I’ve fallen behind in responding to you yet again, and already we’re three months into the year 2022. You mentioned that you had fallen ill after getting back from the East Bay. How are you feeling now?
The pandemic has changed how we relate to time in profound ways. Only the seasons keep changing. In Tokyo, the cherry blossoms are flowering here and there. From the trees around me I can hear the cries of small birds, especially the fresh-sounding chirps of young bush warblers. We’ve had good weather today. It’s graduation day at the university where I teach. With a ceremony like this, even when everybody’s wearing masks, I remember that time is still moving forward, and a new year is right around the corner. (As you know, in Japan, the academic year starts in April.)
Since early 2020, when COVID began to spread around Japan and the rest of the world, I’ve made only one trip home to Kamae, on the southern side of Oita prefecture (I sometimes jokingly call it Oita’s “Deep South”). There was no ban in place to keep me from going back and I’ve thought about visiting a few times, but my parents wouldn’t have it. After all, it’s an elderly community, and everybody there is worried that people coming from the city might bring the virus with them. As a friend who works at city hall told me with a wry smile, when the locals see cars with out-of-town plates in parking lots or along the coast, they head to city hall or call on the phone to ask the officials to get on the speaker and tell the outsiders to leave. In the country, every neighborhood is equipped with its own speaker system for making all sorts of public announcements.
Reading this might make you feel like my hometown is uninclusive or unwelcoming, but the truth is, it doesn’t matter whether you’re in the country or the city—narrow-mindedness and intolerance of this kind can be found in every community and in every heart. We’re living in the age of simultaneity, the age of social media, in which the particularity of place is erased—and this is both a good thing and a bad thing. Of course, hatred exists everywhere but, these days, words of hate can travel around the world in the blink of an eye, far faster than any virus. Just the thought of it fills me with such a dark feeling. But as you’ve shown me, Bryan, there’s another side to this simultaneity: a brighter side that allows for our care and compassion to transcend physical space. We witness this every day, and it gives us courage.
Information, as well as the emotions that come with it, can be shared instantly on a global scale. Édouard Glissant, a poet, novelist, and cultural theorist from Martinique (whose work I’ve translated into Japanese), writes about what he calls “the world in its entirety.” As diverse voices reach different places, the blending of various cultural elements gives rise to new and unexpected phenomena. Glissant’s expansive reflection on a world open to diversity begins with the history and reality of Martinique, a small island in the French Caribbean, but what he ultimately proposes is that no community, no matter how small, can be completely homogeneous or isolated. In every community, we find differences.
I began my work as a novelist by writing stories about the place where I grew up—a village on a jagged coastline, facing a small inlet—and the people who live there. At first glance, my hometown appears closed off, both geographically and socially; most of the families there have known each other for generations. But this place cannot be entirely isolated from the outside world. Quite a few people there leave town to find work; when I was growing up, I’d see them come back for the holidays, sometimes bringing families they’d started elsewhere, but always carrying the language and spirit of some other place. This typically meant places within Japan, but also included places that had once been under Japanese colonial control: Taiwan, Manchuria, the Korean Peninsula. You can find a trickster in every community, and my hometown is no exception. There’s a man who lives there, and no one ever knows if he’s telling the truth. He keeps everybody around him amused—or bemused—but he has always come to the aid of villagers in need. He’s a lovable character, the type you might find in a folktale or myth. He’s over eighty now, and still in excellent health. He was born in Taiwan, and has spent a large portion of his life in other places as a migrant laborer.
These places that persist as memory within the bodies of the elderly aren’t something that we can see with our eyes, of course, and they will likely be lost when these people die. At the same time, these “other places” remain present in other forms. The declining birth rate and aging population have created a labor shortage, and a certain number of workers—largely from Asian countries, such as China or Vietnam—have come to Japan as “trainees.”
Every community contains traces of other places, whether those traces are visible or not. Nowhere will we find a community that belongs exclusively to one culture and language, a single history and tradition, uninterrupted and unbroken.
