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For writer, languages are his ‘darling’

Multilingual author and subject of 'My Darling is a Foreigner' comic celebrates joy of words

by Mami Maruko

Writer Tony Laszlo, 50, has a strong passion for languages. He speaks 10, including English, Japanese, Chinese, Greek, Turkish and French. As a writer, he uses both English, his mother tongue, and Japanese.

In 2005, he published his first essay “Tony-ryu Shiawase wo Saibai suru Hoho” (“Tony’s Method for Cultivating Happiness”), which was written in Japanese. His second essay on the topic of what it is like to lead a multilingual life is to be published early next year.

Laszlo is widely known in Japan as “darling” in the best-selling comic book series “Darin wa Gaikokujin” (“My Darling is a Foreigner”), written by his wife, manga artist Saori Oguri, in 2002. The series has sold 1.7 million copies to date.

In the manga, Laszlo is depicted by his wife as having deep-set eyes and a long, bushy beard. A movie based on the comic came out this year, starring up-and-coming actress Mao Inoue as Oguri, and American actor Jonathan Sherr as Laszlo.

In the comic, Laszlo’s character comes across as a man who is picky about things and easily hurt by his wife’s comments and brutal movies.

Being written about in a book while one is still alive, Laszlo says, is quite a challenge.

“My first approach was to not read the books. But then, sometimes people I didn’t know would look at me with a knowing look in their eyes — and I would wonder what it is that they thought that they knew,” he said.

However, after Laszlo and his wife started coauthoring books on their travel essays, “ignorance is bliss” ceased to be an option, and writing together made things easier, he said.

“Now when people give me a knowing look, I can at least imagine that they are thinking about something that I actually ‘said’ in one of my essays, as opposed to my persona as depicted by my wife.”

Born to a Hungarian father and Italian mother in New Jersey, Laszlo said he has had a love of languages since he was very young. He started writing poetry at 16 and began writing professionally at around the age of 20.

In the early to mid-1980s, he became curious about the world and traveled extensively through Western Europe. He happened to come to Japan in 1985 just out of “a bit of curiosity and a bit of luck.”

He said that he knew very little about Japan then, but after intensively learning to read Japanese (when learning a language, he first set out to learn how to read) for about half a year, he began to get a grasp of the basic meanings and how to read kanji.

Having spent a lot of time and effort, and having come into contact with the Japanese people and culture, he said, he decided to stay on in Japan “a bit longer, then a bit longer.”

He has ended up staying for over 25 years, and now lives in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward with Oguri and their son.

Laszlo said he taught himself how to write Japanese by writing out kanji on paper, which he believes is the best way to learn the characters.

He still takes the same kind of steps when he writes essays in Japanese.

“I have three stages of writing when I write,” he said. “I usually start off thinking and writing on paper. Then I work on the computer, and then, when I’m finished with the piece, and the editors are finished with the piece, they send it back to me. . . . I use a computer pen and draw on the computer screen and I’ll change and fix things. So in the beginning and end, I’m writing by hand.”

After learning Japanese, Laszlo also took up the challenge of learning Mandarin Chinese.

“Learning how to read old Chinese characters had a big impact on my life, because it gave me access to slightly older Japanese documents, such as literature from the Meiji Era,” he said.

He said that in general, there is an unfortunate trend in Japan that is steering away from using kanji in books and magazines. “I tend to have a battle with the editors, because most editors are in tune with the trend. Although aesthetically, it sometimes looks or feels better using hiragana instead of kanji, I prefer to use kanji when it’s not out of the question,” he said. “Using written kanji was so valuable in the past (in the eighth and ninth centuries) for communication across borders, across cultures, across languages (in Asia). I’m quite sure that we are better off with it than without it.”

For Laszlo, being multilingual is a natural part of his life. “Languages mean more than languages to me. As you learn more languages, you have much richer experiences as a human being. It suddenly expands your horizons. It gives you more pieces of the puzzle of what the world is about.”

He said that he gets elevated in a physical sense — in that one gets more of a bird’s eye view of the world around them.

“You get to see different historical figures, and hundreds and thousands of facets to human and natural history,” he said.

This, he said, is what he experienced when he visited Hungary and got to know the country’s culture and language. Laszlo’s father came from a very small town in western Hungary on the edge of a forest, near Lake Balaton — the largest lake in Central Europe.

“I go to this village quite often now,” he said. “There are deer and wild boars. I can pick berries or gather mushrooms, and cook them in different ways. I wouldn’t have had that kind of interface if I hadn’t visited there.”

Apart from writing, Laszlo taught for a few years at Japanese universities, and has also set up an nongovernmental organization, Issho Kikaku, in 1992. Through this NGO, he put on theatrical shows related to multicultural issues, and later, dealt with social issues such as discrimination against foreigners.

“In those days, personally, I felt a strong desire to avoid a simple dichotomy between Japanese and non-Japanese, male and female, family and friends, handicapped and nonhandicapped,” he said. Today, he said he is less passionate about the issues, and that the group’s activities have become more low-key. Now it engages in research on issues concerning human diversity, language and culture.

After taking a long pause to think, making a wrinkle in the middle of his forehead — a trademark of his in the “darling” comics — he returns to the subject of languages, widens his eyes and says, “Language gives me indescribable personal treasures. . . . If a day arrives in which I have to go back to being monolingual, then that would be a sad day.”