Minae Mizumura on Serializing Novels, Aging, and the Eternal Internet
The Author of Inheritance From Mother Talks to Benjamin Moser
Atop Minae Mizumura’s website is a brief description: “A Novelist Writing Modern Japanese Literature in the Japanese Language.” If this sounds dry, it won’t when reading her book-length essay The Fall of Language in the Age of English, at which point every word in the description reveals its precision and profundity.
That book tells the strange story of how she, a Japanese teenager exiled to Long Island, became “A Novelist” by taking refuge from America in the writings of her distant country. It tells how for her, educated at Yale, “the Japanese Language” was not inevitable, and how her choice to return to her own language meant she would almost certainly not be read outside Japan. And The Fall of Language shows how miraculous it is that “Modern Japanese Literature”—which also seems inevitable—exists at all.
It was the best book I had ever read about translation and international literature—and the best illustration I had ever seen of how English corrodes even the great literary languages, including French and Japanese. The dominance of English is something that most English-speakers are completely unaware exists—something that, I felt, English-language writers needed to be aware of, and do something about, because it gave them disproportional, unearned power.
I developed a huge literary crush on Minae Mizumura.
When her new novel came out, I hastened to get acquainted with her fiction. Inheritance from Mother takes another subject that may seem dry or inevitable and that Mizumura transforms. The heroine herself notes that she’s not the kind of woman anyone would write a novel about. The subject—caring for aging parents—doesn’t seem that exciting, either. But don’t be fooled. Like a great photographer, a great writer is one who shows us even the most familiar subjects in a new way.
Benjamin Moser: This book is centered on two sisters named Mitsuki and Natsuki. Your name is Minae, and you have a sister; you have written another novel where sisters named Minae and Nanae appear. To what extent does the book reflect your own family?
Minae Mizumura: Oh, to a great extent. I envision Mitsuki and Natsuki as how my sister and I might have turned out had we never left Japan. The semi-fictional Minae and Nanae, who moved to the States as we did, appear tangentially in A True Novel but occupy central roles in my fictionalized autobiographical novel An I-Novel From Left to Right (due out in English in a couple of years). To help my Japanese readers see that in Inheritance from Mother I’ve created a kind of a parallel universe of my life, I used the same Chinese characters for “Mi” and “Na” in Mitsuki/Natsuki as in Minae/Nanae. Many details in this novel overlap with those in An I-Novel: the restless mother having an affair that drags on for years; the half-blind father being consigned to a far-way nursing home; the elder sister making a stupid attempt on her own life. These are all based on the history of my immediate family. I even had the mother react the same way in both novels to the attempted suicide, using the actual words my mother said at the time: “How could she do this! It’s like a page from a trashy novel!”
As I’m sure you are aware, modes of reading vary from culture to culture. American readers might be bewildered to see similar stories in novels with similar characters—“Couldn’t the author have used a little more imagination?”—but Japanese readers react differently. This is because we have a long tradition of enjoying what’s called “I-novels”—novels that are narrated as if they were the author’s true confessions, while allowing fiction ample play. Japanese writers and readers alike enjoy Escher-like interplay between the real and the fictional. Over the years, through variations on similar storylines and characters, readers begin to feel that they know the author, both her real life and her realm of imagination, and become attached to her.
The tone of Inheritance from Mother may hint that the novel also tells the earlier story of my family, especially on my mother’s side: how my mother was born as the love-child of a geisha, how she tried to rise in society by inviting herself into the Westernized “Yokohama” family, how she went on to divorce a husband whom everyone thought was more than perfect. Those reading the book in translation can hardly be expected to know that I actually took my mother’s published autobiography and wove it into the story of The Golden Demon, a story that itself is woven into the fabric of my novel as emblematic of a serial novel. My mother always knew that she had a story to tell and wanted to write and publish it. She never considered herself a gifted writer, but she was one, and she had an astonishingly detailed memory too: she finally achieved her goal at 78. The strain in our relationship made me uneager to offer assistance, but as it turned out her writing was too good not to make it even better, so I spent a few months going over it. The book got some attention, sold decently, and was reprinted when Inheritance from Mother appeared so that readers could enjoy the interplay between the real and the fictional, just as I had as an author.
BM: Did you care for your own parents when they were old? Does the anger Mitsuki feels reflect your own relationships?
