Confession time. I am so indoctrinated into the Western way of storytelling with its Aristotelian plot arc that I forget I’m always looking for the next conflict and how that will get resolved. So when a book comes up that makes me fundamentally rethink that form AND it’s superbly written… well, let’s just say that reading The Night Parade: A Speculative Memoir by Jami Nakamura Lin was a deeply pleasurable education. To say that the memoir envelops stories about bipolar disorder, childbearing, and losing a parent to cancer feels reductive, because the book is so much more expansive than any other memoir I’ve read on any of these subjects. It’s a beautiful book that’s been upending my thinking ever since I first opened it last weekend.
Subverting the Expectations of Form
“I choose kishōtenketsu, the Japanese version of the four-part narrative structure that flows from Chinese poetry. I need something. I have too much story and not enough shape. I overflow my banks.” – Jami Nakamura Lin, The Night Parade
Throwing a literary form on a writing project can be a good way for a writer to organize themself and to kick-start their thinking. To see what is and is not working. It can also turn into a gimmick where they’re shaping the work to fit the form rather than finding the right form for the work. Instead, Lin wields form in The Night Parade as a tool to both unlock the narrative and to rethink assumptions.
I can’t speak to the kishōtenketsu form Lin uses (which I have no experience with), but I can tell you that the way she applies this structure feels natural and compelling. Which is to say the form definitely supports the work rather than the other way around. Lin explains each of the four parts as we encounter them in the book (in a similar gentle way to the quote above) which gives entry to those of us with little experience with Japanese literature. What worked best about this for me (among many things) was that she immediately subverted my expectations—I didn’t realize the weight that expecting the next conflict (as in the Aristotelian model) carries. Because I knew from the outset that this book is different, I was free to float along on the journey Lin is taking us on.
I wrote to a friend this weekend that, for a reality TV aficionado, The Night Parade is to the Great British Bake-off what most books are to Making the Cut. That itself is reductive, but it starts to hint at the gentle layers one can enjoy in a story when unnecessary drama is stripped away.
When the Art of Storytelling is the Story
“Each time you tell a story, you can manage the tale to fit your needs. You can gauge the audience’s reactions, alter the form or the tense or the point of view. With a little maneuvering, a little emphasis here and a little de-emphasis there, you can make an ending seem happier.” – Jami Nakamura Lin, The Night Parade
Lin is not only a master storyteller, the fact that she’s telling a story also becomes an important part of the writing. Throughout the book she inserts small breaks with the fourth wall, pulling back from the narrative enough to remind us that she is structuring this story and how. In lesser hands this could feel jarring. In The Night Parade it feels honest, like Lin is acknowledging how artificial our constructs are and bringing us in on the making so that we can see the nuances in the choices she’s making.
For a writer, this book is pure heaven because those moments are like the best conversations you’ve ever had with a really great editor. If you are a reader who doesn’t write, I think you will also enjoy these opportunities to learn more about the art of storytelling.
“She: a distancing. She: a way to get close. I’ve tried to tell this story so many times, but when I use I—when the girl is me—the story sputters in my mouth. Becomes too big or to small or too askew. It is wrong. I promise I am not telling this story like this to keep you away. I want to invite you in, the only way I know how.” – Jami Nakamura Lin, The Night Parade
The Mythologies We Inhabit
Lin bases each chapter of The Night Parade around a character from Japanese, Okinawan, or Taiwanese (the three strands of her geneology) folklore and then gently weaves the story around these tropes, forming juxtapositions it could take many re-readings to fully unpack.
“You are drawn to these myths because they change. Unlike static texts, folklore, legends, and oral histories are living tales that transmogrify with each subsequent retelling. We understand and understand again based on contemporary lenses and frameworks.” – Jami Nakamura Lin, The Night Parade
I loved that these mythologies existed fully enough in each section to function as their own stories. I imagine this is because Lin was learning them as she was writing and researching this book, but it also helped this reader more fully see the parallels between the mythologies and the family stories. I loved learning more about each of these characters and there were times I felt glimmers of understanding bits of what I had missed in reading about characters like these in the works of Sayaka Murata and Isabel Yap.
Humility is Underrated
Maybe it’s the gentleness of the form, the way that it made conflict feel secondary to experience, but The Night Parade felt like a deeply humble book. Don’t get me wrong, it takes a certain amount of ego for any writer to sit down and decide that their work belongs on the page, let alone that their life story is a story worthy of sharing. But “ego” doesn’t have to be pejorative. While this is Lin’s story and she fully embodies the narrative with her experiences an her analysis, she has also very carefully worked beyond herself to tell a larger story.
For example, Lin recounts the night of a teenage suicide attempt that got her hospitalized (one of the few times she goes deep into the more dramatic side of being bipolar) but she also includes nods to what the night may have done to her younger sisters. Rather than a blood-on-the-page recounting of individual trauma, Lin’s stories always exist in context—in the context of the reader, the context of her family, and the context of a world that is, in general, larger than each of us individuals.
I want to spend thousands of words describing the threads of this book to you—the strands of miscarriage, pregnancy, parenthood, childhood, a dying parent, exploring your roots in a culture that wants us all to blend—but I wouldn’t do as good of a job as Lin does and if you thought I was, you’d be robbed of the true beauty of reading this book for yourself. Trust me. When I tried to explain to my husband how much I loved this book I just cried all over our couch.
The Night Parade isn’t released until October, but you can pre-order it now. Meanwhile, I’ll be looking around for other things Lin has written, because I want more of her voice in my life.