'Linguistic chameleon' novelist finds a voice in Japanese

by Kaho Shimizu

Novelist David Zoppetti describes himself as a linguistic chameleon when he changes personality according to the language he speaks.

Raised in Switzerland in a family originally from Italy, with a Swiss-German father and American mother, the 39-year-old Zoppetti grew up speaking German, English, Italian and French.

News photoSwiss-born novelist David Zoppetti at home

Japanese was added to the list after he picked up a book to teach himself the language as a high school student, leading him to later study at a university in Kyoto.

He then began writing novels in Japanese, winning the 20th Subaru Literary Award with his first novel “Ichigensan (The First Timers)” in 1996.

Zoppetti said in a recent interview, however, that being fluent in five languages has been more of a source of confusion than a practical asset.

“I always had the struggle of ‘Who am I?’ ” Zoppetti said, adding that language and identity are intertwined. This close relationship has become the main theme of his books.

The award-winning “Ichigensan” depicts a foreign student studying in Kyoto who wants to be accepted by the Japanese as a Japanese, in the same way the young Zoppetti himself wished but found impossible.

In his latest book, “Tabinikki ( A Travel Diary),” an essay based on his experiences traveling around the world, Zoppetti describes how he started learning Japanese and his confusion in being a “linguistic chameleon.”

He said he believes that acquiring a language goes way beyond learning words and grammar — it requires emotional involvement as well. Therefore, he said, he cannot help but change personality according to the language he speaks.

Being multilingual has had some advantages, Zoppetti acknowledged, but for a long time it was also a source of worry, because he wasn’t able to come to terms with one identity.

But he is no longer confused, he said, because he is now firmly aware of his roots. “If you know who you are, where you come from, what your family background is, then you are strong as a human being,” he said.

He has come to realize that he is a Swiss writer who pens his works in Japanese, making his contribution to the nation’s literary scene with an outsider’s view, he said.

“I think that people like me make the landscape of Japanese literature more interesting,” he said, adding that he is not saying he writes better than Japanese authors but that he writes differently. The perspective of an outsider can enrich a language or culture, he stressed.

From the very beginning of his Japanese studies, he was fascinated by kanji and the discovery that one character represents a meaning and a concept.

For instance, in the kanji for “wave” there is a symbol for “water” on the left and “skin” on the right, Zoppetti explained. “So the skin of water is the wave . . . wow, that’s romantic!”

Such an understanding of the concepts behind the characters led Zoppetti to see something poetic in the language that ordinary Japanese might never realize when learning their mother tongue.

He said Japan seems to be placing emphasis on learning English only for the sake of internationalizing the country. “Internationalization is a reverse phenomenon,” Zoppetti said, pointing out that eagerness to embrace the lingua franca should not be confused with Japanese society becoming more international.

He added that it should not be Japan which transforms to adopt to the outside world, it should be the people coming into Japan who change and become part of this culture.

Pointing to the increasing number of foreigners here who think and write in Japanese, Zoppetti said, “Japan should be ready to (better) accept people like me.”