Yuko Tsushima photo courtesy of Bungeishunju.
In 2004, Yuko Tsushima and Annie Ernaux, two of the most groundbreaking feminist writers of their generation, met in Tokyo to discuss everything from motherhood, abortion, and the Iraq War, to the ongoing challenges faced by women writers in France and Japan. Along the way, they offered deep and generous readings of one another’s work, revealing the extent to which their literary approaches converged along common themes and concerns, even as they wrote from distinctly different literary traditions.
While literary influence often mirrors geo-political hierarchies, with writers outside ‘the West’ far more likely to be familiar with the work of writers within it than vice versa, Ernaux was well aware of Tsushima’s work at a time when few others in Europe and the United States were—to the extent that she included a quote from Tsushima’s novel O Dreams, O Light! in the epigraph to her 2000 novel Happening: “I wonder if memory is not simply a question of following things through to the end.”
During their conversation, Ernaux and Tsushima communicated through an interpreter named Shigeki Hori, who is also Ernaux’s main translator into Japanese, and the resulting dialogue was published in the fall 2004 print edition of Mita Bungaku, a Japanese literary journal.
Yet, for many years, the dialogue languished in obscurity, as it was only available through an old back number in Mita Bungaku’s archives. It was only after Ernaux won the Nobel Prize in 2022 that a reader alerted Tsushima’s daughter, the writer and playwright Nen Ishihara, to the fact that a quote from one of her mother’s novels appeared in the epigraph to Ernaux’s Happening—which in turn led Ishihara to learn, long after her mother’s death, that Ernaux and Tsushima had met one another, and that a record existed of their conversation at all.
As a translator, it brings me great joy to be able to share this important piece of global literary history with English-language readers. To me, the dialogue is a reminder of the way translation not only connects writers to new readers, but also connects writers to one another in a way that shapes and alters the course of literary history across national borders.
Annie Ernaux: I feel your writing is very attentive to the material aspects of everyday life, which are always rendered in precise detail. I might venture to say that, culturally speaking, this is often considered women’s territory. In France, for example, [the everyday] has not always been considered a theme that is appropriate for literary fiction. Whereas you, Tsushima-san, might describe a baby’s diaper, or how to fix a water leak—and yet, it is precisely through these seemingly trivial things that you address larger metaphysical questions about time and love and death. I feel there’s something incredibly valuable about this. I’m thinking for example of your books Territory of Light, Woman Running in the Mountains or O Dreams, O Light!
Yuko Tsushima: My English language translator [Geraldine Harcourt] once told me that my detailed renderings of everyday life were the most charming aspect of my writing, and I think she’s probably right.
But I think this speaks to how I feel about your work as well, Annie. It’s your fondness for the everyday that allows you to articulate these larger emotional truths that transcend time and space. I think all of your novels share that, and it’s what I find most captivating about them.
Annie Ernaux: Yes, we do have that in common, don’t we? In a sense, we seem to be aiming for the same thing, only we go about it in different ways. And our methods, I think, are influenced by our individual life histories and memories.
But in your case, Tsushima-san, it’s not just your experiences which inform your writing, but your experience of writing about your experiences which influences your work. Through the act of writing about something, you deepen your experience of it, investigate it even more deeply. And that in itself becomes the basis for your work.
Yuko Tsushima: There are some things I cannot see until I write about them—which underscores how important the act of writing is. But currently in Japan, there is a strong aversion to writing about personal experiences. After I wrote Pursued by the Light of the Night and O Dreams, O Light! a certain male writer accused me of trying to profit off of my dead child. I’ll never forget that. Now that I think about it, I wish I had thought to describe my work to him in exactly the way you just did (laughing). But tell me, what are things like in France?
Annie Ernaux: If what you say about Japan is true—that there is currently a resistance to writing about personal experiences—then couldn’t you simply point to the history of the I-Novel as a genre there? In France I think the situation is actually the opposite. For the last fifteen years at least, there has been a growing trend of authors writing about personal experiences, and those books are called “autofiction” or “autobiographical fiction.” For example, your work, Tsushima-san, is often referred to as autofiction. In any case, I would say it’s not a rare phenomenon at all.
