#WITMonth: Minae Mizumura and Mireille Gansel

Also #20BooksofSummer No. 18 and 19 (with a bit of cheating – I did not have the Gansel originally on my list, as it is not an e-book, but after attending the BCLT Summer School, I had to get it)

Now that I’ve written at length about all the soul searching these two books provoked in me, it’s time to actually engage with them as a reviewer. I am a bit sorry that they don’t get a review each, but I have left it too late to get all the reviews done for #WITMonth.

Minae Mizumura: An I-Novel, transl. Juliet Winters Carpenter (in collaboration with the author), Columbia University Press.

It helps that Juliet Winters Carpenter is one of my favourite translators from Japanese currently working; it also helps that I had already fallen in love with Mizumura via her longer, later work A True Novel. Add to that the very relatable subject matter, and this has the potential to become a classic on my shelves. The author is a linguist and academic, and shares much of the biographical detail with the protagonist (also called Minae Mizumura) in this novel. Of course, ‘I-novels’, where it is difficult to disentangle what is fiction and what is memoir, have a long tradition in Japan, and this was published in Japanese in 1995, long before the current crop of popular ‘autofiction’ titles in English.

The story takes place over the course of a day, mostly through telephone conversations between two Japanese sisters, Nanae and Minae, sparked by the realisation that it’s the twentieth anniversary since they first arrived in the United States with their parents as 14 and 10 year olds respectively. The older sister Nanae did her best to become Americanised and blend in, while Minae mythologised the country she left behind, reading only Japanese literature, never quite mastering the English language, longing to return for more than a holiday at some point.

The format of the book was revolutionary at the time: it was printed in the style of the Latin alphabet (horizontally and from left to right), as well as being liberally sprinkled with English words and expressions, to the point where it was even considered a ‘bilingual novel’. In the English translation, these English originals are highlighted in the text by using a different typeface.

As the sisters talk, they discover new things about each other, beyond the assumptions they had about how they felt between two cultures and their relationship with their parents. Aside from the personal search for cultural identity, however, the book is also full of sharp and very candid obervations of cultural differences and racism. The Japanese tend to think of themselves as culturally and materially superior to the other East Asian nations, so it is a huge shock to the girls to discover that they are simply mistaken for other Asians.

I was forced to realize something that had never before entered my mind: I was Asian. In this country, a Japanese girl of privilege was above all Asian. To remain a Japanese girl of privilege, I would have had to stay at home on the Japanese archipelago, insulated from the rest of the world. In the wider world, only white people could be truly privileged – people who, if they were thoughtful, might bear a sense of guilt over their unearned privilege or at least feel it to be a burden.

The gradual discovery that I was Asian wasn’t shocking in and of itself. The shock I felt came from being lumped together with people whom Westerners regarded as Others – as did I… To be lumped together with those whom in some hidden corner of my mind I had always blithely congratulated myself on being distinct from was worse than shocking. It was humiliating.

There are likewise some thought-provoking scenes about what the West expects from other cultures (i.e. stereotpes, most frequently). For example, in one of her English classes with a very supportive teacher, Minae writes an essay about her favourite autumn moments, in which she relies heavily not so much on her personal experience of Japan (which she can barely remember, and which was more urban than rural), but on what she has gleaned from reading Japanese literature:

That compostion Mr Keith praised so highly might well have been a mere string of Japanese platitudes. Could commonplace emotions and unoriginal expressions… transform into something more remarkable when rendered in a different language?

Is this what is appreciated in the Western world because this is what we expect and want to see of Japan, rather than messiness, a variety of styles, Western influences and so on?

At some point, Minae starts wondering about her own almost perverse stubbornness in wanting to write in Japanese, a much less significant language than English on a global scale. You cannot help but think the author herself is expressing her own surprise at her choice, but also reiterating her commitment to her mothertongue.

