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For readers — and publishers — outside Japan, the capital and the nation are often conflated, so a novel set anywhere else is always welcome.

“Japan is so much more than its major cities,” author David Joiner says, “and Kanazawa (in Ishikawa Prefecture) is a great example of that.”

Joiner’s new novel, “Kanazawa,” is both a sensitive portrayal of the struggles of an international marriage and a paean to the city in which it is set. “Kanazawa is pretty small,” he continues, “offering what a large city and a rural town might offer if you squeezed the two together. In some ways you get the best of both worlds.”

Kanazawa, by David Joiner
264 pages
STONE BRIDGE

It’s a theme with which his characters struggle. American-born Emmitt yearns for the peace and tranquillity of the Japanese countryside, while his wife, Mirai, is jealous of her younger sister’s exciting life in Tokyo. “Not all readers will side with Emmitt, but I hope he makes a decent case for living outside Japan’s mega-cities,” Joiner says. “Not because they are bad in any way, but I feel I have much better access to the roots of Japanese culture in quieter, less expensive, less frenzied places. The relationships I make with local people in smaller cities are in some respects more real and often more long term.”

Joiner would know, having also lived in Akita and Fukui prefectures, as well as Sapporo and Tokyo. Confounding stereotypes about life in a country by using settings often overlooked was also an aspect of his first novel, “Lotusland,” which takes place in Vietnam.

“After living there for a decade, I wanted to set a novel in Vietnam that had nothing to do with the war — an idea that apparently struck many people in publishing as absurd,” he says.

So what was it about Kanazawa that appealed to him as a setting for a novel?

“I’ve probably moved more than 40 times in my adult life but Kanazawa ranks up there as one of the most culturally and historically interesting places to me,” Joiner says. Anyone who has visited the city would understand why, so it is surprising that this is the first literary novel written in English set there. “I thought I could make use of that richness in a novel as long as I got the premise right,” he adds. It was a process that took 2½ years, much of which was spent “researching ways to incorporate local culture into my story.”

It was time well spent; the city is such an integral part of the story that it’s hard to imagine it working anywhere else. It’s a cliche to say that the setting is a character but there really is no other way to frame it. In a sense, Joiner’s use of Kanazawa is more akin to literary shakkei, or borrowed scenery, a technique common in Japanese garden design.

This borrowing stretches much further than the city’s streets, homes and surrounding villages. The ghost of Kanazawa writer Kyoka Izumi (1873-1939) stalks the pages of the novel. Emmitt’s mother-in-law is a member of a book group aiming to raise awareness of his work, and part of that involves encouraging Emmitt to translate Izumi’s stories into English. However, Izumi’s presence goes much deeper than that. Echoes of scenes from his work are interwoven with the main plot in “deliberate instances of intertextuality,” though Joiner is keen to point out that the novel can be read without any prior knowledge of Izumi.

“I came across Kyoka in the mid-1990s, shortly after graduating (in the United States) with a degree in Japanese Studies, so he was in my consciousness even before I moved to Kanazawa,” the author says. “Once there, he’s kind of unavoidable: There are monuments to him all over the city. He even has a cookie commemorating him.”

Izumi is such a part of the cultural makeup of the city that not including him in the novel would have been strange. “The whole idea of ‘Kanazawa’ interacting with Kyoka’s life and work came from the feeling I had of encountering him in Kanazawa in different situations. Although Kanazawa has changed, if you know where to look, it’s not difficult to imagine you’re passing through the same city he knew. I found that idea magical and, as a writer, a source of inspiration.”

The heart of the novel, though, is the marriage between Emmitt and Mirai, who live with Mirai’s parents. Joiner has inverted the expected trope of friction between the non-Japanese husband and Japanese in-laws by centering the conflict between Mirai and her father. In fact, the relationship between Emmitt and his in-laws is one of the most moving aspects of the novel. His position as outsider allows him to view Mirai’s parents objectively, unlocking them as individuals rather than simply “mother” and “father,” which is all Mirai sees.

Joiner describes “Kanazawa” as being a “quiet and reflective” novel, but it is also tense and packed with conflict, a tale of family secrets that threaten Emmitt’s dream of a quiet life. It’s a novel about seeking a better life, be that escaping the pressures of the modern world or silencing regrets in the bustle of the big city, and what could be more apt for the times we find ourselves in?

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