Many writers of fiction who have shared so much as a short story have heard the old question, “Is this autobiographical?” No literary genre, however, plays with the possibility of “what actually happened” as liberally as the Japanese shishо̄setsu, known to Western readers as the confessional I-novel. Originating in the early 20th century, the style is marked by an intimate first-person narrative drawing from personal experience, leaving readers guessing as to what is truthful and what is embellished.
Translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter
COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY PRESS
An exciting addition to the genre for English readers is Minae Mizumura’s “An I-Novel,” which was published in Japanese in 1995 and comes out in English early March. The story centers on a character named Minae Mizumura, who, at the age of 12, moves with her family to the United States and is plunged into struggles of belonging.
Minae’s family relocates to the East Coast in the early 1960s, a time when Japanese people “turned for hope to all things American.” For 20 years, Minae lives as an expatriate, attending a liberal arts college and then graduate school, all the while stalling on deciding what to do with the rest of her life. Framed by phone calls with her older sister and unfolding over the course of a single day in the 1980s, the plot culminates in Minae’s decision, much like the author’s in real life, to return to Japan and write fiction in her mother tongue.
“The novel is both a fictional autobiography and a memoir, but not confessional in the way many shishо̄setsu are,” says Mizumura to The Japan Times. “More than a personal tale, I wanted to tell the story of a nation, to dramatize Japan’s turn from a poor country to a rich one.”
Minae’s youth on Long Island and later in Boston is marked by a sense of dislocation, a yearning for her homeland that after years abroad has come to seem almost mythical. Lonesome, rootless, unable to visit Japan for years, Minae buries herself in Japanese classical literature and her love for her native language.
“Someday soon I was to return to Japan, to the country that held all things dear to me,” writes Mizumura, echoing sentiments common to those who have left home. “Yet that day never came, and I had ended up spending an unconscionable portion of my one-and-only life on foreign soil … What had I been doing all this time?”
Unlike Western writers such as Philip Roth or Kurt Vonnegut, who named fictional characters after themselves to head-spinning metaphysical effects, Mizumura’s eponymous protagonist goes through struggles familiar to her creator. For a bilingual writer, choosing which language to write in can be a challenge, perhaps never more so than when writing fiction, where an authentic voice is essential.
Mizumura solved the dilemma by doubling down on her Japanese roots. For her first work of fiction, she ambitiously decided to complete “Light and Dark,” an unfinished novel left behind by Natsume Soseki, an eminent figure in Japanese literature.
“Continuing Soseki’s novel helped me overcome the initial obstacle,” says Mizumura. “Anyone who has ever read ‘Light and Dark’ is dying to know how it ends! All of my novels try to connect readers with Japan’s literary heritage while situating the story within world history.”
More than anything, “An I-Novel” is a story of modern Japanese people navigating the great abroad, coming into their own as they learn to be global citizens. Minae and her sister Nanae (“snobby and spoiled from her privileged upbringing”) don’t have to grapple with gender inequality or a meaningless corporate job, like many contemporary female characters in Japanese fiction. But, as they dine in expensive French restaurants and date European men in Manhattan, they do struggle with social hierarchies and the challenge as Asian immigrants to be accepted as equal in the U.S.
“We’ll always be Orientals, however long we stay,” Minae says in the novel. The sisters are shocked to see that, in the U.S., they get lumped with Koreans and Chinese into a faceless mass of “Orientals,” or are labeled along with Black people as “people of color.” Mizumura shines in these sections with her “third space” perspective on confronting both Japanese and American prejudice, making the novel a worthwhile contribution to current discussions of identity.
“I must have dimly sensed that my life in America had but the limited value of an Asian life,” writes Mizumura. “All the more so since this was before America began paying court to a newly rich Japan. … In America where people gathered from around the world, race, in its most loosely defined form, was a marker that superseded all others.”
Whatever truths “An I-Novel” may embellish, its yearning for equality and belonging should universally resonate with readers.
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