There is a sense in which a book will be recognized by critics as ‘true literature’ the more it departs from the autobiographical and approaches the romanesque. But in general, the tendency is toward an increase in autobiographical writing.There is a sense in which a book will be recognized by critics as ‘true literature’ the more it departs from the autobiographical and approaches the romanesque.
Still, I think my writing really took people by surprise when it first appeared in print. No one knew what to make of it. I mean, I write about my parents, about social class, and all kinds of extremely boring, everyday things that aren’t accompanied by any sort of emotional uplift. But a lot has changed in the fifteen years since I published A Man’s Place.
Yuko Tsushima: A while ago, I met Philip Forrester and we talked a bit about autofiction. He asked what Japanese writers think of the I-Novel, and I told him that the general attitude toward it is fairly negative. But he said that in France people really like those kinds of books. Several years ago, he also wrote about his daughter passing away, and that was interesting to me too.
But of course, Forrester is a man, and you are a woman. Do you think this way of writing is perhaps more common among women?
Annie Ernaux: No, I think both men and women write this way and there’s really no fundamental difference. I mean, there are male writers who basically publish their diaries.
And besides, there are so many different ways to write about one’s own experiences. One thing that really impressed me about your work, Tsushima-san, is how you are able to write things that are usually difficult to write about in fiction. For example, when your son died, you wrote about how absurd it felt that other people were still alive when he was gone, and that when the plane crash happened, you thought you had somehow caused it by wishing it to happen. Putting those thoughts down clearly on paper made the text so much stronger, so more realistic.
Yuko Tsushima: But I think there is something particular about the experience of writing as a woman. Perhaps because our existence is almost entirely excluded from written history, women writers carry with them the voices of the invisible, which are so rich. I feel a certain happiness when I think about how as a woman there are infinitely more things I can write about than a man. Do you ever feel that way?
Annie Ernaux: Yes, I completely agree. Whether you’re looking at history, or at the present, you find there is so much that needs to be written about.
For example, the way you write about the experience of childbirth [in Woman Running in the Mountains] is so beautiful, though the woman [protagonist] has no idea what is going to happen to her. And the passages about breastfeeding and motherhood, the descriptions of how little boys act, the problems that come up at daycare—all of it is rendered in such detail, and these are things that have never seriously been taken up to this extent in the history of literature.
It’s such a dazzling text, it’s almost disorienting. If this were any other topic unknown to men, writing about it in such detail would render it a universal phenomenon, and they’d hail it as a new discovery. What I’ve learned from your texts is just how much drama is contained within women’s work, how much of it deserves to be articulated and contested.
Yuko Tsushima: Yes, absolutely. In Japanese, a lot of the language around pregnancy and childbirth was coined by men, which makes me terribly uncomfortable. Pregnancy and childbirth are things that concern women, after all, so when I wrote my novels I wanted to express those things through a woman’s words—and all the more so because I experienced them myself.
In the book you just mentioned, Woman Running in the Mountains, I actually included a baby diary in the text, but people didn’t react very positively to it. They were like, how much longer are you going to keep writing about boring stuff like how much milk the baby drank, or how soft its poop was? (laughing)
So I appreciate you saying that to me, Annie. It’s very encouraging, because of course I was very intentional in how I wrote it. I don’t know how it is now, but when I first published that book, very few readers were sympathetic to it.
If you look at the Japanese reviews of [your book] A Simple Passion, people always seem to focus on the ‘passion’ part of it, which I understand, but personally I was much more interested in the book’s attention to the everyday. It left such an impression on me. People go about living their individual lives. But at the same time, the war in Iraq is happening, or any number of other things. I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of something hitting us out of left field—and just like that, our lives are changed forever. And it’s from that perspective that the world of the book is created, by getting rid of all the excess stuff. Usually we do that unconsciously—but you do it intentionally, which is what’s so impressive to me.