The book was written at the time of Japanese economic boom, when many young Japanese were studying or living abroad. As the sisters discuss Minae’s ‘need’ to return to a Japan which may be nothing like what she remembers or desires, it felt at times like the author was laying out the pros and cons of moving back to the country for all of those young people. She points out the irony that the Japanese word for ‘hometown’ (furusato) evokes old temples and picturesque rural landscapes, but that in fact the rice paddies have been paved over and converted into cheap housing in rapid urbanisation.

Before my eyes there emerged a vision of ugly cities all alike and small towns dismal in their sameness. A nation that as it rose to become a major economic power had become more and more stunted in spirit; a nation without a soul; a nation of little people… or was my negativity toward Japan only defensive, a hedge against the predictable anticlimax of my return?

Mireille Gansel: Translation as Transhumance, transl. Ros Schwartz, Les Fugitives.

Gansel grew up in France, in a family of Jewish refugees who spoke many languages and had experienced many shifts in borders over their lifetime: German, Yiddish, Hungarian, Czech, Hebrew and of course French. The German she instinctively gravitated towards was a global sort of German of the 19th and early 20th centuries, rather like the global English of today. The German of a world that is no more – word of warning perhaps to those who think that English will be the world language forever.

This is the German that has been punctuated by exiles and passed down through the generations, from country to country, like a violin whose vibratos have retained the accents and intonations, the words and the expressions, of adopted countries and wasy of speaking. This is the German that has no land or borders. An interior language. If I were to hold on to just one word, it would be innig – profound, intense, fervent.

In the 1960s and 70s, Gansel translated poets from East Germany and Vietnam, to help the world to understand what was going behind walls or behind reports of war. She spent two years learning Vietnamese and went to Vietnam to immerse herself in the culture, as well as working with a Vietnamese poet to fully absorb the subtexts. I was just so impressed by her humility as a translator, by her willingness to always learn more, her ability to admit to making mistakes in the effort to be as truthful and loyal to the original as possible.

At that moment, I understood translation both as risk-taking and continual re-examination, of even a single word – a delicate seismograph at the heart of time.

Translation came to mean learning to listen to the silences between the lines, to the underground springs of a people’s hinterland.

The third experience she writes about in this far too brief work is her attempt to retrace the steps of Eugenie Goldstern, an Austrian-Jewish anthropologist who conducted research into Alpine cultures, centred mainly on Switzerland, but in fact transcending borders and cross-pollinating, being open to all sorts of different interpretations and complementary knowledge. This is where she has her most profound insight into what it means to be a translator:

… it suddenly dawned on me that the stranger was not the other, it was me. I was the one who had everything to learn, everything to understand, from the other. That was perhaps my most essential lesson in translation.

I wonder if both Mizumura and Gansel demonstrate (through their biographies and their works) that the best kind of translator or cultural bridge-builder is someone who never quite fits into any of the cultural skins that they might put on. There is always a slight gap, a slight feeling of otherness and strangeness. Is it possible that, when you cease to be uncomfortable, when the skin fits too snugly, you become somewhat insensitive to nuance, blinded, and unable to convey that inner core where both similarity and difference reside?

Rewatching #ThreeColours and Other Films

Even before the lockdown, I’d started an extensive programme of film viewing with my older son. However, he is a bit of a stickler about his planning and is proving truculent about watching films which are not on his current list of ‘must watch in 2020’, even if they are classics or might be very much to his taste. So I end up watching and rewatching quite a lot of films on my own too.

One trilogy I am very glad I rewatched was Kieslowski’s Three Colourswhich arose quite spontaneously from a Twitter exchange with @jacquiwine and @messy_tony. Quite a few others joined in and we even created a hashtag with the British spelling #threecolours.

