Q&A with Aozora Brockman, author of “Light and Moon”

Aozora Brockman’s story Light and Moon” was published in The Offing’s Fiction department. Q&A conducted by Julia Chen, Fiction Assistant Editor.

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Julia Chen: Hi Aozora! I think I can speak for all of the editors when I say that your prose — the details you choose to linger on and the delicate way you unspool the story — makes for a sublime reading experience. How did you balance having such a light hand: the lush scenes we fall into vs. those pivotal moments you stop short of giving away a question burning on the character/reader’s tongue? Did you have a sense for where those beats would go when you first started working on this story? Or did the silences make themselves known later in your drafting process?

Aozora Brockman: I’ve already confessed this to you, Julia, but to those who don’t know: this story was my first attempt at fully realizing a short story. My friend Elinam Agbo was teaching a fiction workshop during the early days of the pandemic and I poked my head into the Zoom room, more than a little terrified. I got my MFA in poetry and wrote essays here and there, and writing fiction felt impossible to me. But the pandemic coincided with my year-long writing fellowship, and time stretched out before me like a napping cat, long and lazy. I picked up my pen and began to write a story inspired by a Japanese folk tale about a girl from the moon.

I had a vague outline of the narrative in mind, but the story shaped itself scene by scene — by which I mean I truly didn’t know how the story would develop until I wrote it. I would begin a scene with an idea of its direction, but as I was writing it, it would invariably twist and turn, and another path would emerge before me. Much like life, perhaps, I couldn’t plan for what was to come. So in answer to your question: I was intuitively feeling my way through this story in the initial draft, and feeling, too, the delight of lingering on certain scenes and thoroughly living them.

In subsequent drafts, I added, cut, and rearranged scenes to clarify the narrative and to let the characters become more fully themselves in the text. I loved having different eyes on the story — including yours, Julia! — and hearing what was getting through to a reader and what was still muddy.

JC: It’s hard to imagine this story taking place anywhere else but on this family’s land, among the day-to-day rhythms of their farm (which you bring to such a beautiful life). I imagine some of this intimate knowledge comes from your personal experience, but can you speak more about the importance of this setting to Tsuki and Hikari’s stories?

AB: Like Hikari and Tsuki, I had the pleasure of playing and working on my family’s vegetable farm as a child. “Light and Moon” opens with a scene of Hikari and her brothers imagining that they are blasting into space; this is a scene that emerged from a childhood memory of hiding my body within the musky interior of a rotted-out tree and feeling as if the tree held a special power, something akin to magic. As a child I often felt that there was magic happening all around me, for it was magical to witness the way a seed I planted could grow into a sprawling summer squash plant blooming with yellow crooknecks, and for a summer sunrise to stain a puddle red-orange. But the magic also existed within my mind. I was often lost within my imagination while I weeded or harvested, and it was because I was alone in my work, and listening to the birds, the breeze, or my own breathing, that my mind could meander.

In “Light and Moon,” I wanted to explore the otherworldliness that emerges from the landscape of a farm and play with the boundaries of reality and fantasy within the mind of a young girl. I also wanted to think through how fantastical narratives can fill gaping silences. In Hikari’s family, no one addresses the elephant in the room: where Tsuki came from. The truth, of course, is messy and not easily explained to a child, but the complexity of the issue doesn’t erase it, and the mystery of Tsuki’s arrival gnaws at Hikari. In the story of Kaguya-hime Hikari finds a magical explanation not only for Tsuki’s origin but for her oddness, and discovering the story’s ending escalates Hikari’s anxiety that Tsuki does not belong to her family and will someday have to return to where she came from.

JC: Hikari tells us: “I thought about Kaguya-hime’s power, how everyone loved her because of her beauty. How I wanted to be beautiful and loved. How at school all the girls crowded around Kailee at recess except for me. Was Kailee beautiful? She had hair like Tsuki’s, and eyes like Tsuki, too: big and blue.” This is the first explicit mention we get of the knot of race, desirability, and belonging at the core of Hikari’s story at this moment in time. How do you think it affects her relationship with Tsuki after the grocery store scene? With her mother?

