Dear Roddy Doyle,
Nice to meet you, and hello. I feel very honoured to be writing to you in this way, and also very nervous. My name is Tsumura Kikuko, and I’m a Japanese novelist from Osaka. I was born in 1978, which makes me exactly twenty years your junior.
I think the first time I ever saw your name was in 1991, when I was thirteen. At that point in my life, I was growing bored of watching the anime that I’d previously enjoyed, and was trying to decide what to turn to next. Thinking I’d maybe get into films instead, I bought a film magazine. I remember how that issue, which featured a long article about the actor Edward Furlong from Terminator 2, contained an article about The Commitments.
After buying the magazine, I realized that watching films would be a very pricey hobby for a middle-school student, and instead devoured every inch of the magazine in a bid to feel like I had actually seen all the films in it. Specific things I remember from that issue are that there was a pin-up of Linda Hamilton looking very beautiful, and that the article about The Commitments quoted the line, ‘The Irish are the n*****s of Europe.’
At thirteen I had no money and had never been to the cinema alone, and so I never did get to see The Commitments (or Terminator 2, for that matter) but those words lodged in me, and I remember reading that article repeatedly. If I can be forgiven for drawing potentially inappropriate comparisons of this sort, that was how I felt in my class at school, as well as at home. To this point in my life, I have never once felt like I belonged to a majority, or that I was on the dominant side of any relationship. For that reason, I formed the impression in that moment that maybe the Irish were people a bit like me.
Thinking about it now, I find myself wondering why it was that I was particularly drawn to Irish people. As a middle-school student, I knew of a lot of famous Black people, but no Irish ones, and maybe that sense I had of Irish people ‘not being known’ helped foster a sense of empathy in me.
A few months after I bought that first film magazine, a friend of mine bought the CD Achtung Baby, because she was a big Edward Furlong fan and U2 were one of his favourite bands. I heard an Enya song on the radio and liked it, so I bought Shepherd Moons. Then I borrowed Achtung Baby from my friend, and gained a taste for listening to music in English. Almost thirty years later, I still listen to music in English all the time.
For all of these reasons, I had something of a special image attached to Ireland. Enya and U2 were mainstream music, and yet they seemed to me to contain this complexity that came from the frustration of being marginalised, as expressed in that line from The Commitments.
It seems to me that if I hadn’t ever read those words of yours—or maybe I should say, of Jimmy Jr.’s—then Ireland would have felt more distant to me. So being able to write to you like this feels like a piece of bizarre serendipity.
In the year 2000, when I was 22, I had the opportunity for the first time to go abroad for a week with friends, and I knew that our destination simply had to be Ireland—even though by that time, I’d mostly stopped listening to Enya and U2 (instead, in terms of Irish bands and artists, I preferred Sinead O’Connor, the Cranberries, and Power of Dreams). I feel silly for speaking only about the intuitions I had and the pictures I had formed, but I had the sense that Ireland was a place that would understand me.
After staying for a few days in Dublin, we got on the train cutting across Ireland and travelled to Galway, to see the Cliffs of Moher. There I visited the Galway branch of Easons, the same chain in which Sharon buys a book about pregnancy in The Snapper. The Cliffs of Moher were incredible. I remember, too, the total nothingness of the Burren that we glimpsed from the window of the coach on the way to the cliffs, which I found very calming.
Dublin seemed to me the perfect size for a city. If someone were to give me the chance to live wherever I wanted on earth, I still think that I would choose Dublin. Everything that I ate while I was in Ireland was delicious. Irish stew and soda bread with butter are some of the best things I’ve ever eaten.
The most memorable moment for me from the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan was the sight of the Ireland supporters in leprechaun hats, crying as they watched the penalties in their Round of 16 match against Spain. (Incidentally, my second strongest memory is that of Oliver Kahn sitting on the grass leaning back against the goalpost after losing in the final.) Even today, though I can understand rationally the greatness of the Spanish team, I don’t like them very much.
