Imagine a Death, Janice Lee’s sixth book, disrupts the death-discourse by making it actively spiral. Blake Butler’s blurb for this work collaborates with my own thoughts. “The result is the greatest work to-date of one of America’s most elemental voices and death-defiers, a kind lamp that breaks the dark.” Lee, a Korean-American writer, editor, teacher, and shamanic healer, is fearless. She antes up a multifold consideration to states of being-ness that dynamically pivot to death being more than just dying.
She writes: To think consciously about death is about embracing the entire spectrum of life and death, and understanding that death and life are utterly intertwined. Death isn’t the opposite of life (it’s the opposite of birth, perhaps, as an event).
Lee is intent on the full use of apocalypse [αποκαλυπτω | αποκαλυψισ], a Greek word, and verb, meaning: uncover, reveal, lay bare and pull the lid off something. We all exist in this sphere of netting that includes inherited trauma, ontology, perception, empathy, intimacy and memory, and in this regard, her revelatory themes work as portals entered into and out of at varying speeds, and with different approaches. Three human characters—writer, photographer and old man—provide footholds for the anchoring into transformational apocalyptic spaces that drive her beckoning material, with inclusivity of animals, plants and ecological disasters, to re-center the conventional paradigm and leave it disrupted, dismantled and open to fresh interrogation. Being that we are all in flux, and residing inside anticipatory states of being, Lee’s writing has never been more crucial than now.
In 2018, at an AWP booth where Michael J. Seidlinger was working, I asked for a book recommendation. He placed Janice Lee’s The Sky Isn’t Blue into my hands. “This is the one you want.” Ever since, I’ve kept my eye on Lee’s writing. Over the phone and through email we spoke about disruptive, yet also expansive states of being and becoming, vigorous sentences and trippy experiences.
I. EXPANSIVE STATES
THE BELIEVER: What does it mean to think consciously about death?
JANICE LEE: To think consciously about death is to accept the inquiry to inhabit the simultaneity of life/death, to allow the discomfort to push us to more expansive states of being and becoming, and to be in each continuously changing moment of the present. Dying is synonymous with living, and is a continuous, entangled process.
BLVR: If a Vogue magazine editor asked you to list “Five Tips on imagining a death,” how would you respond?
JL: Imagine your own death, and everything you are leaving behind. Let that go.
Imagine what you would have unfinished, and let all of that go.
Imagine being able to say good-bye to your loved ones. Who do you need to speak to right now, and what do you want to say?
Imagine what you might do differently in your next life. How can you begin that now?
Imagine the loss of what you fear losing most. The world is still holding you and the sky yet persists. What might you say in response to the sky?
BLVR: Is storytelling ecological and biological to you?
JL: Absolutely. Storytelling, to me, is about making sense of our place in the world and the relationships that we are entangled in. It’s about articulating what we notice and sharing our noticings, about seeing, and being seen. Humans, as beings that share the cosmos with other beings, tell stories to remind ourselves why we are alive, who we are, and who we might become. This is absolutely ecological and biological. And non-human beings, trees, pea plants, dogs, the sky, are all also telling stories, we just need to know how to listen and be okay with not understanding in the way we have gotten used to understanding.
II. LANGUAGE: PERMABLE AND POROUS
BLVR: Is it important for you to develop corporeal language that disrupts and considers all that is not easily articulated?
JL: I think about how language exists because it is shared. And I think about all of the different languages we inhabit and hold in our bodies and in our awarenesses. We have spoken and written languages, yes, and my own access to multiple languages absolutely influences how I see the world. But there is also the language of a glance, the language of energetic undulations between beings, the language of sex, the language of touching the plants in the garden, the language of dance, the language of recognition. Perhaps it’s less about disrupting and developing new languages, and more about opening ourselves to all of the languages we already have access to.
BLVR: The craft of your long sentences, without judgment, seems to hone in on how language has its own pitfalls and artifice. What’s your take?
JL: Yes, and about how language is doomed to fail, but sometimes, it feels like that’s all we have. Language, especially the structures of language (I’m talking about convention and grammar and expected organizational structures) is a system of organization or categorization like other systems of organization, like Linnaean taxonomy. But language is permeable and porous. And it is mythical and shape-shifting. It is sacred and beyond. It is meaning-making and meaning-changing. It is public and secret. It is recognizable and also unable to articulate all that is inarticulatable about life, which is, really, everything.
BLVR: Your protracted lines moved inside my body, became visceral, and brought up my own memories alongside your characters’ recollections, bonding us experientially within inherited and collective traumas. The lengthy sentences, a kind of trauma-syntax, present readers with a discourse of thought that pushes deeply into the interiority of your characters. Exposed is the authentic complexity of the nonlinearity of sprawling thoughts, intimacy, fear and grief that exists less “Twitter-fied” and more dislocating. The persistent sprawled-sentences display a kinship with László Krasznahorkai’s statement:
the whirls and eddies of language capture the reality of human thought and emotion. The snappy, short sentences we’re more used to reading in modern fiction are “artificial”, he says. When we say “I love you” it means not a terse statement of fact, “but an entire flow of words and feelings. And there’s no way just to put a dot at the end of it
Do you have any reaction to his take?
