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30 June 2021

Minae Mizumura’s linguistic mission

Mizumura’s second book An I-Novel is “not just a how-I-became-a-writer story; it is also a how-I-became-a-Japanese writer story”. 

By Lola Seaton

A distinguished, award-winning novelist in Japan, Minae Mizumura is little-known outside her native country because she made what she has archly described as a “terribly wrong choice”. Born in Tokyo in 1951, Mizumura moved with her family to a suburb of Long Island when she was 12 after her father was appointed head of the New York branch of his company. This presented her with the “rare opportunity” of “switching my first language from Japanese to English” – a “universal language” of seemingly unstoppable global dominance, the mastery of which would have dramatically expanded her potential readership. Instead, she spent her youth avoiding English, yearning for Japan and reading old Japanese novels (as well as Western classics in translation). Then, in her thirties, having lived in the US for more than half her life, she decided to return to Japan to become a Japanese-language novelist.

An I-Novel is the first English translation of Mizumura’s second book Shishōsetsu from left to right, which appeared in Japan in 1995. As one might infer from its title – Shishōsetsu is the name of a cherished genre of confessional fiction in Japan – it is an autobiographical novel about Mizumura’s decision. It is “not just a how-I-became-a-writer story; it is also a how-I-became-a-Japanese-writer story”.

Compared to the structural intricacy and emotional intensity of Mizumura’s masterpiece, A True Novel (2002, translated in 2013) – a retelling of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights set in postwar Japan which unfolds across several generations of several families – An I-Novel seems slight and almost deliberately scaled back, as if an exercise in reducing fiction to its rudiments. Fiction, Mizumura told the American writer Benjamin Moser in a 2017 interview, “is basically about characters making choices”, while the novel, she has written, is a “genre that celebrates the superiority of individual interiority over society”. An I-Novel combines these two elements – the drama of decision-making and interiority, or that which propels the reader and that which compels them – in purified, vacuum packed form.

***

We meet the author-narrator-protagonist (“Minae”) submerged in a kind of prolonged stasis that resembles depression. She’s in her early thirties, living alone and unhappily in an apartment in a “dingy American college town” (New Haven) and still at graduate school (Yale) though she finished her coursework for her doctorate in French literature two years ago. She wants to return to Japan but is putting off the decision by postponing her final exams. Minae is paralysed in part by guilt about the prospect of abandoning her ageing father and elder sister, Nanae, whom Minae is very close to but feels burdened by. Nanae, a sculptor who scrapes by with part-time work and lives in Manhattan with her two cats (both of whom have prominent off-stage parts), is likeable but needy and a little self-centred (“Nanae unloaded her problems on me with a kind of helplessness that forced me to feel responsible for her well-being”). But Minae is also afraid of the Japan she longs for – “like an invalid fearful of being cured”.

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Her dream of returning to Japan is inseparable from her dream of becoming a novelist. Japan is the place of her childhood and Japanese the language of her imagination and inner world. For Minae, the distance between the disorderly mundanity of reality and the sublimity of literature is symbolically mapped across the Pacific. Her life in the US feels like a wan rehearsal for the “real” life she will embark on in Japan: the “Japanese-language self” she encounters and cultivates by communing with Japanese literature is more real, or more herself, than the “English-language self” of her everyday life in America.

[See also: The ruthless, self-questioning brilliance of Janet Malcolm]

The linguistic dimension of Minae’s isolation from her surroundings gives her character’s inner life a particular intensity. Her world is contracted: her partner Tono has returned to Japan after she turned down his proposal of marriage (“When I declined, explaining that I couldn’t think of marriage until I’d finished my ever-elusive PhD, a look of relief flooded his face”); her waning father is in a nursing home; and her self-involved mother has abruptly sold their family home on Long Island and run off with a lover to Singapore. Minae recalls being virtually friendless at school. The “bluish white glow” of her computer screen and the noisy radiator pipes are her only company in her sealed-off apartment. Almost the only thing that connects her with the outer world is the phone – which she sometimes unplugs so as not to be woken by her loquacious sister.

If the interiority in which novels traditionally specialise is exaggerated in An I-Novel, its drama is attenuated. Taking place over the course of a single day in Minae’s apartment, nothing much happens objectively. Minae wakes up; her sister calls; she sits in a red armchair “staring vacantly at nothing”; there’s a snowstorm outside.

The “action” is all internal: Minae reminisces, introspects, analyses (sometimes in conversation with her sister) and then makes a decision. This decision – to return to Japan – is of course momentous but the climax is administrative (“three short telephone calls – one to the department secretary and two to professors”). The process of reaching it is hardly dramatic either – being scarcely more than a train of thought or “flow of my memories” triggered by her sister reminding Minae that it is 20 years exactly since their family left Tokyo. This mildly tenuous dramatic device is redeemed by a kind of psychological realism: anniversaries are precisely the sort of arbitrary thing that can assume enough emotional significance to precipitate an existential reckoning.

