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Resisting English

A True Novel

by Minae Mizumura, translated from the Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter in collaboration with the author
Other Press, 854 pp., $24.95 (paper)

Inheritance from Mother

by Minae Mizumura, translated from the Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter in collaboration with the author
Other Press, 447 pp., $17.99 (paper)
Minae Mizumura
Minae Mizumura; drawing by Karl Stevens

The writer from an immigrant background who exchanges his or her ancestral language for English is an American literary archetype. From Henry Roth, who arrived in Brooklyn in the 1900s from what is now Ukraine, to Junot Díaz, who came to New Jersey in the 1970s from the Dominican Republic, these writers often tell tales of alienation and hardship, but they also reinforce the idea, sometimes even despite themselves, that America is the land of the future—a place where people come to be remade, with all the gains and losses that process involves.

But this model of what it means to be an immigrant writer may be breaking down in the twenty-first century. From Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah to Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist to Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, some of the most accomplished twenty-first-century English-language novelists explore globalized and diasporic lives that self-consciously resist Americanization. Jhumpa Lahiri, whose stories about Bengali families in New England bridge the gap between these older and newer models of immigrant writing, has recently turned to writing in Italian, hoping, she told The New Yorker, “to free my work from geographic coördinates, and to arrive at a more abstract sense of place.”

Most subversive of all, however, is the writer who has the chance to become American and write in the American language but deliberately rejects it. That is the story of Minae Mizumura, a distinguished Japanese novelist who has made her ambivalent feelings about English a central theme of her work. Mizumura was born in Tokyo in 1951, and when she was twelve years old her family moved to the US after her father was transferred to his company’s New York office. She spent the rest of her childhood in a Long Island suburb and then attended Yale, where she went on to earn a graduate degree in French literature. By the time Mizumura finished her studies, she had spent more than half her life in America. Yet she decided to move back to Japan and begin a career as a Japanese novelist, returning only occasionally to the US to teach. She has published eight books of fiction and nonfiction, of which three have been translated into English over the last decade.

Mizumura has made clear that becoming American and writing in English were the road not taken in her life. In a 2003 lecture at the University of Iowa, “Why I Write What I Write,” she summed up her experience this way:

I was given that rare opportunity, the kind of opportunity only given to one in a million in Japan, of switching my first language from Japanese to English. Yet I remained totally blind to its significance until the opportunity was irrevocably lost.

As a result, she lives with the “unhappy knowledge that my stupidity lies at the core of my becoming a writer in the Japanese language,” rather than the English writer she could have been.

What makes this decision a stupid one? The answer is simple: Japanese is spoken by 125 million people, almost all of them in Japan, while English is the native language of some 400 million people around the world and a second language for perhaps 700 million more. English, not Japanese, is the international language of commerce, technology, and scholarship—increasingly so in the age of the Internet. All this means that Japanese writers need English translation much more than the other way around. Like Pascale Casanova, whose book The World Republic of Letters (1999) laid bare the power differences at the heart of international literary competition, Mizumura insists that this asymmetry is something that only English-speakers can afford to ignore; writers in other languages are constantly aware that they are in a position of relative inferiority. “There is a hierarchy among languages,” she writes—a hierarchy not of value or possibility, but of numbers and status.

Yet no one could read Mizumura for long without realizing that her lament over her “unhappy” fate as a Japanese writer is at most half-serious. She may feel indignant on behalf of the Japanese language—and other national languages that she fears are being eclipsed by English—but she was never tempted to become a writer in English herself. On the contrary: in her polemical nonfiction work The Fall of Language in the Age of English, a best seller in Japan when it appeared in 2008, she writes that even though she lived in the US for twenty years, “I never felt comfortable with either American life or the English language.” Studying French, she says, was a way of parrying the English that surrounded her. She remained “the prisoner of an intense longing for home,” and that home always remained Japan: she was an exile, not an immigrant.

This experience lies at the center of the myth that Mizumura, like many writers, has constructed about her life and calling. As she says, “The kind of life I lived so affects everything about me that I can scarcely write a word without addressing it.” Indeed, A True Novel, a work of fiction that appeared in Japan in 2002 and in English translation in 2013, opens with an ostensibly autobiographical section in which we meet Minae, a Japanese teenager living unhappily on Long Island: “How could anyone allow himself to leave Japan, with all the neon delights of the Ginza and the fastest train in the world—a country in every way as good as America?” she wonders.

