Novelist Naomi J. Williams’ novel, Landfalls, published this summer by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, is a fictionalized account of the ill-fated Lapérouse expedition of 1785, in which 200 men sailed in two frigates in an attempt to sail around the globe. After visiting Tenerife, Siberia, Sakhalin Island, and other places in the Pacific, the ships disappeared without a trace. The author was interviewed via email from her home in Davis, California.
Karen Maeda Allman: I’m always curious about why authors write particular stories and so I always ask about this. So, why this story? And, what did you learn in telling it?
Naomi J. Williams: I first learned of the Lapérouse expedition about 15 years ago, when my husband bought me an antique map that the seller said was of San Francisco Bay. It turned out to be a map of a bay in southeast Alaska, however, and to come from this interesting, ill-fated 18th-century voyage of exploration. I became obsessed with the expedition and with the idea of fictionalizing some of its stories.
Why this particular obsession? That’s harder to explain. I like nautical fiction, but it’s not necessarily my favorite genre. I’d certainly never imagined myself writing a novel of the sea. But I’ve always been fascinated by stories about people who leave home, cross borders, and generally end up where they don’t belong. This is no doubt connected to my upbringing, which involved changing countries and cultures and identities and the resulting, persistent sense of “unbelonging.”
As for what I learned through this project… Of course I became something of an expert on this particular expedition. But I also learned about how messy history and the writing of history can be. Among the numerous books and articles and websites I consulted, I came across all sorts of interesting irregularities: conflicting versions of the same incidents, unsubstantiated claims repeated from one source to the next, accounts that baldly favored one institution or regime or person in its telling, out-and-out plagiarism, hagiographies masquerading as scholarship—the works. Having said that, though, I remain very grateful to the many, many historians and record-keepers whose careful work informed this project from beginning to end.
I’m also tempted to say I learned how to write a book, but I don’t think I did. I only learned how to write this book. The next one feels just as impossible as this one did.
Allman: You’ve picked an interesting structure, bringing in points of view not only of the explorers but also of loved ones left behind and people encountered on the voyage. I think it’s more usual to do one or the other, but bringing them together really opens up the story for me. These story lines are not really happening in isolation, after all, historically. “Our” insistence that they be treated separately seems to be related to what I’ll call the “creole anxiety” that crops up for some of your characters. What do you think about this?
Williams: I find your identification of “Creole anxiety” in the book and its connection to the book’s hybrid, multi-strand structure really interesting. I’ve never quite articulated it in that way before. I think you may be onto something. There’s certainly an undercurrent of anxiety throughout the novel around race, ethnicity, class, place of origin, authenticity, what constitutes full personhood, who has authority, et cetera, and maybe the way I distribute the story-telling across multiple narrators is an outgrowth of that general set of concerns.
One impetus for the book from the outset was an explicit desire to broaden the scope of traditional nautical fiction. Most such stories are told from one person’s point of view—often, though not always, the great white captain. I wanted to dethrone that figure and complicate the telling. I’m glad you found that that approach opened up the story rather than simply muddling it.
Allman: One of my favorite chapters, “Snow Men,” stands out in part because the character telling that story has a world view (and perspective) so completely different from that of the explorers. The story could function on its own but yet it’s also integrated into the telling of the larger story about the many types of people coexisting (but not knowing much about each other) during that time. Could you tell us a bit about the story or about the Lituya Bay people?
Williams: I knew from the beginning I wanted to include the story of the tragedy that struck the expedition in Lituya Bay, Alaska (the place pictured in the mislabeled map that started the whole project). In my research, I came across an early 20th-century article, written by an American ethnographer, about the Tlingit Indians of southeast Alaska and a story from their oral tradition that closely matched the experience of the Lapérouse expedition in Lituya Bay.
When I found that, I knew I wanted to tell the story twice: once from a French point of view and once from a native person’s point of view. I then did as much research as I could about the Tlingit, some of whom would come to this part of Alaska every summer to fish for salmon. In my depiction of the girl who narrates “Snow Men” and her community, I tried to be faithful as I could to what I learned about their culture. “Snow men,” for instance, was apparently one of the terms they had for white people. Also, the debate among the girl’s relatives about what happens to the bodies of people who drown came directly from reading about different understandings of that question. Having said that, of course, I may have been grossly inaccurate about some things. I try to be a responsible writer, but at the end of the day, it’s fiction.
Allman: This particular book seems to have involved an incredible amount of research (and in multiple languages!). I think that your use of the historical detail really helps bring readers into your narrative, helping us connect with the story that you are telling. Could you tell us a bit about your research process?
Williams: When I started this project, I could neither read nor speak French. So one of the first things I did was enroll in an intensive French class. My French—especially spoken French—is still quite rudimentary, but I got to where I was able to work through French-language sources, even old ones, without too much trouble. I had help, of course—a much-used Larousse dictionary and access to some people who know French quite well.
