Books

The seemingly perfect world of author Clarissa Goenawan

by Suzanne Kamata

Contributing Writer

Singaporean author Clarissa Goenawan only saw snow for the first time when she came to Japan last year to celebrate her and her eldest daughter’s birthday.

The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida, by Clarissa Goenawan.
288 pages
SOHO PRESS, Fiction.

“We traveled in mid-April to avoid the cherry blossom crowd,” Goenawan recalls. “But we ended up catching both the peak of the sakura (cherry blossom) season and the snow too! We were in Nikko and the whole area was blanketed in white. We were not suitably dressed — walking around in snow-soaked canvas shoes wasn’t fun — but the view was breathtakingly beautiful and more than made up for it.”

Goenawan was born and raised in Surabaya, a city in East Java, and her mother tongue is Indonesian, but she moved to Singapore for her studies when she was 16. In addition to English, one of Singapore’s four official languages, she has been studying Japanese on and off since high school out of personal interest.

“I grew up reading copious amounts of manga, watching anime and listening to J-music, so my interest was sparked by Japanese popular culture,” Goenawan says. She names books by Haruki Murakami, Banana Yoshimoto, Keigo Higashino, Hiromi Kawakami, Fuminori Nakamura, Yoko Ogawa and Sayaka Murata as some of her favorites. As for manga, “my favorite has always been ‘Death Note,'” she adds. “‘Bakuman’ is a close runner-up. Both series were created by writer Tsugumi Ohba and manga artist Takeshi Obata.”

In addition to popular culture, she grew to appreciate the traditional aspects of Japan, such as the tea ceremony and the art of kimono dressing.

Goenawan’s interest in all things Japanese has made it possible for her to write convincingly about the country even though she has never lived here. Japanese readers of her work, she says, are mostly “very positive and encouraging. Most are intrigued that a non-Japanese is writing a story set in Japan with Japanese characters.”

Although she fantasized about being a writer as a child, she didn’t think that it was a realistic profession at first. She went into banking instead. But that early interest in writing lingered. When she left her job while pregnant with her second child, she decided to give writing a shot. She joined a few local and online writing groups, dabbling in short stories and flash fiction.

Goenawan drafted her first novel, “Rainbirds,” in one and a half months as part of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), an annual online event that challenges participants to write a 50,000-word novel in November. She spent another year and a half revising the manuscript. The novel, a moody psychological thriller about the murder of a young Japanese woman, won the 2015 Bath Novel Award, an international prize for unpublished authors. “I didn’t think I’d stand a chance,” Goenawan says about winning the prize.

The recognition led to interest from editors and agents, and ultimately to a book contract: “Rainbirds” was acquired by Soho Press, an independent publisher in New York, and later published in 11 other languages. Many critics compared the book favorably to the writing of Haruki Murakami and, at one point, a tweet by a Japanese reader went viral and sent it to the No. 1 rank in Amazon Japan for the “Mystery & Thrillers” category for English-language books.

Goenawan’s eagerly anticipated follow-up, “The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida,” is also set in Japan. Although not a sequel, it expands on the world of “Rainbirds” and features a character from the first book. If her debut novel brings Murakami to mind, her second, with its winsome tone, harkens to early Banana Yoshimoto. However, with her blend of mystery, magic and social issues — in this case, sexual abuse, transgender awareness and suicide — Goenawan is developing her own distinct brand.

The new novel opens with the suicide of the title character. However, frequent flashbacks to Miwako’s life prevent it from becoming a mournful dirge. Rather, it is a story of unrequited love and dark secrets, told from three successive points of view.

The first is that of Ryusei, a fellow student at Waseda University, who meets and becomes enamored with Miwako on a group date. Subsequent sections are told from the point of view of Miwako’s best friend, Chie, and Ryusei’s older sister, Fumi. As in Goenawan’s debut, all is normal enough at first, but as secrets unfold, the book becomes increasingly weird and, like its predecessor, tinged with magical realism.

Goenawan says that the seed for the novel came from a fascination “with the idea that often, we think that we know a person really well, but actually, we don’t. How far would you go to uncover the truth? And what if the truth is more painful than the lies?”

She is now working on a third book set in Japan. Goenawan hints that characters from the first two may reappear.

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