Kanako Nishi on Writing Gender, Power, and the Pain of Others

"I believe that lines should be capable of changing shape in many ways."

I first heard Kanako Nishi talk at the Tokyo Literature Festival a few years ago. I was immediately struck by the beauty and poise of her work—how it seemed capable of presenting chaotic, disruptive forces within deceptively smooth shapes. To me, this is what a great short story does: it puts combustive forces under such great pressure that they emerge in the crystalline shape of a diamond. Yet still containing all the elements which made them explosive. This describes the short story I published in Freeman’s, a piece which deals with a young girl’s coming of age, the way this disrupts her feelings of power and genderless identity. It also makes of her a target. Like many young girls, she’s blamed for the attention of men, as if it were her fault. The girl, sensing this is unfair, blames the concepts which encage her—concepts that come in the form of words. Seeing an old man outside burning trash, she asks him, can you burn words? I get chills whenever I think of that scene. Rarely does a writer draw her conceptual impulses and her narrative drive into such elegant cohesion.

For all these reasons, when I heard Nishi was coming to New York for the PEN World Voices Festival, I wanted to ask Allison Markin Powell to talk to her, to find out more about what is on her mind, how she works, the way she assembles these intricate accordions of dread and wonder. Powell spoke to Nishi by email, and has translated both her own questions and Nishi’s responses. 

John Freeman

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Kanako Nishi has published more than two dozen books in Japanese—these include novels, short stories, essays, and children’s books.  I first met her in 2015, shortly after her novel Saraba! was awarded the 15nd Naoki Prize.  Last year at the Sharjah International Book Fair, she and I appeared on a panel called “Literature Across Borders,” and we barely scratched the surface in our discussion of her writing, her perspective, and her influences.  So I was delighted to have the opportunity to continue the conversation in a short interview here, which is how five questions became seven.  Kanako Nishi will appear at the Translation Slam on Thursday, May 9th, which is a part of the 15th PEN America World Voices Festival.

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Much of your writing is more “outward-facing” than most contemporary Japanese literature, meaning that you often deal with subjects that extend outside of Japan. Is this always your intention, or is this simply because of your experience, having been born in Tehran and spent years living in Cairo as a child?

This is the only life I’ve led, so it’s hard for me to compare, but it’s fair to say that Tehran and Cairo (particularly Cairo, which I remember clearly from my childhood) have had a tremendous influence on me.

Ever since I was young, I recall always being aware that other places exist—I mean, places other than where I am. Especially in Cairo, as the child of an expatriate employee, I remember feeling shame about the luxurious home we lived in and the fancy clothes I used to wear. I was ashamed because the comfortable life I enjoyed was not the hard-earned result of my own efforts—it had all been given to me by chance. By the same token, there were so many children consigned to a life of hardship that they had not chosen for themselves. I was always thinking about the difference between those children and me, and I’m sure that has an effect on the work that I create now.

I want to celebrate them first for being born, and then for being alive.

The story “Burn” (which appeared in Freeman’s “Power” issue, 2018) takes on standards of gender, sexual assault, and the power of language in the aftermath of trauma. Can you tell us what inspired you to write this story?

We expect girls to be girlish even after they’ve passed through girlhood (and by “we,” I’m speaking of Japanese in particular). Girls, I mean to say, who have not yet reached sexual maturity, who are pure and unacquainted with sex—or who have no interest in it (in Japan, if you can believe it, pop stars known as “idols” are still subject to “dating bans”). Despite this, girls’ physical development is (greatly) encouraged, and ultimately we are forced to accept them as objects of sexual desire.

In this story, one day the main character becomes aware of being pretty, but that awareness is tied up with her sexual development. It’s impossible for girls themselves to be unaware of their own “prettiness.” When I started middle school, I remember being so excited about buying hair products and tinted lip gloss, but at the same time, I had a vague sense of guilt. I felt guilty about wanting to grow up, about wanting to be pretty. So I wrote the story as a means of liberating myself from that.