To Entrust a Thing to Time
Annie Ernaux: I think the first time I came across your work was in the summer of 1990, the year the French translation of Pursued by the Light of the Night (Yoru no Hikari ni owarete) came out. I can’t remember exactly why I picked it up, but I remember the impact it had on me, both as a writer and as a woman.
The first thing that struck me about the book was its dual structure. On the one hand, the text is addressed to a mysterious person from 11th century Japan; on the other hand, it’s narrated by a woman in the present who is describing her own circumstances. But the text weaves both of these together into one fictional reality.
I also noticed how simple the style was, and at the same time, how attentive it was to detail. I was particularly struck by the description of how the world appears to the narrator after her child dies. And as I was sitting there, reading this text written by a woman living on the other side of the world from me, I felt that I, too, could have been her.
At first the structure of the book seemed unusual, and I even felt a bit lost at times, particularly when going back and forth between the real world and the imaginary one. But eventually I understood why this was necessary for illustrating the depth of the loss that structures the story, and it pulled me in.
First, there is the loss that occurs in the writer’s private life, and the terribly difficult circumstances of that. But as the story goes on, this loss expands across time and space, until it somehow transcends the woman’s personal circumstances. To put it another way, the text creates a sort of kinship between the real world, the imaginary world, the people of the past, the people living in the present, and the people that should be alive but who are absent.
I wanted to ask you about the structure of the book, which is addressed to a person living in the 11th century. Is this a concept that came to you organically, or one you developed over a period of time?
Yuko Tsushima: Everything you mentioned just now really did happen to me. In Japan, or rather, in Buddhism, we have this concept of rebirth, and as I thought about how to accept this death not as a writer, but as a mother, it occurred to me that perhaps my child had transcended time. Like maybe he had been born in ancient Italy and then just disappeared somewhere. There was a period of time, perhaps a year or so, where I looked at lots of old paintings, thinking perhaps I would find an image of him there.
At the same time, I was reading texts written by court women who lived in Heian Japan, and as I came to understand more about them, I began to think that perhaps they too had experienced the loss of a child. I thought we might understand each other through this sadness we had in common, and I suddenly had the urge to write from the perspective of a mother rather than an author. And that’s how I came up with the structure for the book.
Another thing is that, during this period of time [after my child died] I had the distinct sensation that I was becoming separated from the flow of time. Rather than being inside of time, it was like I could see it flowing by, outside of me. I wanted to capture that experience somehow. I wrote this novel not knowing exactly what would happen [in it], but as I wrote I kept incorporating things that were actually happening to me—that’s the kind of effect I wanted to create.
Which actually leads me to some of the thoughts I had when reading your book, A Simple Passion, so I’d love to turn to that now if it’s alright.
As I was listening to you talk just now, I was struck by the strange feeling that, even though we don’t actually know each other well, that there is actually some deeper connection between us.
From 1991 to 1992, I taught a class on modern Japanese literature in Paris, at the National Institute for Oriental Languages and Civilizations. In February, just before I was about to leave Japan, the Gulf War broke out, and it came to light that the Japanese government was donating a large sum of money to the war. Many writers in Japan pushed back against this, claiming that it was a violation of the Japanese constitution, but they were severely repressed. As a writer, I wondered how I should deal with the weight of such events in my own work? I left Tokyo for Paris in August of that year, pondering this question.
When I arrived in Paris, a friend of mine recommended I read A Simple Passion so I read it, not really knowing what it was about. This was the first book I had read that dealt with the Gulf War in any way—that was the first thing that surprised me about it. A woman becomes wrapped up in a love affair, consumed by an extremely personal experience that one can imagine happening to anyone. And then suddenly, at the end, the Gulf War begins.
This is just my interpretation, and I may be completely mistaken about it, but there was one section of the book I had a hard time grasping.
