Bulletin Interview: Emi Sasagawa, author of Atomweight
Emi Sasagawa is an award-winning Brazilian-Japanese journalist living in Vancouver. Her work has been published by a range of publications, from The Washington Post to Room. She’s a graduate of The Writer’s Studio at SFU, and is currently completing an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia.
Recently listed in CBC’s 86 works of Canadian fiction to read in the first half of 2023, Emi Sasagawa’s debut novel Atomweight follows nineteen-year-old Aki from her home in West Vancouver to London, England, where she is enrolled in the London School of Economics. Raised in a loving but demanding multiracial family, she has always been a good daughter and a good student. Living away from home for the first time, she makes friends, embarks on a series of relationships, and discovers a side of herself that was previously buried. A violent incident in a bar one night triggers an unexpected response. She begins to crave more violent encounters that leave her bloodied but feeling powerful and alive. On visits back home she finds herself having to reconcile her growing independence, burgeoning sexuality and identity as an out-lesbian (at least on the other side of the Atlantic) with her family’s attitudes and expectations. Atomweight will be published this May by Tidewater Press.
Bulletin Interview: Emi Sasagawa
Please tell me about your family background, where you were brought up, family life, all of that.
My mom is Brazilian, and my dad is Japanese. I was born in Rio de Janeiro, just shy of a decade after they met. In 2003, my dad, who worked for a large multinational, was transferred to Panama City, uprooting the whole family. I was 13 and spoke no English nor Spanish. I was shy and socially awkward, so I had a rough time. Kids are resilient though, and so I picked things up quick. After Panama, we moved to the Netherlands.
Between being mixed and the moves, I learned a lot about navigating physical and imagined spaces. In some ways, my identity had always felt relative to the people surrounding me. I became really good at codeswitching—I adopted a “neutral” accent, I learned the right mannerisms and I obeyed the rules of adolescence. It wasn’t until I moved to the UK for undergrad that I began to rethink what it meant to take up space as me.
Are there writers in your family? Have you always written?
We are a family of readers more than writers. That being said, I’ve always had a strong inclination to putting words to paper. Not long after learning how to read and write, I “self-published” my first collection of short stories, with the help of Windows 95 and a black and white printer. I went door to door selling copies to my neighbours. As I grew older, I came to see writing as a powerful tool for making meaning of my life and the world around me. It’s my safe space.
What writers do you look to in terms of inspiration?
The list is long! Esi Edugyan, Chelene Knight, Joshua Whitehead, David Chariandy, Ivan Coyote, Alexander Chee, Ocean Vuong, Banana Yoshimoto, Ruth Ozeki. I could go on and on. These are all writers that make me read with my full body, not just my mind. These are authors whose work have changed me at a molecular level.
How did you find yourself in Vancouver?
I came to Vancouver to pursue a Master of Journalism. I’d never been to Canada before, and even though I went abroad for my undergrad, this move felt different. I was older and doing a master’s was a decision, not just the natural next step when you’re 18. I hadn’t intended on staying this long, but something about being in Vancouver, nestled between mountains and the sea made me feel at ease. A decade later, I am grateful to still be here.
I find myself asking this question a lot, how did you deal with COVID and the accompanying lockdowns?
Being an introvert, I feel like I managed it better than most. COVID was a great excuse to not leave the house and dedicate more time to writing. During the week, I attended to my day job, but on weekends, I wrote nonstop. I can see how it’s not healthy in the long-run, but being confined helped me make Atomweight a reality.
Your character Aki is half Japanese, half Columbian, you yourself are half Japanese, half Brazilian. Which begs the question, I suppose, how much of you is in Aki?
There is a lot of myself in Aki. We are both mixed Asian-Latina. We were both raised in loving families. We both struggled with coming out. But Aki is much more than a mirror. She’s the amalgamation of everything I’ve ever been or wanted to be. I like to think of Aki as a gift to my younger self, an experiment in freedom and recklessness.
This idea of explosive violence as a catalyst for self-discovery, and for dealing with competing forces within Aki’s life is interesting, and a bit scary! What was your impetus for writing this into the novel?
Growing up I remember feeling a lot of anger, and there was never a safe place to explore that in either culture I was raised in, especially being a girl. Anger can be a powerful vessel of discovery. In Atomweight, I wanted to take this anger to an extreme and explore the fracturing and rebuilding of the self through a violence that was physical and tangible.
Writing a novel always strikes me as such a commitment. How was the process for you?
The book began as a short story that I wrote while at the Writer’s Studio at SFU, and it grew from there. Committing to writing a novel was a scary process. I had never written anything that would come close in length, and, on paper, my background in journalism had better prepared me for nonfiction. Also, the endurance necessary to see a project like this to completion wasn’t something I was sure I possessed, but at the end of the day, a book is a collection of chapters, which are a collection of paragraphs, and which are a collection of sentences, and so on.
I can’t help but think that writing a book like this would be emotionally wrenching. Was there anything you discovered about yourself in the process of writing it?
Recognizing that sometimes I needed a mental health break from writing the book was crucial. Some days I could do it for five hours nonstop. Other days, it felt impossible to put a word down. To have to put yourself in the shoes of your characters, when they are battling internal and external turmoil can be exhausting. On top of that, when you’re queer and the story you’re writing is about coming out, it can feel triggering. Thankfully, when you’re writing you get to control that pace.
Was there anything that surprised you about the process?
Everything surprised me about the project. There’s so much work that goes into taking an idea and turning it into a novel. You have to be patient with yourself and the work. You have to allow the story to grow with and beyond you, and you can’t do that unless you dedicate time to a project.