Also, sexual oppression is not something that is only perpetrated by the opposite sex. As in the story, it can come from the same sex (i.e, the mother), and the oppressor herself can be a victim of oppression. What I was hoping to express in this story was the need to break the cycle of oppression. Each of us has the right to live our own life.

It seems that women writers are having a moment in Japan—this is reflected both anecdotally, as well as in the winners of prestigious literary prizes (like the Akutagawa and Naoki prizes, the latter of which you won in 2015) and in the gender breakdown of bestselling books. Does it feel this way from your perspective? And does this affect you as a writer?

That is very welcome data!

But to be honest, I never think of myself as a “woman writer.” I consider myself simply a writer.

In Japan, the topic that more often surprises me—more than the current success of women writers—is how well fellow writers get along. Writers are supposed known for being extremely difficult, cynical, for thinking that all other writers’ work is shit and wanting to trash all the other books on the shelf (laughs). Above all, women writers are thought to be fiercely jealous, hysterical, and always trying to establish dominance, I guess (laughs again). Someone even said to me once, “A woman writer sharpens her pencil with malice in her heart.” (!) My response was, “I have no malice, and I write on a computer.”

In reality, we’re likely to be good friends with each other, just as people in other lines of work. Before being rivals, we are comrades who hope to swell the number of books in the bookstores. Of course there are times when I envy another writer. For instance when my friend Sayaka Murata’s novel, Convenience Store Woman, became an international bestseller . . . I was green with envy! But at the same time, I am immensely proud of her. As her friend, I know how sincere and trustworthy a person she is—and what a distinguished writer. I think it’s truly wonderful how many writers there are in the world.

They wanted to fulfill their role as mothers, but at the same time, they felt pressured to be seen as beautiful women.

Your epic novel, Saraba!, fits into the Japanese literary style of an I-novel (shi-shosetsu), which is a form of autofiction, and one that not as many women writers have engaged with as male writers. Could you tell us a bit about how and why you chose to write this story in this tradition, and why you made the protagonist male?

With Saraba!, it was the first line of the novel that came to me before anything else: 「僕はこの世界に、左足から登場した。」(Boku wa kono sekai ni, hidari ashi kara tojo shita.)  “I entered this world left foot first.”  So the fact that it would be told in the first person, and that the main character would be male, was already a foregone conclusion.  [In Japanese, the first-person pronoun boku is male.]  I could tell that it was going to be an epic, and I did consider trying to change it to the third person, but it didn’t feel authentic to the story that wanted to be told, so I gave up on the idea. It was tremendously challenging, but I was really pleased with the results of deciding to use this perspective.

The protagonist may be male, but just as society makes it difficult to be female, I think that it can also be difficult to be male. They’re expected to have a specific social status, they’re told that men aren’t supposed to cry, they’re expected to be macho, and so on. The idea of wanting to overcome such hardships is the reason I have often chosen to make my protagonists male.

In the time that we’ve been working together as author and translator, I’ve noticed the subtle ways in which you use language to explode social stereotypes or to examine the standard ways that women and girls are objectified in Japan. Are you actively trying to bring attention to these issues?

The challenges of being female are something that must be dealt with urgently. As I mentioned in response to another question, young women in Japan face sexual exploitation, while at the same time they are expected to remain pure and innocent. We are deluded into thinking that “youth” is prized above all, and it’s even more disturbing to see that women have internalized this belief system (and to have thought the same thing when I myself was younger). Nowadays we have a word for women in their forties and fifties who look very young for their age, bimajo, which means, literally “beautiful witch.” A friend who recently had a child said that, in her parenting class for mothers, when asked about their concerns, the majority of women said they were either worried about whether they were raising their children properly or that they couldn’t get their figures back. In other words, they wanted to fulfill their role as mothers, but at the same time, they felt pressured to be seen as beautiful women. As if having just given birth weren’t enough—isn’t it strange for these new mothers to be taking on such burdens immediately? Then again, in Japan motherhood is held up to be sacred alongside youth, so perhaps it isn’t so surprising.