Up until that point, the narrator had been using the imperfect tense (imparfait) or the simple past (passé composé) to talk about herself. But after the Gulf War breaks out, the narrator begins to talk about her affair in the past definite tense (passé simple), perhaps because she is aware that the love affair is now over and done with. This passé simple is the grammatical tense used for storytelling, and is a closed form. And then I wondered whether the title of the book, A Simple Passion, was perhaps connected to this grammatical tense, the passé simple.
It was very interesting to me, because this way of thinking according to grammatical tense is not something that really exists in Japanese. It is as though the very grammatical tense of the sentences captures the shock of witnessing a political massacre—the way it completely transforms you. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but the temporality of the book was extremely interesting to me. The difference between the past tense and the imperfect tense…these sort of things really stand out when I’m reading a text in a foreign language. (laughing)
Annie Ernaux: Living through a tragic event on a global scale, and simultaneously, a very private tragedy of my own, was something that really happened to me. The man came back during the Gulf War, and so I was very conscious of the overlap [between those two events]. And that event, which occupied no more than a fragmentary [footnote] in my life, eventually led me to write an entire book.
As for the matter of tense, it is true that the French language makes a distinction between the half-past, or the imperfect tense, and the definite past, which is used to talk about things that have already ended. The imperfect tense is used to talk about how things used to be ‘back then,’ or ‘back in the day.’ In other words, it’s a kind of fairytale tense that expresses a world still alive with magic. So it’s used to talk about an aspect of something that hasn’t ended, that is still going on.
For me, when the Gulf War broke out, it felt like reality suddenly began to move—as though I were standing on an escalator that had suddenly lurched into motion, and I was seized with the feeling that time had begun to move forward. And so, just as you noted, the story, which had been written in the imperfect tense, changes position.
Yuko Tsushima: We live our lives as a constant layering of personal experiences—falling in love or losing our relatives, like the narrator of A Woman’s Story. But those experiences don’t exist independently of [the temporality of] reality. It seems to me, Annie, that you’re extremely attentive to the relationship between personal experience and the real world. You don’t veer off into the world of the imagination, nor are you interested in a simplified version of reality, depicting time as a sort of ‘other,’ cut off from the self. And you show that this is precisely how actual human beings live their lives. For me, I think that’s probably the most compelling aspect of your work.
Annie Ernaux: Thank you so much for saying that. I’ll take your words at face value. In your work, Tsushima-san, there is always a loss, but then that loss is recovered in one way or another. You said earlier that you like to record things, but I feel that your work records things in a broader sense—it saves them by capturing them on the page. I always feel the presence of a woman in the background of all of your works. In some cases, it is the woman’s dreams that are thematized, and in others it’s the space itself, as in Woman Running in the Mountains. But the woman is always trying to put back together that which has been broken apart, scattered. I don’t think the phrase “seeking happiness” is anywhere close to adequate here, but it seems to me that your characters are striving for something like that.
The Censorious Gaze
Annie Ernaux: I wonder what you think about this, Tsushima-san. In France, at least, women are now writing about all kinds of things, but at the same time they are also constantly exposed to the critical gaze of mainstream society—which is mostly made up of men—causing them to wonder whether or not they’re allowed to write about such and such a topic. Not to mention that women have also internalized this male point of view. For example, when they write about romance or sex, they are conscious of the man’s point of view, and write according to how he would experience the scene. I think that women must write about their own experiences, just as they live them, subjectively.I think that women must write about their own experiences, just as they live them, subjectively.
To recount one amusing little episode, back in 1991 I received some very derogatory remarks from the French author Michel Truniet, who asked if I could please quit writing about sanitary pads, cleaning floors, and the like.
Yuko Tsushima: The situation in Japan is very similar. Currently, there are no women who are full-time literary critics. And even if there were, they would surely be forced to take a sociological approach. So basically, all the critics are men.
Annie Ernaux: You know, I once had an abortion during a time when abortions were still illegal in France. I was still young. I wrote about that in the book Happening, which I believe is coming out soon in Japanese translation. When I was young, I participated in many movements and protests to legalize contraception and abortion, but it took me thirty years to finally be able to write about what I experienced—in part because it was a very difficult experience. But it was also a formative experience because it forced me to come face-to-face with death. I guess you could even say it shaped my very sense of self. And because it so perfectly captured my own thoughts about the whole thing, I used a quote from your book O Dreams, O Light! in the epigraph to Happening: “I wonder if memory is not simply a question of following things through to the end.”
