It is a snowy evening at an American college town in the 1980s. Snowed in, graduate student Minae struggles to cope with ennui, loneliness, and procrastination. Her attempts to call the French department’s secretary at her prestigious college to schedule her oral exams have been futile thus far. She has been trying for a while; she wishes to move forward. Minae looks out the window, watching the heavy snow fall, daydreams about her move to Japan after her oral exam, and her enthusiasm is disrupted by thoughts about her dysfunctional family and anxiety about the future.
Japanese writer Minae Mizumura’s fictionalized autobiographical work An I-Novel takes place over the course of a day–the day that marks the twentieth anniversary of, what Minae and her artist sister Nanae call, “our Exodus.” Their family’s move to America from Japan, following Japan’s defeat in WWII. The seemingly uneventful day also reveals to its narrator and protagonist Minae that she has come to a threshold.
As Minae makes the difficult decision to move forward and return to Japan in the novel, she reflects on her memories in the U.S. and in Japan, her struggle with the English language, her identity as a graduate student and as an aspiring novelist–a process of meditation instigated by her phone conversations with Nanae who, like her sister, has long grappled with what it means to straddle two cultures.
As the narrative moves back and forth in time, Minae tries to get to the root of her desire to move to Japan and to write in Japanese. “When did I start wanting to go back to Japan?,” she asks, “So many years has passed with me haunted by the longing to return that the wish seemed to have been there from the first.” Like her parents, she was thrilled about the prospect of the move overseas, but she remembers how, once in the Land of the Free, she feels “as trapped as a cloistered nun or a languishing exile.” Her constant struggle with the English language and failure to speak it fluently as a kid further relegate her to the periphery. She thus takes solace in Japanese novels, as well as in the idea that she will surely return home one day. She writes:
“All through my girlhood, I was consumed by thoughts of the homeland I’d left. I longed for it with an intensity that words like ‘yearning’ or ‘nostalgia’ could not convey. I felt I was someplace I should not be. Japan steadily grew near-mythic dimensions in my mind, transfigured into a place where life transcended the smallness of the everyday. Since these were the years that shaped me, I was never again to be free–not even when I finally did return for a visit.”
Later she explains that she goes to graduate school:
“…simply as a means of prolonging my life in limbo. But I was powerless to halt the stream of time. Awareness of how much time had gone by hit me all of a sudden, as if one day, I Urashimo Tarõ, the Japanese Rip van Winkle, had opened a jeweled box and been greeted with a puff of smoke and jolted to the present. Was it because of the unfamiliar ring of the words ‘thirty years old’ ? Or the disappearance from my living room of Tono’s back hunched over his big desk? Or was it because the Colonial house in Long Island was suddenly gone and my parents became such different people from who they had been? To my astonishment, I myself was no longer a young girl, and neither was Nanae. And for the first time I realized what I had always known deep down: I was afraid of going back to Japan. My crazed obsession had shaped me so profoundly that–like an invalid fearful of being cured–I was terrified of losing the thing that defined me.”
She gradually realizes, however, that she wishes to return to a home that does not exist– home as defined by the Japanese novels she reads; home whose meaning she re-constructs through a combination of memories, illusions, and tales. Mizumura thus highlights the intimate link between language and identity through her narrator’s desire to write a novel in Japanese. Minae reflects on her hyphenated identity:
“…the gulf was not between me and America. It was something more like a gulf between myself and American self, or between my Japanese self and my American self–or, to be still more precise, between my Japanese-language self and my English-language self. My Japanese self did not disappear just because I had come to America; it would continue as long as I spoke and read Japanese. And I was convinced that my Japanese-language self was my real self and I could only be true o it by one day going back to Japan; my English language self felt utterly beneath me, alien.”
Whenever she mentions her desire to write a novel, the first question she receives is: “Are you going to write in English or in Japanese?” One of her dissertation committee members, for instance, is amused by her aspiration. “Can you write Japanese?” he asks, “I mean, good Japanese. After all, you weren’t educated in Japan, Minae.” He then tells her: “Well, whatever you do, try not to mix up your Japanese with English. “
Even though Minae reassures him that she will “try not to,” the existence of the novel we read suggests that Minae is able to move beyond all the ideologies, illusions, and the pressure to belong, which, after twenty-years liberates her. The original version of An I-Novel, published in 1995, mixes Japanese and English seamlessly, creating a literary work that reflects its narrator’s desire to find her true self. Like the novel we hold in our hands, Minae is audacious and multifaceted, and she does not fit into a box.
Although it seems like its translator Juliet Winters Carpenter has done a wonderful job with the English version, An I-Novel is a novel that I wish I could read in its original language. Its refreshing approach to the Japanese confessional genre, I novel, is certainly admirable. But Mizumura’s reflection on what it means to feel at home, to write, and to exist in two cultures has allowed me to think about my own experiences with the English language: why, I, unlike Minae, was always drawn to the English language when I lived a quiet life thousands of miles from it. I do believe that this novel has found me at the right time, when I’m slowly reading and writing more in Turkish.
A thoughtful meditation on belonging, language, and identity politics, An I-Novel is a must-read.
An I-Novel is coming out in March 2021; preorder here.
Many thanks to Columbia University Press for the advance copy.
Some of my favorite quotes from An I-Novel:
“People with prewar classical educations were rapidly disappearing from academia. Western literature was being taught by people with no knowledge of Latin or Greek, and the spread of multiculturalism meant that introductory courses in literature now included as compulsory reading whole sections of The Tale of Genji. A nation’s literary taste was linked, evidently, to its diet: just as the birth of modern literature in Japan had occurred in Tandem with a surge in appetite for the once-taboo meat of cows and other four-legged beasts, so in the West Genji had become compulsory reading in tandem with the growing acceptability of rice. Yet in all this there was one important caveat: the fall of the West did not correspond to a fall in status of the English language. Far from it.”
“It would be nice to feel lonely but free, I agreed, but all I seemed to feel was free but lonely.”
“Perhaps abandonment by her mother had translated in her mind to abandonment by her mother country; the air of loneliness that engulfed her belonged not to an Asian-American woman at home here but to a rootless woman without a country to call home.”
“With my chronic nostalgia, I had chosen as my topic of memory of how, as I was picking autumn flowers in the paths between paddy fields back home, dusk would creep up and slowly turn to sky a fiery red, filling me with loneliness. “
“Did not literature arise out of the deep desire to do something wondrous with a language? In my case, it was a desire to be born once again into my language so as to appreciate and explore it anew. As I spent ungodly amounts of time assembling futile strings of words in languages that remained foreign to me, this desire had grown inexorably, year by year, until my craving to write in Japanese now seemed intense enough to move mountains.”
“Languages, I told her, weren’t like the row of flags in front of the UN building, all equal. Like the countries that the flags represented, they were subject to a relentless power dynamic. Therefore, as long as she and I wrote in English and Japanese respectively, as writers we would not share the same status. Writing in English exponentially increased your chances of being translated into the world’s languages; even more important, it meant that people around the world could read you without translation. Writing in English was a damned privilege, I concluded with perhaps more heat than was warranted.”