This project would have been difficult, if not impossible, without the Internet. Most of my initial research was done online. But I also spent hours at the UC Davis library, which is just over a mile from my house. I read everything in their collection pertaining to the expedition, then used interlibrary loan for sources they didn’t have.
Honestly, the research was kind of endless and often threatened to take over from the writing. I always felt—I think I still feel—as if I should have done more research. It was a constant source of anxiety and even guilt. But some years ago at the Tin House Writers Conference in Portland, I got some good advice from author Jim Shepard, a writer of literary historical fiction whom I really admire. He acknowledged in a Q&A that the research could go on forever, but that at some point you need to, as he put it, “put on your floatie and jump into the deep end of the pool” and start writing. I often remembered that as I was working on the book.
Allman: Given that this interview is for a pan-Asian American paper, could you tell us a bit about your background? You’ve said that you were born in Japan and moved to the U.S. as a child?
Williams: So I was born in Fukuoka, Japan, on an American Air Force Base, to a Japanese mother and a white American father. My father learned to speak and read and write Japanese fluently, and after he left the Air Force, he enrolled at Waseda University in Tokyo as a regular student.
Until we moved to the U.S., when I was almost 6 years old, I lived as a Japanese child and spoke only Japanese. I knew my father was an American, but I don’t think I sensed my difference from other Japanese children; at least I don’t remember sensing that difference. Years later, my Japanese grandmother told me that when she’d take us to the playground, Japanese children would sometimes taunt me and my younger sister by calling us gaijin. I have no memory of this, however.
When we moved to the U.S., my parents were eager for us to learn English, so we switched to an English-only household, and in the way of small children, we very quickly acquired English and, sadly, lost our Japanese. I do have very clear playground memories of being taunted by American children who called us “Jap” or “Chink.”
I’ve always identified pretty strongly with my Japanese side. When I went to college, I majored in East Asian Studies, concentrating on Japanese, and eventually spent two years in my early 20s living in Japan. My Japanese was pretty good back then. It’s gotten kind of rusty in the intervening decades.
For many years, I wasn’t really sure if, as a mixed-race person, I was “allowed” to claim myself as Asian-American. I once had a Japanese-American boyfriend who told me his family would think of me as “white.” This despite the fact that I had been born in Japan and my mother was a Japanese citizen and I spoke better Japanese than he did. On the other hand, when I met my great-uncle in Kagoshima, he tsked in open disappointment that I looked “90% Japanese.” He’d expected someone tall and blonde and blue-eyed, and here I was, none of the above. Many white people have also seen fit to declare that I look “totally white” or “totally Japanese” or some other calculus they’ve invented.
I think this is a common experience among mixed-race people, where other people feel entitled to define and evaluate their racial or ethnic make-up or “balance.” Over the years, I’ve encountered less of this. I’ve also stopped feeling sheepish about calling myself an Asian-American writer and I’ve stopped apologizing for not being Asian “enough.” Part of this is just me growing up. But I think part of it is also the Asian-American community becoming much more open to embracing people of mixed heritage.
Allman: What books are on your nightstand (or by your reading chair) right now?
Williams: I’m an incredibly promiscuous reader, constantly flitting from one book to another and simultaneously reading too many at a time. Right now my daytime reading includes Edward Seidensticker’s translation of The Tale of Genji, part of my research for my next book. I’m always reading a book of poetry; at the moment, it’s an early collection by Denise Levertov. I’m also reading through Graywolf Press’s amazing “The Art of…” series. This is in conjunction with an online writing class called ScribeLab run by my friend, poet Rae Gouirand. We’re reading and writing our way through the whole series in six months. Right now I’m on Ellen Bryant Voigt’s The Art of Syntax. And I have a whole mess of books next to my bed for night-time reading. Currently they include Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin (a novel in sonnets, something I wish I had the writing chops to do) and Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. Oh, and today I went to the library to check out Murakami’s short-story collection after the quake. I just suddenly had to read it.
Allman: Is there anything I didn’t ask that you’d like to talk about?
Williams: I’ve alluded to my new book project, so I’ll just add briefly that it’s another historical novel and it also involves France, but this time it’s a 20th-century story, and the main character is real-life Japanese poet and feminist, Yosano Akiko. Akiko traveled to Paris by herself in 1912 after entrusting her seven children, all under age ten, to the care of relatives. In college I wrote my senior thesis about her, and I have never forgotten her or her brave and transgressive trip to Europe. The project marries all of my chief interests: Japan, France, poetry, feminism, people leaving home. Plus it’s a really interesting time period both in Japan and in France, and the clothes were awesome. And I’m finally making use of my college degree!
Naomi J. Williams will speak about Landfalls at The Elliott Bay Book Company on Monday, September 28 at 7 p.m. Elliott Bay is located at 1521 Tenth Avenue (between Pike and Pine in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood). Free/no tickets needed.