MM: The duties of caregiving started rather too early for me—before I turned 30. Inheritance from Mother may give the impression that I didn’t admire my mother, but I actually did; I admired her vitality, her insatiable love of life, even her use of cunning to get what she wanted. Though I never thought I would say this even to myself, I think I truly loved her. Still, she could be devastatingly heartless.
One summer while our family was still living in the States, my diabetic father had eye surgery. As a graduate student in French literature, I had to fulfill three language requirements—Latin, another romance language, and German—and allocated consecutive summers for the purpose, intending to learn the languages one by one. My father had his operation while I was taking an intensive course in German; I remember continually riding the train from New Haven to Long Island to prepare his meals just after he was released from the hospital. My mother was still technically living with him, but she was working at an office where her boss was also her lover and so was seldom home. Unable to complete the German course, I got special permission to substitute Japanese for German. My role as family caregiver continued for 30 more years, vexing and saddening me. I didn’t so much mind the various tasks of caregiving; rather I was angry at my mother for having forced me to sacrifice time and energy at a young age when she was perfectly capable of providing care herself. And her treatment of my father infuriated and hurt me.
I shouldn’t get started on this, because I could easily write another book on the subject all over again—a non-fiction one. In Inheritance from Mother I laundered, sanitized and toned down the kinds of things my mother did and said, for one reason: I wanted my novel to remain within the bounds of what is usually referred to as realism. Simply put, I wanted it to be believable. Reality is often too strange to be believed when recounted as is.
BM: At several points during the book, you say that a middle-aged woman like Mitsuki “wouldn’t even make a good heroine in a novel.” Of course, she is the heroine of this novel. And, of course, you yourself are roughly Mitsuki’s age. Is this an ironic reflection? Or do you think that this reflects the mindset of a class of people that feels disappointed in their own lives?
MM: First of all, I just wanted to have naughty fun by having the heroine of my novel say she couldn’t possibly be the heroine of a novel. Fiction allows for this kind of remark that’s contradicted by the work itself, and that’s the beauty of the form. And as you rightly point out, it’s also an ironic reflection on what’s usually considered our youth-obsessed culture. But I don’t necessarily think such reflection is limited to people who feel disappointed in their lives; after all, we are all betrayed by the passage of time. We shouldn’t be too obsessed about trying to be young in real life, but as fictional characters, young people are inherently more interesting because their futures are unknown and fiction is basically about characters making choices that ultimately lead to either a happy or an unhappy ending. It’s only natural that women my age should be less interesting as heroines. All we can do is accept the fact with irony or good humor and grace. Luckily, in the developed world, women my age are numerous and now, for the first time in history, just as well-educated as men. As a result, unlikely heroines like Mitsuki are going to increasingly make their presence felt in fiction.
BM: This novel was serialized in a Japanese newspaper, and you sometimes use 19th-century “cliffhanger” devices at the end of chapters (“Pardon me for asking, but has either of you come here to commit suicide?”). What was the experience of writing in this form, the way so many earlier novels, in Japan and abroad, were published? And did you write the book first and then publish it, or write it and publish it as you went?
MM: I’m glad that you noticed traces of serialization in my novel. Japan still has a strong tradition of serializing novels, and all my previous novels were also initially serialized in monthly or quarterly literary journals. But the readership of literary journals is small, limited more or less to editors and aspiring writers; serialized authors are only expected to continue working on their current novel at their own pace, while getting paid page by page so that they can make a living. These journals almost serve as subvention for writers.
Serializing weekly in a national newspaper like the Yomiuri is a different story altogether. The Yomiuri, which has a circulation of nine million, pays its novelists quite well and expects them to do a professional job. Tanizaki once said that a real professional asked to write for a newspaper ought to be able to come up with a story to interest no-nonsense adults, not just editors and aspiring writers. I liked the sound of the challenge and decided to accept the offer as a once-in-a lifetime experience. Some novelists can write multiple works for newspapers (though they often shorten their lives by doing so) but I knew that for an inordinately slow writer like me this would be a one-time feat. Even if I promised myself to finish the entire novel before starting serialization, chances were I wouldn’t succeed. And indeed, when the time came I was only halfway through.