JL: Krasznahorkai’s work has been really important to me, and especially this book. Thank you for remarking on the kinship. He also has a quote: “My so-called long sentences don’t come from any idea or personal theory, but from the spoken language. I think the short sentence seems to me like something artificial, affected. We are used to very seldom short sentences. When we speak, we speak fluent, unbroken sentences, and this kind of speech doesn’t need any periods. Only God needs the period—and at the end He will use one, I am sure.” For me, it isn’t just about spoken speech though, but about thought, consciousness, the how of just existence in a single moment. The sentence is often defined as a “complete thought,” but it’s also a container with an ideology. When we conceive of stories as having a certain type of narrative arc, as a certain type of cohesion or consistency, we’re also buying into the idea of finality, of hierarchy, of linear time. For me, these kinds of narrative structures, and also sentence structures, don’t capture the simultaneity of voices, experiences, and multitudes within something even called an “individual.” Regarding readership, I’m not setting out to write something purposely difficult or challenging convention. It is different, yes, from what people are used to or expect, but for me, this is as sincere and real as it gets.
BLVR: How do you think about sentences?
JL: The sentence as a form contains a lot of privilege and colonial sentiments, and we don’t often talk about this. The particular subject / verb / object construction of the sentence enacts a very specific relationship which is not necessarily reality. It represents a reality, but not all of it. I constantly think about which kinds of perspectives and vantage points can operate naturally within the framework of something called a “sentence” or a “complete thought.” What is really at stake when we talk about “completeness”? Sentences and the grammar that organizes them are tools of meaning-making, but this also reflects certain value systems. Some kinds of meaning-making are given more power or value over others. For example, we often value certain kinds of clarity and concision in American sentences. The ability to “communicate clearly” is seen as a sign of virtue, skill, intelligence, higher class. In writing classes, teachers often talk about how we need to understand the rules in order to break or subvert them. But which kind of understanding are we talking about? For me, it’s not just about breaking rules or dismantling dominant structures. It’s about how to more thoughtfully and with increased awareness choose the terms of our engagement with the world and with each other. It’s about how to express my own truth and my own particular relationship to language.
III. SUBLIMINAL STRUCTURE
BLVR: Describe key moments, while writing Imagine A Death, that challenged you the most yet, by working through those passages, raised you to another level of understanding about the themes, symbols and subliminal structure of your material.
JL: The hardest moments in the book for me to write were the moments of really horrific violence and abuse to animals. I really didn’t want to write these scenes, and I resisted it a lot. I don’t believe in writing scenes for shock value, or using violence as a tool for “plot development” or “characterization.” But these moments just needed to happen. The book kept telling me this over and over again. There’s a scene in Han Kang’s The Vegetarian involving a dog that was so incredibly difficult to read. I had to put the book down because I was so triggered by the scene. And that novel, when people would ask me if I “liked it,” I didn’t know how to answer the question. It was by no means a pleasurable read. But it profoundly changed me and immersed me in particular experiences that felt really important and necessary. The difficult scenes in my book too, are about the entanglement of violence and vileness and trauma and survival. What is the cost of survival?
BLVR: Your book captures language in ways that feel constructed to resemble nature. For example, a leaf (writer) falls into a stream, journeys, whirls and slips slowly into the crevice of a rock. Other leaves (photographer & old man), with different quests, end up collecting near the first fallen leaf: creating narratives, collaged images and intersecting stories. There’s something in how your long sentences serve to disrupt and embody metaphysical properties. Does this resonate with you?
JL: I love these descriptions, and I’m so glad that you read them this way. I think yes, I was thinking about these other kinds of movements and ways of existing that aren’t so linear and rigid and categorical, and all of that made its way into the book, but I admit, I wasn’t usually “constructing” so specifically.
IV. SHAMANIC HEALER AND COMMUNITY
BLVR: What does it mean to be a shamanic healer who is also a writer? Are those roles intertwined, or distinctive?
JL: They’re absolutely intertwined, though my ability to articulate that relationship is just developing. The continued challenge is how to enact and express the way I exist in the world, the way I see the world—as porous, permeable, entangled, breathing, alive, simultaneous, and nonlinear—in writing, especially prose, and especially fiction, where historical expectations create limitations on how to understand story, or personhood, or character.
BLVR: Has being a shamanic healer informed, or advanced, your writing? Does it influence the trance-structure of your prose?