My favourite remains Blue, with its amazing music and such a poignant description of grief. I had forgotten details such as finding a nest of mice in the Paris flat, but I had remembered the scene where Julie trails the back of her hand against the rough stone wall and wounds herself. I found Olivier rather creepy and difficult to stomach this time round and wish Julie had chosen differently at the end. White continues to be difficult for me to watch, as I remember the lawless, difficult post-Communist years and feeling like a second-hand citizen in the West all too well. This time round I found it difficult to empathise at all with the Delpy character – she seemed like such a blank (perhaps deliberately so – the nail upon which Eastern Europe hangs all of their hopes, desires, ideals), while actor Zbigniew Zamachowski’s expressive eyes made me almost ready to forgive him even as he becomes as much of an asshole as his ex-wife. With Red, I was surprised that I’d forgotten it was set in Geneva – although at the time I had no connection to Geneva at all, so the location seemed less important and I just assumed it was France. The parallel storyline of Auguste and his personalised weather forecaster seemed almost a nuisance, despite its resonance upon the judge’s story, while the ending felt rather melodramatic and forced. I found the gradual unfolding of the prickly friendship between Valentine and the judge far more interesting, with Valentine being the most sympathetic (though not necessarily the most interesting) character in the whole trilogy. She is, after all, the only one who helps the recurring character of a frail, hunch-backed elderly person trying to push a bottle into the bottle-bank.

Another rewatch, this time with the boys, was the first series of The Wire (I watched it in fits and starts when it first came out, since I never had Sky or other paid for channels, so it felt quite fresh to me as well). The sense of hopelessness felt much more palpable to me now (or is it because I am older) and my favourite character remains Kima, although I might have annoyed my kids by exclaiming nearly every time I saw Dominic West or Idris Elba ‘Look how young they were back then!’

I have also resubscribed to Mubi and have enjoyed quite a few films there over the past month. The most noteworthy were Bong Joon-Ho’s stunning and moving Mother; Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love which is visually one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen (and a real tear-jerker); Park Chan-Wook’s Oldboy, viscerally disturbing but very powerful, charismatic acting from the two main characters; and a 1950s gem from Japan Our Town, featuring a larger than life main character struggling with the modernisation of Japan after the war. Lest you think I’ve turned completely Asian, I was also impressed with Melville’s Army of Shadows about the French Resistance, where the violence is buried only slightly deeper below the surface than in the Korean films. The historical facts add more depth and gravitas to the noirish direction we’re used to from his gangster films. Lourdes by Jessica Hausner was full of tiny satirical details about miracle healings at the pilgrimage site of Lourdes and yet ultimately made you question your lack of faith, and the Polish film Idadirected by Pawel Pawlikowski, has a young would-be nun discovering her family’s Jewish origin and their fate during the war.

 

Five Things to Sing About

It’s easy to get caught up in the panicky bad news cycle, scrolling blindly on Twitter to see if London Book Fair is still on, what the latest spread of the virus is, speak to the phone with worried elderly parents (and be secretly relieved that they’ve decided to cancel their trip to the UK next week, as they would fall into the vulnerable categories), try and plan summer holidays for the boys with an ex who tries to sabotage you every step of the way. More than ever, we need to remind ourselves of all that is good and lovely or even just OK in our lives. So here are five things which gave me joy this last week or so.

This kimono looks like something out of Genji Monogatari

Anne Enright in conversation with Andrew O’Hagan about her new book Actress (which has just been longlisted for the Women’s Prize)

I’ve only read a few books by Anne Enright, and haven’t read this one yet (but am eager to, it sounds exactly my sort of thing – tricky mother/daughter relationship, the dangers of celebrity culture, theatre world etc.) The author in person was very funny, very opinionated, not at all shy and does not suffer fools gladly. I think quite a few people would describe her as spiky and remorseless and are slightly afraid of her. At which she rather brilliantly replied: ‘Why are writers described as ruthless? We just sit (and observe) and write.’ Another thing she said also struck me: that England is currently going through that nationalist rhetoric and identity trumpeting that Ireland went through in the past century… and we all know what that led to.

The perfect kimono for a crime writer, translator and publisher

Watching and debating films with my boys (OK, mainly the older boy who is getting very ambitious about his viewing of classic films, but the younger one occasionally participates too) – this weekend it was La Haine (which the older one is studying for A Level French) and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (which instantly made his top 10 list). The frightening thing about La Haine (made in 1995) is how little things have changed for the banlieue and its inhabitants since then, although the French PM at the time made his entire cabinet watch it. I’d love to see Johnson getting his cabinet to watch a Ken Loach film!