What is ‘Truth’ in Literature?
Annie Ernaux: I think this question is a really essential one. Some people might consider it naive, but I always write in order to find out the truth. And I think the value of literature is in pursuing the truth, which I believe is something that transcends time.
That being said, I think the truth is something you can never arrive at. Rather, it is perpetually fleeing from you. So the point is not to try and represent it in a fixed form, but rather to search for the words that most closely approximate the actual shape of ‘ÊTRE,’ ‘to be.’ What’s important is the process of closing in on the truth, because whenever you say that ‘this’ is the truth, that’s already false. From that, some might conclude that the truth does not exist, or that there is no point in pursuing it, but they would be wrong.
Yuko Tsushima: To cite a recent example—and I’ll just give a concrete one, because I think that’s easier to understand—recently, a thief broke into my house. He broke the glass door, but when he saw that I was there, he ran away. Thankfully, the door was the only thing that was damaged. You’d agree that this is a rather trivial, personal event, no?
On the same day, I found out that a woman writer in Japan, someone from a younger generation, had taken her own life. It was a big shock, since we both work in the same field. Finally—and this is still on the same day—the Japanese volunteers who had been captured as hostages in Iraq were released. Some people said that the hostages were to blame because they had done something reckless, and that the Japanese government shouldn’t save them.
And then I thought, what does it mean that these three events happened on the same day? I thought it probably signaled the beginning of a new work. All the events were connected by a single question: how should a woman writer live in today’s day and age? How that answer will find me and where I have no idea. But the fact is that these three things really happened simultaneously, and the fact that I can’t help but search for a meaning behind this simultaneity is, I think, profoundly related to the process of literary creation.
Annie Ernaux: I completely understand. It’s not as though the things that happen to us have a predetermined meaning, and I think our job is to find out what they mean through the process of writing.
Yuko Tsushima: Whether a thief breaks into my house or hundreds of people die in Iraq, this is still always accompanied by the question of what to eat for dinner. Human beings simply cannot distance themselves from the daily rhythms of eating, sleeping, shitting.
Annie Ernaux: Cooking dinner, shopping—these things aren’t in a separate reality at all. Nor do they exist in a different dimension from world affairs or other big events.
Generally speaking, perhaps, women are more sensitive to these kinds of things. Men have had a tendency to separate the public from the private, but we have to point out how that kind of separation isn’t really possible.
When Women Speak
Yuko Tsushima: Do you think the differences between men and women are basically unchanging?
Annie Ernaux: I don’t think they never change. I think we should be able to overcome them, but that it will take a very long time. French society is changing, and among the younger generations it is becoming more normal for men to take on housework and childcare. I think things have become a lot more equal, at least as far as I can tell. But when it comes to depicting our visions of the world, I have a feeling that we still have a long, long road ahead of us. Whether we like it or not, we as women have to take up certain roles simply by virtue of the fact that we are women and we are writers.
Yuko Tsushima: From my perspective, Paris is much better off than Tokyo. Things are still very difficult here.
Annie Ernaux: I think so too. It’s connected to what you said earlier about there being no women critics in Japan. What percentage of major literary writers in Japan would you say are women?
Yuko Tsushima: In journalism, there are lots.
Annie Ernaux: Yes, that’s true in France as well.
Yuko Tsushima: But in terms of women writers whose work will be passed down, and who people will continue to read for a long time, I would say very few. It’s difficult to put a number to it, but just thinking about it on the level of candidates for major literary awards, probably around twenty percent. There are writers whose work is basically consumer goods, who are fairly young, who have a certain vanity about them, but I’m sure similar trends can be found all over the world.
Annie Ernaux: In France, I think you could safely say that about a third of the writers publishing book reviews in the literary supplement section of the newspaper are women. The media always makes it seem like there are more women writers than men, but that’s not true at all.
