Books | WORKS BY JAPANESE WOMEN

Yoko Tawada: Wondrously strange subject matter from a fantastical imagination

by Kris Kosaka

Contributing Writer

Enter a Yoko Tawada book and abandon the known universe.

Consider her wondrously strange subject matter: the magical-realistic story of three generations of writing polar bears who interact with human society as superstars of both literature and the circus (“Memoirs of a Polar Bear”); a futuristic, post-apocalyptic Japan where children are born ancient, both frail and wise (“The Last Children of Tokyo”); or a global journey of sexual and political awakening for a young Vietnamese high school student who finds herself abducted into West Germany before she jumps a train to Paris and eventually becomes both captivated and liberated by the movies of French actress Catherine Deneuve.

This last novel, “The Naked Eye,” published in English in 2009, was written simultaneously in Tawada’s native Japanese and German, her adopted language. Tawada took the Trans-Siberian Railroad as a teenager to visit Europe and, after graduating with a degree in Russian literature from Waseda University, moved to Hamburg in 1982 to work at a book distribution company.

The daughter of a translator and bookseller, there never seemed to be any doubt Tawada would eventually become a writer. She published her first work in 1987, a collection of poems in Japanese and German, and her first novella, “Missing Heels,” received the Gunzo Prize for New Writers in 1991. She later received a doctorate in German literature from the University of Zurich.

A rarity for any author, Tawada has found literary success writing in both languages, and her literary awards span the globe, from the Akutagawa Prize (“The Bridegroom was a Dog”) and the Tanizaki Prize (“Suspect on the Night Train”) in Japan to the Goethe Medal and the Kleist Prize in Germany. Last year, she picked up a National Book Award from America for “The Emissary” (shared with her translator, Margaret Mitsutani).

Not surprisingly with her global appeal, many of Tawada’s works have been translated into English. Tawada’s themes often focus on writing and writers, displacement and cross cultural distortions, words and their connections to reality.

With her surreal but engaging imagination, Tawada has frequently been compared to Franz Kafka, and she’s acknowledged his influence on her work. But it’s her lively, infectious wordplay that truly sets Tawada apart, often creating neologisms in her prose, deliberately turning sentence structures inside out, musing on translated or borrowed words within her narratives.

Tawada tethers a fantastical imagination and wordsmithery to realistic social issues: gender roles, immigration, aging societies. Reading her books requires a leap into the strange, but she’s one Japanese woman writer whose accomplishments have truly crossed international borders.

This is the 11th installment of the series “Works by Japanese Women,” which explores notable female writers of Japan. Read more at jtimes.jp/womenwriters.

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