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Minae Mizumura: 私小説 from left to right (An I-Novel)

This novel was Mizumura’s second novel and written before her other two novels published in English. When she was still a child, her family moved to the United States, where she stayed for many years, before returning to Japan. This novel, a semi-autobiographical novel is about a young Japanese woman called Minae studying in a college town not far from New York. (The author studied at Yale, about eighty miles from New York City.) She has been in the United States for twenty years and longs to return to Japan.

You may have noticed that the Japanese title is 私小説 from left to right, i.e. it contains some English words. In an interesting experiment, the text contains many English words. Japanese is normally written vertically, i.e. from top to bottom. However that would make the English words difficult to read so, as the English words in the Japanese tell us, it is written left to right.

As she points out, there is no problem in translating the text into any other language, as the Japanese can be translated into the appropriate language and the English left as is. However, when you come to translate it into English, there is no obvious way to show what has been translated and what was in English in the original. The method selected has been to change the font. I read the book in ebook format and, in this case, the text that was in English has been put in bold. It is interesting to see how different characters use more or less English in their speech.

We start with Minae, who is a graduate studying for a Ph.D. She had a boyfriend, a Japanese man she nicknamed Tono (the term of address for a Japanese feudal lord). He had decided to go back to Japan. He suggested she accompany him and proposed to her. She declined. A look of relief flooded his face and his stooped shoulders relaxed.

She also has an elder sister, Nanae, still in the US, and they talk regularly on the phone. In Minae’s view, Nanae is more dependent on her than the other way round. As we see and as she tells us, Nanae uses far more English words when they talk. Nanae has also had a far more active love life, though has recently broken up with the somewhat useless Henryk (he made alcohol his best friend).

It looked at one time as though Nanae was going to be a pianist. She had a lot of lessons and did well. However, she gave it up and went in for sculpture. It is not a lucrative profession, unless you are very successful and she is not. She supplements her income by making architectural models but that is only occasional work. She also teaches piano. However, she still lives a precarious existence.

Now that Tono has gone, Minae is also on her own and struggles with it. She is preparing for a Ph.D. but tries to put off the orals on the excuse that her professor is ill. The reason for her postponement, apart from the health of her professor, is that once she has her Ph.D. she has vowed to return to Japan. She is eager to do so, not least because, at the beginning of the book, we learn that it is now twenty years since they arrived in the US, However it will be a big change. She will finally schedule her orals during the course of the book. The Ph.D. will enable her to teach in Japan though she plans to write a novel.

Their father is in a nursing home and not in good health. They both visit him. Their mother, however, is in Singapore with her lover, which somewhat shocked her daughters.

They have both visited Japan frequently, with mixed results, not least because they increasingly feel like foreigners. This is one of the key themes of the book. Having been out of Japan for twenty years, when a lot has changed, they do not really fit in. Neither can really write or, indeed, read Japanese fluently. Minae reads a lot of book with the help of katakana (one of the two alphabetic scripts) versions, rather than kanji (the Chinese character based script). However, she reads older novels, not modern newspapers and the like. On previous visits there have been mild culture clashes, such as forgetting to remove shoes at the door of the house, being inappropriately dressed or being groped on the train. Before long the Japan I yearned for was no longer the Japan I knew.

However, they are not, of course, American and this is made very clear to them. Minae, for example, is accidentally mistaken for a Chinese girl in her class. Nanae goes on a blind date with three other girls in her class. They are white and paired with white boys. Nanae is paired with a short, podgy but very rich Korean boy. After all, they are both Asian is the view, unaware that Japan occupied Korea in the war. Experiences piled up, telling me that I was as Asian as any Chinese or Korean, but for years I didn’t get the message and the gradual discovery that I was Asian wasn’t shocking in and of itself. The shock I felt came from being lumped together with people whom Westerners regarded as Others—as did I, a Japanese.. It gets worse, as far as she is concerned, when a black man decides that not only is he coloured but so are the Japanese. However, she comes to accept that in the wider world, only white people could be truly privileged.

Of course, it works both way. Their mother is determined that they should marry a Japanese man but, the couple of times it does seem to be happening, it does not work out. She finally accepts that, as long as her daughters marry, she will accept a non-Japanese but that does not work out either. Indeed, after giving up on Nanae’s marriage, Mother proceeded to dump her own husband. However, Minae primarily dates Japanese men while Nanae covers much of the United Nations in her dating habits.

Another key theme is loneliness, particularly loneliness of single women. Once Tono is gone, Minae frequently feels lonely, as she seems to have few friends, Nanae also seems lonely once she gets rid of Henryk. They are not the only ones. Minae’s friend, Sarah, a would-be novelist whom she had known since high school, most of the time she felt abysmally alone. Part of it is how to fill the time on your own, something Minae struggles with.

Ultimately, the key issue is whether she will return to Japan or stay in the US. She makes the decision that she wants to write a novel and, despite suggestions that she write it in English, she is determined to write it in Japanese. However, apart from that and the obvious need to return home, there does not seem to be a compelling need to return home. Home is not a place to return to, says Mme Ellman, her Israeli French teacher. Her other French teacher, however, does return home to France, though primarily because she is not going to get tenure in the US.

Exile is a key subject in many novels and Mizumura addresses it very well here, raising the key questions such as Can you go back home? Can you ever successfully integrate into a different country, particularly if you look different and speak a different language? Can you maintain your home culture when living in a different one? And what is your language when you are not in daily contact with one of your languages? People have struggled with these issues for many, many years and, of course, there is no easy answer. As a former exile, I can say that, as far as I am concerned – and it is different for everybody – it is difficult to integrate into another country if you first go there as an adult or older child, you can go back home, and you can keep your language by reading it and speaking with compatriots as Minae does.

We know our author went back home and she sums it up beautifully when commenting on one of her favourite Japanese authors – Ichiyō HiguchiBut I felt the presence of that woman, Ichiyō, in the room. The presence of a writer who had felt an unstoppable urge to write in the one language she knew and who had done something with that language that was wondrous. It is the wondrous language – Japanese – that takes Minae home.

Publishing history

First published by Shinchōsha in 1995
First English translation in 2020 by Columbia University Press
Translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter