Aya Osuga A.’s story “The Cities Dissolve, and the Earth Is a Cart” was published in the Spring 2021 issue of The Georgia Review. A. was born in Japan and raised in Los Angeles. She received a degree in computer science from Yale University while also completing coursework in fiction writing. Her work has appeared in McSweeney’s and Michigan Quarterly Review and was awarded a Lawrence Foundation Prize in 2020. She has attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference under the auspices of the Rona Jaffe Foundation Scholarship as well as the StoryBoard workshop by Story Studios. After a decade in finance, A. relocated to a Panamanian beach town, where she runs a small school and resides with her husband and children. Here, she discusses her experience of working with our editors to prepare “The Cities Dissolve” for publication.
GR: Tell us a little bit about this work. Is it a part of a larger project or practice?
Aya Osuga A. (AOA): “The Cities Dissolve, and the Earth Is a Cart” is a standalone piece. From childhood through my twenties, I’ve been interested in exploring the psyche of war. So when I took a year off after my junior year of college to work at a migration IGO (on issues like trafficking), I also spent part of that time traveling to former war-torn countries and battle sites to gather the emotions and motivations involved in such an atmosphere. The idea for this piece came while traveling through Cambodia; I slept on the floors of buses, I interacted with locals, I visited harrowing sites like Tuol Sleng, a school converted into an interrogation center and prison. As part of a generation obsessed with how quickly we can forget information, I felt a responsibility to listen and remember these places and stories. That gap year inspired several pieces set against the backdrop of war, but many were melodramatic or not very good. Back then, I was so disappointed in my lack of skill as a storyteller. This story, too, was filed away in the archives for about fifteen years before getting dusted off for revision. I’ve recently dug up another story written during that period and have put it into the revision process, so it may eventually see the light of day someday.
GR: Was there a moment in your editorial exchange with Georgia Review editors during which you felt like the story started to do something new?
AOA: The first several drafts of this story were written in first-person, told in a child-like voice through Arunny’s eyes. There was so much heartbreak in that version of that story, but it did not feel genuine. Would someone who had experienced such trauma be willing to open up so easily? Would she perceive life as a normal person would? I then rewrote it in a third-person narrative, from the perspective of a roommate retelling the protagonist’s story. This was the version that I submitted. I felt the content was there, but I was still not fully convinced that this was the most appropriate way to present the information to readers. I contended with it long after it was submitted; I knew the story desperately needed a revision to bring it to the form it needed. So I was pleasantly excited when Soham wrote back asking to see a revision. The draft that she emailed back to me included her comments, along with comments from editors Gerald Maa and Doug Carlson. I read Editor Maa’s first global comment, “to change the presence of the narrator from a ‘moment’ to a ‘structure of thought/feeling’”; “to release the potential of collective feeling, projection, vagaries of hearsay”; and “use the narrative set-up for dramatic development,” and something inside me clicked. It’s like I suddenly knew what to do. I sat on the bed and sketched out various narrators to make up the structure of a psyche disjointed by trauma and abuse. I researched DID (dissociative identity disorder) and thought about the personalities Arunny might have developed in her youth as a defense mechanism; I tweaked the narrators’ voices to reflect her circumstances. Soham gave me an initial one or two weeks to send an update, and then another two weeks to send an edited draft. I was nervous about throwing the previous story away and restarting it in a new structure, but these new characters were so fun to inhabit that the story started writing itself. Fortunately, the feedback was positive at the first update, and I was able to finish it in this structure.
GR: Since this publication, what other Georgia Review piece(s) have you enjoyed? How has your experience with the journal helped you think about your future writing and reading?
AOA: In the Spring 2021 issue, I was immediately drawn to the cover art. Yaron Michael Hakim’s artwork in “Psittaciformes Forms, Self-Eating Forms” was thought-provoking, particularly when paired with Gerald Maa’s essay: a reflection on John Locke and consciousness/thinking as uniquely human traits; the avian portraits to capture individuality, with the self-portrait form used to break down the colonialist definition of legitimacy. The collection is worth exploring.
Similarly, W. E. B. Du Bois’s data portraits and particularly the sociological analysis felt culturally relevant for the fast-changing political landscape of Georgia.
Other Georgia Review stories I have enjoyed were “Evidence” by Kaitlyn Greenidge and “Vagabond” by Leo Rios, as well as “Hao” by Ye Chun, a poetic story about a mother and child during China’s Cultural Revolution. The story is about the power of words and how they can get you killed, but the prose reads like a poem, with such powerful and unforgettable imagery.