Q&A with Tom Cho: Japan, God, and getting slapped in the face
Tom Cho is a Melbourne-based fiction writer who last year completed an Asialink residency in Japan. His first book Look Who’s Morphing was shortlisted for many accolades including 2009 Age Book of the Year (Fiction). His work was featured in our Meanjin Papers series earlier this year and he is currently writing his second book The Meaning of Life and Other Fictions. Tom lists his current artistic fascinations as ‘experimenting with text’, ‘philosophy of religion’, and ‘Sweet Valley High books’. Meg Watson recently asked Tom how his time in Japan had affected his current work.
Meg Watson: In speaking about your work ‘How can we reconcile the existence of suffering with the premise of a good and almighty God?’ you’ve said in the past that you ‘had to go all the way to Japan to bring the first draft to fruition’. Why were you drawn to Japan in this way? Did your time there enrich your understanding of suffering or religion in a way that Australia could not?
Tom Cho: The purpose of my trip was to research representations of robots, various tropes in sexually explicit anime, and some other Japanese popular cultural interests—all of which I did. And this research was to enrich my use of popular culture in my creative writing practice, and inform my current project, a book of fiction that explores the philosophy of religion—which it has.
That’s the basic story. The more extended story is that, ten days before I was due to go to Japan, the Tohoku earthquake and resulting tsunami occurred. And, as it turned out, it was during that period that I was also writing my piece ‘How can we reconcile the existence of suffering with the premise of a good and almighty God?’
Earthquake damage in Sendai, 28 May 2011. Photo by Andry Adolphe
These are obviously the kinds of co-occurrences that one can’t account for when devising residency plans. In the end, my preconceived plans for my residency were just that—preconceived. My residency plans were certainly useful to some extent, but they were formulated while I was in a state of ‘pre-knowing'—before I knew what life on the ground in Japan as a resident artist would be like, much less being in Japan during a period of such great consequence.
So, although I did fulfil the original aims of my residency, my experience of the residency became shadowed—or should I say, ‘directed’ or should I say ‘saturated’—by this question ‘How can we reconcile the existence of suffering with the premise of a good and almighty God?’ This is a matter known by philosophers as ‘the problem of evil’.
You know, I recently read the book Via Dolorosa by Nick Trakakis. At one point, Trakakis says that the best philosophy is borne out of great suffering, rather than relaxed and comfortable armchair theorising. I take on board the point that there exist certain acute questions where there is much at stake. Some philosophical questions are worth dying for—others, not so much (well, it was actually Camus who said something a bit like this, but that’s another story).
Prior to coming to Japan, I’d read analysis upon analysis of the problem of evil, and yet much of it seemed pretty removed from the lived implications of the very problem that was the object of study. In fact, looking back to the period before my residency when I was working on my own piece about the problem of evil, I can now count myself among those who have considered the problem of evil from a fairly secure distance. Of course, I cannot say that I suffered directly as a result of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. However, physically being in Japan brought me so much emotionally closer to the problem of evil, to its ‘heartland’. And much more than ever, while in Japan, I found myself anxiously wanting to do justice to the topic of the piece that I was writing.
I think residencies sharpen and intensify how the resident experiences time and space. As each day of a residency passes, it is also one day less for the resident artist to practice their art in this space and during this time. In other words, one can become ever more aware of the preciousness of the already-passing opportunity. But, more than this kind of urgency, my artistic practice in Japan was emotionally escalated due to the occurrence of the earthquake and tsunami—and this proved to be the real slap-in-the-face or kickstart-to-the-heart that I didn’t even know I needed.
MW: Some could take your mixing of sci-fi and religion as a kind of atheism, or at least a cynicism for traditional religious ideas. What’s your relationship to religion, and has it changed at all while writing your second book (The Meaning of Life and Other Fictions)?
TC: I think it would be impossible for me to pursue this project and not have my relationship to religious thought change. I started my book from a position of not-knowing—that is, having little knowledge about the philosophy of religion and not having much personal experience with religion—‘religion’ in a sectarian sense—beyond a Catholic upbringing that I soon called ‘time-out’ on in my early teens.
What’s changed since I began writing my second book? I’ve been studying the philosophy of religion—largely independently. Every day, my sense of the dimensions of how much there is to not-know expand. It’s not only that the dimensions of what I’ve been studying are so ever-expansive and difficult to grasp and contain. The very nature of the territory seems to change all the time. There is nothing so ‘other’ to me than what (and who) I have been studying. With this in mind, my abilities as a writer have also been deeply challenged because, when writing about divinity, the words don’t grip very well. You see, the ground upon which one is writing feels so unstable because the objects of description are so seemingly ungraspable. As a result, language in religion seems profoundly provisional.
In short: I’m really disoriented and it’s really unnerving.
However, I’m gradually coming to relax a bit more about my need to gain some mastery over the subject matter of my book. I’m trying to call a ‘time-out’ on that quest too. (But that wasn’t before I contemplated returning to uni to do a second PhD.)
So, I’ve realised: I need to have a more supple grip in my attempts to comprehend and write about divine matters. And, at the same time, I still need a tight ‘death grip'—that is, a sense of emotional urgency—that will locate me in the kind of emotional heartland that I referred to earlier.
On the point of cynicism in your question, I do approach some religious beliefs with cynicism, but I’m not very interested in sneering. I’m not interested in easy targets either. I’m more interested in moving targets and, in all my disorienting experiences of studying the philosophy of religion, I’ve encountered plenty of those.
MW: Most of the pop culture references in your first book Look Who’s Morphing were American (Rod Stewart, The Fonz, The Sound of Music) … Did your time in Japan prepare you with a new zeitgeist to draw from? This is maybe a round-a-bout way of asking if we’ll be seeing any stories about Pikachu soon.
TC: Japan supplied plenty of new ideas for my future adventures in pop culture. At the same time, I don’t think my fiction is really ever so squarely about a particular popular cultural concern.
Here’s what I think at 2:06am on this Tuesday morning. I think some matters are especially such that they really can’t be faced or described directly. I found this to be the case for personal identity, which was the central topic of Look Who’s Morphing. And, far more even than that topic: there is God, the subject of my second book. Facing God with pen or laptop in hand (not that I would know which way or ways to face) would be like looking right into the sun. So pop culture is, well, a lens of sorts for facing God. I’ve always utilised pop culture in this kind of way. What I mean is that pop culture is rarely the central concern of my pieces; rather, it’s how I ‘get at things’ (and in my fiction, I am usually getting at things that are very hard to ‘get’).
I’m not sure if Pikachu will make an appearance in my book but who knows? I never thought I’d be writing about God either. Pikachu would also be easier to describe than God, and at 2:07am on this Tuesday morning, that’s tempting.
MW: Your work teeters playfully between the profound and the bizarre. As such, what’s the most profound thing you learned in Japan last year, and what is the most bizarre?
TC: Probably the most profound thing I learned in Japan was the slap-in-the-face lesson I referred to in the first question. That is: it’s one thing to be intellectually engaged; it’s another to be emotionally engaged as well. Maybe I knew this all along—but if I did, I only knew it intellectually, not emotionally.
Perhaps nothing was so bizarre to me as the very fact that I had to go all the way to Japan to live and learn this lesson.
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