(c) Hiromi Chikai
Matsuda Aoko｜Kelly Link
Thank you for your reply. Reading your letter, it struck me how lovely a thing it is to have someone share pieces of their daily life with you outside of social media. I guess I’d forgotten about that kind of joy for a long time, which in itself surprises me. I definitely want to read the middle-grade book you’ve written! I love children’s literature. And I was really sorry to hear about Smaug, a name with which I’m very familiar. I’m sending my condolences to you and your family.
It’s now been a year since Where the Wild Ladies Are came out in the States, translated by Polly Barton, and the thing that made me happiest back then was that you read it and wrote a blurb about it. Hearing that you stock it in the bookshop that you and your family run made me so happy—like a candle on a birthday cake that you can’t put out no matter how hard you puff out your cheeks and blow. (Since the start of the pandemic, of course, I haven’t been blowing out any candles on birthday cakes—sending my spit flying everywhere—and have actually seen an expert of some kind saying on social media that even after the pandemic ends, that’s a custom we shouldn’t take up again. Now whenever I see scenes of people blowing out candles in films or TV shows or YouTube videos, they seem from a different kind of reality. In fact, thinking about all the horrifying things that we’d been doing all that time as part of our everyday lives makes me shudder slightly. But if the pandemic really does end, I get the sense that people will once again want to blow out candles on birthday cakes, and cut slices to hand around. As it happens, my three-year-old seems to believe that candle-blowing is part of the very concept of cake, so even when he’s having just a regular slice on a regular day, he blows out the invisible candles.)
My first book first appeared on the shelves of Japanese bookshops back in 2013. Since then, the fact that my books exist in bookshops, and that there are people who pick them up, pay money for them, and take them home into the spaces where they live, continues to bring me comfort. The economic situation has been bad for some time, many people are struggling just to get by and don’t have the means to spend on cultural things, and yet there are still those out there who pay money for my books—even writing here now, that fact feels surprising. The publication of the English edition of Where the Wild Ladies Are, which was released first in the UK, coincided almost exactly with the beginning of the pandemic, and amid all those days of anxiety having no idea what was going to happen, seeing the social media posts of bookshops in Europe and North America showing my Wild Ladies on the shelves, and then reading people’s impressions of the book posted on Instagram along with photos of it that they had taken in various ingenious ways, has been a source of support and a great joy.
After you shared some of your small sources of pleasure over the last couple of years, I thought about what mine have been. Last year, I started learning Korean online. Immediately after the outbreak of the pandemic, there was such a glut of online meetings and events held on Zoom and such, but for some reason the internet connection in the place I was living was unstable, and I never knew when I’d be able to connect, so for a year or so I turned down any online engagements. I tried borrowing a router from someone, but as soon as I brought it into my apartment, that router turned unstable, too. I still don’t know what that was all about, but when I told a friend who grew up in Tokyo where I was living, she commented on how wild the topography of that particular area was, implying that unusual things can happen there. Anyway, for all of these reasons, the online Korean lessons that I started in the second year of the pandemic were also my Zoom debut, and so at first I was thrown not only by the unfamiliarity of the language, but by the unfamiliarity of the technology as well. Thanks to the teacher and the passionate students, though, I’ve really enjoyed the year. When I say “passionate” I really mean it: everyone in the class is totally determined not to miss any lessons, and it’s very rare for anyone to be absent—to the point that a number of people have taken part while on the move in taxis or on the bullet train (we carried on the lessons as the train announcements blared over the loudspeaker in the background), and still others who were feeling poorly after their vaccines have dialed in and asked to just listen. The fact that it’s online means people have been able to attend at times when they would otherwise have had to be absent, and so they could express their passion in new and various ways.
