(c) Hiromi Chikai
Matsuda Aoko｜Kelly Link
I was listening to Spotify the other day when “Welcome to New York” by Taylor Swift came on shuffle, and though I don’t usually cry about things in my own life, I found myself tearing up. That time in May 2015 when I met you in New York on the tour for Monkey Business magazine, edited by Shibata Motoyuki, was the first time for me to visit the city, and although I’m embarrassed to admit it, I spent my free time listening to the Taylor Swift song while exploring the city, like a girl from the sticks visiting the big smoke for the first time. When I was riding the escalator at LaGuardia airport, there was a poster right in front of me saying ‘Welcome to New York: it’s been waiting for you —Taylor Swift’, and it seemed like a directive to listen to the song—I might as well, I thought, if I’m in New York. Hearing it again, my memories from that spring in New York, when the tulips were blooming with an almost excessive vitality, came back to me with an unexpected force. It was such an honor for me to be on stage with you, and I was truly happy that we got to spend some time together. Thank you so much.
A good few years have elapsed since then, and the biggest change in my life is that I’ve had a child. He’s currently two.
While I was pregnant, I often thought of your short story, “Stone Animals.” The pregnant character Catherine moves with her husband and two children into an eerie house whose objects are haunted (or rather, it seems as if they are, to the family) and begins to paint all the walls. While I was pregnant, I also found myself taken by a desperate desire to paint the walls. People often say that pregnant women experience some kind of urge to fix up their houses for the new life that is about to be born, as part of a nesting instinct, but for me it wasn’t like that. I didn’t mind if it was my house I was painting or someone else’s—I just wanted to paint. The desire niggled away persistently at the corner of my mind.
When I read fiction or watch films from the States, I quite frequently encounter scenes of people painting their walls a different color. I don’t know how common that is over there, but in Japan, it’s a quite difficult thing to do. Here, particularly in rented accommodations, almost all the rooms are papered in benign white, and you’re not allowed to remove or paint it. Even if you buy an apartment, there are still limits to what you can do, unless you’re buying somewhere second-hand, in which case you’re granted more freedom.
I don’t have any particular plans to move house, but I am in the habit of looking at the property listings that the estate agencies stick up in their windows. I’ve lived with a cat now for more than ten years, so I make sure to check the listings to see if the properties allow pets. And so I’ve come to notice that the listings for newly built apartments will say, in regard to pets, “Restrictions apply.” I look at them and think how unreasonable it is that, even after you’ve forked out all that money to buy a place of your own, you still can’t do as you want. Most rented apartments don’t allow pets either, and those that do often have further specifications, such as “Dogs only,” or “No cats,” and so on. Sometimes pet owners have to pay a deposit that’s double or three times the standard amount. Anyway, the listings in the estate agencies don’t mention whether it’s possible to paint the walls or not—that’s how unusual it is.
And so, while I would constantly picture Catherine in her gas mask, painting the walls in those colors with all their unusual names, I myself was unable to paint mine. Catherine says that if she can paint all the walls in the house then everything will go back to normal and the house will no longer be haunted. I knew that painting the walls wouldn’t make things in my life perfect, and that while my house may be old, it isn’t haunted. Maybe it was something to do with just how much being pregnant restricted my movements, and my desire to paint came from a sense that if I couldn’t even manage to paint a wall then I couldn’t bear it any longer. I just wrote that my house wasn’t haunted, but when I think about it now, I suppose that the ‘house’ of my body was in fact possessed by this baby growing inside me. In fact, all kinds of eerie things were happening to me—my body was possessed not only by a baby, but by morning sickness too, and there was my stomach growing larger and larger… Thinking about it like that, it occurs to me that maybe what I really wanted was to paint myself. As well as the urge to paint, when I started getting morning sickness, I suddenly developed this great craving to listen to “Wuthering Heights” by Kate Bush, and until the morning sickness ended I listened to that song over and over, doing her arm movements from that video where she’s wearing a red dress and doing that peculiar dance. Thinking back on that now, also, it feels as if I was haunted.
At the moment I’m not in Tokyo where I usually live. Instead, I’m staying in the Kansai region, where my mother’s house is. As you know, the Tokyo Olympics took place in July and August this year. Many Japanese people opposed the Olympics going ahead during the pandemic, but it was pushed through regardless. Athletes from all around the world arrived, the opening ceremony went ahead, the games began, and as all this was happening the case numbers around Tokyo started shooting up in a way that was clearly connected. Health centers and medical facilities were inundated, which meant many sick people couldn’t be admitted to the hospital and died in their homes.
It seemed impossible to believe that the soaring case numbers and the beyond-capacity demand for hospital beds, both of which I would check every day, were taking place in the same country as the Olympic broadcasts on TV as if nothing untoward was happening. A few days after the Olympics had started, looking at the case numbers and hospital bed occupancy rates, I found myself thinking that I had no confidence I’d make it through. Even if I could protect myself, my two-year-old son can’t yet wear a mask, or understand what’s going on around him, so even on a trip to the local supermarket he ends up touching this and that. My mother lives in Tokyo and helps me and my partner with childcare, but she needed to visit a hospital in Kansai, and so she, myself, and my son were planning to travel to her house anyway. Not feeling like I could survive in Tokyo, I suggested that we put our plans in gear and so we made the journey west, just as if we were evacuating.
I initially had no intention of staying here this long, but now two months have passed, and I’ve had both doses of the vaccine in this part of the country. When I first arrived, I found that it had a totally different feeling to Tokyo. I saw so many people not wearing masks, and, rude as it is to say, I would steer my son’s stroller around like someone avoiding an onslaught of zombies, trembling with fear as I did. Until recently the government had declared a state of emergency, which meant that shops, restaurants and public facilities had restricted opening hours, and some of them were closed. Even here, I only go out occasionally, and only within walking distance.