A kimono combining two of my greatest loves: the silk manufacturers of Lyon produced the material, which was given as a present by the French ambassador to a local daimyo after the opening of Japan in the Meiji era.

Analysing The Great Gatsby with my older son while working out at the gym. He borrowed it from my bookcase on Friday afternoon, had read it by Saturday evening and, knowing that it’s one of my favourite novels of all time, was keen to discuss it with me while we were puffing away side-by-side on our cross trainers. I have to admit that this comes pretty close to how I thought parenthood might look like ideally before I had children! (It has seldom lived up to that level of expectation.)

Not to neglect the younger son, who also suprised me very pleasantly. Just as I was moaning about him not doing enough reading and that I wish he would read anything, comics, non-fiction, I’m not fussy, as long as he reads rather than just plays computer games all the time etc. etc., the doorbell rang and it was a delivery for him from Amazon (well, we’ll work on the buying from independent bookshops angle later) of a trilogy of books Bakemonogatari (Tales of Monsters) by Japanese author Nisioisin. He’s been busy devouring these ever since and I am tempted to read them myself.

Wedding kimonos – the white at the start of the ceremony, the red outer kimono at the end.

The Kimono Exhibition at the Victoria and Albert – there are no words to describe how happy this made me! I studied Japanese, taught Japanese anthropology, cultural history and literature for a while and have spent several (sadly, far too short) periods in Japan at summer schools etc. I always meant to buy a kimono but could never afford a proper one. I could have spent hours analysing every single pattern, weave, material, detail. I photographed nearly every single one of them and two thirds of the pictures are utter rubbish, but I’ve used some of them, no matter how rubbish, to illustrate this blog post.

My kind of kimono: I rather like monochromes and this has the elegance and modern look I would wear regularly.

Finishing the translation of Sword – I still have to get a third-party edit and proofreading sorted, but I’m pretty pleased with how it turned out. This is going to be such an exciting political thriller, unlike any other the English-speaking world has seen so far!

Friday Fun: Japanese Gardens

As autumn draws near, can there be anything more beautiful than Japanese maples bringing colour and balance to the calm contemplative harmony of a Japanese garden?

The Storrier Stearns Japanese Garden in LA, from gardenswelikela.com

Gate to beautiful mysteries, from Pinterest.

The glory of autumnal colours, from Peter Toshiro on Flickr.

Simple, easy-gardening style from You Tube. The cat approves of the lack of lawn-mowers.

Garden in Kyoto from William Corey Gallery.

There is even a Japanese Garden Design School, and this is from their website.

There is nothing more beautiful than the sight and smell of rice paddies after the wet season; this one reminds me of them, from Shiro Nakane City Limits.

Bilingualism and Other Passionate Diseases

MizubayashiAkira Mizubayashi: Une langue venue d’ailleurs (A Language From Somewhere Else)

‘This is too semblant to others.’ ‘There is no good explication for that.’ ‘I got 19 on 20 for my French test, I’m such an intello!’ are sentences my children regularly come up with, while I patiently try to correct their English. (I’ve given up – temporarily – on improving their Romanian.) But I remember I used to speak a mix of languages (within the same sentence) when I was a child. It hasn’t stopped me from being able to enjoy watching films, reading, conversing in each of those languages (separately) as a grown-up.

Besides, languages are much more than a practical tool. They represent the gateway to a different culture and mindset. Which has always been one of the most enticing things in the universe to me: learning how others think, why they behave in a certain way, what they believe, what they hold dear… How can it get any more interesting than that?

Japanese writer and professor of French Akira Mizubayashi seems to share my fascination with language as an entrance point to a whole new culture. Except, in his case, he accessed it of his own free will at the age of 19 – thanks to a passion for Rousseau and Mozart’s Susanna in the Marriage of Figaro. Much more admirable than all those multilingual children out there, as it’s so much harder to learn a new language at an advanced age.

