A new bilingual collection of short stories, “Love Child,” traverses bicultural themes and universal mileposts in life.

The 10 stories, written by Rakuko Rubin, 78, and translated by her husband, Jay Rubin, 79, a literary translator who often works on Haruki Murakami’s writings, illuminate lives at a crossroads. In “The Zipper,” a widow poignantly struggles to reenter society and make connections after her husband’s death and “Bamboo” provides an astute musing on what lies underneath the surface of a perfect marriage as the narrator finally consummates a youthful love. The title story, “Love Child,” explores how a child’s carelessly racist taunt cuts deep, as the targeted child’s concerned parents debate possible responses.

Love Child, by Rakuko Rubin
Translated by Jay Rubin
228 pages

The stories span over 20 years of Rakuko’s creative output, originally published in Japanese writing club magazines and online literary sites. They are collected in this book in both English and the original Japanese. Rakuko says the stories often grew out of chance encounters that germinated for far longer in her mind. “It usually started with a single image or word that stayed in my head,” Rakuko says. “I didn’t start actively writing until I was 54 years old, so some of the images had been waiting a long time inside my mind.”

“Bamboo,” for instance, was inspired by the Rubins’ first home together in Washington state; “Love Child” brought forth by their 5-year-old son bringing home a pejorative term after a playmate’s teasing; and “The Zipper” from a real-life encounter while attending an opera in Seattle. But the stories are not autobiographical, and they often seamlessly incorporate elements of magical realism or the supernatural, soaring from their realistic origins.

Taken together, the range and depth of the stories are impressive, each one imbued with an understated perceptiveness on universal emotions of loss, connection and resilience. In the hauntingly evocative “Westport” a chance encounter on a deserted beach fortifies a middle-aged woman to act upon her husband’s suspected infidelity. “Stress” recalls the historic fire that occurred in 1972, when 118 people died at the Sennichi department store, using the real-life tragedy to contemplate obligation and filial duty beyond the grave. “Sakura” playfully navigates the generation gap as parents are surprised by the depths within their seemingly vacuous and flighty daughter, Sakura. Each story emerges with its own sagacious wisdom, and resonates far beyond the page as the characters and their decisions provide timely life lessons of acceptance and perseverance.

'Love Child' by Rakuko Rubin
‘Love Child’ by Rakuko Rubin

For Jay, his wife’s path to writing was natural: “From very early on in our relationship, I noticed Rakuko was a voracious reader. I was never the kind of intense reader that she was, with an enormous background in literature where she’s read an impressive range of works, whereas, basically all I know is Haruki Murakami.”

Rakuko laughs, saying that the couple’s frequent discussions early in their marriage about words and their meanings gradually changed her view on literature, making her approach reading through the lens of a writer.

“For me as a native (Japanese) reader, I had never thought about grammatical relationships, like how this subject relates to this object because, of course, you can understand everything in your native language,” Rakuko says. “But Jay’s questioning with translations he was working on made me more aware, unconsciously at first, of what was going on with language.
“For example, Japanese novels often mix up the narrative voice, so I became very conscious of who was speaking in a Japanese novel and how the writer develops that mixed-up narration.”

Jay says translating his wife brings both new challenges and opportunities. “Translation is always the same process, but Rakuko’s use of imagery and visualization sometimes makes it more difficult than translating other writers,” he says. “Of course, I have constant access to the author with any questions, which allowed me to take on new challenges.”

One such example is “Saving Gochiku-san from the Flames,” a favorite of both as it was written in Rakuko’s native Saga dialect. As Jay explains, “I had pretty much given up on translating Japanese dialects. There is not much dialect in Murakami, so I don’t usually have to deal with that challenge. Once I tried to translate Osamu Dazai, but there’s so much sheer language play in his works that I gave up after a while. But translating Rakuko’s Saga dialect was fun. They have a special flavor of speech that is different from standard Japanese, so we worked together to invent a sound and wordplay that would authentically convey the fun of their words.”

Although the Rubins’ original intention was to simply offer their own children a published collection of their parent’s lifelong literary collaboration, the collection also offers the opportunity for language study as a bilingual text. “I’m delighted to see the book appealing to a wider audience than I had in mind,” Rakuko says. “We enjoyed the project so much, we might try another one.”

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