Her resentment is especially acute in the America of the 1960s, where Asian immigrants were rare and were expected, by white Americans, to appear only in menial roles. “In movies and on television,” Minae recalls,

they were nearly always cast as vaguely Chinese live-in servants, whether cooks, gardeners, or maids; they appeared onscreen with inscrutable smiles on their faces, bowing with an obsequious “Ah, so,” all the time. My ears burned whenever I came across such scenes.

As a budding writer, it was on the ground of language and literature that Mizumura staged her resistance to Americanization. “As a teenager, I immersed myself in classic Japanese novels of the modern era, a set of books that my great uncle gave my mother for her daughters—my sister and me—to read lest we forget our own language,” she writes in The Fall of Language. These books were by writers of the generation of Natsume Sōseki (1867–1916), who created modern Japanese fiction after the opening of Japan to Western cultural influence in the 1860s. Mizumura’s reverence for these writers is undiminished today; one chapter in The Fall of Language is titled “The Miracle of Modern Japanese Literature.” Her first novel, Light and Darkness Continued—still untranslated into English—took the form of a sequel to Sōseki’s unfinished last novel.

Imagine Mizumura’s dismay, then, when she returned to Japan and found that the canon that had constituted her portable homeland was in danger of falling into neglect. This was her motive for writing The Fall of Language, which is in part a blast at the Japanese literary and educational establishments that have allowed literature, in Mizumura’s view, to deteriorate so shamefully. Some of her complaints could be echoed by twenty-first-century writers in any country: the declining prestige of literature, the shrinking circulation of literary journals, the heightened competition for audiences with mass media and the Internet.

Others are specific to Japanese literature, which she believes suffers from lingering historical guilt over Japan’s involvement in World War II, as well as a sense of inferiority vis-à-vis Western languages. (Both feelings played a part in the unsuccessful, but to Mizumura still shocking, postwar movement to introduce the Roman alphabet to Japan.) The result is a failure by novelists to use the specific resources of Japanese, including its variety of scripts, to capture the way contemporary Japan really feels. “Representative works of today’s Japanese literature often read like rehashes of American literature—ignoring not only the Japanese literary heritage but, more critically, the glaring fact that Japanese society and American society differ,” she writes, perhaps with someone like Haruki Murakami in mind.

Still, Mizumura’s resistance to English—which, like kudzu or carp, threatens its competitors everywhere it spreads—is born of a deep engagement with it. Her second novel, An I-Novel from Left to Right, which appeared in Japan in 1995, was notable (as the title suggests) for being printed horizontally like English prose, in order to incorporate English phrases directly into the text. (Ordinarily, Japanese texts are printed in vertical columns and read from right to left.) As she points out in The Fall of Language, this ironically renders the book untranslatable into English, since the dual-language effect could not be reproduced: Japanese readers can be expected to understand or at least put up with English words, but English readers wouldn’t have a clue what to do with a text containing Japanese words.

A True Novel engages with English literature in a different fashion. Early in the book, Mizumura explains that the title has a particular meaning in Japanese literature that is almost the opposite of what it seems to convey to the English reader. A “true novel,” for the first generation of modern Japanese novelists, meant an invented story: “a fictional world created by an impersonal author—a transcendent ‘subject.’” It was a true novel in the sense that it was truly a novel. Opposed to this ideal, in Japanese literature, was the “I-novel,” which Mizumura describes as “novelists…writing truthfully about themselves,” “being true to oneself, and, ultimately, to life.” In titling two of her books A True Novel and An I-Novel from Left to Right, Mizumura took both sides in this literary debate, which she describes as “almost forgotten” in twenty-first-century Japan.

A True Novel thus earns its title in a double sense. It is a true novel because it is an homage to a particular canonical European novel, one that Mizumura coyly refers to as “a literary classic set on the wild Yorkshire moors and written more than a hundred and fifty years ago by the Englishwoman E.B.”—Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. The Heathcliff figure in this tale is Taro Azuma, a boy in postwar Japan who is raised in poverty and neglect, and who becomes obsessed with Yoko, the daughter of the prosperous Utagawa family.