While I was in high school, I read several of your novels, borrowing them from the school library (even into high school I still had no money, so I couldn’t buy them—sorry!). I remember enjoying them a lot back then, but reading them now, when I can understand the references to Liverpool FC, Stephen Roche, The The and so on, I find them even more enjoyable, and more familiar. Liverpool FC are one of my favourite clubs, I often watch Roche’s son, Nicolas, competing in road-cycle races (apparently he’s very stylish), and I’ve named one of my books after the title of a The The song, This is the Day. It’s a book about supporters going to the last match of the season of an imaginary J2 league. I know that Stephen Roche was a really good cyclist, but it surprised me to know that he was a big enough deal to appear in cheese adverts in Ireland. Looking him up now, I discover that he is a tremendous cyclist who won the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France and the UCI World Road Race Championship all in the same year. I feel bad for not knowing that before.
Now that I’m a writer myself and have learned how to read novels a bit better, I find myself even more in awe of your writing: the description of how Paddy pops the bubbles in the tar with ice-pop sticks, pours in pebbles and hears their death throes, and that part when Jimmy Sr. is hiding Bimbo who is crying in the pub after losing his job, and Sharon says to the father of her child, ‘You got yeh hole, didn’t yeh? Wha’ more do yeh want?’ Your books are so full of all these ideas and details from the regular lives of regular people, and none of it feels remotely made up. Reading them, I find myself thinking, if only I could write like this—the sensation is one of excitement, which then slides into a kind of melancholy.
My own dad was a bad seed, so I tend to regard fathers in general with suspicion, but Jimmy Sr., who is definitely not the model father by any means, is one of the characters about whom I think I wish I could write people like that. He’s liberal, foolish, concerned with how he’s coming across, and all he ever thinks about is going drinking with his friends, but he’s also a father who deeply cares about his family. The scenes in The Snapper where he talks with his wife Veronica about the most trivial things, like saying of the Jaffa Cakes, ‘These yokes aren’t as nice as they used to be. Sure they’re not?’ or, watching a Timotei ad on TV and saying, ‘As if yeh didn’t have better things to be doin’ than washin’ your fuckin’ hair all day. As often as yeh like!’ are brilliant. The way that you’ve understood how entertaining exactly these kinds of trivial conversations are and written them into your work fills me with deep admiration.
Finally, allow me to touch a bit on the current state of the world. What is life like for you these days, with COVID-19 still at large? I think of this virus a bit like a stalker, that won’t leave people alone however much they try to shake it off, grinning as it pronounces the words, ‘I mustn’t leave humans alone at any cost.’ I go between being impressed by its malice, and hating it from the bottom of my heart—and then thinking about people working in Chinese factories. I’m talking specifically about the Chinese people who create goods to be exported to Japan, even though they will never have the chance to visit this country. Personally, I feel like the spread of the virus comes not only from its determination not to leave humans alone at any cost, but the fact the economy of one nation can’t get by without consuming people from another (and by people I don’t mean the country itself or corporations, but individuals). We should think about the proliferation of the disease as stemming not from the virus that attaches to the products we import, but from the coming and going of people indispensable to that importation process. I feel that we Japanese people have spent too long buying other people’s labour on the cheap, and the current proliferation of the virus shows that misdeed suddenly erupting.
I’m not someone who finds being alone or not speaking to people too much of a hardship, so I haven’t found that my day-to-day life has been drastically affected by the pandemic. I do feel very sad about not being able to go to watch football or rugby matches, though. I live in a prefecture called Hyogo (home to the team for which Andrés Iniesta Luján plays) and the team I support is from Kyoto, the next prefecture along—too far away for me to go and see them at the moment. The J-league season begins in March this year and ends in December. I’m just praying that this year I’ll be able go and see the last match of the season.
Next month, I’ll be visiting Noevir Stadium Kobe, the home stadium of the club Vissel Kobe for which Iniesta plays, to receive my second vaccine. There are poster displays of Iniesta, and other players are there at the stadium giving people guidance about the vaccine. The situation with the virus is absurd and there’s nothing about it to like, but I’m looking forward to seeing the Iniesta posters, and to having my vaccine at the stadium.
There’s much about life at the moment that’s frustrating and inconvenient, but I hope that you’re keeping well. Thank you so much again for agreeing to exchange letters with a complete stranger like myself.
26th August 2021