Exploring the art of prose


Interview: Jami Nakamura Lin

Image is the book cover for THE NIGHT PARADE by Jami Nakamura Lin; title card for the new interview with Sohini Basak.


Jami Nakamura Lin’s The Night Parade: A Speculative Memoir is a book that transcends genre boundaries. Weaving personal history with folklore, Lin presents an expansive psychological landscape that traces her own mental health journey against the backdrop of her family. As the story progresses chapter by chapter, readers are introduced to a host of otherworldly creatures from Japanese, Taiwanese, and Okinawan legends, and we learn how they help the author navigate through illness, grief, trauma, and major changes in her life. In this interview we conducted over email, Jami Nakamura Lin discusses pushing the boundaries of genres and labels, writing with care about illness and tragedy, and being first and foremost a storyteller gathering the many strands that make up life.

—Sohini Basak


Sohini Basak: I want to begin our conversation with the question of genre. In The Night Parade you reveal that you were writing a fantasy novel, which took you to Japan for research. However, you set the novel aside and finished this memoir first. Tell us about this shift—was it a shift at all or were you writing bits of what would become The Night Parade all along?

Jami Nakamura Lin: I actually started by writing nonfiction—that’s what I studied in graduate school. Writing nonfiction was just a slightly elevated extension of all the journals I kept since I was a child. In my MFA, I wrote an essay collection about my bipolar disorder, but by the end I was so sick of writing about myself. So, after I graduated, I shifted to writing a YA fantasy novel based on Edo-period Japanese folklore.

I worked on that book nonstop for four years, mostly writing in circles. In 2017, I went to Japan for a four-month research and writing fellowship. While there, I found out my dad had terminal cancer. When I returned to Chicago, I stopped writing for a while as my father died and I gave birth to my daughter. Afterward, those events were really the impetus for my switch back toward memoir. I wanted to talk about what was happening in our lives. That, too, was so difficult. It was only when I thought about using the earlier research I had done on Japanese folklore, particularly the yōkai—these creatures and spirits of Japanese myth and legend—as a lens for my own narrative that the project came together. So, The Night Parade essentially had its seeds in a synthesis of two “failed” projects: my MFA nonfiction thesis and my YA fantasy novel.


SB: And when you switched from working on the fantasy novel to the memoir, what changed in your writing process and in the ways you were working on craft? Did the inherent boundaries of a memoir (the stories and characters already being there in flesh, for example) act as a limitation or were they freeing for you?

JNL: I think of The Night Parade as a book-length essay, and each chapter as a standalone essay. I find the essay form much more natural to me. I feel like the way I think mirrors the structure of a lyric essay—there’s so much association, it moves in circles. I found it freeing that I could use these forms for this book. With my fantasy novel, I struggled so much with a straightforward plot, with a linear narrative.

At the same time, I love having limitations and boundaries. It helps me prioritize and keeps my never-ending associations contained. I find formal constraints (such as having each essay focus specifically on one yōkai) freeing.

Now that I’ve found what structures work best for me, I hope to “essay the novel” for my next project. In my novel I’m trying to impose similar constraints. I think the only way I can finish my novel is to pretend I’m someone else, writing an essay collection about their life.


SB: That’s a great way to look at character. Which makes me want to ask you about the yōkai and how you weave these spirits into your story. They’re not exactly analogies or simple metaphors, but what I read as a sort of narrative reconciliation: you, or your character in the memoir, starts identifying with the various yōkai, and each yōkai becomes a vessel you can inhabit to make sense of your bipolar disorder diagnosis. You write: “Yōkai begin where language ends.” Could you talk a bit about the yōkai and if there is or was any sort of morality or fear associated with them, and when you decided to reclaim them by making this memoir?

JNL: That quotation is by American yōkai scholar Michael Dylan Foster. I love it because it essentializes all these different aspects of yōkai into their core: their nature cannot be easily contained. They are not solely a metaphor for x or y. Yōkai are the uncanny, and their definitions and natures are so slippery, and that’s what I love about them: you have to look at them sideways. They exist in and alongside the borders.

Definitely in the past and in the present, people have feared certain yōkai. There are creatures like the oni (loosely translated as ogre, or demon) that are more fearsome and are still used to scare children today. And there are other yōkai that are known for being cute, like little Sanrio-esque humanoid animals. For me, I didn’t think of my work so much as a form of reclamation, because people have been transforming and retelling these stories throughout the generations in so many ways. There wasn’t one sort of claim that I had to reclaim. The stories are so diverse. Instead, I see myself as being one storyteller in a large, twisted web of people who have adapted and retold these stories for different times and contexts.

I decided to use them in this memoir because I didn’t know how else to tell my story. It was the only way. After my struggles writing my thesis during my MFA, I really needed to have a foil for my own narrative. And I love seeing my story in conversation with all these others, through time and space.


SB: You also draw on animals, especially water dwellers like the whale or the dugong in your memoir, especially when you dive into your family history, which is also the history of nationalism. Would you say there is a link between nationalism and the environment—and that the link can be seen in community rituals of loss and grieving?