The first question I asked myself before starting to write was, who would most likely read a serial novel in a newspaper? The younger generation no longer reads newspapers. The sexist in me told me that men are more interested in articles on politics or better yet, sports. So my answer was mature women—people like myself. Now, what would these women be mostly interested in? Naturally, a story of someone struggling to look after her aging parents—the experience I had just been through myself and that many of them must be going through as well. I settled on that story and threw in an unfaithful husband for flair. It was the first time I had ever tried to write what I presumed readers wanted to read rather than what I myself wanted to write, though inevitably, what I wanted to write sneaked in irrepressibly as I progressed.
As you say, use of the “cliffhanger” device is part and parcel of a serial novel. And despite the pressure, there was also something exciting about writing the novel while it was being serialized. I got to discuss with my Yomiuri editor how daring a writer can be without offending the reading public—an important issue for a national paper. We also got to discuss readers’ reactions. And I was able to adapt the content of the novel to the timing of its installments. When my editor informed me at the last minute that the paper would include an installment in its New Year’s Day issue—which doesn’t often happen, due to lack of space—I quickly added a scene about what Mitsuki’s family used to do on that most auspicious day in the Japanese calendar. Then just as I was about to finish the novel, the Tohoku earthquake happened and I worked that in too—though I later took the scene out, realizing that it seemed forced and exploitative of others’ sufferings. Finally, since the serialization ended exactly around the time when cherry blossoms come out, I made my novel end on a day when they had blossomed overnight to their fullest.
BM: You take on so many taboos in this novel: particularly the experience of the dutiful Japanese daughter who does what she is expected—but is full of resentment and waits, with increasing impatience, for her mother to die. How did Japanese readers react to your portrayal of this relationship?
MM: Very strongly. And almost without exception in a positive way. As I said earlier, I decided to write about elder care because I thought the topic would be of high interest to my potential readers. But I also had an ulterior motive. I decided that since I was to have one full page a week in an influential paper like the Yomiuri, I ought to take advantage of that platform to start a discussion on a subject that I cared about but that nobody was addressing loudly enough. Far too many sugarcoated stories of dedicated people looking after their parents circulate in Japan, contributing to social expectations that keep women—and sometimes men—literally homebound for years. Also, far too little discussion was taking place about the ethics of intrusive life-prolonging devices taken for granted by the Japanese medical establishment (and straining our national health budget). I don’t have much of a journalistic bent but thought I could at least start a discussion. Letters poured in, mostly from women, about what they themselves had gone through, how they had often wished their parents dead as the years dragged on, and how guilty they’d been feeling ever since—and now, after having read my novel, they said they felt a little relieved, a little liberated from their guilt. And this may just be my own impression, but I did get the feeling that articles on these issues started to appear in major media more freely and frequently after my novel raised them.
BM: Another troubled relationship you portray is that between Japan and the West. On the one hand, longing to be part of the modern world; on the other, longing to preserve its own identity. You show this through literature: through the references to Madame Bovary and high French culture, but also through the apparent irony that one of the classics of modern Japanese literature, The Golden Demon, was inspired by an American dime-store novel. How do you see this relationship today?
MM: To deny any Western influence today and try to preserve Japan’s cultural identity, whatever that means, is of course ludicrous. Japanese culture could not have blossomed without the heavy dose of Chinese influence that it received in the past. And we wouldn’t be who we are today if we hadn’t been constantly learning from the West—and from the rest of the world, for that matter. We couldn’t have escaped colonization in the first place if we hadn’t rushed to learn all that we could from the West and quickly build a modern military force. But what’s tricky is the difference between learning and transferring technological knowledge and learning and transferring art.
The half-hearted transference of art can result in sad imitations. In my novel, Mitsuki grieves at the spectacle of ripped-off versions of a French castle, a Romanesque church, and the Riviera. Yet the case of The Golden Demon is, I think, a good example of what such cultural transference can sometimes accomplish, however ironic the trajectory. Here’s an American dime novel that everyone has forgotten about, yet that throw-away story was turned into one of the classics of modern Japanese literature. Did Kōyō, the author of The Golden Demon, consider the original dime novel to be a great work of literature? Probably not. The important thing, however, is that he transformed a forgettable melodrama into an unforgettable one that left its mark on modern Japanese literature.
First, he changed the story and details so deftly that his readers felt as if the story actually took place in Japan, was indeed their own story. Second, he used his remarkable powers of language to make the novel reverberate with layers of literary traditions, to mesmerizing effect.
