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From the January 2002 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 49, No. 1)

Books: Yoko Tawada

Double Wordplay


Kimie Itakura, Asahi Shimbun (liberal), Tokyo, Japan, Oct. 28, 2001

As a young girl, Yoko Tawada made a discovery that would later mold her life. “I found it fun to speak a jumble of words, sheer nonsense, and make grown-ups laugh,” she says. Tawada has made a career from such phrases—in both Japanese and German. And instead of laughs, the unique poet-novelist has won literary awards in the two countries. A resident of Hamburg, Germany, for nearly 20 years, Tawada boldly experiments with the two languages and challenges conventional storytelling. The results are colorful threads of words that weave a tapestry of rich imagery. The novelist believes it was important to plant herself in a foreign culture, partly to hone her sensitivity toward her native tongue. “It was purely by chance,” the novelist said recently in Tokyo, explaining why she settled down in Germany. “I happened to get a chance to work at a local German book exporter in Hamburg as a trainee for two years, and ended up staying there permanently,” said Tawada.

Tawada won Japan’s Gunzo Prize for New Writers in 1991 and the prestigious Akutagawa Prize in 1993. But her debut in the German literary world preceded her recognition in Japan by several years. Her first poems were published in Germany in 1987, and her first novel two years later. In 1996 she won the Adelbert von Chamisso Prize, a German award granted to foreign writers who contribute to German culture.

Born in 1960 in Kunitachi, a western suburb of Tokyo, Tawada began to write novels as a junior high-school student. “I was feeling frustrated about school life. I often found myself disagreeing in my mind with what teachers said, but didn’t know how to protest effectively,” she says. “So I just wrote stories at home, as my own style of resistance.”

In high school, Tawada produced a small literary magazine. Eventually, she became interested in European literature and studied German, out of respect for master writers like Thomas Mann. Shortly after graduating from Waseda University in 1982, she flew to Hamburg. “While feeling liberated and excited,” Tawada recalls, “I felt kind of sad at the same time, feeling as if I was cut off forever from everything that had tied me to home.”

Tawada earned a master’s degree in German literature at the University of Hamburg in 1990. During her postgraduate studies, she found a collection of volumes on Japanese folktales at the university’s library and discovered the subject of human-animal marriages, which inspired her to write the award-winning The Bridegroom Was a Dog. Set in the Tokyo suburbs, this surrealistic novel portrays the bizarre relationship between a cram-school teacher and a strange “dog-man”—human in shape but a dog in mentality and behavior—who settles in her house.
Tawada has since written several other novellas in Japanese, incorporating elements of German folk tales. Those stories are a maze of words and imagery that make characters, scenes, and time elements irrelevant. “I believe folk tales or legends tell us some aspects of popular histories....For my part, I’ve blended contemporary elements (into old legendary motifs). Those heterogeneous elements lead my stories to interesting turns and twists.”

Many of her other novels, varied in style, also do not have clear beginnings and endings, and “evolve into most unexpected directions.” She is committed to exploring the potential to weave out of the two languages something truly original.
When writing in German, Tawada enjoys struggling with a language that is not her native tongue. “German is now my daily language, and I can convey my feelings precisely. But when it comes to writing, I still feel restrained. That challenge is interesting.” On the other hand, “when I come back to Japan to speak in Japanese, I feel as if I am speaking some translated language. While writing in Japanese I would go through the process of rediscovering and rebuilding feelings and memories attached to each word as a Japanese. “Whether to write in German or in Japanese depends on which language lets me play or experiment more freely with images and motifs at the time,” the novelist says.

After all these years in Hamburg, Tawada still finds herself serving as a Japanese cultural spokeswoman, answering questions ranging from Zen or calligraphy to Japanese pop stars. “At least once every day, somebody asks me, ‘What about…in Japan?’ ” she says. She also discovers what she calls myths about Japan. One concerns Japan’s dwindling economic power; another involves the notion that Japan is full of computer games and manga [comics], while the image of samurai/geisha persists.

“On the other hand, there are trifling, amusing reports, such as in Japan there is a toilet device designed to make sounds inaudible, or that many Japanese pay for surgery to give their eyelids a fold. Patching all those pieces of information together would make Japan a country more bizarre and funnier than one you’d find in Gulliver’s Travels,” she says with a chuckle.


 
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