JL: I can say that I’m much more comfortable leaving this plane of reality for extended periods of time, so when I tell people that much of Imagine a Death felt “channeled,” I really did leave this particular plane of existence and was in the domain of the book, and the language was pushed out of me. Sometimes I’d get to the end of a sentence and hours would have gone by or I’d see that it was dark outside, and I really wasn’t experiencing time in a normal way. I’d read what I had just written and would hardly remember having written it.
BLVR: I knew of your work because of Michael J. Seidlinger. At events and online, you are a literary duo that I admired, maybe even felt a tinge of jealousy toward. After all, who wouldn’t want a best friend that had your back. How did you two meet? What has that friendship brought to your writing?
JL: Aw! Yes, Michael and I go way back. We first met online. I was the Reviews Editor at HTMLGIANT at the time and Michael kept sending me galleys of his books. We became Facebook friends and interacted occasionally online. We met in real life for the first time at AWP in Seattle. I don’t remember who reached out first, but we made it a point to meet. When I started Entropy with Peter Tieryas Liu, Michael was one of the editors we invited on board. And our relationship just continued to grow. Michael ended up publishing The Sky Isn’t Blue (through Civil Coping Mechanisms) after seeing the series of essays online, and though a few other presses contacted me about wanting to do the book, I really trusted Michael’s sense and wanted to work with him. We ended up partnering together to form CCM-Entropy (which later, along with Writ Large Press (Chiwan Choi, Judy Oden Choi, & Peter Woods, became The Accomplices). It’s meant a lot to me to have a friend I can count on in this way, but someone who is also a writer and editor and publisher and understands the unique particularities of each. We don’t always agree, but we trust each other, and when we initially began to collaborate, I really appreciated the synergy of our unique and different experiences and skillsets. We’ve almost always lived on opposite coasts, but we’ve always made time for each other. He’s the friend that I know I can call at any time of the day, and he’ll pick up and he’ll be there to listen.
BLVR: Who, or what, do you turn to when the prose becomes challenging?
JL: It depends, but sometimes I might go for a walk. Movement helps me think through and sense with my body in a different way. Snacks. Always snacks. I might meditate or journey, or ask my guides. Sometimes music. Sometimes starting out the window or at the sky. Sometimes a nap.
BLVR: Your acknowledgements list the brilliant minds and generous friends in your life, those who read early versions of this book. Talk about the support they provide. Is it hard for you to ask for help? Or, is asking for guidance part of the process?
JL: So much support. This book really isn’t an individual achievement but the fruit of an infinite number of encounters, merging coordinates, curious conversations, and built relationships. Even the list in the Acknowledgements is inadequate in articulating an entire universe’s circumstances that had to exist for this book to be here today, and there are so many other names that could be added. The support that was provided includes labor, ideas, resonances, tuning in of energetic frequencies, glances, collaborations, and osmotic encounters with so many beings (animals and plants included). So many conversations, early readers, friends, peers, colleagues, students, teachers, mentors, ancestors, workshops, writing groups, coffee dates, Skype/Zoom sessions, phone calls, dreams, therapy sessions, healing sessions, rituals, ceremonies, walks, meditations, snacks, books, essays, links, telepathic communiques, shared meals, road trips, films, forests, ghosts, hauntings, magical occurrences, memories, and feelings.
I didn’t ask for a lot of help, that is, I wasn’t often directly asking for certain things. Instead, there was a lot of meandering and a lot of compassion and support of this meandering, of me as a person, and of my work in general.
V. IT’S ALL LIFE, RIGHT?
BLVR: Collaging into conversation, without division, are your dimensional-interests in art, language, neuroscience, interspecies communication, climate change, the paranormal, psychology, philosophy, psychology, impending apocalypse, community, isolation, loss, abuse, trauma, abuse and death. Talk about the alchemy at work as the material evolves for you onto the page.
JL: This is a hard question to answer because it seems so obvious to me that it’s all related. I’ll start down a track of something I’m interested in, and when it circles back to something else I’ve researched or read, I’m just like, oh of course. It’s all life, right? It’s all part of the investigation of this fucked up thing called life, and of the question of just trying to live, and trying to live well. And there are different approaches, trajectories, vantage points, but at this point, it’s all so enmeshed now it’s hard for me to separate them.
BLVR: Do you start with a known interrogation? An argument? An image? A sound?
JL: KEROTAKIS and Daughter both started out with very distinct and concrete questions, that created more tangible trajectories in terms of research and narrative. But with this book, there was an image. The image of someone washing blood off of her hands. This image kept coming to me over and over again, until it manifested again in a dream where I was visited by my friend Brenda Iijima’s cat Mr. Bungie, and the context of the image revealed itself. That dream is now a scene in the novel, and the rest kind of propelled itself outwards from that.
BLVR: What’s the trickiest part of editing for you?