This book documents his journey into French culture: his years spent recording French lessons on the radio and playing them over and over, imitating the accent and tonality; his first study trip abroad in Montpellier and his awkward attempts at making polite conversation; meeting his French wife; attempting to raise their own daughter with both languages. But it’s much more than an autobiography. It is a declaration of love to the French language and a fond remembrance of some of his favourite teachers. It is also a highly readable, personal way of presenting the rather dry subject we had to study at university: theory of linguistics. Thirdly, it is also an elegant meditation on language and identity, with the author finally admitting that he is both at home and yet a stranger in both languages.

From frenchculture.org
From frenchculture.org

However, what I enjoyed most were those little nuggets of insight which made me smile. For instance, Mizubayashi remarks how much French conversation relies on vocative appellative expressions, i.e. ‘mon petit chou’, ‘mon poussin’, ‘ma poule’, mon grand’, ‘mon vieux’ and all of those other terms of endearment sprinkled liberally in a conversation with friends. I might add that even in formal contexts, on the radio, I hear this direct address: ‘Sachez que…. mesdames – messieurs’. It’s also considered somewhat abrupt and rude to enter a boulangerie or post office and just say ‘Bonjour’ instead of ‘Bonjour, madame or monsieur’. The author contrasts that with the Japanese language, where you almost avoid naming the other person, by deleting the ‘I’ or ‘you’ from the dialogue (it is implied in the verb forms). The relationship between two speakers in Japanese strikes him as two beings who sit side by side and look at a landscape together, while in France they would sit in front of each other and address each other.

This book managed to sneak into my TBR pile but I am so glad it did. Mizubayashi writes like a Frenchman, but he observes like an outsider. An anthropological and linguistic treat, a must for anyone struggling with bilingualism, as well as a fun memoir!

 

 

Friday Fun: Cemeteries

Not quite so fun, really, but in a week where we’ve lost two very talented people, this is a reminder of the transience of life, or, as the Japanese poem goes:

Colours are fragrant but they
will eventually scatter.
Who in our world
is unchanging?
The deep mountains of karma
we cross them today,
we shall not have superficial dreams,
nor be deluded.

Bellu Cemetery in Bucharest, from crestinortodox.ro
Bellu Cemetery in Bucharest, from crestinortodox.ro

Highgate Cemetery in London, from Wikipedia.
Highgate Cemetery in London, from Wikipedia.

Jewish Cemetery in Prague, from architecture.about.com
Jewish Cemetery in Prague, from architecture.about.com

Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, from Promptguides.com
Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, from Promptguides.com

Muslim cemetery in Sarajevo, from Wikipedia.
Muslim cemetery in Sarajevo, from Wikipedia.

The Cheerful Cemetery in Sapinta, Romania. Each gravestone has a humorous poem about the deceased. From turismland.ro
The Cheerful Cemetery in Sapinta, Romania. Each gravestone has a humorous poem about the deceased. From turismland.ro

 

So Old and Yet So New (Poetry)

This is some poetry inspired by my current re-reading of The Tale of Genji.

From ink-treasures.com
From ink-treasures.com

The brush at rest, she sweetly shed
her kanji burden in black rain.
Told it slant, but all refrain
from advice or like
on poetry’s thin frame.
Safflower and cicada shells linger on pages
but nothing compares
to the shy violet blush of
crocus beneath dried leaves.
How could I forget
the persistent folly of men
and how quickly sleeves are

dampened by the morning dew?

 

And, in the spirit of Royall Tyler’s multiple footnotes: kanji are the Chinese characters or ideograms used in Japanese (alongside the syllabic hiragana and katakana), safflower and cicada shells are nicknames used for certain ladies to whom Genji has shown some affection, while the wet sleeves are a recurring motif in all of Classical Japanese and Chinese literature and represent mourning, regret, suffering.