***

In An I-Novel the autobiographical element is at its most unalloyed, but all of Mizumura’s translated fiction is tethered to her life – even the classic love story of A True Novel. Inheritance from Mother (2012, translated in 2016) – which was initially serialised in a national newspaper in Japan – could be classed as an “I-novel”, too. Mizumura has said she envisions its protagonists, Mitsuki and Natsuki, “as how my sister and I might have turned out had we never left Japan”. Many of the novel’s details overlap with those in An I-Novel: an attention-seeking mother having an affair; a father stowed in a nursing home; a demanding sister; an absent (and in this case unfaithful) partner. There is a similar arc from stasis to release, too: as in An I-Novel, Inheritance from Mother opens with the protagonist feeling as though her life is wrong or stuck, and the independence required to pursue her literary ambitions involves being freed from onerous family obligations. (Both novels end with symbolic images of release – the opening of a window in An I-Novel: “Cold air rushed in, the stagnant air around me began to stir” – and the arrival of the first cherry blossoms in Inheritance.)

Autofiction has a somewhat fraught reputation in the Anglosphere, but in Japan, Mizumura has said, “over the years, through variations on similar storylines and characters, readers begin to feel that they know the author, both her real life and her realm of imagination, and become attached to her”. Mizumura has described herself as an “inordinately slow writer” and “incurably prosaic”, but the modest dimensions and muted drama of her autobiographical themes – dealing with ageing parents, for example – are accompanied by a steady, meticulous fidelity to experience that makes her avatars’ inner worlds quietly absorbing, even soothing.

[See also: Quentin Tarantino’s debut novel: a bold and often joyous work]

Mizumura’s fiction has a daring, playful streak, too. An I-Novel is not just about rejecting English – it dramatises this rejection in its form: the novel is designed so that it can’t fully be translated into English. This is because stray sentences and phrases in the Japanese original are already in English, which, Mizumura explains, a non-English writer “can reasonably expect her readers to understand”, much as the dollar is accepted virtually everywhere.

The book’s bilingualism is charged with polemical intent, as Mizumura explains in The Fall of Language in the Age of English (2008, translated in 2014), her captivating work of non-fiction about language and national literatures. The book became a controversial bestseller in Japan and features a kind of commentary on An I-Novel: “The very impossibility of maintaining the bilingual form while translating the work into English, and the singularity of that impossibility, are clear testimony to the linguistic asymmetry we now face in the world.”

This impossibility compels some serious inventiveness on the part of Mizumura’s acclaimed translator, Juliet Winters Carpenter (and may explain why the English translation has taken more than 25 years to appear). Since it can’t be reproduced, the trace of the original’s bilingualism is signalled through typography – the English in the original is set in bold in the translation (she was “holding a Virginia Slims cigarette in her left hand, about to sip Coke…”).

This combination – the simplicity of An I-Novel’s plot, encased in a startlingly audacious form – is typical of Mizumura’s sensibility: her other novels also couple classically satisfying storytelling with an erudite literary self-consciousness and a taste for experiment. A True Novel, for example, features an elaborate autofictional prologue – more than 150 pages – which gives a kind of prehistory to the novel, complete with an essay-like digression on the development of modern Japanese literature. Mizumura recounts how she encountered her protagonist, Taro Azuma (the novel’s Heathcliff character), during her childhood on Long Island – he was a chauffeur for a colleague of her father’s – and how much later she was told the tragic story of his life – “a story just like a novel” – while teaching at a university in California.

***

Both A True Novel and An I-Novel feature page-filling, black-and-white photographs of various locations referred to in the story, ostensibly to authenticate it. But instead they endow the novels with an atmosphere of unreality and mystery. The pictures in An I-Novel also function like visual counterparts to the bolded English: just as English readers are prompted to see their ubiquitous language anew, the photographs defamiliarise the prosaic American scenes they capture (a suburban street lined with maple trees, a college campus, the facade of a school). Largely emptied of human figures, they are anonymised and generic, and their blankly descriptive captions (“University campus”, “Night bar”, “Tree on Long Island”, “School on Long Island”) make them a little otherworldly – much as English, in Mizumura’s untranslatable novel, becomes strangely foreign.

“Those whose mother tongue is English are unaware of what they would be deprived of if they were writing in a non-universal language… they are not condemned to reflect on language in the way the rest of us are,” Mizumura writes in The Fall of Language. An I-Novel’s structural exclusion of the English reader can seem a little punitive, but it can also be read as an oblique form of address. The freedom to be unreflective about language, Mizumura argues, is existentially impoverishing; to think about language is to think about whatever language is about. Those “who are eternally condemned to reflect on language”, Mizumura concludes, are “eternally condemned to marvel at the richness of the world”. 

An I-Novel
Minae Mizumura, translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter
Columbia University Press, 384pp, £14.49