Do you plan to write more books? Anything you can share with us?
I would like to think there are more stories left in me. Right now, I am working on my MFA thesis, which is a graphic memoir about the legacies we, as queer parents, pass down to our children. But for now, I’m just trying to soak this all in.
Emi Sasagawa will be appearing at LiterAsian 2023 on May 6, from 1pm – 2:30pm at Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, Hall of One Hundred Rivers, as part of a panel, “Now Tell Me” on the crafting of Words and Narratives, with Candie Tanaka, Simon Johnston, David Mura, and Jack Wang. Visit literasian.com for details.
I took another sip of the too sweet cocktail in front of me. “Surprise me,” I had said to the middle-aged bartender when he asked me what I wanted to drink. I was sitting alone at a pub near Holborn Station, popular with the university crowd. I’d walked by it many times, but never been inside.
That Thursday, I’d counted on a full house; instead, the pub was nearly empty. Just a couple of businessmen having a heated discussion the 2008 financial crisis, and how the Bank of England intended to pump £75 million into the economy, and a group of five men who looked to be a few years older than me, early twenties maybe. In the six months I’d been attending the London School of Economics, I’d learned to recognize the overblown egos of a certain class of British schoolboy. With nothing to prove and little to lose, a few drinks were the only excuse they needed for bigotry or misogyny.
Somebody had picked up a girl at a party last night. “She was wild, if you know what I mean.” Another one was waiting for the right time to text back after a first date—two days would suffice, one of his friends advised. A third one was bragging about a threesome he once had with two German tourists. “Thirsty tourists, I tell you.”
Their remarks annoyed me, but this was just standard misguided masculinity. Nothing made my blood boil or my hands twitch. I itched for a confrontation, but they didn’t excite me. No spark. Another sip of my cocktail. I wondered why more women weren’t gay.
The front door swung open and slammed against a chair, admitting a frigid wind and a young South Asian man who took a seat at the bar and ordered a pint. I pulled my hair back from my face so I could see him better.
He was the definition of average: short—only a couple of inches taller than me—with straight, black hair perfectly parted to one side, wearing the caramel boots, acid washed jeans, and navy-blue bomber jacket typical of first-generation Asians on the rise. He and I were the same hue of brown, but where the hairs on my hands were thin and light, his were thick and black.
There was something about his features that reminded me of Ayesha. The nose, the eyebrows. He looked like Asad. Or was this just me, thinking all South Asian men looked the same? I inhaled deeply, stretching my arms above my head, then turned to the bar and took the last sip of my drink.
“Do you want another one of those?” The younger bartender, Teddy according to his nametag, came over.
“It’s alright. Just a shot of vodka.”
“You here often?” the Asad lookalike asked. “I feel like I’ve seen you before.” His right foot tapped on the footrest to the rhythm of the rain.
“I doubt it,” I replied curtly, folding the napkin in front of me into a triangle. I looked at his biceps. Not much bigger than mine.
“Technically, I’m not supposed to drink.” He moved a seat nearer. His eyelashes were so long they curled up, just like Ayesha’s. I could smell the rain on him, mixed in with cigarettes. I missed how she smelled of cigarettes. He took a large gulp of his beer and then turned to me. “Muslims are not supposed to drink.”
“Then why do you?” I asked, spurring him on, sizing him up. My jaw tightened in anticipation.
“I guess I don’t like being told what to do.” He laughed and downed the rest of his beer, keeping eye contact with me, inviting complicity in his religious transgression. “Another one,” he called to Teddy.
I couldn’t decide whether he was trying to impress me or if he was just a regular asshole. Maybe this was a straight courting ritual, one I was not familiar with. His attention felt forced, repulsive, and I welcomed the familiar heat rising to my head, a blend of anger and elation. He was pushing the right buttons.
I smiled as Teddy wiped the counter with a dirty cloth and placed a shot of vodka in front of me. He stretched over the bar, on the tip of his toes and leaned in. “Is he bothering you? I can ask him to move.”
“It’s fine, thank you,” I said, tight-lipped. I’m sure Teddy’s intentions were good, but I hadn’t asked for help.
“Is he the boyfriend?” Asad lookalike asked.
“No.” My nostrils flared as I turned to face him. “Penises don’t interest me.”
The man’s eyes widened. “That’s a bold statement.” He laughed louder than necessary, feigning ease.
I stared at him. “I guess I don’t like being told who to like.”
“Touché.” He turned to face me as Teddy exchanged the empty beer glass for a full one.
I nodded slowly. The man and I locked eyes. He opened his mouth, but then looked away. We were close. I could feel it. Now was not the time to be coy. “It looks like you have more to say about this.” I pressed my lips together and inhaled. “Please, do enlighten me on your unsolicited opinion.” Idiocy only needs the smallest opportunity to make an appearance.
He sneered. “You should be careful who you go around saying that to.” He took a sip of his beer. “If you were my sister, I’d set you straight.” He shifted his body in his seat and turned away from me.
Rage rose from the pit of my stomach, up my chest, all the way to my head. My legs shook under the counter. I moved my neck from side to side. Even then, in thick of unrepressed anger, I wondered if I was enough—big enough, strong enough. At five foot four and just over a hundred pounds, I was an atomweight, lighter than straw. Maybe that’s why he couldn’t have known what would happen next.
Excerpt from Atomweight, by Emi Sasagawa reprinted with permission. Published by Tidewater Press.