How to Make the Familiar Seem Strange

5 Jul
Sequoia Nagamatsu's story, "Placentophagy," was published at Tin House and is included in his collection, Where We Go When All We Were is Gone.

Sequoia Nagamatsu’s story, “Placentophagy,” was published at Tin House and is included in his collection, Where We Go When All We Were is Gone.

Any discussion of writing horror, sci-fi, or fantasy fiction will inevitably arrive at the phrase “defamiliarize the familiar.” What this means, in short, is that those stories aim to make readers pay attention to something they’d normally not give a second glance. Think about the film The Shining. It transformed a kid on a tricycle into the stuff of nightmares. Of course, all writing can do this, not just genre fiction.

A creepy example of a straight realism that does this is Sequoia Nagamatsu’s story, “Placentophagy.” It was published as part of Tin House‘s blog series “Flash Fridays,” where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

For some readers, the story’s title, Placentophagy, will give away the plot. But, I suspect most readers won’t immediately recognize or know the term, and so the moment of surprise happens a few seconds later, after reading the first sentence:

My doctor always asked how I would prepare it, the placenta.

In that single sentence, Nagamatsu manages to defamiliarize the familiar. The familiar: a body part (and, thus, something as familiar as can be). The unfamiliar: preparing the body part in order to eat it. It’s as simple as that: apply an unfamiliar context or action to something familiar. If you’re like me, there’s no way you won’t read the next sentence and the one after it. We’re hooked.

But now what? The story has made us pay attention to something we’d normally give no thought to: a placenta. How does it advance the premise?

First, it suggests ways to prepare the placenta:

Powdered and encapsulated for my Yuki—two, three, four or more a day depending on my level of sadness and how much I believed the vitamins and hormones within the tissue would make me whole again. Pan fried and stuffed into dumplings for Toru. A smoothie and two yakitori for Keiko.

Then, the story adds a moment of doubt: will the characters eat it? The husband introduces the doubt:

“We don’t have to do it this time—just because we have it.”

That doubt gets extended into the preparation:

I write down daal and naan. I write cumin and cardamom. But I’m not sure if I want to do Indian.

The story now has different directions it can go: eat it or not. Prepare it this way or that way. But that’s not enough. It’s not until the next section that the story really advances the premise into something beyond shock value.

First, Nagamatsu introduces the medical rationale for eating a placenta:

Despite being regarded as unusual, eating the placenta (placentophagy), can help women restore hormonal balance after labor and provide much needed vitamins and nutrients: Iron, B6, B12, Estrogen, Progesterone.

So, he’s made the unfamiliar into something as familiar as the medical text at the end of commercials for medication. He then takes this rationale and the fact that eating a placenta is something that does, in fact, happen, and makes it unfamiliar again:

The Baganda of Uganda believe the placenta is a spirit double and plant the organ beneath a fruit tree.

The story has advanced. It’s not simply a matter of will the character eat the placenta and, if so, how it will be prepared. Now it’s a question of will she eat the placenta and, if so, what will that action mean?

That final question of meaning makes the story so much more satisfying. It’s not simply trying to shock us but, rather, grappling with the eternal issue of how to be in the world, which is the question behind all great fiction.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s make the familiar seem strange using “Placentophagy” by Sequoia Nagamatsu as a model:

  1. Pair something familiar with an unfamiliar context or action. You can do with this with absolutely anything. Here are some examples you’ve seen before: intelligent car (Herbie), flying car (The Absent-Minded Professor), killer car (Christine), and talking car (Knight Rider). In all of these, something familiar as a car is made unfamiliar with an adjective. The film Men in Black did this with Tommy Lee Jones’ car. It suddenly began driving on the roof of a tunnel, and Jones’ character put on a song by Elvis. The song, then, became defamiliarized. So, try this: pair a noun with either an adjective or a verb (eat) that wouldn’t normally be paired with that mount.
  2. Play with the possibilities of the premise. Nagamatsu does this by listing the ways the placenta could be prepared. If you’re using “flying car,” think of all the things a flying car could do. Yes, it can fly, but once it’s flying, then what? Where can it fly? What do the characters do while flying it? Utterly normal things like listening to music or looking out the window suddenly become strange.
  3. Re-familiarize the unfamiliar. Just as Nagamatsu uses medical terminology to make eating a placenta not so strange, you can make your premise less strange and more familiar. After all, if you fly a car enough, you get used to it. It’s not a big deal anymore. So, what would make your premise mundane again? Frequency? Social acceptability?
  4. Make it strange again. Nagamatsu adds the element of folklore: the idea that a placenta might be a spirit double. So, we’ve gotten used to one way of viewing the eating of a placenta. Then he introduces a new way of viewing it. So, what are other ways to view your premise. A flying car is awesome, for instance, until the atmosphere above one hundred feet becomes toxic. Or, a flying car gains new meaning if the ocean level rises and covers all of the land. Notice how this works: you’re shifting the background of the premise—the context. Nagamatsu shifts the context to Uganda, and suddenly the premise doesn’t look the same anymore. How can you shift the context of your story?

Good luck and have fun.

2 Responses to “How to Make the Familiar Seem Strange”


  1. An Interview with Sequoia Nagamatsu | Read to Write Stories - July 7, 2016

    […] story “Placentophagy” and an exercise on defamiliarizing the familiar, click here. In this interview, Nagamatsu discusses first lines, his process for outlining stories, and why […]

  2. - Conflict of Interest - January 10, 2017

    […] each genre smoothly and without care for classification. “Placentophagy,” which was featured in Read to Write Stories, deals with the practice of eating the placenta after birth and the overwhelming sadness of […]

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