Brontë sisters
Brontë sisters; drawing by David Levine

At the same time, the book can be called a true novel because it claims to be a record of actual events. It opens with a narration apparently by Mizumura, in which she relates that she came to know Taro when he was working as a chauffeur for one of her father’s associates in New York. The complete story of his life was supposedly related to her by a young man, Yusuke, who in turn heard it from Taro’s housekeeper, Fumiko. In this way, Mizumura claims to certify the story’s truthfulness—though a reader familiar with Brontë will recognize that she is actually imitating the multiple-narrator structure of Wuthering Heights.

The structure of A True Novel complements its plot and theme, which have to do with the complex relationship between Japanese tradition and Westernized modernity. Like Mizumura, Taro is a Japanese child who ends up spending part of his life in America. But unlike her, he enjoys great success there, becoming a very wealthy businessman. This is something he could never have achieved at home, Mizumura suggests. Despite the great changes in Japanese society after World War II—democratization, urbanization, modernization—enough of the old aristocratic society remained that someone like Taro would have stayed permanently in the low station to which his birth assigned him.

This fading aristocratic Japan is embodied in the novel’s most memorable characters—the three Saegusa sisters, snobs from a family in decline, who “divided humanity into two groups: those who ‘fit in’ and those who didn’t.” Like a trio of Miss Havishams, they preserve the gracious world of their youth into old age, with a stubbornness that Mizumura presents as both admirable and absurd. When one of them refers to the “maids” the family used to employ, she is corrected by another, who points out that it’s now considered more polite to call them “housekeepers.” “If the Japanese people go on like that, we’ll end up knowing nothing about our own past,” the first complains, and the complaint carries real weight: progress, Mizumura believes, comes at a price, even if it’s one that has to be paid.

Taro is one of those who definitely don’t “fit in.” He was born illegitimate—his mother was a Japanese colonist in Manchuria, his father a bandit who kidnapped and raped her—and he is raised as an unloved stepchild in an abusive family. He is born to be condescended to by people like the Saegusas, neighborhood grandees who treat his visits as occasions to have him do housework. The only good thing in his life is his friendship with Yoko, whose house stands next door to his hovel. Taro regards Yoko with a ferocious, childish possessiveness; she is a symbol of a happiness he can only imagine.

But as Taro and Yoko grow into young lovers, class differences and family tensions tear them apart. Taro decides to go to America, where Japanese caste distinctions are submerged in simple foreignness. For him, America can be the land of opportunity it never was for Mizumura herself, as someone interested in language and the past more than money and the future. Yet finally only Japan really matters to Taro, because only there—the source of A True Novel’s grand pathos and gothic drama—can he win Yoko and prove himself to the Utagawas and the Saegusas. By the end of the novel, he has returned to his beginning: just as Heathcliff ends up as the master of the grand house that gives Brontë’s novel its name, so Taro ends up as owner of the Utagawas’ summer house, which has played a fateful part in his life.

In other ways, however, Taro’s path diverges significantly from Heathcliff’s. Rather than wreak a terrible revenge on the Utagawas, he becomes their secret benefactor, even entering into a seemingly happy ménage-à-trois with the adult Yoko and her understanding husband. But this “liberated” arrangement, too, runs up against the strict moral code of an older Japan, and Taro’s story ends, as it must, in tragedy. Nor is the tragedy only his. We see his rise and fall through the eyes of Fumiko, whose class origins condemn her to a servant’s life even though she has the makings of a formidable businesswoman, perhaps even a rival to Taro himself.

Clearly, Mizumura draws inspiration from her sense of living between two eras—the splendid, unjust, aristocratic Japan that was fading away and the vulgar, prosperous, democratic Japan that succeeded it. (Wuthering Heights, published in 1847, was the product of a comparable moment in English history, which is surely one reason why it inspired her.) Perhaps this duality is so vivid in her imagination because the years in which that transformation took place were precisely those in which she was absent from Japan. Having spent the 1960s and 1970s, the era of Japan’s economic miracle, on the other side of the globe, Mizumura returned to a country very different from the one she remembered—and still more different from the one she found in her favorite novels.