The class is around ten people, with a female teacher and most of the students women aged from their twenties to their sixties, but there was one boy in his last year of primary school. His mother is Korean, and he was taking the class because he wanted to learn to speak the language of her country. I don’t know whether his chair was too low or the camera was badly positioned or what, but his screen rarely showed his whole face, and for the most part we only really saw his forehead. The teacher would say to him, “Please can you move the camera so I can see your mouth and check whether you’re saying things properly?” but before long, the camera would be back to just showing his forehead. So Korean class for me was a place of bullet-train announcements and the boy who was only a forehead, and that was a good place. At the end of the final lesson of the spring term, the teacher told us that a space had opened up in a class with other kids his age, so the boy would be moving to that class from the next term. “He was a bit slower at writing than the rest of you, but he had the best ear in the class, so I want you all to do your best and study hard, so that next time you see him he won’t be miles ahead of you…” Listening to the teacher say these words in her kindly voice, I was suddenly overcome with emotion and felt like I was going to cry, so I quickly turned my face away and tried to hold back the tears. (At the beginning of my last letter I wrote that I don’t often cry about my own stuff, but when I think about it, I often get overcome with emotion when watching films and TV shows or reading books, and I think the truth is that I cry relatively often.) Of course I understood that for a kid, being in a class with people his own age would be more enjoyable than being surrounded by women significantly older than him, but the thought that I wouldn’t be able to see that screen showing only his forehead anymore made me feel really sad. I never thought before that I would experience saying goodbye to people in this way. The autumn term has now begun and I’m taking classes without the forehead boy. I think fondly about the times when he got something wrong and his mother, who was clearly sitting beside him although her face didn’t show up on the screen, would instantly call out sharply, “No!” before even the teacher could get a word in.
My writing life is always the cause of despair to me because of how little I get done, and then at the same time, I’m also strangely unashamed about it, unfazed by the fact—like there’s a part of me that feels it’s fine for it to be that way. Last year, I only wrote a single short story. It was one that I had written for a story collection of mine released that year, and it appeared with others that had been published previously. Actually that same year, a collection of essays and a paperback of one of my books were also released. Thinking back now, I was always working on something, doing the edits for those three books, and writing essays and book reviews, and my son was young, and then in the latter half of the year my mother got a diagnosis that meant she had to have surgery, meaning my life felt in constant disarray, and I was rushing around trying to get things done. Looking back now, the only thing I can think to say to myself is, you did really well. And yet the fact that I only wrote a single short story the whole year makes me despair. Then again, like you said, there are several things that haven’t yet taken shape on paper but which I’ve been thinking about in my head, and for the moment, I feel like I’m going to keep doing what I can from within that state of disarray.
My son will turn three this year, and last autumn I had the feeling that I’d finally recovered from giving birth. I know how crazy this sounds, but from the time that I was pregnant right through to last autumn, I couldn’t wear shoes with laces. I exclusively wore Vans slip-ons. While I was pregnant, my enormous belly made tying up shoelaces too difficult, and when I contemplated the possibility of them coming undone while I was out, the idea of wearing lace-ups vanished as an option. Then after giving birth, going around with a young boy who didn’t understand the meaning of the word “wait” meant that shoelaces were still not an option. And then last autumn, I could suddenly wear shoes with laces again. My son started to understand what “wait” meant, and I feel like somewhere in me something recovered, both mentally and physically. Another indication of that is the fact that I’ve started taking notes gain. By nature I’m something of an obsessive note-taker, and used to scribble things down during the day, but that had vanished together with the shoelaces. Even before this part of me had returned I felt like I was back to normal, and the people around me had said the same, but now even those last missing parts have finally come back.
Reading about you staying in Mexico with writer friends gave me such a vicarious feeling of happiness. I still haven’t been able to work with anybody else. A little while ago, I watched a movie called The Translators, where nine translators working on an international bestseller bunker down in a manor house and translate with their desks side by side. The president of the publishing company who came up with the idea was criticized because it was said to be immoral, but watching that film during the pandemic, seeing all the nice food they’re served and the swimming pool and bowling lanes they get to use, watching them chat as they translate the novel into their respective languages, I thought how much good fun it seemed, and envied them the experience. I feel like I’ve never seen a film that showed writers and translators working alongside one another in such a vibrant way. Of late, I often do my work in a public space in a cultural institute, where there are groups of people taking lessons in English, Korean, and all kinds of other things, most of them elderly. Everyone there is applying themselves to their studies very earnestly, and I love working amid those sounds.
I mostly listen to music while writing, although the selection differs depending on the occasion. What you said about your friend listening to the same song on repeat actually sounded a lot like me. A good while back, I wrote a short story listening only to “YOLO” by The Lonely Island, although I can’t remember now which story it was. I know that the song had nothing to do with the story. Something I find interesting, in fact, is that the music I want to listen to when I’m writing or that I find easy to concentrate to isn’t necessarily the music I like at other times, or music that particularly fits the content of the story. Some time ago, I used to go to my local McDonald’s to write. During the several hours I was there the shop’s playlist would loop several times, and I felt very familiar with all the songs on it even if I wasn’t listening to them, but there was one song that, whenever it came on, I’d feel something stirring in me—it felt like it really fitted with where I was at that time. I used the Shazam app to search for it, and discovered that it was the Christine and the Queens’ song “Tilted.” From that point on, when I went home I’d listen to it on repeat, which made it really easy to concentrate. I find The Naked and Famous and Passion Pit easy to work to, also. I’m going to try listening to your writing music as well!
