This is one of my favourite times of year in terms of reading challenges, namely the wonderful Women in Translation Month created and championed by the ebullient force of nature which is Meytal Radzinski (aka as Biblibio on Twitter). I’m not always good at matching August to translated women writers, but I do try to read a good proportion of them throughout the year.
This month, courtesy of the slim volumes of short stories/novellas published by Strangers Press, a University of East Anglia publishing venture, I have discovered three new Japanese women authors.
Misumi Kubo: Mikumari (transl. Polly Barton)
A bit of a scandalous subject this: the story of a high school student (under age), who meets a married cosplayer Anzu, more than ten years his senior at a comic convention in Tokyo and embarks upon an intense affair, which at once thrills and disgusts him. During the summer, the boy is working as a lifeguard at the pool and gets to spend time with his classmate and more appropriate crush, Nana. As he tries to distance himself from Anzu, he realizes that desires are never straightforward and not always as pleasant as we like to think they are.
There is a matter-of-fact description of sex in all its wet, glistening, slippery glory and repulsiveness which I have only ever found in Japanese authors. None of the sentimental rosy-cheeked intoxication with our own words which you might find in Romance languages, nor the timid self-consciousness so prevalent in Anglo-Saxon literature. The subject matter is deliberately designed to shock, and yet the narrator is no stranger to women’s bodies and all the bodily fluids: his mother is a midwife who works from home and he often helps out with the births. By the end of this brief story, he begins to realize something about himself and about the continuity of life, although it might take a while until he comes to term with the unbreakable mix of purity and dirt which lies in all of us. The sentence which really stuck out in my mind was:
…it seemed unbelievable that water so clear could be connected with the filthy river flowing near our house.
This has all the shock factor, darkness and yet underlying tenderness of Natsuo Kirino.
Nao-Cola Yamazaki: Friendship for Grown-Ups (transl. Polly Barton)
There are three loosely linked stories in this volume, connected more through the names of the characters than through any storyline. There is an odd, timeless tale of human development called ‘A Genealogy’. A (still) young woman named Kandagawa tries to recapture a moment in her past with her former lover on the site of their former apartment in ‘The Untouchable Apartment’. A relatively new author Terumi Yano dithers between her art and love, when she attracts the attention of a young music scholar at an author event. There is a wonderful sense of confusion and yearning about each of these stories, that hesitation about which path to take, that mourning about ‘what ifs’, that need to justify one’s decisions a posteriori, which will sound very familiar to women in their thirties. A delicate, melancholy description of the life of Japanese women reminiscent of Fumiko Enchi.
Aoko Matsuda: The Girl Who Is Getting Married (transl. Angus Turvill)
This was perhaps my favourite of the three: a very strange story which feels like an Escher woodcut. Just when you think you’ve grasped it, the point of view is all changed, turned upside down and you question everything you know.
An unnamed narrator visits her friend, the girl who is getting married. As she climbs up the stairs to the fifth floor, where the girl who is getting married lives, she recalls fragments of their life together and their friendship. But each account differs: they met when they were children, they met at secondary school or at work, on the train or at a cookery school. As the story shifts like quicksand under our feet, we understand more and more about the deepest needs and constraints of the narrator and we begin to question just whose eyes we are looking through. There is an almost obsessive repetition of the expression ‘the girl who is getting married’ (there are no names at all in this story) – and in the original Japanese it is even more emphatic: ‘moo sugu kekkon suru onna’ – the woman who is getting married imminently/very soon. Why does that sound so threatening? Whose fears are being projected here? The very plain, unadorned, clear prose belies the surrealism of the scene, where any interpretation is possible (and most likely wrong). There is a hint of Haruki Murakami’s short stories here.
20 thoughts on “#WITMonth – Japanese short stories”
Great discoveries, all three are new to me as well. I particularly like the sound of the stories in Friendship for Grown-Ups – it’s an interesting theme, that sense of yearning and reflecting on alternative possibilities in life. I’ve done well with Japanese literature in the past (both contemporary and classic), so I’ll keep these in mind.
This is a brilliant little series from Strangers Press. It gives you just enough of a flavour of each author to make you know if you want to explore them in more depth. Let’s hope that more gets translated!
I’ve only ever read Murakami so thanks for highlighting these, they look interesting!
I find the contemporary women writers in Japan more interesting than the men, to be honest, so this is a good place to start exploring.
These sound really interesting, Marina Sofia. It’s often a challenge to find good translations of Japanese fiction, so I’m glad to hear of these. I agree with JacquiWine, too: Friendships for Grownups sounds especially good.
They were all very different and yet had a similar ‘sensitivity’ to them. Or perhaps we expect that of the Japanese? I’m not sure if it’s my cultural assumption or if there really is something that binds them.
This is a wonderful. I must admit I read very little Japanese literature, so your list here is very helpful.
And the books themselves are so short that they give you a good introduction without the commmitment if you turn out not to like that writer.
The second one sounds the most interesting of the three. But I still have another Yoko Ogawa here to read.
All of these sound fantastic and I am glad you loved the last one. Recalling memories through each set of stairs is such a pensive topic. The premise is definitely interesting and I hope I will be able to read it one day.
These all sound marvellous, Marina. I’ve read a lot of Japanese literature, but little by women, which is something I must rectify.
These sound great, and I didn’t know about the series by Strangers Press – so good to know (but bad for my wallet!)
I still have a couple of these to try, but unfortunately Lady Murasaki used up my Japanese slot for #WITMonth 😉
Dear Marina et al.,
Just to let you all know about other publication of Japanese women in translation: ‘Heaven’s Wind. A dual language anthology of contemporary Japanese writing’.
To celebrate the release of the book the Japan Society (publisher) is offering a 25% introductory discount for a limited period.
That does sound good. Thank you for drawing my attention to it.
MarinaSofia, by the way Heaven’s Wind includes a very interesting piece by Aoko Matsuda, who wrote The Girl who is Getting Married in the keshiki series. She’s one of five authors in the book – the others are Kuniko Mukoda, Natsuko Kuroda, Kaori Ekuni and Mitsuyo Kakuta – all women, and all Naoki or Akutagawa prize-winners.