James Han Mattson: LGBTQ Literature, Finding Your Voice and Addressing Gun Violence in Fiction

In Iowa Writers’ Workshop–graduate James Han Mattson’s first novel, The Lost Prayers of Ricky Graves, the cyber-bullying of a gay teen leads to a multi-victim shooting. The book turned heads upon its release in 2017 as an Amazon Best Book of the Month, a Publishers Lunch Bookseller Pick and a Kindle First Pick, and landed him a guest spot on NPR’s “Weekend Edition.” Born in Seoul, South Korea, and raised in North Dakota, Mattson has taught writing at the University of Iowa, the University of Cape Town, the University of California-Berkeley and others. He’s also lent his talents to international organizations dedicated to language and literacy. In 2009, he traveled to Korea and reunited with his birth family after 30 years of separation. Here, he discusses topics integral to his devut novel, including LGBTQ literature and writing about gun violence—as well as finding your voice.

The plot of your debut—in which the cyber-bullying of a gay teen leads to a multi-victim shooting—seems ripped in part from too many headlines. You’ve said it was initially inspired by the 2010 suicide of Tyler Clementi and informed by the isolation you felt as a gay teen, but the book delves into so many complex, hot-button themes. In the years you spent shaping this story, how did your focus evolve, and what was most empowering about seeing it come to life on the page?

When I first started writing the book, I found the rapid rise of social media alarming: I very much agreed with Craig Martinez when he called it a “digital tapestry of unanswered prayers” showcasing an “enormous wall of human misery.” As time progressed, however, my feelings evolved, became more nuanced. I saw how technology could inspire actual connection and evince altruism without geographical limitation, and while my reservations never fully faded, I began seeing digital relationships as an integral and important part of modern life.

Another theme I explored—and one I particularly loved rendering—was culpability. While writing the book, shootings happened so often that time to mourn or ponder flattened to near nothing. Because of this, reactions became everything, and conversations reflected emotional responses, sometimes devolving into blame. Though I understood the desire to assign fault (it allowed us to direct our collective anger at a distinct institution or group of people), I thought because of the rapid succession of incidents, we weren’t having the complex conversations necessary for such a complicated issue. In the novel, Claire, a high school student who kept a distance from Ricky in person but chatted with him online, says that she thinks maybe everyone is at fault and nobody is at fault, and that pretty much sums up how I feel. No single person or institution is at fault, but all of us, collectively in our myopia, are to blame.

You’ve taught writing at quite a few well-regarded schools. What’s the most important thing do you think those studying the craft can do in trying to find their voice?

Finding your voice, to me, means shutting off your voice and hearing the voices of those around you. Writing fiction requires a deep sense of empathy, of imagining the minute details of others’ lives, of envisioning how a character perceives the world and how the world reacts to the character. If you spend too much time searching for some personal writerly voice, you’re missing out on opportunities to hear other realities. The world is made up of billions of constantly shifting experiences, and it’s your responsibility, as a writer, to tap into a few of those to the best of your imaginative ability.

Do you think labels such as “Gay/Lesbian Literature” and “Asian-American Literature” [both of which have been used with Ricky Graves] are helpful in terms of connecting books with the right audience? Or do you find them as exclusionary?

I find those designations a bit mystifying, to be honest. I understand that they help connect a book to a particular audience, but I don’t quite understand what makes a book fall into these categories. Is it simply that the author personally inhabits the category? Or is it that the characters in the book reflect those particular lives? Or perhaps it’s a bit of both? Is Michael Chabon’s book The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay considered gay/lesbian literature because of its prominent gay characters? I doubt it’s ever cast that way in stores. But is Chang-rae Lee’s book Aloft considered Asian-American literature even though Asian-Americans play little-to-no role in the book? Probably—simply because the author is Korean-American. That leads me to believe that the content of the book is much less important than the background of the author, and I’m not exactly sure how I feel about that. I certainly wouldn’t classify my book as Asian-American literature based on the content (there’s only one Asian character), but I understand as an Asian-American author, my books will probably always be categorized as such.

I’d like to see more cross-pollination; I’d like to see people embrace literature that perhaps won’t personally resonate with them but will enlighten them to a reality outside themselves. I feel this way about cultural studies programs at universities as well: Why, I’ve often wondered, do you rarely see Asian-Americans in African-American Studies courses, and vice versa? Part of understanding ourselves—and particularly our marginalized selves—is understanding ourselves in relation to others and their marginalization, and while we interpret the world through our own cultural and demographic lenses, to promote more empathetic discourse, I think it’s important to be curious about the cultural and demographic backgrounds of others.

What are some of the most exciting things you see happening in the realm of LGBTQ literature today?

The answer here relates to my answer in the previous section. If LGBTQ literature is to be defined as literature by and about LGBTQ people, I’m excited about its increasing visibility, its penetration into mainstream markets, and its multi-dimensional portrayal of LGBTQ lives.

ROAR: Writer’s Digest Turns Up the Volume on Underrepresented Voices in the Writing World

Read more from this extended series, entitled “ROAR,” which appears in the May/June 2018 issue of Writer’s Digest. Feel the thunderous reverberations of authors and industry pros working to broaden our perspectives—as writers and readers alike. Plus, learn how underrepresented voices are rising in the writing world, all in these articles:

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