Jami Nakamura Lin is a Chicago-based writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Electric Literature, and Bat City Review, but you might know Lin from her former Catapult column, “The Monsters in the Mirror'' where she wrote about motherhood and bipolar disorder. She expands on the vulnerability of writing about “monstrous rage” in her debut speculative memoir The Night Parade (out on November 7 from Mariner Books / HarperCollins). It’s a book about living with depression and anxiety, intergenerational trauma, and the fierce grief of losing a parent to cancer, strikingly while becoming a new mother– beginnings and endings colliding. But it’s not your typical memoir. While there is much sadness that’s addressed, there is space held for Lin’s happy memories– connecting with relatives through story, bonding with patients at the rehab center, meeting her husband and starting a family of her own.
Woven between the lush illustrations that start each chapter are Lin’s own journal entries, her father’s, a letter to her daughter, a bird's eye view story about what it was like to live as a teen with an undiagnosed mental illness, and throughout it all, a high level of research, including digging into her own archives, as its backbone. Each chapter of the memoir builds to a cohesive introspective whole, but contains its own world that could stand alone– some chapters play with perspective, time, and distance while others lean on the epistolary form, storytelling, and speculation.
What’s exciting too is the collaboration with her sister Cori Nakamura Lin, an artist in her own right, who blends the ancient and the modern in her illustrations throughout the book, like the lost earbuds for a twenty-first century yо̄kai – supernatural creatures that take various forms like ogres, mermaids, foxes, demons, even women who look like Lin herself. These demons appear throughout the book, not just with each illustration ahead of the chapter, but in how Lin reflects on feeling monstrous when struggling with her mental health. Cori creates more movement away from the “idealized, frozen concept of ancient Japan,” she says, that’s grounded in intimate settings like Lin’s backyard garden. It provides a calm yet whimsical palate cleanser throughout the worlds we visit in the book.
We’re led through pivotal moments of her life as Lin weaves in folklore from her Japanese, Taiwanese, and Okinawan heritage, including the Hyakki Yagyo—the Night Parade of One Hundred Demons, where the yо̄kai cheerfully take to the streets of Kyoto as the villagers hide for fear of being taken away. But some don’t appear like a typical demon; a second mouth hidden by thick dark hair means they walk among us. Some don’t even know they’re yо̄kai, a worry the narrator grapples with throughout the book.
Lin and I exchanged emails about her debut memoir to chat about the importance of laughter, the Japanese story structure kishōtenketsu, and the ghosts of ancestral trauma.
Christina Berke: The book is structured in kishōtenketsu, four parts, because, as stated in the book, the narrator has “too much story and not enough shape” and though the form is simple, nothing is as simple as the narrator imagines. What led you to choose this structure, and what constraints did you bump up against while trying to contain the story in these four parts?
Jami Nakamura Lin: I’d been interested in kishōtenketsu for a while, because of its de-emphasis on conflict—although people have varying opinions on this! But originally when I was preparing my book proposal, I had it structured in a different way—more of a twist, with every other chapter being about either my adolescence with bipolar disorder, or my father’s illness and death. I couldn’t get that structure to work, though, and at the last minute I thought of kishōtenketsu. Choosing to go with that structure really helped the story open up, because I could tell one story in the first two parts, and then turn to the other, and show how they worked together. I didn’t feel tethered to the inverted checkmark plot shape. The conflict or crisis, in this work, is not the point. (Also, constraints always help me! It helps keep my disorganized brain in line.)
One thing I discovered was that there’s a lot of discussion about what the four parts actually mean, and how conflict works within them, and which texts or films are actually examples of kishōtenketsu. My adherence to the structure transformed over time, as everything I tried to do transformed over time.
CB: The book makes many references to outside narratives, including folktales, fairy tales, legends, and the narrator’s own personal history and dreams. How did you keep all of these dates, stories, and facts organized while also allowing for creativity to flow into the spaces?
