Inner and Outer Worlds: Rose Morris in Conversation with Emi Kodama

Emi Kodama

Emi Kodama, whose story "A forest of houses, a corridor of trees" appears in The Malahat Review's spring 2020 issue #210, discusses activating the mind's eye, her cinematic approach to writing, and the interplay of scale in her Q&A with Malahat Review volunteer and past Editorial Assistant  Rose Morris. Read an excerpt from "A forest of houses, a corridor of trees."


Through a multidisciplinary practice that includes writing, performance, and installation, Emi’s work mentally transports people through storytelling. By layering the everyday with memories and daydreams, she blends your imagination with hers, creating a world that people can explore and expand. She wants to give others the opportunity to spend time in their inner world — for them to be curious, ask questions, and realize the power of their own imagination.

Originally from Vancouver (CA), Emi has been based in Ghent (BE) since 2008 when she started the post-graduate program at the Higher Institute for Fine Arts (HISK). She has an MFA from the Frank Mohr Institute (NL) and a BFA from the ArtEZ Institute of the Arts (NL). Her work has appeared in Ricepaper Magazine, and her collection of short stories and drawings “If I Were You” was published by MER. Paper Kunsthalle in 2012.

Your stories are usually developed into performances or installations. How does that impact the way you write?

Maybe I’ll begin by telling you a little about my artistic practice. In a performance, I read the stories out loud to people one-on-one or in small groups. In installations, the stories are recorded and heard as sound pieces. There is always a physical element to the experience in connection to the story. The work might require the audience to make a gesture, like pick up a shell and place it against their ear to listen, look in a microscope, or watch the light in the room turn to dusk. The story published here is a performance and is heard while holding a walnut.

I want to draw people’s inner and outer worlds closer together to create an experience that feels more narratively immersive. How can the body be engaged in a way that helps people become more absorbed by the story? Can the physical location be an extension of the mental space they inhabit in the text?

I really take the audience into consideration when I write. I think of myself as a guide to people’s imagination through storytelling, which is such a generous and accessible medium to activate the mind’s eye with. In daily life, most people don’t get a chance to spend time in their inner world, so they’re not used to exploring it.

I’ll get into the relationship between the mind and the body later and first talk a little about some of the things I keep in mind while writing to make it easier for people to imagine.

I’m very much influenced by image-making. I take a cinematic approach to writing, developing the story like a movie. Good movies, their grip, the power they have to suck you in and make you forget that anything else exists has always enthralled me. I borrow this strength. My stories are like a montage. If one sentence focuses on something close up, the next might be on something mid-distance. I think of the length of each sentence and the speed with which they’ll be read. I consider places for a pause when I read it to give people some time to absorb what came before. In this way, the story world is built up bit by bit, providing a variety of angles to give the audience an idea of the whole.

I also use clear, simple language. Part of that came from necessity. Living in Belgium, English is most people’s second or third language. The majority of Belgians understand English quite well, but I don’t want difficult words to take them out of the story. Besides that, I want the language to be sharp, with nothing decorative. I try to be rigorous about cutting out anything that feels superfluous. By writing “bird” rather than “raven,” people can associate freely. I’d like to guide them only to a certain extent, be suggestive, so that they can do the rest.

Another thing that helps lead people into their imagination is to make stories feel familiar, recognizable, close to their everyday lives. For example, I write about summer camp hoping that people have been to one, and if not, that they’ve seen movies with scenes of it or read about it somewhere. It’s an assumption I rely on and work from.

I’ve often thought of each element of my story like a stepping stone. At first, the stones are placed close together so that the listener feels comfortable as they wander. They feel it’s safe, familiar territory and from there, the stones are spaced farther apart, nudging them towards something a little unfamiliar, new, to create a sense of wonder.

"A forest of houses, a corridor of trees" switches between first and second person. How do you think point of view affects narrative, and what do you think switching the point of view does in your story?

Because this story was written as a performance, I use the two points of view to acknowledge the presence of the audience as well as my own presence as a performer. Our proximity is important in heightening the level of engagement from the public. People are more concentrated because I’m in front of them, more committed to experiencing the entire performance.

Their attentiveness also comes if I can establish trust, build rapport. I read in a clear, calm way so that people can float along on my voice. The style of the writing isn’t exactly conversational, but I do want it to have that kind of intimacy by using the “I,” like I’m telling a personal story. I open up, and there is a sense of vulnerability as a performer, putting myself out in front of an audience. In response, people feel that and are respectful.