The clash between prose and poetry, which for Mizumura maps onto two Japanese eras and generations, resurfaces in Inheritance from Mother, which in other ways is quite unlike A True Novel. Where the latter is almost mythic in its narrative sweep and emotional intensity, the former starts out as determinedly mundane—the story of a contemporary middle-aged woman dealing with the decline of her aged mother. Its settings are the hospital rooms and nursing homes where the responsible fifty-something Mitsuki and her flightier sister Natsuki dance attendance on the frail and difficult Noriko. Several details of this family constellation match what Mizumura writes about her own life in A True Novel, in which she and her sister also have rhyming names, Minae and Nanae. This gives the impression that Inheritance from Mother is a kind of autobiographical “I-novel,” at least in its rudiments.

Mizumura’s realism embraces family dynamics and bodily decline, both of which are anatomized without a hint of sentimentality. But it is perhaps most evident in her candid treatment of money. Lionel Trilling observed, in his essay “Manners, Morals, and the Novel,” that a hallmark of the nineteenth-century novel was its frank recognition of the centrality of money in human life: “Every situation in Dostoevsky, no matter how spiritual, starts with a point of social pride and a certain number of rubles,” he wrote. In this spirit, Inheritance from Mother begins with Mitsuki’s detailed calculation of just how much money she will get back on the deposit from her mother’s nursing home after she dies: ¥37 million, about $350,000.

It’s not a fortune, but for Mitsuki it offers a lifeline—a way to stay in the middle class after she divorces her husband, Tetsuo, a vain professor engaged in an affair that he believes he has concealed from her. (Ironically, when Mitsuki discovers the e-mails between her husband and his mistress, they also turn out to be about financial planning—how much Tetsuo can expect to keep when he leaves his wife.) Mizumura depicts the ordeals of middle age with intelligence and empathy. The very modesty of Mitsuki’s needs is demoralizing, just like her chronic health problems, her stalled career as a translator, and her permanent subservience to her mother, whose death she wishes for without apology. (She yearns for the day when she can say, like Meursault in Albert Camus’s The Stranger, “Today mother died.”)

Mitsuki’s approach to living stands in contrast with that of Noriko, who has always demanded what she wants out of life and usually gotten it. Raised poor and ambitious, she ditched an arranged first marriage, stole her second husband (Mitsuki’s father) from his wife, and then neglected him in favor of a late-life love affair with her singing teacher. Noriko adores foreign films and has accumulated a far bigger wardrobe of expensive clothes than she could ever wear. In an emblematic scene, she tells her daughter how, alone at home one night, she “put out all the lights in the house, lit a candle, and sang my heart out. Sang every aria I could think of.” The story annoys Mitsuki, who sees it as another example of her mother’s self-dramatizing nature; but it can’t help charming the reader.

Inheritance from Mother was originally published as a serial in Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper in 2010–2011, and Mizumura relishes the opportunities and constraints of this old-fashioned form. What starts out as a novel about Mitsuki and the present evolves, in later installments, into a story about Noriko’s youth and the enormous changes in Japanese society and morals that her life has spanned. And the second half of the novel, after Noriko’s death, finds Mitsuki thrust into what is almost a different genre—a mystery waiting to happen, in which she is one of a group of hotel guests who are all guarding tragic secrets. The reader shares in Mizumura’s sheer pleasure in invention as she raises narrative possibilities and discards them, changes focus and atmosphere, and adds new characters to keep the momentum going.

Mizumura also, characteristically, turns the story into a self-conscious meditation on how serial novels helped to create modern Japanese literature. Inheritance from Mother is in dialogue with The Golden Demon by Kōyō Ozaki, which appeared in newspaper installments in 1897–1902 and became enormously popular. Reading Ozaki’s book, we learn, decisively influenced the life of Mitsuki’s grandmother, who was nicknamed after its heroine. In The Fall of Language, however, Mizumura wryly notes that the plot of The Golden Demon was later discovered to be a rehash of an American dime novel. From the beginning, she suggests, modern Japanese fiction was born out of an engagement with English literature—an engagement that her own work continues. Even readers who have no particular interest in that literary history will find in Mizumura a fascinating example of how a writer can be at the same time imaginatively cosmopolitan and linguistically rooted.