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Banana’s fabulous fables

by Felicity Hughes

THE LAKE, by Banana Yoshimoto. Melville House, 2011, 192 pp., $23.95 (hardcover)

It’s hard to believe it’s been six years since Banana Yoshimoto had a new novel published in English. Her early novel “Kitchen” was hugely popular with foreign audiences, but since the release of “Hardboiled and Hard Luck” (2005), problems with her former publisher have stalled output overseas.

The English translation of “The Lake” got its release in May with a new publishing house. The Japan Times met Yoshimoto at her offices in Shimokitazawa to discuss the book.

“The Lake” is the melancholy tale of a rather awkward romance between young artist Chihiro and her mysterious neighbor, Nakajima. Though Chihiro is the heroine, the novel focuses on Nakajima’s psychological problems: It’s revealed later in the book that he had been kidnapped by a religious cult as a child.

Yoshimoto’s inspiration for the book came from the abduction of Japanese citizens by North Korea and the plight of children who’d been brought up in the Aum Shinrikyo cult. “When Aum Shinrikyo disappeared, children who’d been part of it suddenly had to start going to school and doing ordinary things like that. They were faced with big problems,” she says. “They had various difficulties with their families. They had got close to those people who had ripped them apart from their parents, they had had to live with them. That creates an incredible conflict in one’s heart.”

When Yoshimoto wrote the novel, she was at a low ebb and feeling physically run down. “I wanted to write a quiet novel in order to regain my equilibrium. Not a story in which people have huge epiphanies, because I was having a tough time. Quiet, like a lake.”

“Chihiro is the heroine. But I concentrated on how Nakajima could regain his composure. What kind of person could assuage his sadness? Someone who isn’t really bothered by his quirks and who doesn’t put too much pressure on him, someone who isn’t looking for love. I think he wants to feel that there’s someone there for him.”

The message of the novel is that it is perhaps impossible to get over such damaging early trauma. “It might have been best for him if he’d been left there. You don’t just return to normality and become really happy; that’s not life,” she explains.

Chihiro by contrast manages to overcome her own emotional troubles through the relationship and develop as an artist. Toward the end, she faces up to a challenge to her artistic integrity. Did Yoshimoto have a similar experience as a young writer?

“Yes, I did. It was really tough. I think I had it tougher than Chihiro. Japanese always talk about money. People are constantly like ‘Do you have a steady income?’”

Despite the financial difficulties experienced in her youth, she looks back on that period with fondness.

“I worked in a coffee shop. It wasn’t that tough, it was fun. But the shop is no longer there. If it were still here I might work there once a week because it was so much fun. I have great memories and had great friends there.”

Her motivations as a novelist have changed over the years: “When I started writing, it was to calm my spirit, but gradually I began to write for my audience. I want to transmit that feeling to others.”

Though not superstitious, a supernatural element is often found in Yoshimoto’s novels. “My novels always resemble reality, but they’re not reality. They’re all fables. I use that method. I think they’re something different from fantasy — stories where things like dragons appear. They resemble reality, but in places, the story floats above reality.”

Yoshimoto has a reputation as a writer who understands the problems of young people. Now that she’s a mother in her mid-40s, does she intend to continue to write for a young audience?

“More than myself now, I really understand the me of about ten years ago. I’m always writing about ten years in the past. So now it’s easiest for me to write about people in their 30s,” she says. “You understand things in the past. When I didn’t have a baby, I didn’t write about babies but now I can.”

Though she writes emotionally about the past, thematically she’s influenced by current events. “I’m writing now. Just a little. It’s not explicit, but it’s about the tsunami,” she says.

Like most Japanese she’s troubled by the March 11 disasters. “The tsunami and earthquake couldn’t be helped, but the nuclear problem is really … It’s still going on. My heart is heavy.”

The process of creating a novel for her is enviably easy. “It takes me about three months. It feels like those characters are always there. Every day I write for about two hours. The last week I write flat out.”

After “The Lake” was published in Japan, she wrote 10 more novels. She is discussing with her publisher which book to release next in English. Banana fans have a feast in store.