JL: It’s about maintaining my own vision, expression, sincerity, rhythm—especially with the tangents and excess that are encompassed in the sentences— with access, with how to provide someone else an entry-point into the text so that they can inhabit this space that might feel strange or uncomfortable or unfamiliar to them.
BLVR: John D’Agata selected “fragments from Reconsolidation” as the Black Warrior Review’s 2011 Nonfiction Grand Prize Winner. Re-reading it felt necessary after finishing Imagine A Death. It’s gorgeous and seems relevant to this book. Would you agree? How do your books speak to one another?
JL: I think all of my books speak to each other for sure, and really, I would say that all of my previous workswere training for writing Imagine a Death. There are the linkages to grief and loss in Reconsolidation, yes, and also the apocalyptic view of human relationship in Damnation (which was a direct response to the films of Béla Tarr, in collaboration with Laszlo Krasznahorkai). For me, writing has been about reaching. Reaching towards something but I didn’t always know what. Trying to articulate everything that can’t be articulated but needs to be attempted anyway. This probably won’t be the last book I write, but for now at least, I feel like Imagine a Death is a kind of culmination of so many questions I have been asking and thinking about for much of life.
VII. NARRATIVE HEALING (TRIPPY EXPERIENCE)
BLVR: Last week, my dog Chuko, was very sick. I had to take him out several times during the night and early morning, yet in the midst of it all, I managed to read Imagine A Death. At 2 a.m., on the third eventful evening, when Chuko was finally resting, I turned over and saw a Shih Tzu shadow-dog walking at the edge of the bed. How had Chuko moved so quickly? But it wasn’t him. It was my previous cloud-like dog. I recognized him by his gingerly gait and confidence. He had a message for me that everything was going to be fine. Truthfully, and strangely, I’d asked you to keep Chuko in your thoughts.
Here’s my take on my dog visit: Imagine A Death’s fluidity, imbued with a tincture of a healing narrative, activated my memory via your trance-empowering lengthy sentences. It felt as though your book opened my mind to a unique literary interrogation on how, if it is possible, and I think it is, that writing, your writing, has a molecular component to it—meaning your book and who you are as a writer and shamanic healer are intertwined. Furthermore, the trance-like structure of your prose opened a portal aligned to another dimension—so of course my former dog would talk to and comfort me.
Can healing exist in narration?
JL: OMG I love this, and YES, of course. Portals are everywhere. This book was definitely a portal for me, or a series of portals. Sometimes I would write things, and later that day, they would happen in real life! The writing was constantly influencing the past, the present, the future. But it’s not just the writing, right. It’s the awareness, the attention, me moving in between spaces and sitting there open, permeable, present. That’s the portal. The other dimensions are always there, simultaneous and parallel. So the visitation, perhaps, was Chuko in another time and space, future or past Chuko, or both. Perhaps it was a past dog who has access to more wisdom and knows what will happen. Perhaps it was Chuko’s ghost, who also exists now. And perhaps it was all of the Chukos, all of your past dogs, all of your future dogs, and they were all with you. What I realized during a recent mushroom trip, after my dog Maggie had passed away, was how both Benny and Maggie, as non-linear, wise beings, are able to access all of the past and all of the future. Time is simultaneous and nonlinear, so from this point, Maggie and Benny can now be in my past, all of the moments of my childhood, all of the moments of difficulty, the nights stayed up crying in bed before I had even met my future dogs; they can be there to support me and to hold me. Healing exists anywhere there is awareness and intention and curiosity.
BLVR: In 2019, you wrote an essay for Vol. 1 Brooklyn that went viral.
“That is, I want to talk about the challenges I faced in looking for a publisher for my new novel, Imagine a Death, and how this process forced me to examine my own beliefs and wounds around linear ideas of success and to begin to work towards healing and freedom from a limited imagination.” “Books Are Not Products, They Are Bridges: Challenging Linear Ideas of Success in Literary Publishing.” Vol. 1 Brooklyn”
Toward the end of the piece you asked a question: How would things be different if we thought of books, not as products or commodities, but as bridges?
Janice, where are you now as it relates to that inquiry?
JL: Oh the medicine of that essay keeps coming back to me. I have had to learn to let go of a lot of expectations and attachments in the process of this book, and at many times, even figure out what my expectations and attachments were. It’s not always easy to know the difference between reaching and grasping, between desiring and controlling, between letting what is just be, rather than fret over everything that could be better. Finally landing with the right publisher and home for this book, coming into relationship with my editor Katie Jean Shinkle, and so many other events, so many serendipitous and synchronous things had to happen before this arrival. So many setbacks, detours, moments of heartbreak and panic. But in all of that, I still choose to see abundance rather than scarcity. I choose to view all this with gratitude and love, rather than regret and despair. I’m so thankful for this book to be out in the world. I’m thankful for everyone who helped make that possible. And I’m thankful for everything I learned along the way, for everything I continue to learn and have yet to learn still.