An I-Novel by Minae Mizumura is an immigrant story turned on its head. In traditional tales, a foreign-born young person arrives on American shores unable to speak the language but grows up to become a great success. An I-Novel, instead, is about two Japanese sisters in America who long to go “home.” But what does “home” even mean? Arriving in Long Island when they are in middle school, they are too old to become native speakers but too young to clearly remember the home they left behind. Without their memory, the word “home” is a stand-in for something else.
The older sister, Nanae, navigates this new world by trying to blend in. While most girls in Japan in the late 1960s preferred skin-whitening cosmetics and dressed demurely, Nanae enjoys tanning her skin and wearing miniskirts. But she still hopes to satisfy her parents by marrying a “real” Japanese man. Years later, when she meets her fiancé’s traditional parents in Tokyo for the first time, she wears heavy eye makeup and a flashy outfit, and proceeds to pull out a cigarette. That trip “home” ends in a suicide attempt when she is rejected by the boy and his family.
While Nanae tries to blend in to American culture, it is the younger sister Minae, the main character of the story, whose own longing for home dominates her life in a different way:
All through my girlhood, I was consumed by thoughts of the homeland I’d left. I longed for it with an intensity that words like “yearning” or “nostalgia” could not convey. I felt I was some-place I didn’t belong, where I should not be. Japan steadily grew to near-mythic dimensions in my mind, transfigured into a place where life transcended the smallness of the everyday. Since these were the years that shaped me, I was never again to be free—not even when I finally did return for a visit.
For Minae, it is the world of Japanese literature that captures her imagination. And so, approaching the age of thirty, she announces to her sister that she wants to become a novelist — in Japanese. Nanae replies: “But how can you write a novel in Japanese? You don’t write Japanese very well!”
The entirety of An I-Novel takes place in Minae’s apartment across the street from a venerable American University over the course of a single day. The two sisters talk on the phone, and Minae reflects on her two decades in America and her dream to write novels in her mother tongue.
An I-Novel was originally published in Japanese in 1995. It is not difficult to imagine the stir this novel created when it was first published in Japan in 1995. At that time, the country was in the midst of great economic growth. Young people studied English and traveled overseas with great gusto, and so this novel about bilingualism and multiculturalism garnered great interest. Sprinkled with English, it was promoted as the first “bilingual” novel in Japan to be printed horizontally from left to right. Traditionally, the text in novels is printed from top to bottom, vertically.
To highlight this departure from the traditional, the original title in Japanese reads:
私小説：from left to right
Shishosetsu: from left to right
In its original form, An I-Novel won the 1996 Noma New Author Award. Since then, Mizumura has become an important literary figure in Japan, and so there has long been interest in translating this early novel. But how could a translator render in English what was so revolutionary in the original Japanese? Award-winning translator and academic Juliet Winters Carpenter, who has previously translated Mizumura’s work, came up with a creative way of handling the challenges of An I-Novel by using different typefaces. English words that appear in the Japanese text are rendered in a bold typeface in this version so readers can get a sense of the dislocation that Japanese readers might experience in attending to the Japanese text that has so much English (and some French) thrown in untranslated. The different typefaces are not limited to English versus Japanese. There are also different ones for literary quotes and Mother’s letter, as well as one rendition from an Akutagawa story that swirls down the page. This is a novel about language and literature, and how language can feel like home.
The title, too, holds meaning: An I-Novel, or Shishosetsu in Japanese, refers to a literary genre unique to Japan and more recently to China. Sometimes called watakushishosetsu to emphasize its frequent use of the first-person pronoun point-of-view, the genre refers to books written in the confessional style. The first person point-of-view story follows the basic outline of the author’s life — right down to her first name. The shishosetsu genre, which developed at the beginning of the 20th century, was inspired by European Naturalism and revolves around the aesthetic ideals of truth and straightforward description. That is why An I-Novel reads so much like a memoir.
Mizumura fans will also recognize the two sisters from Mizumura’s well-known novel Inheritance from Mother, also expertly translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter. In a fascinating interview that Benjamin Moser conducted with the author for Lit Hub, Mizumura explains that while An I-Novel describes what really happened to the two sisters, Inheritance is a kind of parallel universe in which the author imagines what could have happened to the two women had they never left Japan. She says:
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.
Translations into English of important literary works from different languages are always exciting events — and this is certainly among the most important translations from Japanese this year. It is a tour de force by translator Juliet Winters Carpenter of one of Japan’s most exciting writers.
by Minae Mizumura
translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter
Columbia University Press
Published March 2021