Kaj Tanaka

Kaj Tanaka‘s fiction has appeared in New SouthNew Ohio ReviewJoyland, and Tin House. His stories have been selected for The Best Small Fictions 2018Best Microfiction 2019, and Wigleaf‘s Top 50 Stories 2019. He teaches creative writing classes at the Harris County Jail in Houston, Texas, and he is a fiction editor for Gulf Coast.

It was great to get to ask Kaj some questions and re-present his story Piano Lessons, which was first published in April, 2015 by the legendary journal, The Toast.

I loved your class at Bending Genres (take a class with Kaj if you ever get the chance!!!) where we used the Spark as our concept for unique and explosive flash, very much like Piano Lessons. Taking that concept above a single story to a writer’s style or maybe a novel, what works have been the biggest Spark or influence for finding your own voice?

The very short works of Isaac Babel, Lydia Davis and Richard Brautigan have been a huge influence on the way I approach stories. With them, as with many writers who work in very short forms, there isn’t a single work I’d point to—what moves me is the way their many many short works accumulate to present a portrait of a mind at work.

What’s been your favorite artistic outlet during the thing called 2020?

I’ve been writing a novel which claims to be a reference guide for “the true and proper use of magic.” Not sure if it was a good use of my time, but it was fun to write. It’s been pretty all consuming. I feel like it was March like three days ago. Further evidence that time travel works if you have the right attitude.

Why do you hate Craft so much?  Just kidding. I’m alluding to a conversation we had one time on twitter I believe, an actual successful multiple person discourse if I recall correctly, but I don’t remember your specific points, but you had some insight about just going for it more than thinking about it?

I don’t hate craft per se, but I don’t think writers need to spend a lot of time and money on books, lectures, talks, academic degrees, workshops etc. if they want to be happy and fulfilled by their creative work. I bristle at the idea that writers ought to look for ways to  “up their game,” and I mistrust a cottage industry that sends that message. We are all on a journey with our writing, and while studying “craft” can be part of that journey, to my mind, it is not an essential component of a fulfilling writing life.


Check out some other great Tanaka stories here:

The Story Tellers in Heavy Feather Review

He Was Trying to Say Something and He Couldn’t Get it Out in Tin House

Mistaken in Pidgeonholes


Piano Lessons by Kaj Tanaka

Last night my friend Mary masturbated in the church sanctuary where all of us girls were supposed to be sleeping. I think I am the only one who heard the crinkle of her Barbie-brand sleeping bag and the squelch of her fingers, kneading between her legs. Later, after I thought she was finished, she started moaning loudly. I think everyone heard, but when I rolled over to her sleeping bag, she was asleep. I clutched my study Bible to my chest for the remainder of the night, her sexual dreams seeping around me like ooze. As I lay awake, I considered the possibility that there was some sort of other explanation for what I had heard. Her scream, for example, might have been a wild dream of bareback riding at her family’s vacation home in the Black Hills; the wet rhythmic sound might have been the nighttime smacking of her juicy, perfectly moisturized lips. All things have answers. This is what God tells us.

Mary is my next-door neighbor. A boy named John who is older and has a girlfriend lives next-door to her, and after John is Ms. Radcliffe, who teaches some of us neighborhood kids how to play the piano and is known to be a lesbian. We all take piano lessons from her: Mary and John and I. John is the only boy in the entire neighborhood who takes lessons from her. Once I had a dream of standing naked in front of John, of taking off my clothes, item by item, and standing there naked and saying the words: what do you think of me now, you boy? It is wrong that I had this dream because John has a girlfriend. It is also wrong that Ms. Radcliffe is a lesbian, but I don’t mind because I am not one of those Christians. But I think about it all of the time, John’s fingers and Ms. Radcliffe’s fingers and all of those other sensual fingers mashing and penetrating all of those vaginas all over our neighborhood. Fingers forming chords on that piano we all take lessons on—all of my sexually experienced neighbors confidently fingering chords on Ms. Radcliffe’s grand piano—playing beautifully. And they turn to look at me while I sit off to the side, while I wait for my lesson. They smile at me, as if they know something about me, something juicy, something I have tried to conceal.

First published in April 2015 by The Toast.

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