In this new column, we’ll feature brief interviews with the talented writers who teach classes for us. First up: Yurina Ko, one of our newest instructors and a relative newcomer to Nashville. She spoke with our fall intern, Kristopher Carey, on a rainy morning at the Southern Festival of Books, and the two discussed the nature of the personal in fiction-writing, Ko’s plans for her upcoming class “The Personal Essay,” and what you can learn from writing romance novel book-copy.
You’ve described your work as “surreal literary fiction.” To you, what are the grammar and goals of surrealism, and what attracted you to that genre?
Oh man, I probably chose those words because it’s so hard to talk about my own work – to really categorize it – and “surreal” maybe captures a kind of vague stand-in for all the things I don’t want to put names to. In my work, which is largely autobiographical, the world is completely exaggerated. It almost has this tint, as if you’re wearing pink glasses,. To my character, her world is so skewed and the world she’s entering is so skewed that, as you’re reading, you might wonder, “Is this really the way she’s experiencing it, or is this just the way the world actually is?”
You mentioned your work is generally quite autobiographical. Has writing always been a way of processing for you?
I want to say yes, but, honestly it hasn’t. As someone who has grown up in both America and Japan, going back and forth, there was a significant amount of time in my childhood where I was not fluent in either language. That was always a huge struggle for me, to feel like I couldn’t communicate. I think, as a Japanese kid in America, it was really hard to feel like I couldn’t say what I was feeling. Reading, writing, talking: these were things I didn’t enjoy for a really long time. In fact, that’s how I turned to music. It was a way to communicate what I was going through and what I was feeling, but in a more universal language.
There was a point where, in third grade, where the teacher said, “You can write whatever you want.” And I didn’t know what to do, so, in my stilted English, I asked, “What… write?” And she thought I was asking what does writing mean, so she kept using the symbol of taking pencil to paper like, “this is what writing is.” But I literally couldn’t ask the question, and it took her maybe half a year to understand what I was actually asking, and so during that entire time, every time when we had that slot to write something, I was just doodling.
So writing was definitely not something I really did for a while. And when I finally found language as a comfortable thing for me, toward the end of high school and into college – where I really felt like I could use English as a way to communicate – that’s when writing became fun.
Since you’re teaching “The Personal Essay” with The Porch this fall, how might these personal experiences fold into the class?
I actually have taught undergraduate classes on academic essay writing before, but, those times, I’ve always pushed for them to think non-academically a little bit. I teach essays like those from James Baldwin, Joan Didion, Richard Rodriguez, and Michel Foucault – you know, all these people you might not think of as personal essayists, but who are able to use their writing to communicate their ideas in a very strong way. Through The Porch, I plan to use a lot of the same material but, since it’s not an academic setting, I feel like I can just unleash all of the constraints of academia, and I can teach what I want to teach. So there’s no limit to the kind of essay the students can write. I’d like to show that there’s really an infinite number of ways that you can write an essay, and show that the thing that stays consistent across these writers – no matter the story or the form – is that they’re doing it in a way that doesn’t confuse readers. That the essay is something that can almost be a piece of your identity, structured in a somewhat limited form. And whether that’s short, a five-paragraph essay, whether it’s in fragments – a form that I love – whether it’s an essay full of pictures, whatever the form, I want my students to have some exposure.
Having taught at Columbia and having worked as a freelance writer and editor, what would you say the role of teaching is in creative writing?
For me, at least in my classrooms, I don’t want to be the kind of teacher who thinks that they know what writing is. I don’t have any answers, and I’m not going to pretend that I do. I think that the biggest strength in a workshop is for everyone to learn from each other. It’s not a sit-down lecture where the teacher spits out wisdom that the students take notes on and go home with. I want my workshops to be a place where we build the work together. I think my role is more of a moderator; I want to be able to draw out everyone’s stories, and ask questions that challenge their writing and challenge their thinking. I want to be there so that everyone feels safe and comfortable sharing their stories.
Less than a teacher, I’m there as a moderator or – if we are to use orchestral terms – a conductor, making sure everyone is on the same page, on the same tempo, and that they’re in by seven and out by nine. That’s really my main job, to be there to structure. Everything else, I’m leaving open to my students.
So how do you think that kind of ethos – of writer-led workshops and open-endedness – is reflected in institutions of writing?
Yeah, whether that be academia or publishing or wherever else writing is systematized.
I mean, I think trying to do workshops as writer-led as possible is going to lead to the best work. If you put limits on writing – a short story looks like this, a novel has plot and voice, blah blah blah – if you set up those kinds of rules, people are going to be sort of shut off. I worry that that happens in a lot of classrooms. But if you keep things more open-ended, asking like, “What do you think a novel or an essay is?” you’re going to get a lot more answers. I feel like I’m constantly learning from my students, so I like to go in without answers. I think doing that will be better for the industry overall. It will reflect in books that tell different stories and different styles; who wants to live in a world where all the books sound the same and follow the same rules? That’s my take.