In this day and age, a similar tour de force no longer seems possible. Japan is on the surface just another modern country, seemingly part of the West. The younger generation, having little knowledge of their own literary heritage, would find a reference to Lord Voldemort far easier to understand than a reference to the Lady Rokujō (a character in The Tale of Genji whose dark jealous spirit haunts and kills other ladies surrounding the Shining Prince).
BM: In The Fall of Language in the Age of English, you wrote about many of the themes that appear here, too. You portray yourself as a girl in the United States, obsessed with Japanese literature. For Mitsuki, too, the world of literature seems more vibrant and real than her own, rather dreary existence. Do you still meet girls like this in Japan? Do you think that publishing a novel in a newspaper helps you to reach a broader public, as in the old days?
MM: Indeed, the particular circumstances in which I grew up made me singularly obsessed with literature. But the surprising thing about my generation in Japan is that so many of us were also voracious readers in our youth, devouring Sōseki and Tanizaki, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, Stendhal and Proust. The number of college students expanded exponentially after World War II, and books were the most affordable nourishment for the soul. Looking back, it’s almost funny how everyone dreamed of becoming a novelist back then. Times have changed. I think there still are girls in Japan devouring novels the way I did, but definitely far fewer than before.
As for serial novels in newspapers, I believe their historical mission has long been over. Those novels were once the only literature ordinary people were exposed to, and this was especially true for women who would never have thought of buying a book for themselves. Books were too expensive and they were for men. Inheritance from Mother is my attempt at a swan song for the fading significance of this still-strong tradition.
BM: So many of the problems in this book are brought about by money—not, as in so many older novels, by the lack of money, but by the presence of money. People in Japan live so much longer, and that creates problems; people—especially women—have more options for their lives, and that creates problems, too. How have you dealt with the spiritual (or psychological, or existential) aspects of these problems?
MM: Oedipus was destined to kill his father and marry his mother. He had no choice. In contrast, a novel, that modern literary form, presupposes that one can decide one’s own destiny. As I said before, a novel is basically about choices. And money necessarily plays a critical role in this context because money—or the lack of it—is inextricably connected to how much freedom one has in making choices.
People often speculate on what may become of the penniless Nora after she walks out on her husband in A Doll’s House. (Now playing on Broadway, A Doll’s House, Part 2 by Lucas Hnath apparently turns her into a successful feminist writer.) And the question is a legitimate one. Young Japanese women of today, especially those who are highly educated, have various options, including the option not to marry—something that’s creating a headache for this aging nation, but something most women of my generation did not entertain as a legitimate option. And women my age now find themselves facing decades of life ahead with a retiree husband with whom they may or may not want to spend years on end till death do them part. With children out of the way, I’ve seen many such women consider divorce to enjoy a first taste of freedom. Things literally come down to how much money they will have at their disposal once they do decide to walk out like Nora. In Inheritance from Mother, I had Mitsuki do her calculations over and over again, as if inviting my readers to compare their situation with hers and ponder their own options. Too bad those figures won’t mean much to non-Japanese readers!
BM: You have written about the erosion of high literary Japanese. At the same time, you write about the eternity of all writing, now, on the internet: eternally preserved by Google or Facebook. Mitsuki fears that these traces are all that will remain of her life. Is that sense of digital eternity compatible with the supposedly timeless values incarnated in a nation’s literature? Or does instant writing and instant communication turn language into just another modern form of pollution?
MM: Eternity of all sorts of writing—be it blogs, tweets, Facebook, or whatever—is compatible, I believe, with the supposedly timeless values incarnated in a nation’s literature. Deep down, every serious writer has always wished her words to live forever but was resigned to the probability that it would never happen. Then came this new technology. When I first learned what something like Google Books Library Project could do for literature, I was beyond elated. My books would never go out of print! Inevitably, the Internet became overflooded with all sorts of utterances destined to remain forever, alongside the deathless words of Natsume Sōseki and Jane Austen. But I tend to be optimistic about the consequences of linguistic pollution. Ultimately, humans are wise enough to discern what ought to be read and re-read and handed down to future generations.
There is, however, an aspect of digital technology that I fear presents a real threat to national literature: the further dominance of English as the choice of language for critical thinking, so that we unwittingly start taking other languages less seriously—but now I’m back harping on the central theme of The Fall of Language!
Minae Mizumura’s Inheritance From Mother (trans. Juliet Winters Carpenter) is available now from Other Press.