The Real, the Familiar: An Introduction

Tokyo was unnervingly cool and pleasant early in July. The rainy season had only just begun, and yet, after a single, massive, unseasonal typhoon, there was no rain for at least a week. The peculiarity of the weather perfectly complemented the surreal, uncanny tenor of the fiction in our July issue of Words without Borders—the first part of a special double issue of Japanese fiction designed to resonate, as I suggested then, with the mood in Japan in the wake of the catastrophe known (inappropriately, as though a single date could harness destruction whose effects will continue to be felt for decades) as 3/11. The weather was weird, and so were the stories and poetry. Wonderfully, engagingly weird.

By the middle of July, things were back to normal. Tokyo was hell. The temperature shinnied effortlessly into the nineties and flirted with the possibility of picking its way still higher, into triple digits; the humidity behaved like a younger sibling, determined to keep up. The weather settled back into the real, the familiar. And so, too, does the reading. This month we feature stories of ordinary people in situations of the sort ordinary people find themselves in all the time—depictions of people whose lives are changing, or who are desperate for a change, and who can’t quite bring themselves to talk openly about what the future may hold with those around them, with the people they love, or don’t love.

Nonami Asa’s "Face," a longish story excerpted here in a translation by Takami Nieda, is one of two pieces to deal with plastic surgery. In it, a woman joins her daughter in having "work" done on her face, without telling her husband. This story is part of a collection called Body, soon to be published by Vertical, Inc.

"My Wife and Me in March 2011" by Sakurai Suzumo, presented here in Chikako Kobayashi’s translation, is the only piece included in this double issue actually written in the wake of the events of March 11, 2011. It offers a portrait of a couple whose relationship is on the rocks, through the eyes of the husband, who is really on the rocks. The story is somewhat bleak, and ends with a bleak sort of consolation. It is, incidentally, the only work of prose fiction in this month’s issue by a male writer, and the only one to focus on a male protagonist.

Louise Heal’s marvelous Mancunian translation of an excerpt from Kawakami Mieko’s novella "Breasts and Eggs," the second piece to deal with plastic surgery (in this case, breast enlargement), lightens the mood again. The translation is an outgrowth of the 2011 summer workshop at the British Centre for Literary Translation, which I had the privilege of leading. (As I noted in my introduction in July, all the translators in this double issues are alumni of this program.) During the workshop, I asked Louise and some other participants to render part of "Breasts and Eggs" into Manchester dialect; I liked the sound of their translation, and the provocative way in which it evoked the different intensities of Osaka dialect used in the Japanese text, so much that for this issue I prevailed upon Louise (a native Mancunian) to do more in the same style. With luck, perhaps some publisher will commission a complete translation.

It would be nice to have a full translation of Wataya Risa’s debut novel, Install, too. The book was awarded the prestigious Bungeishō Prize in 2001, when Wataya was a seventeen-year-old high school student, and was nominated for the Mishima Prize the following year. Katherine Lundy’s translation of the excerpt included here conveys the force of the opening scene, as a high-school girl suddenly decides to throw out everything she owns—again, without telling her family, in this case her parents.

"That One Morning, When It" by Motoya Yukiko, translated by Michael Staley, offers us a portrait of a young woman who has stormed out of the apartment she and her boyfriend share after a pointless fight. We get the sense that the narrator realizes something is wrong with the life she is leading, but that she doesn’t know what it is, or how to fix it.

Tsushima Yūko’s "Kid Sister," translated by Gitte Marianne Hansen, is so short that every time I read it I am amazed at how much Tsushima has managed to pack into it—or I would be if Tsushima Yūko weren’t one of the greatest Japanese writers of her generation. She has had several books translated into English, including The Shooting Gallery and Other Stories, Child of Fortune, and Woman Running in the Mountains, all translated by Geraldine Harcourt, and most recently The Laughing Wolf, translated by Dennis Washburn.

Finally, we end with a poem, Nomua Kiwao’s "riverwilt," translated by Angus Turvill. While far from "realist," its half-evocations of places, scenes, and parents seem somehow to fit with the other pieces in this issue.

Once again, I thank all the translators for their dedication and their artistry, to the authors and the publishers of the Japanese texts for granting permission to publish the translations, to everyone at Words Without Borders and the British Centre for Literary Translation, and especially to David Karashima and the Nippon Foundation for providing the generous funding that made this exceptional double issue possible.

© 2012 by Michael Emmerich. All rights reserved.