Why do I write what I write?
It would make more sense, or at least, make it easier for me to answer such a question, if I could give you some quick and, at the same time, essential idea of what I write. I tried, therefore, to think about my novels as a whole and tried to find out if they had anything in common. At first glance, they are quite different from one another.
I have written three novels in the past fifteen years. My first novel was an attempt to finish a novel left unfinished by another writer. My second novel, which mixes English and Japanese, is a work that would come under the rubric of autobiography. My third and most recent novel is a retelling of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights in postwar Japan.
Aside from the fact that none of them was a great commercial success, no common thread seemed to run through them. However, as I stepped back and looked at them from a distance, I began to think they have one thing that they share: they are all written with what I call an “unhappy knowledge.” Let me explain what I mean by an “unhappy knowledge” by summing up the sad story of my life.
I was born in Tokyo, but moved to the States with my family when I was twelve years old, my father being stationed as a branch manager in New York. I did not get along either with the States or with its language, English. I turned my back on America and spent my entire girlhood reading old Japanese novels my parents brought for my sister and me to read. I read and read and dreamed of the day when I would finally go back to Japan and start living a full life—not a shadow of life as I did in the States. Naturally, the more I immersed myself in those old Japanese novels, the more I turned my back on the English language. My aversion to English was such that when the time came for me to go to college, I, a mediocre painter at best, chose to go to an art school. Life never turns out the way one expects it to, and my personal circumstances kept me from returning to Japan for a long time, but I did succeed in resisting the English language, marrying a Japanese man in the States, and studying French literature after giving up painting.
I was not happy living in America, but was happy in the thought, which was growing stronger every day, that when I would finally go back to Japan, I would begin writing novels myself. Eventually the day came when I did go back to Japan and, several years later, I published my first novel. Thanks to my obstinate persistence in honing my Japanese, my language skills were so excellent that the readers, on learning of my background, were graciously surprised. However, by that time, the “unhappy knowledge” had already taken root in me.
I don’t know when and how the knowledge approached me at first. In the beginning, it came to me discreetly and vaguely, like a phantom in a dark dream. Sometimes, it came to me bit by bit, in small fragments. It is one of those ironies of life that it was just as I was beginning to seriously think about my first novel that the knowledge made itself known to me with full force.
I realized then that, moving to the States as a twelve-year old girl, 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 everyone knows, a novelist, like a dancer, must acquire a physical nimbleness with language relatively early in life. It turns out that I, who have happily persisted in Japanese, have unknowingly persisted in a local, singular language and I have thus lost the opportunity to become a writer in English, the one and only universal language of today.
The people for whom English is the mother language are often not fully aware of the true extent of their good fortune. They sometimes even humbly assume that all languages are equally important—which seems to me to be only an arrogant assumption of the privileged. Just think of the advantage that novelists who write in English have. There have been other international languages in the history of humanity—Latin, Chinese, Arabic, French, even Russian. But no other language has ever permeated the entire world as English has. No other language has ever become so completely and absolutely dominant. Already in the past decade, those who communicate in English as a foreign language have outnumbered those for whom English is the mother language. Moreover, language has its own laws of propagation, and the predominance of English can only continue for the centuries to come.
This reality is now as clear as daylight for me, leaving me with the “unhappy knowledge” that my stupidity lies at the core of my becoming writer in the Japanese language. You have now heard the sad story of my life.
However, I am a novelist who does not like unhappy endings. I want my novels to end ambiguously, with a glimmer of hope. Accordingly, I do not like to give the story of my life an unhappy ending. Indeed, not all is lost. For, the “unhappy knowledge” ensures another knowledge within me. When I write, because I always write with the “unhappy knowledge,” I always know that I am not just writing but that I am writing in Japanese. This knowledge is at the core of why I write.
On the one hand, I have rather a megalomaniacal agenda. I write to prevent the world from succumbing to the tyranny of English. For, imagine a world in which the cream of all societies expresses itself exclusively in English. Not only would humanity be less rich, it would also be less subtle, less articulate, and less capable of checking the tyranny of one Logos.
On the other hand, I have a less megalomaniacal and more practical agenda. I write to see what I can do with the Japanese language. When I write, because I always know that I am writing in Japanese, I am freed from using the language as a means of self-expression—as something that comes out of my innermost soul, as something that belongs to me. I can think of the language only as belonging to no one—as being, on the contrary, something that allows us to belong to it. Great writers all know this in one way or another and they all try to do what they can do with the language, but I could not have known it without the long detour that I made.
This essay was originally written for a panel at the Iowa City Public Library, during the 2003 IWP residency.