JNL: At the beginning, my process was very disorganized— I didn’t realize I would be writing a researched memoir and didn’t anticipate hundreds and hundreds of sources and footnotes. I would list the book and author a quote was from, for example, but not the page number, and later I would have to go back and find the page. It felt important for me to be able to carefully cite all the research for my stories and facts, even though that’s not the norm for hybrid memoirs like mine, because I really like being able to follow the path of information to its source. My two researchers/translators helped keep track of things, and I have this system of Post-it notes that I use inside my enormous notebooks. As I research or brainstorm, I put notes onto the little 2 x 2 Post-its, and then I place them on these double-paged notebook spreads. That way I can move them around if necessary. My whole process is very physical, versus having it all on my computer.
CB: Even though memoirs tend to center around trauma, laughter plays a big role in your book. In particular, the narrator reflects on how distinct other’s laughter is (a “bemused snort” or “different song” or “sigh at the end like we’d finished a feast”), and the freedom to laugh because there wasn’t a need to “perform my sadness” while receiving psychiatric treatment in a hospital. There was an implicit understanding within that space that even if you weren’t crying, you still needed help. There are still moments of joy. Often mental illness is described as invisible and people think if someone is happy, they must not be struggling. What permission do you think this joy and laughter might give readers?
JNL: I don’t think of this book as a trauma plot, but I think stories like mine often can be flattened to trauma narratives by the media discourse. Often they mean well, but it feels reductive. I really wanted to include scenes of silliness and joy, especially during the psych ward, because a lot of the time there we were just being goofy. I wanted to show readers the multidimensionality of things like depression, and how absurd some of these scenarios can be. In the psych ward, we could act silly and free. Sometimes people think that the story of sickness or disability is this unrepentant, dire march towards death, and it’s not. On the other hand, sometimes with things like social media, we can get stuck in this idea that we have to perform our illness in a certain way to be seen as credible. I think this pressure is mostly a failure of our systems and infrastructure, such that everyone is trying to access scant resources. One thing I hope readers can see is that joy and laughter and despair and depression can all coexist; one doesn’t negate the other.
CB: In the book, the narrator writes that this book is about “carrying painful ghosts” and in writing it, things they “thought had healed cracked open again.” At one point the narrator becomes more isolated; the work itself siphons emotional energy as these memories are excavated. Because so much of this book is about mental health, what was self-care like for you in the day-to-day of writing this book?
JNL: I don’t think I’d characterize these ghosts as painful in general, even if the feelings they bring up are sometimes painful. Having proper self-care was difficult because for 2021 and 2022, writing the book was my full-time job, and it was hard to exist both in the worlds inside and outside the book at the same time. But taking care of myself looks like a lot of therapy—at one point, I was in four different types of therapy—and resting a lot. During the especially rough parts, I would stay at a little nearby hotel for a night or two as a mini-residency every couple of months. This type of solitude was really helpful, even if it was only for forty-eight hours, because the chaos of parenting can be a lot. I leaned heavily on my family and friends! And even doing those things, I felt really depleted by the process, and that’s why I’m intentionally writing a novel next.
CB: Often marginalized identities are tokenized, especially in media portrayal. What artists (in books, movies, shows) do you think have done justice to the portrayal of motherhood and women of color with bipolar disorder with the richness and humanity it deserves?
JNL: I appreciate the memoirs Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot and I’m Telling the Truth but I’m Lying by Bassey Ikpi. I really appreciate the way these writers address how bipolar disorder intersects with other parts of their lives and identities, and how they use more unconventional forms and structures. In general, I still think the field is pretty thin, especially in film and television! I’d love a TV show that includes a bipolar mother or character where the storyline isn’t just lurching from crisis to crisis. We deserve better plots than just “will the character stop taking their medicine? What will happen if they stop taking their medicine?”
CB: One of the essays called “In the Whirlpools” is a dreamy second-person journey that includes the story of Momotarō, peach boy, told through song and research. The narrator is a footie-pajama-wearing toddler journeying along with her grandparents in a boat as they dip into various timelines throughout their history, including the painful past of incarceration camps. There’s a bit of Princess Bride vibes with the curious child commenting along the ride, so I wonder if any children’s books influenced this, or perhaps the book that the narrator’s grandfather wrote about Yoyo, a character he created?
