Today sees the first of our guest posts for the 2015 J-Lit Giants series, introducing a writer whose work (unfortunately) hasn’t made it into English yet. Morgan Giles, translator and occasional blogger, makes the case for publishing a writer with an impressive track record on the Japanese literary prize scene and some intriguing-sounding books under her belt 🙂
Yoriko Shōno is a giant of Japanese literature, the only author ever to win all three major prizes for new writers, and yet you’ve probably never heard of her. Her ‘avant-pop’ masterpieces remain untranslated. Thirty four years after her debut, Shōno is, in the words of her publishers, ‘the guardian deity of Japanese literature, and the eternal newcomer.’
Maybe it’s because her career hasn’t had the usual trajectory. Born in 1956, Shōno began writing while studying law at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto. After her 1981 debut Paradise (‘Gokuraku’) won the Gunzo New Writers Prize, she did not publish much and what she did publish attracted curiously little attention. But after a decade in the wilderness, Shōno returned to the forefront of the literary scene in a big way. Between 1991 and 1994, she won the Noma Literary Prize for New Writers, the Yukio Mishima Prize, and the Akutagawa Prize. Those ‘triple crown’ winning works, Not Doing Anything(‘Nani mo shitenai’), The Two-Hundredth Death Anniversary (‘Ni-hyaku-kai-ki’), and The Time Warp Industrial Complex (‘Taimu surippu konbinaato’) cemented Shōno’s reputation as an elegantly inventive postmodernist and occasional autofictionalist.
Shōno writes lucidly and poetically in a way that makes the strange seem perfectly reasonable, slipping her characters into languid dream worlds before taking them on a detour into slapstick humor and rampant paranoia. Her narrators frequently bear a resemblance to her (unattractive, single, middle-aged female writers without money or fame), calling to mind the Japanese tradition of the “I-novel”, which Shōno subverts in order to explore her main themes: gender and feminism. Her background as a law student, she says, is the main influence on her writing, making her question the supposedly “logical” and giving her subjective reality higher importance. She also uses mystical elements, from the Izanagi-Izanami origin story to Shinto and Buddhist traditions, to interrogate the role of women in Japanese society.
In The Time Warp Industrial Complex, a writer is awakened from a dream about being in love with a tuna fish by a phone call from a man she does not know and is sent off to Umishibaura, a railway station at the end of a line near Tokyo Bay. To one side of the station is a Toshiba factory; to the other side is the sea. As she makes her way there, the past and present merge and the writer finds herself both in “the scene of what’s left after everything is over” and the industrial town she grew up in. A personal meditation on Japan’s Bubble Era, Shōno depicts “the conflict between illusion and brutal reality” both in love and economics.
Shōno has continued to invent and define her own world through writing; her 2004 novel Konpira (‘Kompira’), winner of the Ito Sei Prize, is about a female writer much like Shōno who comes to the realization that she is the Hindu crocodile god Kumbhira, adopted in Japan as Konpira, the Buddhist guardian of those at sea. In a review, her fellow postmodernist, Gen’ichiro Takahashi, echoed Shōno’s feelings about her own writing when he wrote that, “To be Konpira is to believe. It is to offer ultrapersonal prayers. Prayer is not an illusion. It needs no interpretation or metaphor.”
Her most recent work, Record of a Non-Illness: Collagen Disorder, “Mixed Connective Tissue Disease” (‘Mi-tōbyō-ki ―― kōgenbyō, “kongō seiketsu gōsoshikibyō” no’), won the 2014 Noma Prize for Shōno’s depiction of the realities of life with a chronic autoimmune disease. In her comments after winning the prize, she said, “I’ve been referred to as having become critical of neoliberalism or said to have written about the nuclear state before the 2011 disaster, but I have only one simple rule: I write about what I see, and when I can’t write I write about why I can’t…. Ten years ago I was diagnosed with an incurable disease with little hope…. And now twenty three years later [after her 1991 Noma Prize for New Writers win], I have received the prize I always hoped for! Is this the irony of fate? No, this is divine will!”
If there is such a thing as divine will, someday we’ll see Yoriko Shōno’s writing in English. Until then, an excerpt from the beginning of The Time Warp Complex is all we have. Konpira, save us.
Many thanks to Morgan for her excellent introduction to a Japanese writer overlooked by the English-speaking publishing world (alas, one of far too many). If any publishers out there have had their interest piqued by this short biography, you know who to call 😉