Joan Hanna: We were so happy to have your essay “The Deer Cabin” in our July/Asia issue. The narrator in this story seems caught between two worlds. Can you discuss how this clash of cultures affected your story?
Justin Kingery: The clash of cultures, along with its affect on me, is the story. Without that psychological stress my alternative perspective dissolves entirely. I think the ability to feel comfort and a sense of home is a very human emotion or state of existence. It’s also a dangerous one, as we have no real backup plan for loss, in most cases. It almost always takes us by surprise and knocks us on our backs.
Reverse culture shock, as best as I can describe it, is like waking abruptly from a very surreal dream, maybe a dream in which you could envision yourself living happily for the rest of your life. Upon waking, upon returning, things are blurred, perspectives have changed, colors seem slightly different, and there’s an extreme sense that something very special has been completely lost. It’s something that cannot ever be retrieved — a place and time in which you could have been content (at least you believe) for all of time. Gone. Traded, in a sense. And for what? In my case, it was so I could go back to the farm. To rusty fences and filthy cattle. After growing somewhat accustomed to life in a city of 16 million people, that’s quite the shock to the system. It’s at that point one begins to think very heavily about the value of his or her own life. The brevity becomes real. The cruelty of time is understood. I remember I couldn’t stop thinking to myself that I would never again see the things I saw there, and even if I would return, they wouldn’t be the same. That really upset me. But also at this point I was forced to make a decision: either I would succumb to this feeling and be sad for a long period of time or I would cherish my memories and work toward finding that happiness in all my surroundings. At the end of my story, I believe I was in transition from the former choice to the latter. It may have taken a while to realize it, but familiarity can be extremely comforting, especially in times of loss.
JH: Can you talk a little about this idea of old friends and the simplicity of common events shared over time and how it affects friendships when one of the group decides to move on?
JK: Old friends are, I think, some of the most valuable things in life. While I’m sure it’s different for various types of people, I find that I’m happiest in the company of shared experience. In my late history as a doctoral student, I studied narrative and personal experience, the ways our worldviews are shaped by the day-to-day events in our lives, large and small, significant and ordinary. To share a partial history with another person is to share a life, to co-exist and interpret meaning together. And it’s through these shared experiences that we’re able to see pieces of ourselves in others. It’s how we learn to empathize and process more clearly our human emotions.
As far as friendship is concerned, when a person leaves a close group of friends then returns some time later, as I did, there’s a gap. It’s a gap filled with experiences that were not shared, and therefore must be communicated. And communicating clearly is difficult. In my experience, how could I make my friends clearly understand the emotions I felt in China—emotions that I didn’t fully understand myself? I did my best, and maybe I only communicated a small fraction of what it was I actually experienced, but it was all I could do with the language and shared experience we all shared. Old friends and acquaintances often speak of picking right up where they left off after prolonged periods of time apart. This is the case because, at least I believe, of that experiential gap; picking up at the last point of contact is the easiest to do because that’s the point of the last shared experience. The gap and all that happened therein might be communicated, but it’s the shared experience that is easiest to connect with and understand. It’s the time we share together that makes the most sense to us and holds the most meaning.
JH: I love how the narrator finally settles back into the rhythm of his unchanged life before China. But I wonder how the experience will change after the initial homecoming. Do you think lifetime friendships can withstand this type of change?
JK: I believe very few things in life, and perhaps nothing, can last unchanged—friendships, love, memories, etc. Time affects it all, though the changes are often slow and difficult to see. My old friends from the story are still my friends today, but time and our individual experiences have continually redefined the boundaries of our friendships. We are not the same people we were in grade school or at the time of my return from China, and, therefore, we see one another differently now. Garret, one of my best friends from the story, was only 18 when I returned—still such a child in so many ways; last week, I sat at the hospital with him (he’s 24 now) as he held his newborn son for the first time. Time changes people, molds them. Garret is simply not the same person I wrote about in my story. And that’s the tragic beauty of this genre, nonfiction. It allows us to paint these portraits of one another, these memories, at very specific points in time. But just like a portrait on a canvas or a picture taken with a camera, they’re merely reflections of a single moment in an eternity of moments. We, along with our perspectives, change continuously, and there’s nothing to do but look back, document, and try to better understand whatever it is that makes us who we are. This understanding of identity, I believe, allows us to better understand each other, relate more closely in our differences and similarities and our struggles, and, ultimately, makes us more tolerant, loving people.
JH: Thank you again for sharing your work with r.kv.r.y. and for taking the time to talk a little bit about your process. I just have one final question, what does recovery mean to you?
JK: You’re so welcome. I’m honored to have my work shared through r.kv.r.y.
Recovery signifies to me a return to normalcy from some psychological state of unrest. And loss is always the culprit, isn’t it? —Loss of health, loss of a loved one, loss of trust, of interest, or of a dream. Unfortunately we lose all sorts of things. To recover is to find a way to reconnect with the world, to come to an agreement with fate or God or simply the unfairness of it all, and to keep on living in an altered state. And we’re constantly, every day of our lives, in an altered state; we are always in a state of recovery. Being the way we are, our greatest losses are commonly magnified because we take for granted the things we love most. We view them as inseparable from ourselves, which, after loss, leaves us feeling so much less. And sadly, it seems we’re always losing important things. Recovery then, in my own understanding, is everything that comes after. It is the process of living a human life.