JNL: I wasn’t intentionally thinking of specific children’s books as I was writing this, but because I grew up with so many of my relatives telling me stories and making me books, and because my mother exposed me to so much children’s lit, I’m sure it’s all subconsciously rolled up in the story! I really struggled writing that chapter, and tried so many different formats before I landed on the final one.
CB: In the acknowledgements, you thank some powerhouse writers, including Sari Botton, in whose class you wrote “Skin, a Love Story.” It’s an essay that centers around the yо̄kai uwabami, a viper with bottomless hunger that can swallow a man whole, the narrator dating her then-boyfriend while struggling with suicidal ideation, and the legend of the white snake. In it, the narrator mentions there are nineteen versions of snake-themed pieces, which is to say, writers can know what they want to say but can struggle finding its form. Sometimes the right instructor or book can help. What are some elements that make a great writing class that you’ve taken with you into your own work?
JNL: I loved Sari’s class because it was a weekend-long class, six hours every day, and we basically created, brainstormed, and wrote the early draft of an essay together. I’ve never written an essay that easily—unlike other chapters of this book, which took months and draft after draft to revise, this one barely had any edits. In that class, we got to orally discuss what we wanted to write about, and got feedback during all the steps of the generative process. Usually in workshop, we get feedback after we’ve written a draft, not before. I really loved her process, and I realized that type of early feedback is what I crave. Talking ideas out on the front end is really helpful for me—I don’t find the usual kind of workshop as helpful. Now, I talk out some of my ideas with my writing friends, and allow myself more playfulness in the generative stage.
CB: Your grandmother Toshiko did the kanji characters, and the illustrations are done by your sister Cori, a character in the book who “seeks permission” from the narrator. What was it like working with your family on such an intimate project? And how did the drawings come about– did your sister read drafts and go from there, or was it more collaborative and you had a say in what you wanted them to look like?
JNL: My family is so central to my life, and it was so joyful for me to have them be so involved in this project. All the humanoid yо̄kai illustrations are based on my cousins. When I was young, my ama (grandmother) taught us brush painting, and at ninety two she’s still trying to teach my daughter these skills, so to see her brushwork in the book is so poignant. The book feels like a family artifact and archive.
I’ve collaborated with Cori for a long time, ever since we made zines together as teenagers. I knew we could work well together, and I knew I wanted her illustrations in the book. When we sold the book, I gave her a list of the sixteen yо̄kai I wanted to include, along with a really rough idea—one or two sentences—of what the topic of the chapter would be. I hadn’t written most of the chapters yet, so she was done with the art way earlier than I was done with the draft!
At the same time, learning to shift our sister dynamic has been a life-long process. My mother and sisters and I have been in family therapy for the past two years, which has helped us all a lot. We’ll have to keep working on it as we continue to grow and change.
CB: The narrator mentions they look forward to being done with the book, but writes that it might be “impossible for it to ever be done.” Now that it’s published, do you feel like you’re done with it?
JNL: I feel like I'm done with the book as an object, but I’m not done with the story itself. How I feel about this time of my life—my father’s death, my adolescence with bipolar disorder—will change and shift. Or at least I hope it does, because that means I’m continuing to transform as a person. I hope fifty years from now I’ll have a wider, wiser perspective on things than now, when I’m 34. I think of this book as a record not only of the timeframe I’m discussing, but also the time in which I wrote it. The story itself will change.
Jami Nakamura Lin is the author of the illustrated speculative memoir The Night Parade (Mariner Books/HarperCollins and Scribe UK). A former Catapult columnist, she's been published in The New York Times, Electric Literature, Passages North, and other publications. She has received fellowships and support from the National Endowment of the Arts and the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission, Yado, Sewanee Writer's Conference, We Need Diverse Books, and more. She received her MFA in nonfiction from Pennsylvania State University and lives in the Chicago area.