Conducted, edited, and transcribed by Jakob Hanschu
This interview was published in the Apr. 2019 edition of Live Ideas. View it HERE.
Jakob Hanschu met with Suan Sonna to discuss Suan’s background, philosophy, and previous contribution to Live Ideas. Below is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Jakob: I’m here with Suan Sonna, who is the author of the short story “Mishima in Love,” which appeared in our first edition back in February. I’ll let Suan start by just telling us a little bit about himself.
Suan: Right, so I’m a freshman majoring in philosophy and minoring in political science. I went to high school in Kansas City, Kansas—I basically lived there all my life—but I was originally born in northeastern India in a place called Manipur in a town called Lamka… so just out in the middle of nowhere basically, around Burma and China.
JH: Is that in the mountains?
SS: It’s very close.
JH: Ah, here I am, a geography major who doesn’t know where things are.
SS: No, don’t worry about it. Most people don’t know that my people, my tribe—the Zomi tribe—they don’t know that they exist.
JH: Oh wow! That’s interesting to me as both a geographer and an anthropologist… So India? And then straight to Kansas City?
SS: Yeah, basically.
JH: For parents’ jobs?
SS: Yeah, so in 2000, my dad left to get his education at the Central Baptist Theological seminary in Kansas. And, then, he thought he would finish his studies and go back, but then I think he was still young and realized that he just had a family, so he didn’t want to leave us. So, in 2001 we joined him, and from there we’ve just been with him since. We became citizens in 2016.
JH: That’s amazing. So now we will move into your piece a little bit. “Mishima in Love” draws on the work of Yukio Mishima, right, this Japanese… and, I don’t know, he probably wouldn’t like us labeling him… this Japanese author, creator, activist type figure. So how did you come across Mishima and what is your personal take on him, aside from what we get in your piece?
SS: I first encountered Mishima when I was in high school during my junior year. Our English teacher wanted us to read multicultural texts, so he found The Sound of Waves by Yukio Mishima, and we were all researching him, and my classmates were all laughing and snickering because they were like “Oh, so he’s this super masculine guy, but he’s also gay?” And somehow my classmates thought that that was a contradiction in terms, and I was like “Ok, this is really fascinating”—like all these attitudes that are coming out. Then, as I looked into Mishima and his life and read his biography, I saw that he committed ritual suicide, an Ichigaya… there was a whole military display and a ritual suicide, and I realized that this guy is serious. As I read more into him, I saw that he had a lot to say about Asian masculinity, political theory, and social thought, and I realized that Mishima was somebody who could be not only rationally assessed, but who also made a strong impact on me, as myself an Asian-American person. So, from there, my impression of Mishima is that he is too radical in some areas. I think he really did suffer a lot in his life from this huge pressure that he put on himself. He was so highly critical of his body, of his mind and his writing abilities, but I think that there’s something beautiful in that brokenness, and that’s what I tried to convey in “Mishima in Love.”
JH: Yes, and I think that you did an excellent job. I really liked the piece. So, you mention that you think Mishima is a bit too radical in some aspects, and also that he gets at social and political theory in his works… so where is he too radical? And is the radicalness tied up with his social and political thought? I’d assume so, but if you could just elaborate on that…
SS: I think that one of the problems is that Mishima was very big on death and bloodshed. We can understand why, because he viewed it as part of this whole view of aesthetics and beauty. But it comes to the point where some scholars have accused him of being nihilistic. On the one hand praising the ideals of Japan, praising tradition, and on the other hand he just dumped it. So, it seems as if Mishima lacked a consistent philosophy, but then again he didn’t mind that, because his impression of it all was that “I’m trying to make a statement about true human nature, about how there’s this duality, this contradiction, so I don’t need to be fully rational all the time.” For me, as somebody who tends to like rationality and order, I’m not really buying into this whole idea. I’d say he goes a little extreme on death. He becomes too fanatical to the point of disregarding other institutions that I think are important. For example, in his own personal life… to commit suicide for a political cause in some ways seems as if he disregarded his children and his family, because he did have a family. It’s like… overall, I think he tries to present a very patriarchal, dominant sense of masculinity and it’s to the point where it’s almost frightening, but I think he would like you to be frightened by him. So, in a lot of ways, I think he’s just putting his desires in the wrong place.
JH: So that dominant sense of masculinity would seem to contrast with his love for art and writing and his work as a playwright… Anyways, you said that you got into Mishima’s texts in high school, but when did you actually write this piece?
SS: I wrote it probably some time around the middle of Winter break.
JH: The ideas stayed with you from high school then? You just put them on paper?
SS: Oh yeah, the ideas have been there for quite a long time. Well, I mean a long time in terms of my life, right.
SS: But I’d been thinking that I really wanted to give a tribute Mishima, so how can I create a great tribute and show his work to other people. So I thought “Hey, what if we had a Westerner’s perspective engage Mishima?” So, that’s where the whole idea sprouted.
JH: Well I think if your goal was to bring Mishima to a new audience, then you definitely accomplished that. Now I want to dig a bit more into what you do and study. Stepping back from just this specific Mishima piece, what is the value in doing philosophy? Or if we wanted to take an even larger leap back, what’s the value of a liberal arts education?
SS: People often say that, you know, “I could live a perfectly happy and good life if I never really thought critically about things.” I think that’s a total lie, and I think it’s a lie because the world demands complexity. The world demands that you think and reason through things. So let’s say you have a paycheck, right, and then you have to decide how to spend that money—you’re dealing with economics automatically. Then when you’re thinking about your competing interests… you have to think about what you’re going to do. Let’s say there’s a homeless person on the side of the street. Well, you have to decide what to do. This idea that you could divorce yourself from rational thought and live is just… I think it’s a fallacy. It’s something that, when we look at Western philosophy, for example, especially now, we’ve developed this kind of radical individualism where people think they exist in an oasis away from cause-and-effect. This is untrue, and as long as you do exist in a cause-and-effect structure, you’re going to have to think about what your deeper beliefs are going to be. Like, what is the nature of goodness, what is worth pursuing in life…
JH: I can see where you’re coming from.
SS: When people say that they could just couch back and not think about these things, it’s like “Yeah, if you were a cat, if you were a dog perhaps,” but you are not just an animal. As Aristotle taught, you are a rational animal. You cannot really escape that aspect and live a good life. ~