Of late, music hasn’t been enough for me, and I have Friends or Gilmore Girls playing while I work. I’ve watched all the episodes several times before so there’s no need to concentrate on them, and I find it oddly calming to work while listening to the sounds of people I know well having animated conversations. Come to think about it, when whatever I’m working on has got past a certain point and is nearing the finish line, I enter a new phase. My body and my mind both suddenly require different sounds to the ones I’ve been consuming up until then, and I have to oblige. A few years ago, when I was going through the galleys of my translation of Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove and was in a state of emergency because I only had a few days left until it went to print and couldn’t afford to waste a second, I suddenly felt I just had to listen to J-Pop from the 2000s, and so ended up hurriedly downloading some. Those were songs that I hadn’t listened to in over a decade. I still don’t really know what that impulse is that takes hold of me. This year, I have to really make an effort with my translation. I’m so slow, and quite honestly I’m not sure if I’ll manage to get it done while bringing up a small child, but I’m going to have to give it a go. As a kind of training exercise, I’ve been rereading or reading for the first time the Japanese translations of Tanith Lee and Ursula K. Le Guin by female translators, because I feel like that’s a good way into the mindset. It’s a bit like searching out a channel inside myself. The feeling you described of a novel seeming smaller in a way than a short-story collection is something I’ve felt myself, and it surprised me to read you writing that, but if I start writing about that then this letter will truly be endless, so I’ll leave that subject for next time.
The relationship between your mother and your daughter sounds so wonderful. My son is still very young, but he and my mother have developed their own games that they often play, just the two of them. In my last letter I wrote that I was about to return to Tokyo. I did go back for about a month and tidied up some work issues, and now I’m back at my mother’s house as originally planned. Last year, she was diagnosed with stage one uterine cancer, and had surgery for it, and in the process of those tests they found what the doctor called “extremely early stage” kidney cancer, which is what the surgery is for this time. She’s in her seventies, and so the fact that the cancer was found when while still in stage one is, if anything, a piece of luck. My mother made it through her surgery today with no issues, and is now recovering in hospital. She says that when she gets home she wants to make pizza with my son. As I’m writing this, sitting on the floor with my knees propped up, my son is lying beneath my legs playing with his trains. Today it snowed, which is rare here. Despite being someone who feels the cold acutely, I really do love winter. I hope you and your family are keeping warm and having a wonderful winter, too.
ポリー・バートンさんが翻訳してくださった『おばちゃんたちのいるところ Where the Wild Ladies Are』の英訳版がアメリカで刊行されてから、もう1年が経ちました。刊行時、本当にうれしいことだったのは、ケリーさんがこの本を読んでくださったこと、推薦の言葉を寄せてくださったことでした。そして、その後も、あなたとご家族の本屋さんで私の本を売ってくださっていることが、誕生日のケーキの上にさした、どれだけ頬を膨らませて吹いても決して消えないろうそくの火のような喜びを、私に与えてくれています（コロナ禍になって、誕生日ケーキのろうそくの火を吹き消す、別名唾液を飛ばす行為はもちろんやってはいけないことになり、この行為はたとえコロナ禍が収束したとしても続けるべきではないと、誰か専門家らしき人が書いているのをSNSで見たことがあります。それ以来、映画やドラマ、または動画サイトなどで誕生日ケーキのろうそくを吹き消す映像を見ると、とても非現実的な思いにとらわれてしまうのですが、こうなってみると、我々が日常的にどれだけ恐ろしいことをやってきたのかにも気づかされ、ちょっと慄(おのの)いてしまいます。でも、もし本当にコロナ禍に終わりがやって来たら、やっぱり人類は誕生日ケーキのろうそくを吹き消し、そのケーキを分け合うような気がします。ちなみに今年３歳になる子どもは、ケーキはろうそくを吹き消すもの、と思っているようで、何のお祝いでもない日にショートケーキなどホールではないケーキを食べていても、見えないろうそくを吹き消しています）。
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.