AB: The story of Kaguya-hime is an old tale that was written in the late 9th or early 10th century in Japan, and it is a narrative that most Japanese are familiar with still today. It is a story that has been told and retold over and again, a story that is, as Hikari says, about a young woman whose power stems from her otherworldly beauty, which allows her to turn down many a marriage proposal, including from the most powerful of all men: the emperor of Japan. In my reading, it is also a story about how beauty and belonging are interconnected, how there is great power in being loved by everyone, and how if love and likability are linked with beauty, then it is a woman’s beauty that empowers her.

Hikari’s relationship with Tsuki is a complicated one. Hikari is taught by her mother to help take care of Tsuki and feels responsible for her, and their bond only grows while they share a room together in their new house. But there are moments when Hikari’s ambivalence towards Tsuki shows through. Early in the story, for example, Hikari thinks back to their family’s life before Tsuki’s arrival with nostalgia. As Hikari gradually awakens to what it means for her to look differently from Tsuki, she becomes aware of the power that comes with being able to blend in with the whiteness that surrounds her mixed-Japanese family, further complicating her relationship with Tsuki.

In the grocery store, Hikari and Tsuki’s joyful play is interrupted by a woman who takes offence that a girl who looks like Tsuki is spending time with a girl who looks like Hikari. Tsuki is a blonde, blue-eyed little girl, whereas Hikari is marked by her mixedness; they do not resemble sisters. When Hikari is thrust into a piercing gaze that makes her feel both ugly and unlovable, she runs away, leaving Tsuki behind.

Hikari and her mother also endure a rupture in their relationship after Tsuki disappears at the grocery store. Hikari sees her mother through the white gaze, noticing her “black, pin-straight hair” as if for the first time. When her mother struggles to convey to the cashier that her daughter has gone missing, Hikari, who speaks English more fluently than her mother, is powerless to help.

In the last scene of the story Hikari watches as Tsuki is swallowed up by the moon, and it is at the very last minute that Hikari fights off the weight on her body and blocks out the moonlight with a curtain, ensuring that Tsuki isn’t taken away from her. In this moment she resembles her mother, who, despite living in a country far away from her own and speaking a language that is not her native tongue, stares down the woman who stares down at her at the grocery store, and brings both of her daughters home. Hikari ran away from Tsuki in the grocery store and could not bring herself to speak up for her mother, but when she throws off the weight on her body to save Tsuki, she is finding her own power.

JC: This is something we discussed during the editing process, but I was curious about Hikari’s relationship with the men in her life and how they seem to have faded from the page by the end of the story, leaving only Mama, Hikari, and Tsuki. Was it important to you that these are the three characters we’re left with?

AB: In writing this story, I felt a pull towards exploring the relationships between women and girls within a family. I sense that there is a kind of intimacy that exists between sisters, and daughters and mothers, that is both precious and jarring — we see in one another a mirror. When we navigate these relationships we are also navigating our understanding of ourselves and who we can become. It is difficult to extricate oneself when you are so bound up in another person, but often some distance is needed to fully understand your identity. There is a lot of fascinating — and emotional! — messiness that comes into play.

I didn’t necessarily plan for Ame, Hoshi, and Papa to fade from the storyline, but there is a way in which all three of these characters are pulling away from Hikari, Tsuki, and Mama towards the end of the story, and it felt natural to allow them their distance. They, too, are mirroring one another by using similar ways of coping with the rifts that are beginning to form within the family.

JC: Are there any particular books that you’re finding solace in lately? And if it isn’t reading, what other activities have been joyful and restorative alongside your writing life?

AB: These days I look after my one-year-old daughter with little time for reading or writing. Birthing her and learning to be her mother changed me on so deep a level that I hardly recognize the self I was before she existed; what I know wholeheartedly, though, is that I am the most joyful version of myself that I have ever been, and encountering her daily delights — at seeing an April snow fall from the sky, hearing the neighbor’s dogs bark, or feeling the stickiness of flour mixed with water on her fingers — gives me solace.

I have also been learning to work with flour lately; I am baking bread and making pizza doughs and flour tortillas from scratch. One of my daughter’s favorite words to say is “pan” which means bread in Japanese. How delightful it is to make a simple no-knead recipe my mother taught me, and to see the way my daughter points towards a freshly baked loaf saying “pan” with the brightest smile on her face! The flour I use is from Janie’s Mill where my aunt is the head miller, and we eat our bread topped with fried eggs from my parents’ chickens — and all this beauty of family feeding family makes my heart very full.

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