The women who appear in my writing, rather than have them say “I’m this way, and guys are that way,” I want to celebrate them first for being born, and then for being alive.

How can I write about misfortune that I have not experienced myself?

Your novel i directly confronts privilege and suffering in the world. Could you talk about your decision to create a protagonist who is a Syrian girl adopted by a Japanese mother and an American father?

Similar to my answer to the first question, ever since I was little, I have felt a sense of guilt about my fortunate circumstances. There is a line by the writer Osamu Dazai, something he says about his own lineage: “I was bashful about the size of my ancestral home.” When I read that as an adult, I felt so relieved to know that someone else thought the same thing, even if it did nothing to relieve my sense of guilt (although Dazai really was quite wealthy, whereas I come from a middle-class family, so there’s no comparison, but the world of expats living in Cairo gave me insight into what Dazai must have felt). And I’m well aware of the arrogance that those guilty feelings themselves entail.

In the novel, in order to heighten the intensity of such feelings—the guilt that arises when bad things happen in the world and you wonder why they didn’t happen to you—I decided to make the main character a young girl who is adopted from Syria. And the guilt that she feels for having managed to escape the ravages of the war in Syria and for being raised in an affluent home, this really doesn’t compare to my own feelings, so I wanted to write about that.

At the same time, I wanted to write about how I felt when I saw the photo of Alan Kurdi—anger at the world’s randomness—and to channel my own feelings into a protagonist who finds herself on the privileged side of that very randomness.

As a writer, I asked myself the same questions—how can I write about misfortune that I have not experienced myself? And why would I? At the time, I took courage from Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See.

In your essay, “Merry Christmas,” you refer to the “straight lines” of frameworks such as national borders and other separations of race or religion. And once you referred to our need for journalism or news that can communicate the facts—similar straight lines that connect A to B—but that that fiction (or poetry) helps us to seek out the curved lines between those points.  Can you say more about this?

Certain demarcations or zoning may be required at times. These are particularly important within the legal realm or the regulatory world. But in other situations, there is not necessarily a need for straight lines. That is to say, I see no need for anything that is absolutely rigid, or absolutely non-negotiable. I believe that lines should be capable of changing shape in many ways, depending upon the time and place, upon how you feel, upon your kindness, upon your love.

For example, in Japan, when an entertainer is arrested for using drugs, or is being bashed like crazy simply for having an affair, they face a social onslaught that tries to obliterate them almost entirely. It’s as if a line has been drawn and society is attempting to eliminate them.

Of course drugs are illegal, and I’m not recommending that anyone have an affair. But I can’t help thinking that we ought to have the flexibility to consider how someone may have arrived at such a place (all the while ruling out the possibility of ever wanting to make a similar mistake myself). To me, that flexibility is precisely the strength that fiction offers. Fiction is not the law, it does impose regulations upon the reader. No matter how forceful the narrative voice may be, its mere existence is innately flexible.

History and journalism play the role of accurately reporting what happened, and so it falls to us as novelists to do the work of filling in what’s missing or omitted. This might involve curved lines, so to speak—ones that deviate from those straight lines connecting two points. These curves may not lead straight to the specific destination—they could include an amazing detour, they might even get you lost and take more time to get where you’re going. But that’s exactly what novels do, and isn’t that basically what life is like, anyway?

The preceding is from the Freeman’s channel at Literary Hub, which features excerpts from the print editions of Freeman’s, along with supplementary writing from contributors past, present and future. The latest issue of Freeman’s, a special edition gathered around the theme of power, featuring work by Margaret Atwood, Elif Shafak, Eula Biss, Aleksandar Hemon and Aminatta Forna, among others, is available now.

Allison Markin Powell
Allison Markin Powell
Allison Markin Powell is a literary translator, editor, and publishing consultant in New York City. Her translation of The Briefcase by Hiromi Kawakami was nominated for the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize, and the UK edition (Strange Weather in Tokyo) was nominated for the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. She has also translated works by Osamu Dazai and Fuminori Nakamura, among others.





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