Yet now, after two months, the stress that I was feeling from being in Tokyo at the time of the Olympics, and that sense that I was nearing my breaking point, have both eased considerably. One of the things that I found shocking at that time was that after the Olympics had began, the foreign media ran a story saying that Japan had lied in order to host the Olympics, claiming that the Japanese summer weather was ideal for sports. I know that the Japanese government tell lies constantly, and everything they come up with is preposterous, and so I expect that they did state that about the weather, as reported. But these days we have social media. At the point the story came out, lots of people living in Japan were coming out on social media to say that putting on the Olympics at this point was impossible and that they wanted the government to call it off, that the situation was sufficiently bad enough to mean that holding the Olympics would put people’s lives at stake. There were demonstrations held as well, and one of my friends called a press conference with female doctors and the National Press Club in order to convey the situation to the outside world. I found it heartbreaking that those journalists would ignore those voices, and write that Japan had lied, even though I’m sure they didn’t mean it maliciously. As well as those articles, many of the athletes and journalists visiting Japan wrote on social media about how Japan was in no fit state to be hosting the Olympics. Seeing that, I ended up thinking about all the Japanese people who’d been saying the same thing for a long time. I can do my job from home, and so unlike many other people here, I rarely have to leave the house to work, so for this year and a half, I’ve done my best not to complain about the changes to my daily life. And yet this summer, I grew mentally exhausted. Now that the summer is finally over, I feel like I’ll be able to go back to Tokyo.
Since the pandemic began, I sometimes think about something you told me during our conversations in New York. I was bombarding you with all kinds of questions, not just during the event but at other times also, and during that storm of questions one thing I asked you was how you write. I remember that you said that you and a few other writer friends of yours would get together in a café, sit at the same table with headphones on, and write together. I thought at the time how fun that sounded, and felt that I’d like to try the same thing with my author friends, but I hadn’t yet managed to try it out (at that time it was just me and my cat, so things weren’t as they are now with both my apartment and my head a mess, and I could mostly do as I wanted with my time, and yet because I was both writing and translating I was constantly pressed, and so was very much in a cycle of just working alone in my apartment) and then of course, the pandemic hit. As well as a sense of regret that I didn’t try out group writing sooner, I think back with great fondness on that time when I could talk to you in person. It seems from what I’ve read on Twitter that the novel you’re working on is almost complete? I’m really looking forward to reading it. What kind of style are you writing in these days? One day, I’d really like to visit your shop, Book Moon. I hope things with you and your family are all well.
PS: I should say that I’m not very good at writing letters and emails. In work emails I only ever write the absolute minimum necessary, to the point that I’ve been told by my editor that I sound like a robot. When it was decided I’d be doing this letter exchange with you, which would then be published, I thought for a long time about what I could say, and so it’s taken me a very long time just to write this. I hope what I’ve written doesn’t seem rude or strange. Next time I’ll try and write a bit more freely, without overthinking it so much.
この前、SPOTIFYでランダムに音楽を流していたら、テイラー・スウィフトのWelcome To New Yorkが流れてきて、普段ほとんど自分のことでは泣かないのですが、思わず涙が出てしまいました。2015年の5月に、柴田元幸さんが編集するMonkey Businessの刊行ツアーでケリーさんにはじめてニューヨークでお会いした時、それは私にとってのはじめてのニューヨーク滞在でもあって、恥ずかしながら、私は完全におのぼりさん感覚で、空き時間は彼女のその曲を聴きながら街を闊歩していました。ラガーディア空港でエスカレーターに乗っていると、ちょうど目の前に「Welcome to New York it’s been waiting for you — Taylor Swift」とデザインされた看板が貼ってあり、聴け、せっかくだから聴け、と言われているような気分になったところもあります。思わず泣いてしまったのは、その時の、チューリップが元気すぎるほど咲き乱れていた、ケリーさんとお会いすることができた春のニューヨークの思い出が、自分でも驚くほど強く蘇ってきたからです。私はあの時、ケリーさんと一緒にイベントに登壇できて本当に光栄でしたし、同じ時間を過ごすことができて本当に幸せでした、ありがとうございました。
Aoko Matsuda is a writer and translator. In 2013, her debut book, Stackable, was nominated for the Mishima Yukio Prize and the Noma Literary New Face Prize. In 2019, her short story ‘The Woman Dies’, published on GRANTA online, was shortlisted for the Shirley Jackson Award. In 2021, Her short story collection Where the Wild Ladies Are was highly praised by BBC, Gurdian, NYTimes, and NewYorker, and was included on TIME’s list of the 10 Best Fiction Books of 2020. It was nominated for the Ray Bradbury Prize for Science Fiction, Fantasy & Speculative Fiction sponsored by the LA Times, and won the Firecracker Award for the fiction category and the World Fantasy Award for Best Collection in 2021. She has translated work by Karen Russell, Amelia Gray and Carmen Maria Machado into Japanese.
Polly Barton is a translator of Japanese literature and non-fiction, currently based in Bristol, UK. She has translated short stories for Words Without Borders, The White Review, and Granta. Full-length translations include Spring Garden by Shibasaki Tomoka (Pushkin Press, 2017), Where the Wild Ladies Are by Matsuda Aoko (Tilted Axis Press/Soft Skull Press, 2020), and There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job by Tsumura Kikuko (Bloomsbury, 2020). Her non-fiction debut, Fifty Sounds, was out with Fitzcarraldo Editions in April 2021.