Gregory Khezrnejat, tall and slight with a neatly trimmed graying beard, sits in front of me in a cafe in the heart of Tokyo’s bustling Shibuya Ward. Accents play a strong role in his short story “Kaikonchi,” up for an Akutagawa Prize this week, so I come primed for a full South Carolinian twang. But if Khezrnejat has a Southern accent, it’s barely detectable, though it’s also hard to hear his soft voice clearly above the river of chatter around us.
In “Kaikonchi,” or “A Clearing,” written by the 39-year-old American in Japanese, the main character, Russell Shirazi, finds himself lost in a wash of poignant confusion when he hears a song in Farsi. He doesn’t know anything of the language, but he can still feel a sense of sorrow in the music. I wonder if that feeling is how Khezrnejat, an academic and writer, felt when he first came to Japan in 2000: on the pleasant side of disoriented.
Khezrnejat was born in 1984 in Greenville, South Carolina. His mother remarried when he was young, so his surname is Persian from his father, though he’s not ethnically Iranian. When Khezrnejat was older, he wondered what it was like for his father to raise a child in his second language. That kernel became the basis for “Kaikonchi,” his fourth published work of fiction.