An I-Novel, Minae Mizumura

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

According to Wikipedia “the first I-novels are believed to be The Broken Commandment, written in 1906 by Tōson Shimazaki, and Futon (The Quilt) written by Katai Tayama in 1907.”

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?

Page from the original Japanese edition. You can see that the Japanese ideographs are a mixture of kanji (dense) and hiragana which apparently is phonetic. (Minae is speaking to Big Mac, an American who lectures in Japanese).

… 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).

22 thoughts on “An I-Novel, Minae Mizumura

    • I went and read the Guardian review. Nobel Prize winners seem to write differently to everyone else, and yes Oe appears to be writing about himself and having a bit of post-modern fun with it at the same time.

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      • Ah, there are Nobel winners and Nobel winners. Many of them are interesting for curiosity value or because they write novels of ideas (in whatever form) but others are ‘just’ really good storytellers with a social conscience. Sinclair Lewis won a Nobel and so did John Steinbeck, both plain, straight-talking authors exposing injustice and inequality in The Land of the Free. Then there’s Nadine Gordimer writing about apartheid South Africa, and Svetlana Alexievich about life under the Soviets. And I did like the Oe…

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      • So, I can expand my genralization to two streams of Nobel winners – social realists, and literary experimentalists? Alexis Wright unites both streams. Murnane’s time is seemingly past, but perhaps Wright is still a chance (I know, only a small body of work).

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  1. This sounds up my alley Bill. I did read a bit of Japanese literature for a while, and I think you’re right that contemporary Japanese literature does tend to be edgy, and to have a certain melancholic or alienated tone, in my experience. I’d love to find time to read more.

    I like your point about Japan’s position when it was written versus now.

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    • I can remember a time when we thought Japan would end up owning everything. That is certainly how the future looked to William Gibson when he was becoming famous.
      I think my starting Japanese Lit with 1Q84 meant that I was setting my expectations very high, but Murakami’s earlier work had a grungy familiarity, as in a different sort of way did Convenience Store Woman (Earthlings was a bit gross). So it took me a while to come to grips with Minae, who is a quite conventional young woman – I am tempted to make a comparison with S&S, Minae, despite being the younger, is very much an Elinor – but as you come to understand the conventions of Japanese Literature she is stretching this becomes a very interesting novel.

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  2. I’m not sure I’ve read any Japanese I-novels. What I have read, tend to use a fantasy or supernatural element in them – or cats, which I’m sure is a whole sub-genre in Japanese lit!

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    • It was nice to get a rest from Japanese magic realism. Not that Mizumura gives you much time to rest – you spend the whole time being forced to think about what it is to be an outsider (when you thought you weren’t); the nature of English as a universal language; how that impacts on Japanese Lit whose history stretches back to when the English were painting their faces with woad; how a cross-cultural novel might look, and so on.
      Nanae mothers two cats.

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  3. The discussion of translation and the Japanese literary canon sounds fascinating. It must have been a challenge for the translator to translate something that was already partly in English, keeping the tone consistent. Or I suppose perhaps not keeping the tone consistent – languages have different tones, after all.

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    • It must be a challenge translating authors like Mizumura and Murakami whose English might well be as good as the translator’s. As I wrote, Mizumura and her translator (Carpenter) worked together on this and I think that rather than reverse the original’s Japanese/English mix – which would be unreadable for a non-Japanese speaker – they came up with a style which reminds us that Minae and Nanae were talking both languages at once, but rendered almost entirely in English.

      I think you should read the Johannesson first, but I’m sure you would enjoy both her and Mizumura.

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  4. Oh, this sounds excellent. I love stories of people of different cultures in different countries, as you probably know by now, and also like Japanese literature when it’s not too peculiar.

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  5. You’ve sold me on this one. A lot of times fiction about children of immigrants focuses on how their parents live in a new country but act like they are in the “old world” and don’t understand why their American-born children are so different, etc. Amy Tan, who is a great writer, has this focus. However, I want to read a broader scope of what it’s like to be an immigrant living in the U.S. Adding this one to my pile.

    By the way: have you ever read No No Boy by John Okanda? You’d get on with that one.

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  6. You’ve made me want to make a list of all the writers I’ve “discovered” because they are shelved near the works of already-favourite authors. It’s been one of my reading joys! I’ve flagged this one on my library list and I see Inheritance from Mother and The fall of language in the age of English and A True Novel all look REALLY GOOD too. Sheesh, and here I thought I was just adding one book to my TBR and it seems like I’m adding everything the author’s written. LOL

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  7. I found that she writes really well, is thoughtful about how bilingual people think and speak, is interesting on the subject of race. I thought though that her coming of age was just so so. There were a couple of other Mi-Mu authors I nearly bought instead, including one Rwandan, so I’ll probably stick to that corner of the shelves.

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