Then again, there’s no such thing as a purely open community, either. In order to establish a community, some sort of boundary may be necessary to mark it as a single unit. But this doesn’t have to take the form of a caravan-stopping wall. It can be a choice. This is where I belong, this is my family, these are the people who matter to me. Connections within the community can be personal and horizontal—rooted in affection, friendship, and trust. No need for hierarchy, blood, or history. The community can stay forever open to the outside and the other. That’s what I thought as I read your letter.
Perhaps this is something you’ve always understood, Bryan, but I started writing about my hometown without the awareness that such a place could in fact be open to other places and people. Then, in my late twenties, I left to study in France. For five years, I lived with the poet Claude Mouchard, a man about my father’s age, and a dear friend to this day. He and his wife Hélène welcomed me warmly into their home—and, for many years, they’ve opened it to refugees and immigrants in need. Through my experiences, I came to see that the remote village I’ve called home, a place that at first appears to be rooted in a homogeneous culture and history, utterly resistant to change, is actually nothing of the sort.
Thanks to the Japan Foundation, the organization that has made this correspondence of ours possible, I’ve had the opportunity to visit several places around the world: North America, Europe, Russia, Armenia, Vietnam. During these trips, I spoke with readers who told me that they have communities like the ones in my novels where they live. What a strange experience it is—discovering one’s own home while abroad. And if we can find home in other places, then it makes sense that we can also find other places at home. The Houston that appears in your work is of course your home, but it’s also open to the other. It’s a vibrant space, brimming with diversity.
In your stories—your Houston—we find sexual diversity as well. You depict love between men. Yet, as homophobia is common in conservative America, the characters in your stories must have had encounters with unjust discrimination. In terms of sexuality, my hometown is anything but open. Even within Japan, Kyushu is known for its strong culture of male dominance. It’s a place where masculinity is insisted upon, and women are supposed to step behind and follow. Unfortunately, that antiquated way of thinking remains deeply entrenched to this day. It would be very difficult to claim that unmarried and divorced women are treated well within this community. What parents expect of their daughters, whether they say it openly or not, is to get married and have children, especially sons. Meanwhile, sons are expected to establish financial independence and start families of their own. In this place, heterosexual marriage is the norm, and same-sex marriage is all but unthinkable. Perhaps the same could be said of found families. For those who have doubts about their roles within this system, who are uncomfortable with these expectations, this community cannot be an easy place to live. That being the case, what should they do? Run away? Stay and suffer? Is there no other way—no possibility beyond these two paths?
I believe there are openings in the community, and they’re widening, little by little. To my eyes, it’s literature that calls our attention to the existence of these other possibilities, bringing about change in our consciousness. I mentioned the discovery of home while abroad. In other words, in a space that I believed to be foreign—a different natural space, a different mental space—I found something that felt like home. But literature and art have a power that is in a way opposite to this. They can show us something that we haven’t yet seen or perceived, something we haven’t even imagined, and do so in a way that lets us realize it was the very thing we’d been searching for all along. This is how we can expand the range of our thoughts and emotions. This is what I believe you’re doing through your writing.
If we can choose our own families, then we ought to be able to choose the places we call home as well—places where we can’t help but feel some deep connection. There’s no reason for us to have only one hometown, by the way. No—perhaps we should speak of our hometowns in the plural. As I said, the Houston in your work is your home; at the same time, it can serve as a home in the heart of any reader who feels welcome there, anyone who feels as though they’ve been given a place to belong.
We can choose our own hometowns. But this is a subjective choice that must be made with absolute freedom from all forms of force—a freedom we know from our experience of literature. As you know, there are millions of people who are currently being driven from their homes, violently and without reason. No reality could be more anti-literary.
In these dark times, Bryan, I can’t tell you what it means to me to be able to exchange letters with someone like you, a writer who believes in the power of literature, a writer who continues to produce such beautiful work. In your last letter, you mentioned that you are working on a new novel. How’s it coming along? I truly can’t wait to read it. In the meantime, warmest wishes to you, your loved one, and your dog (what’s your dog’s name?). I’m so happy that we could share this exchange. Thank you, Bryan. Arigato!
With heartfelt thanks,
The translator's profile is not available as requested.