Today’s Deep Cuts is “Girl, I Love You” (over at The Dark) by Nadia Bulkin. Originally published in Phantasm Japan (eds. Nick Mamatas and Masumi Washington), “Girl, I Love You” is also one of the twenty stories appearing in Bulkin’s debut collection She Said Destroy (available now from Word Horde).
“Girl, I Love You” takes a familiar setting – schoolgirls in near-contemporary Tokyo dealing with supernatural powers – and twists it by making the mystical psychic energy not only commonplace but also commoditized. In a world where curses can be bought in corner stores, when protagonist Michi’s “blood sister” Yurie can no longer stand the torment doled out by bully Asami, the only option left appears to be a particular spell called the “Ultimate Sacrifice.” As readers might expect, however, things do not go according to plan.
Bulkin’s deft world building and the impeccably realized narrative voice of Michi allow readers to fall right into the slightly off-kilter world. Despite those speculative elements, however, the personal conflicts and relationships are always at center stage, and although the magical backdrop dictates what options are available to the characters, it never controls them. Pay attention to the ways in which the driving feelings love and friendship are developed even amongst the fear and guilt, and which of these ultimately guide our characters on their path.
At this point, make sure you’ve read “Girl, I Love You” because **SPOILERS FOLLOW.**
Hellnotes: Although “Girl, I Love You” takes place in a near-contemporary Tokyo and focuses on the friendships and rivalries between school girls, this is also a strange world where the “psychic energy” of magic and curses is not only real, but is commonplace. How did the idea for this story arise? Were there any particular sources or influences that you see “Girl, I Love You” to be in conversation with?
Nadia Bulkin: I love imagining worlds very close to our own that have made a tense peace with some kind of paranormal phenomena – in the case of “Girl, I Love You,” the proliferation of “psychic energy” that can be harnessed in curses. I’m always wondering how a government would respond to such a radical shift in the real – the political science major in me, I suppose. This story in particular owes its inspiration to one of Junji Ito’s stories, “The Will,” about teenage girls killing themselves in order to haunt each other – the idea of your life being the “ultimate sacrifice” you can offer up to the forces that be, and more specifically the idea that some hatred, some pain, is actually stronger than one’s self-preservation instinct, is the central tenet of “Girl, I Love You.”
HN: There appear to be several parallels here between psychic energy and the problem of school bullying. Regarding both, the authorities – represented by the government and the Ministry of Education – have no real idea of how to handle their respective crisis and so merely foist bland platitudes off on the suffering populace. For example, the Ministry of Education is powerless (or refuses) to stop Asami’s bullying, while the government at large also has no way of controlling the curses and so tells people to “be good.” Much like school kids are taught to avoid bullies, the state also recommends citizens avoid engaging with ghosts. Even both Asami and the Prime Minister (supposedly) have protective charms that insulate them from the consequences of their actions. As a result, everyone who is left vulnerable either must try to avoid offending the powers and ride out any abuse, or they must take matters into their own hands. The results for this last approach seem to lean towards tragic.
Do you see this as a failure on behalf of the in-story government and school to handle these real, but hard to pin down, problems? Do you see an analogy here with the real world?
NB: That’s a great observation that I’m not sure even I had fully realized until you pointed it out, but you’re right – there’s definitely a shared complacency between the school authorities on bullying and the government on psychic energy. I think as I was writing it, what I was thinking about was this idea that so many of our social and political structures are built on the idea that “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must” – an idea that morphs into “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” in polite company. I think we like to traffic in a certain fantasy that the world is set up fairly, so if you get hurt it’s your own fault – because we want to believe that if you’re a good person, if you follow the rules, if you’re smart, you’ll be safe. Reality is much more complicated, of course, partly because there are forces beyond our control and partly the world is not set up fairly. As long as there is power, that power warps the playing field. But it’s always easier to blame the weak.
HN: Although this world is recognizable as almost our own, it is – as Michi points out – post-apocalyptic. Even though there hasn’t been any massive destruction, the ability of every person to access magic is an “apocalypse” in its original sense of “an uncovering” or revelation of hidden knowledge. However, even in this new milieu, humanity’s ability to commodify the new psychic energy resources has come to forefront. Not only are charms available on the black market, but they’re also for sale in normal shops, they have capitalized trade names like “Ultimate Sacrifice,” and even a vengeful ghost like Miss Yamazaki has become a tourist attraction with a quantifiable 80% success rate as if she were being scored on Yelp.
What is your interest in exploring this kind of development? Is there something you find either disturbing or comforting about mankind’s ability to soldier on through the same routines despite such an upheaval?
NB: I believe in evolution. Life has a tendency to soldier on, usually when experts are busy anticipating the end of everything. I think sometimes we get so caught up in blockbuster visions of the asteroid hitting Earth that we forget that life was still scurrying around under the dust clouds. I grew up in Indonesia, which is famous for this sort of flexible endurance, a tendency to not catastrophize that verges on the absurd: a few hours after a terrorist attack in Jakarta in 2016, street vendors were already selling food almost on top of the wreckage. To bring it back to “Girl, I Love You,” money makes the world go ‘round. Just like humans will always have the urge to exert power over others, to see what they can get away with, even if there’s a holy war going on, even if a kaiju is breathing down your neck. That to me is realism, and incidentally a couple “kaiju” movies actually do this really well: Monsters (2010), and Pacific Rim (2013). I suppose it’s comforting to know that life finds a way, but it’s also a bit depressing to know there is no great transformative experience. Life finds a way, but so does pettiness. So does cruelty. And definitely so does currency.
