#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?

When Reading and Reviewing Leads to Reflection on Life Choices

I’ve just finished reading two superb books for #WITMonth, both of which I intend to review: Minae Mizumura’s An I-Novel and Mireille Gansel’s Translation as Transhumance. Both of them discuss linguistic and ethnic identity, the possibility of bridging cultures, how to find a home (or not) in exile – whether voluntary or not. These are topics so close to my heart that I could not remain indifferent and they both got me thinking deeply about my own situation, past and present, and pondering about future decisions – where I might settle next. It doesn’t seem fair to include such personal musing within my reviews of those books (‘we’re not interested in your life story, Marina, just tell us what the bloody book is like, will you?’). In fact, it’s not fair to share all these personal details in a public format online (even if I am not a huge celebrity or have that many blog readers – which probably would be even more of a reason for me to remain quiet). So I will wrestle with the granular decisions and uncertainties mostly in my offline diary, but here are some higher-level thoughts which may be more universal.

Shepherd. Painting by Nicolae Grigorescu.

Illusory Freedom of Choice

I am very fortunate at present to have dual citizenship and therefore settle anywhere within the EU or the UK. However, for the longest time, the Romanian passport was an albatross around my neck. Therefore, I cannot help but think of all the people who have no choice about moving to a different country: they might not be able to get out of their country at all, very few countries might ‘accept’ them (after making the process of entering or settlement as complicated as possible), the information they might have about the relative safety of certain countries might be out of date and so on.

But there are other reasons why this ‘I’m choosing to start a new life in X’ is seldom a clear-cut decision for people.

First of all, countries change over time, as do your requirements. You may be fine in your twenties, living in London or New York, working shit jobs and living in inadequate accommodation, learning the ropes for a future splendid career. But when you have children and it’s time to move to the ‘suburbs’, you might prefer the safety of rule-bound societies like Switzerland or family-friendly policies like the Scandinavian countries. When you start feeling the creak in your knees and a twinge in your back, you may decide you need the warmth of the Mediterranean or Australia. It’s a little bit like moving houses over the course of a lifetime, but just much, much harder to do, because it usually involves lots of paperwork and learning of new languages and ways of doing things.

Secondly, in my experience, the choices are never quite as deliberate as we make them sound with the benefit of hindsight. We often ascribe patterns or purpose where there was mere serendipity, or where small steps and choices led us up a corridor we didn’t even know we wanted, and by the time we wanted to turn back, too many doors had slammed in our face. How could we know at the time that our professional qualifications might be worthless in another country (or require many expensive years of re-qualifying)? Should we have picked our life partners by the worth of their passport – and what if that passport becomes worthless when political circumstances change? What to do if your pension is no longer recognised in other countries and you are never going to be able to achieve the minimum number of years required for somewhere else? What happens when the value of your house or your currency is not enough for you to afford something even halfway decent in another country? Worst of all, once children come along, you have only a limited number of years left for uprooting them, before it can seriously impact their education or their mental wellbeing, before they start formulating their own preferences and tying you down.

Nostalgia for Something Which Never Existed

Many immigrants and expats have a great nostalgia for the country they left behind – or the country that might have been… if poverty, war, nationalism, hateful ideology, corrupt politicians and so on hadn’t driven them away. As we grow older, we start remembering the butterflies fluttering across the meadows, picking cherries and peaches directly from the trees, the warmth of the sun as we lay in a haystack, the low mooing of cattle coming down from the mountains, grandmother’s apricot dumplings… Our senses tingle with all of these rich memories – and we forget that this is because we were children, and life was easier for us as children, even when it was hard. Our memories become selective and bring forth the sensual pleasures, while banishing any less than perfect images. In Mizumura’s novel, the protagonist craves a Taisho or Meiji Japan she has glimpsed in the literature she loves to read, but which hasn’t existed in that country for over a century. The very title of Gansel’s book ‘Translation as Transhumance’ conjures up my ancestors’ almost mythical occupation as shepherds (one of the most famous Romanian ballads Miorița is about three shepherds), which I will proudy proclaim at every opportunity. Yet I only visited my great-uncle’s flock once when I was a small child and thought the mountain hut smelled revolting.

Comfort, Friendship, Heritage?

Pragmatism and sentimentalism are at war within me as I try to decide, over the next two years, where I will go.

Remaining in the UK is probably the easiest option, now that I am so familiar with everything here and have established networks and connections, as well as pension rights and a house. But is it truly the comfortable choice, even if this absurd and corrupt government comes to an end within a few years. The curtain has been lifted on the dirty mechanisms and assumptions that lie below the magic of the stage, and I don’t know if I will ever recapture my entire love for the theatre again.

Perhaps I can forget that I never truly felt ‘at home’ in Romania while I was living there and return to a country that has changed so much since I left it in my early twenties. There are certain thirsty pockets within me that nothing but the Romanian landscape, language and literature (and food) can quench. Perhaps the happiness of my childhood there is less illusory than the nostalgia of my Viennese childhood. Who can afford a flat in Vienna, anyway? Plus, all of my childhood friends were so international that they have moved away from Vienna, even if we all love returning there from time to time.

As we approach old age, perhaps it’s friendships that nourish us most – and, oddly, the vast majority of my close friends seem to be divorced or single now. But when your friends are scattered all over the world, replacing the biological family and supporting each other becomes difficult. Nevertheless, I am fortunate once again in having two of my oldest friends both living in Berlin. Two friends that I can see myself growing old with, sharing stories, joys and burdens. A city I have often visited with delight, but which would be an entirely new adventure for me.

Berlin by night. From Strong Cities Network.

When you have no real sense of belonging, you have endless choices, or so it may seem. I remind myself that I am fortunate to have choices, but just how endless are they really? Will my choices be determined by my fragile parents, my children ready to fly the nest, my financial and legal position? And would I trade it all for a real sense of belonging?

If you want to read much more sophisticated musings on sense of belonging, then I really recommend the two books below, which I hope to review by next week.

An I-Novel: http://cup.columbia.edu/book/an-i-novel/9780231192132

Translation as Transhumance: https://www.lesfugitives.com/books/mireille-gansel-translation-as-transhumance