weird words with Kaj Tanaka

Kaj Tanaka is a PhD candidate at the University of Houston. His stories have been selected for Best Small Fictions and nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He is the fiction editor at Gulf Coast. You can read more of his work at and tweet to him   Here, our fiction editor, Cathy Ulrich, asks Kaj a few questions about his story, “Mistaken“, published by Pidgeonholes on June 4, 2018. ULRICH: There is so much knowing and unknowing in this piece, learning and unlearning. The narrator says “my wife’s body feels like my wife’s body,” says “(t)here is nothing anywhere like her, and I try to remember that.” How is it for this couple, all this remembering, all this forgetting and loss? TANAKA: The problem with memory is that a memory is itself, and thing it recalls is the thing it recalls. I think we often make the mistake of thinking our memory can somehow connect us to the thing it recalls, but that’s just not true. Memories are as much a fiction as anything you read in a novel. In this story there’s a lot of redundancy, like the phrase “my wife’s body feels like my wife’s body.” That’s just a reminder that there’s no other way to describe a thing or understand it than to be in its presence. I guess that’s why loss bothers us so much. ULRICH: The story begins with a waking from dreams, and then it shifts into waking into dreams, like the characters can’t tell what is reality anymore. Their dreams are so vivid — do you have very vivid dreams like that? Or is this something you’ve created for your characters? TANAKA: I don’t have dreams like that much these days. I did for a while in my twenties when I was getting into lucid dreaming, but that’s a real commitment. You have to think about your dream life all the time when you are awake, like you need to be constantly checking to see it you are dreaming even when you are sure you aren’t, and I just couldn’t sustain the energy after a while. It was a wild few months though, constantly having to doubt if I was really awake. I recommend everyone try it at least for a few weeks. It’s a great demonstration of how fragile our sense of reality is. ULRICH: The characters struggle to hold on to each other, “how could I forget you?”, they keep asking, but they still come apart, still fall into these dreams where one has forgotten the other. Do you think they will manage, ever, to completely connect again? TANAKA: My idea is that they do eventually find each other in their dream worlds, though perhaps not in the waking world. Their dreams do seem to be somehow linked, after all. It’s maybe a little romantic, but I like that. It pushes against the idea that dreams are isolating, private things. ULRICH: There is a dog named Jacqueline in this story (noticeably the only character to receive a name) — why that name? Why Jacqueline for a golden retriever? TANAKA: Haha. I really like, you know, “people” names for animals I guess. My wife and I think it’s really funny. We want to name our next cat Kevin or Gary. ULRICH: This is a love story at its heart, really. You have another love story like this (one of my favorites, by the way), about dreams and a husband and wife finding each other and losing each other in them. Is this the same couple from that story? TANAKA: I wrote them during the same time, so yeah I think that’s a pretty safe assumption. Not that it was intentional exactly, but I think I had some big ideas about this particular couple that were a little too big for one story. ULRICH: At the end, the narrator says to the woman from work “it’s you. It must be you.” But she doesn’t seem to be sure that she is. Was this interaction set from the beginning, or is there a variation out there where she says “yes, it’s me”? TANAKA: No. I never had a version where she recognizes the narrator. That’s antithetical to the vision here. Desire is the act of reaching out with great uncertainty. It’s reaching and never grasping. So I guess I feel that to complete the interaction here would somehow destroy it, and I didn’t want that. As a married person, I think it’s important to write stories in which marriage isn’t love preserved at a stasis point (as lots of unmarried people seem to imagine it) but a constant act of reaching out with uncertainty. If it were anything else, a marriage would be a dead thing. You can read Kaj’s story, “Mistaken”, here.   Logo by: Robert James Russell