There’s no such thing as an overnight success in literature — years can pass between an idea and a story, or between a commission and publication. The short story collection “Things Remembered and Things Forgotten” by Kyoko Nakajima is a case in point. The title story was first translated by Ian MacDonald for a special Japanese issue of Granta in 2014 and the second, Ginny Tapley Takemori’s translation of “When My Wife Was a Shiitake,” was published by Words Without Borders in 2015. It’s only now, in 2021, that we’re getting a full collection of 10 stories from Sort of Books, out on May 13.
“We initially approached Kyoko Nakajima and asked if she would be interested in a collection with related themes,” says Nat Jansz, the editor of the collection. “It proved a wonderful collaboration. Nakajima first sent us a long list of acclaimed and much-loved stories and, with the help of the translators, we finalized the selection.”
The thematic links between each story are not often obvious at first. “I love the fact that it is an entirely new and unique collection made up of stories taken from different Japanese collections (of Nakajima’s),” Takemori says. “The stories are quite varied in subject matter and tone, and also showcase the breadth and skill of the author’s storytelling.”
The connections are there, though. The voices in these stories are calm, almost mannered, but there is an undercurrent of an angry but caring heart running throughout. “Many (stories) sow seeds of a narrative that continues to grow in the mind of the reader,” Jansz says. “It’s no easy matter to translate stories of such deceptive lightness and delicacy.”
“I think the biggest hurdle for me as a translator in all of Nakajima’s work is that so much is left unsaid beneath the surface,” Takemori, who also translated Nakajima’s award-winning 2019 novel, “The Little House,” says. “How much of that do you bring out to the surface, and how much do you leave unsaid? The two languages work very differently and, of course, there are cultural differences, and so sometimes it is necessary to make things somewhat clearer in English otherwise you risk losing the reader — but it’s very much a balance, and if you explain too much you lose the charm of the story.”
In general, the collection is concerned with the dialogue between Japan’s past and present, lending an additional poignancy to the title. Ghosts — both literal and metaphorical — make their presence known through the pages, as modern Japan is haunted by memories and echoes. World War II is the primary shadow hanging over everything. Nevertheless, “it seems that to describe these stories as ‘ghost stories’ or ‘horror’ would be to miss the diverse range,” Jansz says. “Ghosts are not really used here as a device to scare or disconcert. Where their presence is suggested, it is very lightly done … the yearning and loss implied might, in some cases, be predominantly psychological.”
Two of the stories that do lean into the supernatural are “A Special Day” and “The Harajuku House,” both translated by Takemori. The former — about a university student in Tokyo encountering an unusual art gallery — is perhaps the strangest story in the collection. “I think (it) is super ambiguous and can be read in different ways,” Takemori says. “On one level, it’s all true and she simply had a strange experience. On another level, she enters a liminal space in a similar way, say, to the protagonist in ‘The Harajuku House,’ and as a result has an encounter with the ‘hidden’ Tokyo that lies just beneath the surface of the city.”
While some of the protagonists seem panicked — or at least baffled — by their encounters, the tone of the stories suggests nothing too unusual has taken place. Of course the past and present co-exist, this collection seems to suggest. Of course ghosts from the past echo through to the present.
This coexistence is most obvious in “The Last Obon,” translated by MacDonald, in which a family gathering during the August holiday means a reunion in the widest sense. “It is a story about the relationship between three sisters and their memories of their mother,” MacDonald says. “The supernatural is treated very subtly and with a touch of humor, which undercuts the darker elements.”
Other stories tackle the themes in a very different way. “Childhood Friends,” also translated by MacDonald, stands out for how it creatively plays with voice and the reader’s expectations, while the title story has a surprising twist, a technique Nakajima favors.
“As you read,” MacDonald says, “I think you will see that Nakajima is often concerned with how memory, history and culture share people’s perceptions and identities, and affect how they navigate their daily lives and relationships.”
This collection is a welcome addition to Nakajima’s work in translation. Hopefully it won’t be seven years until the next full volume.
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