Why did I pick up/purchase – with my birthday gift voucher – this book? Because it was shelved next to Murakami? Well, that is how I came to see it; because it looked exotic, maybe; because I responded to the advertising on the back cover –
Minae Mizumura is one of Japan’s most respected novelists, acclaimed for her audacious experimentation and skillful storytelling
probably; because it brought to mind Jessica Gaitán Johannesson’s How We Are Translated, which I very much enjoyed, definitely.
An I-Novel was originally published in 1995 under the title Shishōsetsu from left to right. The word shishōsetsu designates a confessional autobiographical genre – the I-novel – that has played a key role in modern Japanese literature. The original, based on the author’s experiences growing up in the United States and Japan, freely mixes natural American English with Japanese.Translator’s note
At the time the novel is set, the 1990s, Minae, in her thirties, and her sister Nanae, two years older, have been living in the US, in and around New York and various university towns, since they were 10 and 12, when their father’s work as a manager for a Japanese company took him there and he subsequently transitioned to “local hire”. Much of the novel consists of Minae and Nanae talking, on the phone, in Japanese, but quite often using American expressions, which are rendered in a different typeface.
“Right? Mother could dress up all she liked to go to the Metropolitan Opera, and for all we knew the whole time people were looking at her and thinking, Oh dear, here’s another Oriental, ruining the atmosphere.” I opened my mouth to speak, but Nanae went on, “How would that woman know the first thing about opera? …”
Mizumura collaborated on the translation, but it is necessarily different from the original as we have much less Japanese than the Japanese have English. If you look at the page from the Japanese edition below, you’ll see that the original was more or less 50/50.. What I haven’t shown is that every now and then there is a black and white illustration, full page, with a cryptic caption – ‘University campus’, ‘Suburban house’, and so on. A Japanese thing?
… other times I wrote a mixture of kanji and hiragana. [gives examples] The rounded soft loveliness of hiragana was like the shape of a beautiful woman now reaching up, now bending down as she went about her work in the home.
My experience of Japanese in literature is limited to early William Gibson, Murakami and Sayaka Murata (Convenience Store Woman, Earthlings), all of whom have a certain edginess. Minae Mizumura on the other hand, for all the experimentation in her writing, is decidedly middle class, in her life, in her attitudes. So at one level this is the story of a studious, relatively lonely girl at school; never fully engaging with life in the US, reading all the Japanese classics at home; always planning to return to a Japan which seems less familiar each time she visits; moving on to college and then to grad school and working in a less than motivated fashion towards a PhD in … French!
She has various, mostly Japanese boyfriends, but even the most recent and most constant has returned to begin ascending the corporate ladder back home; and she is left with university life (she’s at an unnamed Ivy League university outside New York) which she avoids; her sister on the end of a telephone, at a time when long distance calls cost money, from her artist’s loft in SoHo; her mother run off with a younger man to Singapore; and her father in a home on Long Island, declining into senility.
And she finds that she, the youngest, has ended up head of the family.
Nanae is superficially more rebellious, wearing bright clothes, short skirts, coloured hair, becoming promiscuous, taking up sculpture. But as they talk and talk and talk Minae becomes aware that Nanae is, like her, both unhappy and dreaming of a return to life in Japan.
However, it is the other side of this work which makes it especially interesting – the discussions of writing in Japanese and English; Minae’s life-long engagement with the Japanese canon; elements of Japanese writing that an outsider can only suspect: the conflict between duty and feeling (giri and ninjō) – she references (Japanese author) Sōseki; the traditions of the I-novel, which in English may be considered autofiction, but which may also contain elements of “aspects of society”.
Aspects of society indeed. Minae and Nanae work their way down to what it is that makes America so uncomfortable for them, and the answer is, as it always is, race. The Japanese see themselves as special, but Americans are unable to distinguish them from Koreans or Chinese, they are ‘Oriental’ and in the end, they are ‘colored’.
Shouldn’t Japanese people at least be aware of what the West thought of us historically – as much as the West had ever bothered to think of us in return? Wouldn’t we then no longer be so self-deluded, telling ourselves that we, unlike other Asians, were essentially Western?
It is an interesting aspect of this book that it was written when Japan was at the height of its economic power – as were the William Gibson cyberpunk novels – and that Minae is conscious of this and discusses it. With China now so prominent it is becoming increasingly difficult to recall that there ever was such a time.
Both as a coming of age in a strange land, and as writing about writing, this is a striking work; and yes I enjoyed it and recommend it.
Minae Mizumura, An I-Novel, Columbia University Press, New York, 2021 (first pub. in Japanese, 1995). Translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter. 325 pp.
August is being is being celebrated by some lit.bloggers as Women in Translation Month. I did a search and came up with this from Scribe (here).