“Dark tangles” brought to light: the fiction of Yuki Tsushima, Geraldine Harcourt

The New York Times Book Review, among others, has called Yuko Tsushima “one of the most important writers of her generation” in Japan. I translate her fiction more for the pleasure it gives me as a reader, but I hope to provide some clues to its importance in this brief introduction.  (New Zealand readers can discover the pleasure for themselves by reading the story “Home Ground” in Landfall 195.)

Yuko Tsushima was born in Tokyo in 1947. She published her first short story in 1969, her last year at university, where she majored in English literature. Since then, she has published close to 30 books of fiction, essays, and criticism, receiving many of Japan’s major literary awards.

Tsushima is sometimes described as a writer of “I-novels”, a type of modern Japanese fiction which typically depicts events in the novelist’s daily life within a convention of authenticity and intimacy. There are indeed a number of recurring parallels with her own life in her protagonists’ situations, including an absent father (her own died when she was a year old), a beloved brother with Down’s syndrome who died when she was a child, her experience as a single mother, and the loss of her young son to sudden illness. But the “I-novelist” label is misleading, since her continual reworking of these elements transcends the confines of the form.

Perhaps this process reflects the tension which Tsushima says exists in her fiction between the shosetsu, the Western-inspired form, akin to the novel, which has evolved since the late nineteenth century, and the monogatari or tales of pre-modern Japan. By the time she began writing in her late teens, she says, she may have already incorporated the Japanese tradition unconsciously, but it was her discovery of an affinity with William Faulkner and other writers of the American South that gave her the impetus to write. Her perceptions had been influenced by growing up close to a brother who saw things in all their strangeness, and after his death she was motivated by a desire to express his world (for which he himself did not have language) and to find value in human existence by some measure other than the intellect. She has also said that she wants to speak, without romanticising, for those in society who find it difficult to make their own words heard.

She is best known in English for works from the late 1970s and early 1980s: the novels Child of Fortune and Woman Running in the Mountains, and a short story selection, The Shooting Gallery. All concern women alone with children. Some reviewers have focused on the “pathos and poignancy” of their situation, their loneliness, their apparent resignation or even passivity. Others find something energising in the matter-of-fact way these women keep on going, making a marginal living while drawing strength from day-to-day life with their children, which Tsushima presents in grittily vivid detail, with touches of wry humour.

The sense of resiliency is heightened by images of light and of nature rooted in the crevices of Tokyo’s deadening concrete. Tsushima’s city streets are alive to the seasons in tiny ways which she depicts with arresting beauty. She also observes the “dark tangles along the walls”; as Pico Iyer has noted, again and again in the stories of The Shooting Gallery, “Tsushima alluded to the overgrowth at the side of a garden, the wilderness just beyond the neat suburban parks”. He adds: “And it was in these undomesticated spaces, she suggested, that the women were beginning to gather their strength unseen.”

Tsushima’s more recent writing, not yet available in English, looks both at these stripped-down families and at the tenacity of links between generations (especially daughters and their mothers), in what she has described as a continuing effort to grasp the family in terms of “love for one’s own flesh and blood” while separating it from its role – a very critical role in Japan – as an institution or system from the past.

Since the sudden death of the younger of her two children in 1985, a meditation on mortality has underlain all these themes, finding its expression most directly in Yoru no hikari ni owarete/ Driven by the Light of Night (1986), Yume no kiroku/ A Record of Dreams (1988) and Ooinaru yume yo, hikari yo/ O Immense Dream, O Light (1991). The realistic domestic detail is still presented in all its physicality, but it is interworked with a world shared with the dead, a world of dreams narrated in strangely gliding prose.

At a conference of writers and environmentalists in Mexico in 1991, Tsushima spoke of the indigenous hunter-gatherers of the Japanese archipelago, the emishi (an ancient word which literally means “barbarians”), and of the rise of the culture which supplanted them under the rule of the Tennoke or Imperial house. “The Tennoke left us the well-known high culture of the court, and those in power have done their best to make this aristocratic culture the sole representative of Japanese culture. Beyond the walls of the court, however, the emishi lived together with nature, found their gods there, and handed down a rich oral literature celebrating their dialogue with those gods …” Their descendants in northern Japan, the Ainu people, have carried on this rich oral tradition in the epic poems known as yukar. The most beautiful of these, to quote Tsushima, “are stories in which the gods of the natural world speak, one by one, in the first person … We see the world through the eyes of a bear, the world as described by an owl … The sea, the rivers, the valleys, each speak with their own voice.”

In the process of Japan’s modernisation, the traces of so-called “barbarous” folk beliefs and oral literature that remained among the common people were deliberately erased. But, she said, “When I look back over Japanese literature, it seems to me that the finest works are sustained by a revival of the imaginative power of the emishi …”

When invited to teach Japanese literature to graduate students in Paris in 1991-92, Tsushima began her course with the Ainu yukar, which standard surveys of the literature of Japan do not include. Her unorthodox approach to literary history holds a clue to what makes Tsushima’s own writing important, for her finest works are themselves sustained by an imaginative power whose sources clearly lie “beyond the walls of the court”.

Geraldine Harcourt is a translator of Yoko Tsushima’s work and lives in Japan.

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