HN: The story explores different ways in which people try to reframe their relationship towards others after an upheaval. For Michi, it’s how she deals with the world and particularly Asami in the wake of losing her father and Yurie; for the world at large, it’s how people interact with each other in a world with unrestrained psychic energy. As one potential strategy, Asami offers that “[t]he strong survive, that’s the rule” – but this sounds like justification for her bullying. By contrast, Michi’s father had hewed to the government line that “[t]he best way to protect yourself is to be a good person” – i.e., since you never know who could hurt you, you should tread lightly around everyone. Michi claims to take this latter position at one point, even though she rightly notes that individuals are “not turning into better people” but that they are behaving less badly because “retribution is getting closer.”
In the end, however, Michi’s final assault on Asami isn’t done to protect Michi herself, but rather to allow Yurie to finally exact her revenge and, in doing so, gain peace after death (albeit in hell). Even though Michi tells us in the story’s first paragraph that she “had accepted that life was shit, not just in school but beyond,” as readers later learn from Michi’s prayer for her dead father’s peace, a desire for rest after death is one of Michi’s central concerns. Her final words during Yurie’s revenge on Asami aren’t “You get what you deserve, Asami,” but rather directed to Yurie: “Girl, I love you, too.”
What can we make of this? Is Michi’s act one of love, rather than vengeance? Is there a meaningful difference?
NB: For me, Michi absolutely acts out of love. She knows that Yurie is suffering, even if she doesn’t really believe – and never has really believed – in the ends that Yurie is trying to achieve. She’s still trying to end Yurie’s suffering. Yurie could have asked for anything and Michi would have done it. That’s the whole point of being “blood sisters” – a phrase I picked up from my own blood sister, when we were in middle school. You’d have to ask her where she got that from, but I think you can feel what it means at a molecular level. In fact, one of Michi’s central fears before Yurie’s death is that she isn’t doing enough to stand with Yurie, to help her even if just by being there and enduring (being bullied) with her. But you’re right in noting that Michi was raised in a household that hewed to the government line, which as earlier discussed is one that prefers to believe that if you just keep your head down and turn a blind eye, essentially, that you’ll be taken care of. Michi ends up adopting a different line – taking matters into her own hands and getting them dirty. For Yurie.
HN: At the end, Michi has obtained Asami’s protective amulet, which may or may not be shielding Michi from vengeance for her role in Asami’s death. Once insulated by that magical privilege that places her above retribution, Michi recognizes that she has become callous and apart from the world. Unlike Asami, however, Michi feels the need to surrender that protection in order to retain some part of her humanity. The reader can see that Michi has retained some decent part of her and, in fact, Michi even hopes that Asami and Yurie have found each other in the “burning plain” and become their own kind of blood-sisters.
By the end, has Michi become a “better” person who accepts the possibility of punishment for her crime? Or does she make a choice that being compassionate despite all her losses is worth risking death? Does her knowledge/hope that she might be reunited with Yurie temper that final decision?
NB: I don’t know that she really believes she’ll be reunited with Yurie. I think the answer is exactly what you outlined – Michi realizes she has become callous and apart from the world. She literally no longer feels human, because to be human is to face consequences, to be able to feel a reaction to your action. Actions no longer have any meaning or weight to Michi, and neither do feelings. And that’s a world she decides isn’t worth living in, though by making that decision she is, in a way, choosing to “live” in the truest sense of the word.
HN: Although this column normally focuses on the text of the story, it also sometimes delves into the author’s process. You have compiled a “Girl, I Love You” playlist on your blog, which features several (as you note) moody and atmospheric songs. Did these songs influence you while writing the story (in particular, the identically titled Massive Attack song), or did you assemble them later? When you were writing “Girl I Love You,” was there a particular tone or emotional effect that you aimed to capture, or was something else – the premise or the characters, perhaps – the driving force during the creative process?
NB: I listened to Massive Attack’s “Girl I Love You” a lot while writing the story, less for particular lyrics than for its tone, but the playlist was compiled after – those playlists are intended less as a reflection of what I used than for accompaniment. My story “Girl, I Love You” was driven by the relationship between Michi and Yurie, by this image of this girl sitting in class with her best friend’s ghost clinging to her. The other major influence on this story was the Korean “Whispering Corridors” movie series, which take place almost exclusively in all-girls high schools and focus entirely on the high drama, ultra-apocalyptic worlds that teenage girls live in but with the added urgency of death and ghosts, of vengeance and blood oaths. As I mentioned, I have a “blood sister” who I love dearly, and I wanted to capture the mania and strength that those relationships entail.
HN: Finally, for readers who are new to your work, which other story or stories of yours should they look for if they want to read something similar? What about if they want something completely different?
NB: For something sort of similar, I would try “Only Unity Saves The Damned” or “No Gods, No Masters.” For something completely different, I would try “Truth is Order and Order is Truth” – all of which are in my debut collection, She Said Destroy.
Nadia Bulkin writes scary stories about the scary world we live in, three of which have been nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award. Her stories have been included in volumes of The Year’s Best Horror (Datlow), The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror (Guran) and The Year’s Best Weird Fiction; in venues such as Nightmare, Fantasy, The Dark, and ChiZine; and in anthologies such as She Walks in Shadows and Aickman’s Heirs. Her debut collection, She Said Destroy, was published by Word Horde in August 2017. She spent her childhood in Indonesia with a Javanese father and an American mother, then relocated to Nebraska. She now has a B.A. in political science, an M.A. in international affairs, and lives in Washington, D.C.
She Said Destroy is out now from Word Horde – see here for ordering details!