|

Mieko Kawakami: A writer’s writer who is at once highly readable and immensely popular

by Kris Kosaka

Contributing Writer

One of Japan’s brightest stars is set to explode across the global skies of literature. Mieko Kawakami, winner of the Akutagawa Prize (2008), the Murasaki Shikibu Literary Prize (2010) and the Tanizaki Prize (2013) among many others, will see two of her novels published in English next year after successful translations into French, Korean, Chinese and Spanish.

Ms Ice Sandwich, by Mieko Kawakami, Translated by Louise Heal Kawai.
96 pages
PUSHKIN PRESS, Fiction.

Barely a decade has passed since her debut novel, “My Ego Ratio, My Teeth, and the World” yet her works have repeatedly earned accolades for challenging expectations, both thematically and stylistically. Kawakami is known for setting her own boundaries; she burst onto the artistic scene first as a musician and then as a poet and popular blogger before moving into fiction.

From her distinctive style to her choice of topics, Kawakami is both a writer’s writer and an entertainer, a thinker and constantly evolving stylist who manages to be highly readable and immensely popular. A range of short stories are currently published in English, in addition to one novella translated by Louise Heal Kawai, “Ms Ice Sandwich,” a refreshing view of life seen through the eyes of an adolescent boy with a crush on the local sandwich-maker.

Available in 2019 will be “Breasts and Eggs,” which details the three-day reunion of two sisters in Tokyo when one of them, Makiko, comes to the big city for breast implant surgery with her sullen, silent daughter in tow, and “Heaven,” an ambitious love story between two bullied teenagers that also imaginatively explores morality, influenced by the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche.

Catching up in Tokyo with Kawakami, where she’s currently writing her next novel, she admits its an exciting time to be a female writer. “In the past, all of the people in the literary world — the critics, judges and all of the people who picked new writers and brought them into the mainstream — were men. The entire system was based on male values. But this has changed over the past 30 years and now, for example, I’m on the writer selection committee, and the number of women in the literary world has grown year on year so that I’d say there are currently just as many women as men.”

Lauded by Haruki Murakami as his favorite young writer, Kawakami conducted a series of interviews with Murakami from 2015 to 2017, famously covering topics such as the sexualization of women in his novels, with an edited volume published last year in Japanese. (The book will be translated to English at a later date.)

“I feel there are more women out there nowadays who are writing well-balanced works about pertinent topics,” says Kawakami. “Until fairly recently, however, women wrote to appeal to men. I don’t notice that so much anymore. Perhaps it’s because women these days have more issues they want and need to write about.”

Kawakami is a definite literary force in Japan, and soon enough, with a greater range of her works available, English readers will be able to see this for themselves.