I’ve been writing for thirty years, but there are relatively few women writers who debuted in the 1970s like me, have left behind meaningful works, and are still writing today. More men than women have had continuous writing careers.
Yuko Tsushima: In Japan, the reality is that being married and being a writer are not compatible. Among women writing today, most are either divorced, or have chosen to remain single and not have children.
Annie Ernaux: In France, too, it is common for women writers to not have children. I myself got divorced a long time ago. It is very difficult to be married and also be a writer.
Yuko Tsushima: When I went to France three years ago, Phillipe Forest arranged for me to go to Nantes, Paris, and Lyon, and in Nantes I had the privilege of working with Genevieve Prizac.
Annie Ernaux: Oh yes, I think I was supposed to do an event with you then. I was invited, but then I couldn’t go because I had a symposium in northern France, and I guess the job went to Genevieve. I remember her telling me she was going to meet Yuko Tsushima. She’s a good friend of mine.
Yuko Tsushima: Prizac wrote a wonderful essay on Flannery O’Connor, and a translation of her work came out with the publisher Chikuma Shobo here. I talked about a lot of things with her that I also talked with you about, namely women’s literature, and what it means for women to write.
But I remember one man in the audience raised his hand and said that women writers these days were being overly catered to, that they had no right to complain, that it’s much easier for them to get published now than it is for male writers, that their work gets reviewed more, that they now have the upper hand. Many people in the audience clapped when he said that—I was shocked.
Annie Ernaux: Yes, there are people who will bring up the name of a totally different woman writer, and say that you write very similarly to her, and put you in a box, and say that you have value only as a member of that group. In other words they don’t evaluate your work individually, but only as a work by a ‘woman writer.’ I see this all the time. There are times when men do this, and sometimes women do it too.
Yuko Tsushima: Yes, that happens in Japan too.
Annie Ernaux: A man would never be made interchangeable with other male writers, the way that women often are, would they?
Yuko Tsushima: Perhaps things are different now, but even Japanese bookstores are arranged this way. There’s a section called “contemporary literature” but it only has books by male writers. And then there’s a separate section for “women’s literature” and, very sadly, you’ll suddenly see a lot of books with pink covers there. It’s representative of the way “women’s literature” has become its own genre.
Annie Ernaux: There are times when women themselves are enthusiastic participants in this—for example, women’s magazines which promote the idea that women are only good for writing romance novels, etc.
–Mita Bungaku, Fall 2004
Yuko Tsushima (1947-2016) is considered one of the most important Japanese writers of her generation. The daughter of the novelist Osamu Dazai, she authored more than 35 novels, many of them groundbreaking in content and style, in addition to numerous short stories and essays. She won the Tanizaki Prize for her novel Mountain of Fire, and the Kawabata Prize for her short story, “The Silent Traders.”
Though her early fiction was largely autobiographical, based on her experiences as a single mother, her late work was characterized by increasingly experimental, multi-layered narratives that took inspiration from indigenous oral epics as well as premodern Japanese tales, addressing the global legacies of the Japanese empire. Her work has been translated into more than ten languages. Works available in English include The Shooting Gallery, Of Dogs and Walls, Laughing Wolf, Territory of Light, and Woman Running in the Mountains. An English translation of her novel Wildcat Dome, which follows the lives of a group of mixed-race orphans from postwar Japan to the nuclear disaster of 3.11., is forthcoming with Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2024.
Annie Ernaux, winner of the 2022 Nobel Prize in Literature, is the author of some twenty works of fiction and memoir, winner of the Prix Renaudot for A Man’s Place, and of the Marguerite Yourcenar Prize for her body of work. She is also the winner of the International Strega Prize and the French-American Translation Prize and shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize for The Years. In 2019 she was the recipient of the Prix Formentor. She is now considered to be France’s most important literary voice, and is the first French woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. The English translation of her novel, The Young Man, will be published by Seven Stories Press in September 2023.