This year witnessed plenty of struggle and loss, but there was at least some good news: 2020 was the year the world embraced the considerable talents of Mieko Kawakami. Readers will therefore be delighted to know that her novel, “Heaven,” will be published in English in May 2021. Translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd, it tells the story of teenage bullying from the point of view of a 14-year-old boy. Kawakami is a writer who doesn’t shy away from hard truths and painful experiences, so this will not be an easy read, but it’s guaranteed to be a rewarding one.
Hard truths and painful experiences could be the subtitle of “Black Box” by Shiori Ito, translated by Allison Markin Powell. In 2015, Ito, a junior journalist, accused prominent reporter Noriyuki Yamaguchi of rape. As all too often happens in Japan, the police refused to prosecute. Ito went public with her story, and became a catalyst for the #MeToo movement in Japan. In 2019, she finally won a civil case against Yamaguchi. “Black Box” is Ito’s account of the events and promises to be a major publication when it’s released in July.
Another Japanese writer with new work coming out in 2021 is Yoko Tawada, whose collection of stories, “3 Streets,” translated by Margaret Mitsutani, will be out in June. Ghosts stalk the pages of these three supernatural tales: a boy in East Berlin haunts a health food store, a Soviet-era statue comes to life, and the specter of Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky visits his biggest fan.
Speaking of short stories, Haruki Murakami will also release a new collection in June. “First Person Singular” contains eight stories translated by Philip Gabriel, and they’re perfect for anyone playing Murakami bingo: according to the imprint Harvill Secker’s synopsis, the stories feature “memories of youth, meditations on music, and an ardent love of baseball, to dreamlike scenarios and invented jazz albums.”
After an atmospheric exploration of novelist Akutagawa in “Patient X,” David Peace returns to fictionalized true crime to complete his Tokyo trilogy. “Tokyo Redux,” out in June, takes as its central mystery the Shimoyama incident of 1949, in which the president of Japanese National Railways disappeared and was found dead the next day. His murderer has never been found, which makes it the case perfect for Peace’s brand of psychological thriller.
Speaking of thrills and spills, how does a shinkansen full of killers and a suitcase of money sound? “Bullet Train,” a bestseller by Kotaro Isaka (and translated by Sam Malissa), is hurtling toward us at breakneck speed. To be published in March, you can’t really go wrong with a psychopath, the “unluckiest assassin in the world” and a father bent on insatiable revenge. Strap in.
For those who like their drama more understated, Natsuko Imamura’s “The Woman in the Purple Skirt,” translated by Lucy North, is coming in the summer. Described as “a novel of obsession and psychological intrigue,” the titular Woman in the Purple Skirt is unknowingly being manipulated by the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan in this tense study of power and jealousy in the workplace.
Polly Barton, an excellent translator of writers such as Tomoka Shibasaki and Nao-Cola Yamazaki, has come out from behind the curtain with her own book, “Fifty Sounds,” out in August. Described as a “personal dictionary,” this memoir promises to explore the experience of the “quietly revolutionary act of learning, speaking and living in another language,” touching on her time living in Niigata Prefecture and working among the nuts and bolts of the Japanese language.
Language will no doubt play a large part in “The Life and Zen Haiku Poetry of Santoka Taneda” by Oyama Sumita (translated by William Scott Wilson). Born in 1882, Taneda’s life — spent walking across Japan, writing, studying zen and drinking sake — is the stuff literary biographies wallow in. Sumita’s book, complete with more than 300 poems and prose extracts, will hopefully bring this poet to a wider English-speaking audience.
2020 wasn’t just the year of Mieko Kawakami, it was also a pretty good year for Yu Miri, whose “Tokyo Ueno Station” won the U.S. National Book Award in November. She is back in 2021 with “The End of August,” translated by Morgan Giles, though no official publication date has been set.
Other notable books to be published this year include “Gaijin on a Push-Bike” by Tom Gibb, “Astral Season, Beastly Season” by Tahi Saihate (translated by Kalau Almony) and “Kanazawa” by David Joiner. As always, this is just a snapshot of what awaits in 2021, a year that, for readers at least, promises much.
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