Monday, October 25, 2010

A Taiwa with Yang Yi and Shirin Nezammafi

A childhood friend of mine loves Anne Tyler’s books. The friend has been reading literary books since her childhood, and she is one of well read persons I know. I don’t remember what I’ve read, but I did read some of Anne Tyler’s short pieces. But I was a bit surprised to hear of the friend’s new preference because she used to like Ooe Kenzaburo’s books and similar books in that genre. Well, we all have different preferences, and we change, too. I used to read Asada Jiro’s books long ago. Now, I don’t have time to read his books, and my interest has shifted. And the friend who likes Anne Tyler considers Asada Jiro as sort of Japanese Stephen King. Talking of Stephen King, the other Japanese friend of mine who is also well read loves Stephen King. She reads King’s hard cover books in English. I admire her reading in English. This past sweltering August in Japan, she sent me email saying, “I’ve read so far 315 pages of King’s book.” It must be very hard for her to read the English book. She is the person whom I depend on when I have questions on anything about what I missed knowing about Japan. I mentioned about her before, so I would stop here.

So, we all are different, and our preference is a personal matter. And I’m interested in the perspectives of foreign writers who write in Japanese. First, they are rare. So, when my eyes caught a photo of two non-Japanese women on one of literary magazines, “Bungakukai,” of course, I read it with much interest. The article was an interview/discussion form, and this is very popular format in Japanese newspapers and magazines, and even in books. In the Japanese language, we call it “Taiwa (対話) or Taidan (対談).” Daniel of CHMagazine has asked me if Taiwa came from Taiwan. No, Daniel! He is funny. Taiwan is 台湾.

Taiwa, not Taiwan, is more than the one-on-one interview format. In this taiwa, a moderator did exist, but almost invisible. Only a few lines by the nameless moderator showed up at the beginning of each section. Why is the Taiwa format so popular in Japan? I have a theory, but I’ll talk about it, maybe, some other time.

The stars of this Taiwa are Yang Yi and Shirin Nezammafi. Yang Yi was born in the northeast of China in 1964. She came to Tokyo on scholarship and majored in geography. She was working as a Chinese language instructor before launching her writer’s career. Shirin Nezammafi was born in Iran in 1979. She studied engineering in Kobe and became a system engineer. They both live in Japan.

I enjoyed reading every paragraph of the taiwa, and they covered such as Chinese and Persian tradition in poems and about languages and so on. I’m interested in languages. But I would focus on one thing and summarize (not one on one translation) the ending interaction as follows.

From the November 2009 issue of Bungakukai.
Yang said something like this: Humans probably cannot know their true nature unless we actually go through a revolution or war. When I look at the generations of those Japanese who didn’t have such experiences, I wonder why they can’t come up with a bit better thoughts. Because of our old system, we Chinese didn’t have freedom, and we couldn’t even decide on our own matters. We had no choice but to live according to the social flow. So I tend not to think of my own rights, but to think only in the life given to me. I have no desire more than that.

Shirin said: Doesn’t that depend largely on your character? I’m sure there are people who break such barrier.

Yang: Some people do, but I don’t.

Shirin: I would probably fight it. But, for example, your main character Wan-chan (Yang wrote a novel, “Wan-chan.) seems the kind of person who accepts what has been handed. So, in that sense, what you described manifested in the novel, “Wan-chan.” Wan-chan cries a lot.

Yang: Yes, being unable to challenge the hurdle is the key point. Bur, rather than inability to overcome, it’s more toward no such thought ever occurring. I also don’t prefer such way of thinking (referring to the challenge to hurdles.)

Shirin: Is it because you don’t want to bother with it?

Yang: Rather, I’m content. It’s like “know what it lacks.” I am the I-don’t- desire-more-that-this type. 無為自然。Muishzen. No craftiness and stay natural. It’s the idea of Lao-Tse. But, humans cannot avoid but keep living according to our fate and environments. That’s our true nature. I think I’m interested in looking at true beauty and ugliness and strengths and weaknesses which only come after we truly accept the way it is.


In my opinion about 無為自然(Muishizen), mui is not idleness or inactivity or waste one’s life as the dictionary tells us. Mui has no crafty quality, no assumption, and no lie or untruth. It simply means true natural state.

We often refer to Lao-Tse and Chaung-Tse in blogs. The root of Taoism goes back more than 2000 years, and it interacted and competed with Buddhism and the Confucius teachings. So, even though most of Japanese are not religious, it is there in our lives, and I see the similar quality in Yang’s statement. I think Yang said it well. I think these words are more thought provoking and educational than buying and reading “Taoism for Dummy” although I don’t know if such book exists. And to the words of Shirin about fighting back, I also thought of it coming from her tradition. I hope she’ll get the Akutagawa-award, and keep writing and delve into what is really behind that tradition.

In my opinion, both writers are fighters, obviously. Writing a novel itself cannot be done without being a fighter. On top of it, they are writing in Japanese. How I admire and appreciate them!

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