JNL: I think there’s definitely a link. Imperialism is so tied to the environment because it creates all this change, all this destruction of natural resources, of communal ties to the land. And the line between nationalism and imperialism often is thin. Of course, those things—displacement, death, destruction—lead to grief over the environment and what once inhabited it. You become untethered, and that sort of untethering haunts communities for generations.


SB: In your memoir, you center your family—immediate and ancestors—instead of making them marginal or secondary characters in an autobiography. I’ve found this treatment in a lot of South-Asian memoirs too, where a whole community around an individual is given almost as much space as the protagonist. Could you talk about this technique, especially in relation to growing up Asian in the United States?

JNL: Our societies are so communal, so interlinked, so interdependent. I was lucky to grow up with large and close families on both my mom’s Okinawan and Japanese sides, and my dad’s Taiwanese side. I also grew up with a tight-knit Japanese-American community that revolved around my church. These people are so central in my life, and I really feel like The Night Parade is a communal story: not just my own narrative, but of the folklore; the yōkai; the writers of the hundreds of different sources I used; my translation and research team—Lisa Hofmann-Kuroda and Janna Tang; my sister Cori Nakamura Lin, who illustrated the book; my publication team; my ama—my father’s mother—who did the brush painting for the kanji characters in the book; my dead father; my whole family. I really wanted it to be a cacophony of voices. I feel like including a lot of these different strands reflects not only my community but my intentions for the book.


SB: While trying to navigate the turning points in your memoir—the bipolar diagnosis, hospitalizations, the death of your father, your research trip to Japan, motherhood—you often dwell on the shape of stories, and you try to unbraid the most common Western structure of clear conflicts and resolution, or the hero’s journey and triumphant return. While doing so, you turn to Japanese and Taiwanese folktales, and think through the tropes they have to offer; for example, the figure of the antagonist can also be “more absent than evil.”

And I found this model to be a more thoughtful alternative when it comes to talking about illness and care, and of course about the loneliness and alienation that comes with chronic illness. Could you address if you wanted to take a different route to the “illness memoir” and hence turned to the structure of folktales?

JNL: Thankfully, I think there are a good number of contemporary memoirs about illness that possess a lot of interesting structures and forms—especially those coming out of smaller presses. However, when I was in high school, searching for such texts, the ones available to me in my library and in Borders bookstore were very specifically in the vein of 1990s memoirs like Girl, Interrupted, Prozac Nation, and Wasted. (To be fair, I gobbled those up.)

And often when speaking of mental illness and disability, people can always focus on recovery, recovery, recovery—as if all that matters is this journey toward becoming whole, as if we are broken otherwise. I specifically wanted to have a different arc in my own work.

Many of the difficulties we face are due to structural and institutional barriers. Our healthcare system and societal supports are abysmal. At the same time, if I were unmedicated, my bipolar disorder would cause me pain and distress in a vacuum, even in an ideal, supportive society. Both of these things can be true. I wanted to write my book in a way that didn’t present my experience as a war between me and my illness—to ignore that false narrative completely. I saw a post recently by the International Bipolar Foundation about how bipolar disorder is a battle we’re fighting to win, which makes it seem like our illness is an antagonist we’re fighting against, as if only one of us can be the winner. Instead of our diagnosis being a part of us that we learn to live with. I wanted to reflect that experience in the book. My illnesses, like other parts of my life, are just something I carry.


SB: Returning to the discussion on genre, I want to ask you to also talk a little about how bringing the speculative into your memoir has worked in terms of protecting yourself and your mental health as a writer who was going to publish such personal and deeply affecting stories. Did talking about the various aspects of your life, especially your mental health journey, via the speculative mode help in creating a shield of sorts?

JNL: I don’t think it created a shield from the public—the information about my life is still out there, albeit in different form. But the speculative perhaps created a shield for me in writing, making the process entertaining and exciting for me, instead of only emotionally distressing.

But I also am lucky and privileged in that I didn’t have to worry so much about public reception of my writing. My family is very supportive, I don’t have a job that could fire me for such material, I’ve been writing about these things forever. What the speculative allowed me to do was write the book and finish the book in a way that felt true and real while also being joyful and fun. We don’t prioritize joy enough in writing memoir, or in writing in general, and now I am always going to prioritize it.


JAMI NAKAMURA LIN is the author of the illustrated speculative memoir The Night Parade (Mariner Books/HarperCollins, 2023). A former Catapult columnist, she’s been published in The New York TimesElectric Literature, Passages North, and other publications. She has received fellowships and support from the National Endowment for the Arts, Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission, Yaddo, Sewanee Writers’ Conference, We Need Diverse Books, and more. She received her MFA in nonfiction from Pennsylvania State University and lives in the Chicago area. Find her on Instagram @jami_lin.

SOHINI BASAK’s first poetry collection, We Live in the Newness of Small Differences, was awarded the inaugural International Beverly Prize and published in 2018. Most recently, she received the Gulliver Travel Grant from the Speculative Literature Foundation. She is currently the poetry editor at Words Without Borders. Find her on Instagram @sohini_b.