How has your freelancing experience impacted your process, then?
Well, let me tell you about one type of freelance writing that I’m doing right now. I write the back-copies for romance books.
Yeah, it’s a gig I got from a friend of a friend in publishing, and I just started this summer. Every week, the publisher will send me some details from an upcoming romance book. There’s always a hero, always a heroine, always conflict, and there’s sort of a pattern that it will follow. Something like “opposites attract,” two people who never liked each other but are forced to spend time together, and magically, they fall in love. All of these follow a very straightforward formula, and I just write the back-copy that makes it sound sellable. I don’t want to say that this is “selling my soul,” because it’s so non-literary, but it’s actually taught me so much about writing. It’s kind of crept over the boundary of genre, and I’m thinking a lot harder about what makes a book readable, what people are looking for, and why people are drawn to formulaic plots.
I think there’s a lot we can learn from genre writing. Something my boss for this freelance job always tells me is, “Don’t reveal so much of the plot. Focus on the emotional connections.” And I feel like that’s a lesson we can all learn. Instead of X leads to Y, this happens then this, princess meets prince, focus on the emotional stuff. Why is the princess drawn to the prince, what kind of psychology did she come from that made her more susceptible to a prince like him? I think these kinds of questions are of use to any kind of writer. I mean, it’s certainly helped me. And it pays the bills!
As a new resident of Nashville, and a writer whose work is very much informed by a relationship to space and place, have you noticed any new themes or reworking of themes in your writing since your move?
Yes, yes, definitely yes. In my current work, I’m exploring a lot of what it means to be Japanese. Because I am Japanese, and the characters are Japanese. There’s a whole world of what it means to be Japanese in Japan, or in a place like New York, where everyone’s from a different place and it’s not really a novelty to be international. That’s what makes New York so exciting, that’s it’s such a diverse city. Now, moving to Nashville last summer, it was the first time living in a place where I was, more often than not, the only Asian in the room, if not the only non-white person in the room. I’ve never experienced that before, and it’s been really interesting. Some might assume that to be kind of a negative experience, but I’ve never had an encounter that left me feeling uncomfortable or that there is prejudice, nothing like that. In fact, I feel like in a place like Nashville, people are just curious to know where I came from, what I’m doing in Nashville, and I feel like I’m forced to feel more comfortable about what makes me different.
In New York, it was sort of a given, like “You’re from Japan, cool, I’m from Spain.” Everyone is from somewhere different. Here, I get to talk about what it means to be from a different place. On top of that, Nashville being a growing city, there are a lot of people moving from places like New York or L.A, and they are also discovering these questions for themselves. I feel like I’m having so many more conversations about what it means to have a home and to look for a new home since moving to Nashville. All of these experiences have definitely crept into my writing, so that I’m forced to think about these questions in terms of my characters. What it means for them to ask questions in a different setting.
As more time passes, I’m coming to terms with the fact that, as I spend more time away from Japan and as Japan continues to change, the more unrecognizable Japan is going to be to me. Even though I’ve only lived here a year, I feel a closeness to Nashville, and I want to call myself a Nashvillian and to call myself a Southerner, and I want to integrate myself more with the communities, and that’s going to come with its joys and challenges. The Porch is definitely helping me with that, too. In the creative nonfiction class I’m teaching, we talked about the places that everyone considers home. That was our big icebreaker, and everyone came from somewhere different. Two people who had lived in Nashville all their lives talked about how Nashville is changing, so even, being here, they notice that their home is changing and that they don’t recognize it anymore. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, in one way or another, you’re forced to think about these questions. So yes, yes, yes, I’ve definitely been thinking about these things since I moved here.
Can you give us any insight into your writing process – do you write at a specific time of day, in a specific mood, in specific places?
Let me tell you, I wish I had a process, but I don’t. Especially since becoming a mom recently, I’ve had to make do with the very limited time I have for myself. I have to hold myself accountable for things like, if I hire a babysitter for three hours, to devote those three hours to my writing. Before baby, I had all the time in the world – well, maybe not all the time, but certainly more than I have now. My process is basically just to write when I have time, which is not much of a process. Sometimes I’m sitting there for three hours and I just can’t get anything out, and other times I’m able to write because I’m inspired and because I feel the energy to.
Maybe one thing that’s changed since becoming a mom, and because I have limited time, is becoming more okay with writing something that I’m not going to love. Acknowledging that I put something on a page, and being proud of that. I used to be a lot more of a perfectionist with my writing, and I felt like what I wrote had to perfect. It took me forever to just get out a sentence or a paragraph, but now I think I’m a lot more okay with getting out a paragraph that I know I’m going to edit later. So I’m just doing a lot more writing now. That’s really my only process.