The accomplishments of Japanese poet, novelist and essayist Naoki Higashida are impressive. He’s published more than 20 books in Japanese, pens a popular blog and is seeing the release this month of his second book in English — all before his 25th birthday in August.
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Higashida’s initial success in English stemmed from “The Reason I Jump,” which he wrote when he was just 13 years old to answer frequently asked questions about the people on the other side of the wall that is autism spectrum disorders.
But his success as a writer now transcends his diagnosis. Higashida’s latest offering in English travels much broader terrain, considering everything from how rain sounds to how to define a meaningful life.
“Fall Down 7 Times Get Up 8,” which takes its title from a Japanese proverb, reads like a modern twist on the traditional Japanese zuihitsu, a collection of short essays and philosophical musings interspersed with poetry, memoir and fiction.
Spoken communication with Higashida is severely limited and shaped by his autism, yet from childhood he learned how to communicate by indicating letters on an alphabet chart. His relative isolation — with words as his primary connection to the outside world — has allowed him to fully develop the powers of observation that are necessary for good writing, and he has developed rich, deep perspectives on ideas that many take for granted.
In an email interview with The Japan Times, Higashida wrote, “What I’m most interested in now is observing the people around me. The way people move and the things they say don’t match what they’re really thinking. That’s because people’s minds are complicated … I like to watch them and wonder why they do things. I don’t just stare at them, I tend more to just listen to their voices. You can get a good idea of what people are thinking by the rhythm of their words or by their casual conversations. They say ‘truth is stranger than fiction,’ but for me, people are much more interesting than books. It’s like watching a serial drama.”
As “Fall Down 7 Times” reveals, Higashida is acutely aware of writing as a means by which humanity connects as a whole. As he explains over email: “I believe truly creative writing is not about using allegories or writing about things that could never happen; I believe it’s writing about things everyone knows, but may have forgotten. People get excited when they remember something important. The key to all creativity is within people’s memories.
“I want to write the kind of book people would pick up when they’re feeling sad or lonely,” he continues. “There are so many individual differences in the way people look at things or in their sense of time. As I express my feelings toward the world, I will be happy if my readers realize simply that life is precious.”
Translated from the 2015 Japanese version, “Fall Down 7 Times” is organized into eight sections with titles such as “A View From Here” or “Inner Weather” to loosely establish thematic connections. An interview from The Big Issue Japan magazine in 2015 is also included, and allows readers to hear Higashida on a number of questions. Another addition, a short story called “The Journey,” was inspired by one of his grandparent’s struggles with dementia and further reveals his creative talent.
The diversity of Higashida’s writing, in both subject and style, fits together like a jigsaw puzzle of life put in place with humor and thoughtfulness. From the light treatment of “licketty-lick” candy and “bottom-biting bugs,” Higashida moves effortlessly to a serious articulation of his philosophy: “Having nothing to do in the present moment has the same impact on me as having nothing to do for the rest of eternity would,” he writes. “As long as I’m in motion, I feel as if I could become a valid member of society, like everybody else. That feeling, I think, brings solace. Maybe I’m mistaken, but I don’t think I am. By being active and in motion, my heart beats more strongly.”
Higashida thinks deeply about the craft of writing, as he details in his email: “Most writers take notes or write drafts before they begin writing. I, on the other hand, do all of this in my head. I’ve always done it this way. My head is jam-packed with words. I move the words around like a puzzle to compose sentences. Words that perfectly express feelings are beautiful and precise. I come up with a new story in my head by putting these words together. Coherent sentences may be more convincing, but it’s words overflowing with emotion that touch people’s hearts.”
“Fall Down 7 Times” is translated, as with his first book, by British author David Mitchell and his wife, K.A. Yoshida. Mitchell, a fellow writer and himself the father of an autistic child, pens an introduction that provides a fresh perspective on Higashida, whom Mitchell interacted with frequently after the publication of “The Reason I Jump” for a documentary filmed in Japan.
Asked about his success as a writer, Higashida had this to say: “I don’t know whether I’m a successful writer or not, but success is not my goal in life anyway. I want to live a satisfying, worthwhile life. I want to write a story only I can write.”
He also expressed thanks to his readers around the globe, but added, “I don’t really think of being autistic as belonging to a special world. I believe that what we need now is not to divide people into those who give care or receive care, but for each of us to play an active role in society and live in a way not determined by others. The world is changing day by day. I think it’s time for each of us to seriously think about how to live our lives from now on.”