British, Japanese or somewhere in between? Kazuo Ishiguro questions nationhood from the ‘third space’

by Nicolas Gattig

Contributing Writer

When Kazuo Ishiguro received the Nobel Prize in literature last year, there was some confusion, especially in Japan, as to the writer’s nationality. Born in Nagasaki in 1954, Ishiguro moved to the U.K. at the age of 5 and gained citizenship in 1982. Last month, as if to be claimed for good by his adopted home, the writer was knighted and became Sir Kazuo.

Ishiguro has always seen himself as a British writer and dislikes being pegged to his Japanese origins. Still, he admits that the matter is complex. “People are not two-thirds one thing and the remainder something else,” Ishiguro said in an interview with Bomb magazine. “The bits don’t separate clearly. You end up a funny homogeneous mixture.”

But how do writers with a mixed background find an authentic voice in their art? Placed between cultures, perhaps dealing with identity issues and told to write what they know, how do they choose and convincingly render their settings and characters?

The answer may be what academia calls the “third space” — a sociolinguistic theory about identity and community. The mixing of different places creates a unique perspective, one based on cultural hybrids, an outsider view that needn’t take sides.

In the third space, writers ask different questions, especially about nation and history. It is a humble and global view that is key to Ishiguro’s works. And as nationalism continues to rise in the West, that vision appealed to the Nobel committee.

Some gems in the canon of English literature — think “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad or “Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov — were written by emigres inhabiting other nationalities, using English as a second language. In a similar vein, the World War II novel “The Bridge Over the River Kwai,” penned by Frenchman Pierre Boulle, captures the mindset of the British and Japanese.

Unlike other writers with comparable backgrounds, Ishiguro never wrote about immigrant life. After some unsuccessful short stories set in England, he turned to Japan for his first novel, aiming to preserve the country in his fiction before it would fade from his memory.

Set mostly in postwar Nagasaki, “A Pale View of Hills” is stamped with the author’s trademarks: the unreliable narrator and the self-deception that shrouds one’s memory. Ishiguro’s position allows him to nail Japanese mannerisms and circuitous conversations, while, at a remove in England, he also delves into questions concerning Japanese guilt and denial.

“What exactly are the memories of a nation?” Ishiguro asked in his Nobel acceptance speech. “Are there times when forgetting is the only way to stop cycles of violence … ? On the other hand, can stable, free nations really be built on foundations of willful amnesia and frustrated justice?”

After a second book set in Japan, Ishiguro turned to his naturalized home — or rather, a version of it he calls “mythical” — to write the masterful “The Remains of the Day,” the story of a life that seems missed. The protagonist Stevens, a butler serving a lord who hobnobs with Nazis before World War II, is equally British and Japanese in his loyalty and devotion to work, as well as in the way he suppresses his feelings.

It is a novel straight from the third space. Ishiguro portrays the quintessential butler — a man that, to him, is exotic in his Englishness. At the same time, in Japanese fashion, Stevens’ voice is controlled by the things he omits. The historical sins are now British — the sympathy with the Nazis, the elite anti-Semitism — but, as always with Ishiguro, they are etched with a gentle forgiveness.

After his breakout success, Ishiguro moved on to write characters without mooring. The English detective in “When We Were Orphans” gets lost in Shanghai, his family’s former home, as he frantically searches for his mother. The protagonist in “Never Let Me Go,” a disposable clone, has no place in a soulless British society.

So what does the future hold for Sir Kazuo — or, for that matter, for writing from the third space? Shocked by Brexit isolationism in the U.K., Ishiguro has called for more diversity in literature, more talents like Mohsin Hamid or Min Jin Lee, who moved to America as a child and now writes in English about Koreans.

“I feel both inside and outside of mainstream experience,” says Lee, the author of the bestselling “Pachinko,” a historical novel set in wartime Korea and Japan. “As I get older, I find that these multiple states help me see in my own way.”

Ishiguro is vague about his own place in a new world. “Can I,” he asked in his Nobel speech, “a tired author, from an intellectually tired generation, now find the energy to look at this unfamiliar place?”

Let’s hope that he can. Or at least that the baton will be passed to a new voice. In Ishiguro’s own words from the ending of “An Artist of the Floating World”: “Our nation, it seems, whatever mistakes it may have made in the past, has now another chance to make a better go of things. One can only wish these young people well.”