“Crossover Artists: Writing in Another Language,” with Minae Mizumura and Shan Sa, appears in PEN America 7: World Voices. This conversation was presented, in slightly different form, at the 2005 PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature.

CROSSOVER ARTISTS: Writing in Another Language

MINAE MIZUMURA: There is a general rule when you are bilingual: If you have a choice between two languages or three languages, the language you choose to write in is generally the dominant language. I think that’s the case with most writers. You can think of someone like Kafka, who as a child was Czech, and Nabokov, who switched from Russian to English. Many writers who come from the English and French empires switch from the minor language to the major language. But there are always exceptions to the rule.

I wish I could tell you that I’m perfectly happy with the choice I made, but I can’t quite say that, especially when I know that 99 percent of you have not read my work because it’s written in Japanese. If I were speaking in Japan in front of a Japanese audience and if I wrote books in English, they would surely have been translated into Japanese. The most nonsensical, stupid stuff will be translated into Japanese because so many Japanese people want to read American things.

I can’t really say that I’m 100 percent happy with this asymmetrical situation. I wrote an autobiographical novel about ten years ago—Shishosetsu: From Left to Right. As you can see, shishosetsu is a Japanese word that means “I-novel,” autobiographical novel. “From left to right” is an English expression. The title is bilingual, and the book itself is, in a way, bilingual. But it’s not really bilingual because it’s written in Japanese with many English expressions thrown in. It’s written horizontally, whereas 99.9 percent of Japanese texts are written vertically. I had to write it horizontally because there are so many English expressions.
I know that some Spanish Americans are doing this with the Spanish language—throwing Spanish words into English texts—but the effect is very much different in Japanese because we don’t just use a phonetic alphabet. We use Chinese characters that came from China, and we have two kinds of phonetic alphabets. It’s very pictorial. We have the English sentences thrown in, so the visual impact or the clash of the two totally different languages is much more striking.

From Left to Right reflects my cultural upbringing and tells the story of how I became a writer. Ever since Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, how-I-became-a-writer stories have flourished. You can say that Shishosetsu: From Left to Right is a variant of such stories. You may even detect in my novel the sort of complacent, congratulatory tone characteristic of such stories. Yet my novel is also darker. My story does not suggest a how-I-became-a-writer story; it’s a how-I-became-a-Japanese-writer story. That story necessarily runs parallel to a sad tale of how I failed to become an American writer or a writer of the English language.

I was born in Japan and came to the States with my family when I was twelve. My father had been stationed in New York by a Japanese company. That was back in the 1960s, when Japanese products such as transistor radios, cameras, and tape reorders began selling overseas. Accordingly, the Japanese companies started sending their men overseas with their families. Little did my family know when we arrived that we would be spending the next twenty years in the States. Little did I know that I would grow up entirely in the States. Moreover, little did any of us expect that the girl who came to America at the age of twelve—a girl who was not particularly stupid—would twenty years later still find herself uncomfortable with the English language. But that’s what happened.

As I look back on my life, I cannot help thinking that I would have been writing in English now if some crucial conditions had been different. If I were a white girl, I would not have felt so alienated from the American society, though I may have rejected English at first. If my parents had come to the States like so many Japanese before the war, then America would have become my country and English my principal language. I would be writing in English. But my parents considered themselves long-term visitors; they always thought we would eventually go back, and my sisters and I would find nice Japanese husbands.

Maybe if I were not Japanese and were not so nationalistic, I might have abandoned my Japanese more easily. And if I had known at the time the linguistic power structure of the world—that you could have infinitely more advantages as a writer of English than of Japanese—if I had known that, I might have chosen English. I’m often described as a writer who chose to write in Japanese rather than in English, who chose a local and singular language over the universal language. I am portrayed as someone who has made a sort of ideological choice. I wish that were the case, but it isn’t. I did not know I had a choice.
It depends on what kind of writing you want to do as a novelist. If I’d wanted to write a fantastic novel, for example, or if I were more interested in abstract, avant-garde-ish novels, my own English might have sufficed. But I’m an orthodox, nineteenth-century-realism kind of writer, and I want every detail to carry cultural weight. I want everything to be completely, verbally, historically sound. As the kind of novelist I am, I don’t think I have a choice to write in English.

I did everything in my power during those twenty years to avoid writing in the English language. The main thing I did, which I think is the stupidest thing I did, was to learn French. I went to graduate school at Yale. I wrote paper after paper in French. I received honors in French. I lived in France. If you look at the past linguistic politics, French was the only language in which you could say, “I don’t know English, but that’s okay because I know French.” Politics played into my psyche but twenty years later, with all due respect to people who write in French and to French culture, what is it to have spent my youth learning French instead of learning English in America? I think it was a very frivolous thing.

However, at the bottom of all these evil conditions is the worthy existence of Japanese literature, modern Japanese literature, which may need some explanation. You think it’s natural that there is such a thing as Japanese literature, but when you consider all the non-Western countries at the turn of the century, it’s very rare to have a national literature. Most countries have been colonized; their principal language has become the language of the colonizer. The well-educated have been schooled in the colonizer’s language—in French, sometimes in Dutch. Japan, because it escaped being colonized—it colonized its neighbors—was able to develop the language to such a high level politically, scientifically, mathematically, and literally. But within twenty to thirty years, between 1867 and 1890, the Japanese language borrowed so much from Chinese tradition and from the southern tradition that it transformed into a wonderfully rich language. My parents brought with them a whole collection of Japanese novels that were published before 1925. Japanese literature is the only non-Western literature that would have a full collection of modern novels by the year 1925. Until recently, I never realized that if I had been brought up Korean, I would not have kept the Korean language the way I did because Korea was occupied by Japan and did not develop a national literature until much later. The same thing even with Chinese, which had a very excellent classical tradition but was unable to develop a modern Chinese literature because of all the political upheavals, and because of Japanese literature.

Japan did have this very early, established national literature played a major role in my choices. I would go to high school and my body would be there but not my soul. My heart wasn’t there. I’d come home from school and start reading all those collected volumes that came from my grandparents’ basement. I read and read and read. By the time I grew up, my Japanese was archaic. People speaking to me would think they were speaking to an old lady.
That is why my first work was a continuation of a novel left unfinished seventy years ago by Natsume Soseki. He is the founder of modern Japanese literature. He had a stomach ulcer and when he was serializing the novel—it was a cliffhanger—he was about to write his ending but he died. That was his last work and it was supposed to represent his last thought on modern Japan. Nobody wanted to touch it. There were so many conjectures about how he would have finished it, but nobody dared to touch it. It was easy for me to do because I was so used to his kind of language, which was now archaic. I was able to start my career finishing that work, which created a rather big sensation in Japan. It was a lucky start for me.