The “you” is really directed at the public. I do this to draw them into the story and include them in the narrative. People are given a walnut as they enter the space, and when I say, “Make a fist around the walnut,” it’s an invitation, and most people do it. This story is meant to create an interaction between the physical walnut and the imaginary one, the idea being that the walnut in your hand makes it easier to imagine one. When it turns into an asteroid or a house in the story, you have the object as a tangible thing to return to. As a side note, I was curious to put this story in a literary context to see how it would be received. I think the story can stand on its own, and I wanted to share it with a non-art audience.

There is also the indefinite “you” referring to an unspecified person, people in general. I do this to have an informal tone, but it’s also intended to open up to the idea that we are many, part of a collective, connected but separate. One of the things I like about this text is that when I’m reading it, most people close their eyes, and you know that each person has a vastly different world inside of them, but we are all in the same story, experiencing it together.

I think of my stories as a collision of my imagination with the audience’s. The performance is an offering, an imaginary space that is a starting point for people to interpret, inhabit, and expand for themselves. This piece requires a certain amount of surrender, of letting go, to allow yourself be carried through it.

What role do the senses play in your work?

I’ve come to think of myself as having two bodies: one physical, the other imaginary. When I imagine myself hiking, I have legs that carry me. I feel the wind on my skin. I’m always a body in space. Because all of our experiences start from the physical self, I use the senses in my stories really consciously. Descriptions of things like scents or sounds are more stepping stones into the audience’s imagination.

I like how the description of a sensation can be simple yet evocative. The way language can trigger something in your brain to approach an actual physical experience is extraordinary. Personally, I’m someone who spends a lot of time in my head, and I sometimes forget the joy of the senses. Writing about a texture or flavour helps me inhabit my own body.

In my performances, imaginary sensations are paired with physical ones. One of my favourite parts of this piece is when people turn their walnuts, you hear the little rattle of the nut inside. At this moment, you have the experience of the walnut as an object through its sound as well as the reminder of being part of a group, an impromptu choir.

The physical sensations are meant to bolster the imaginary one. Attention spans are fragile. It’s not possible to eliminate all distractions, but focusing your attention on an object is a way of bringing your body into the story to heighten your concentration. The walnut in your hand extends into your imagination and vice versa. There’s a dialogue between the two, a back-and-forth that creates a dynamic, as close to a closed loop as I can get.

Your story moves back and forth from a wide lens (an asteroid in space) to a very focused lens (a walnut). How do you go about controlling the interplay between the very large and the very small?

I’m very conscious of transitions between the big and small. The interplay of scale is something that I’ve developed over time and has become very important to me in my writing.

I might describe it as dream-like movement, where unlikely elements come together, and things shift and morph freely. This movement can be slow or fast. Some sections in the story form gently, but there are other parts with sharp cuts from one scene to the next.

Within this dream-like motion, there are a few techniques that I use. Sometimes, I rely on physical features to bridge two different things. For example, a walnut has similar characteristics to an asteroid, which makes for a fluid transition.

Some things can be interpreted as big and small at the same time, like when I say, “Your walnut is a house.” After, I describe you being inside this house, and then you’re two sizes. There’s a small explosion of different scales and even though the story unfolds in a linear way, mental space doesn’t function like that. I think of the imagination more as a menagerie of fragments than a consistent image.

There is also the scale of time, for example cosmic time versus human time. I might contrast these through the use of day and night and the seasons, to create continuity between different scenes and a feeling of time passing in a few short sentences. It’s similar to shifts we experience in daily life, like days lengthening in the spring, the feeling that the longer days have arrived swiftly, even though it’s been an incremental change over weeks. In other parts, I focus on small details to extend the moment. 

This is a little tangential to the question, but if you’ll let me continue a little longer... I grew up doing a lot of camping and hiking in British Columbia, and it’s something I miss quite a lot. I’ve been living in the Netherlands and Belgium for sixteen years now, and both countries have no mountains, and most nature is agricultural. I started looking inwards for the wide-open spaces and the grandeur of a mountainous landscape. In Canada, I could regularly experience both feelings of being big and small. Here in Belgium, I live in Ghent, a medieval city. It’s beautiful, but everything is constructed to human proportions. This has created a nostalgia for real wilderness, the immense expanse of space that is little inhabited, and to me, both unknown and unknowable. I’m drawn to the mystery of these places, which is also what draws me to the cosmos. I probe the places I can’t physically go with my imagination, to get close by creating and recreating them. The impossibility of getting anywhere near them reminds me that I’m very small, which isn’t so much a source of frustration, but rather something that leads me towards an acceptance of my place in the universe. 

Rose Morris

Rose Morris

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