses weren’t managed. Speaking to managing chaos, you have a talent of capturing and organizing challenging material into your essays. You have a very loose, elegant way of combining all this information, it doesn’t have a particular forced structure. How did you invent or come up with that form?

By doing so many drafts over and over again and banging my head against the wall! I very much appreciate you saying it doesn’t feel forced, because I went through so many drafts, and so many of the drafts were terrible and not working. I struggled so much with structure more than anything else. My writing is so all over the place with many different ideas braided together that finding that structure, that organizational path was so hard. I often put a huge sheet of paper on my floor, and I’ll print out the essay I want to work on, and I’ll cut up each section, and I’ll look at it on my floor, and I’ll move things around. I usually highlight each section, I just put a mark through each thread with different colors for each, and I’ll look at the colors and see what the pattern looks like—is it too heavy on this color, is it not heavy enough on this color? And I’ll constantly move things around, and when I figure out a thing that fits, I glue it down onto the big piece of paper and look at it some more and continue to keep doing that. I also often just rewrite my essays over again. I’ll write a draft, and I open a new document and start from the beginning and figure whatever filters to the top is the part that’s important.

That’s what I do too, I just copy and paste to the new document otherwise it’s chaos.

Yeah, it’s so chaotic, I do feel like braided essays are so rewarding when you find a thing that slots together. It’s like Tetris. But it’s so hard to get to that place, so I think it’s mostly a struggle 95% of the time, and you get that reward at the end.

Braided essays are harder to write than you would think by just reading one. In “The Rage,” you weave in a paragraph from Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, where you talk about how your experience with bipolar rage matches some of Dickens’s descriptions of dancers, who he describes as “demons” and “ghostly apparition[s]” with “gnashing teeth.” I loved that.

That’s what happens when I forget most things, but little bits will get stuck in my head for decades and I pull it back out.

I think they stick in your head for a reason, and they show how these patterns with mental illness, or mental differences, that have occurred in literature across centuries. Were there any other books by Dickens or anyone you’ve read previously who’ve helped you gain a positive understanding of mental illness?

I really enjoyed the book Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot, an Indigenous writer. She writes about being bipolar and a mother. Structurally her book is really interesting too and very lyrical. I think more than finding identification in books, I feel a lot of identification in structure and in craft—I enjoy seeing how people’s minds work. There’s so much stuff coming out of small presses that demonstrates that there’s a place for minds that work in different ways, letting people write in different ways without having to fit into a specific mold.

Craft in the Real World by Mathew Salesses was really helpful. Shapes of Native Nonfiction, which was edited by Elissa Washuta was amazing, and Meander, Spiral, Explode by Jane Alison was great. They came out with smaller presses, but they all focus on different narrative shapes, different structures, and Craft in the Real World and Shapes of Native Nonfiction specifically talk about how the way we’re taught craft and the way we expect stories to be often is contextually based in specific Western cultural assumptions. They encourage making space for other types of writing.

Reading about lyrical forms opens up the mind to different ideas. Sometimes these innovative forms suit different narratives better than a linear plotline would.

Exactly. We often don’t think in a straightforward way, and I think the goal is to put our thought processes onto the page in a way that the reader can still follow but still is true to how we think and process.

Writing a loose braided essay is more natural to how people think. Referring to naturalness, and in fact, speaking to the opposite of naturalness, it’s no secret to anybody that our Western canon skews white, from the books on the shelves in libraries and bookstores, to what’s in our college syllabi. You wrote an essay called, “Decolonize Your Reading Habits.” Are you doing any other work to diversify the publishing industry? What do you suggest we do to improve the industry?

Until they pay more money, I think it’s going to be really hard for the publishing industry to diversify because the money that they pay right now is not enough for people to live on in New York unless you have family or inherited wealth or a partner. It keeps people from different class backgrounds and people of color out of the industry. Because the industry itself—the gatekeepers, the editors and agents are so white—it can be more difficult to let in other types of stories or to see that there’s audiences for them. I think it’s improving slowly compared to a generation ago, but if you look at statistics from Lee & Low, which does surveys of industry statistics based on race and ethnicity, it’s still dire. On the writer’s side it’s important to be a part of communities that support each other. We need to create spaces for people who are coming up, who don’t have those connections, who don’t know who to ask. People often don’t know what the next step is or how to go about doing it and if you don’t go to specific MFA programs or specific conferences. Otherwise, we think we’re really stupid for not knowing how something works, when the publishing industry is really opaque and confusing. 


Photo: Ananda Lima

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