I came across Mieko Kawakami’s work when a Japanese fan of my short story collection Sabrina & Corina (just published in Japanese last month) posted our books together on Instagram.
Mieko’s novel, Breasts & Eggs, is set in Tokyo and follows the lives of working-class women from Osaka, exploring themes including the female body, violence against women, the writer’s life, and motherhood. Originally published in Japan as a novella in 2008, the book was expanded into a new novel, translated into English, and published by Europa Editions in April. I couldn’t put it down.
I posted the book on my Instagram with the caption, “Breasts & Eggs by @kawakami_mieko is making me feel very seen. It is such a pleasure to read this book. Last night I texted my sisters to buy a copy immediately.” Mieko then appeared in my DMs with a fire emoji, and, well, the rest is Instagram history. Working with translators David Boyd and Sam Bett, we asked one another questions over email, with her in Japan and me at home in Colorado.
Kali Fajardo-Anstine: I’m curious about your path as a writer. You were a successful blogger and before that you had a career as a singer-songwriter. Now largely considered one of Japan’s greatest living authors, you write in many genres and forms, from short stories to poetry to novels. Can you reflect on your journey as a writer and how your thematic interests have shifted or remained consistent over time?
Mieko Kawakami: I was brought up by a single mother, and from the time I was a kid I’ve had countless different jobs. Since coming to Tokyo, I’ve done a lot of things that fall under the category of creative work, whether it be singing or blogging, but I don’t actually feel like I have more than one approach to creativity. The themes, “What is the world, really?” and “What does it mean for us to live and die?” are at the heart of my work, the source of everything I do. Now that I’ve given birth and grown a little older, the problems I face have continually changed, but it feels more accurate to say I’m viewing the same questions from new angles, if you see what I mean.
By the way—people sometimes say I was a popular blogger, but that’s not true! People only took me seriously after I won the Akutagawa Prize, Japan’s best-known literary prize for newcomers. Up until then, I’d been giving music everything I had, but couldn’t sell more than a few hundred CDs. Seeing my music sales explode after I won the Akutagawa, all I could think was “So that’s the difference between selling and not selling, huh?” When you’re writing for someone other than yourself, it’s impossible to be totally disinterested in how people evaluate your work, but in my view, the most important thing about being a writer is how you approach the burning need to write about the things that matter most to you, and how you challenge yourself to give them shape.
KFA: “Are You Poor?” I read those words and was hooked from the very first chapter of Breasts & Eggs. Your voice is intimate, musical, at times wry and powerfully observant to the inner lives of women and girls. Stylistically, your narrative structure is complex yet subtly woven throughout highly readable prose. I immediately wondered about your influences—literary, musical, artistic. Who and what inspires your work?
MK: I was born and raised in Osaka, a place with a culture entirely its own. Whether counting numbers or reading sutras, it has a melody you won’t find anywhere else. It’s almost like a really happy drunk putting on a show. There’s something comical about it. (You’ll have to let me show you if we have a chance to meet!) In Osaka, for your entire life, from childhood straight through adulthood, everyday relationships depend on talking in a way that keeps things interesting. You have to make sure nobody gets bored, that you really draw them in. This was the second time I used Osaka dialect in a novel, and I think the presence of Osaka culture and the rhythm of its language do a lot. It creates this space where it’s okay to laugh, even when the situation is tragic—I mean really sad or painful. There’s this toughness to life in Osaka, a “bring it on” mentality. To get through the hard times, you gotta laugh your way through the tears.
A major inspiration on my writing has been Ichiyo Higuchi. She was the first woman in Japan to really make a living as a writer. I should add that people in Japan read a lot of literature in translation, too. I’ve been influenced by writers from all kinds of different countries, especially the various ways they handle theme. Dostoevsky is all about polyphony; with Woolf, it’s the distance she creates between message and fiction. From the work of Haruki Murakami, I learned how a person’s approach to writing can change and develop when they continue writing over a long period of time. Outside of literary fiction, I’d say I’m most inspired by the world of philosophy.
KFA: That’s fascinating! I can definitely feel the breadth of influence in your writing. And I would love to see Osaka with you. Interestingly, I relate to a lot of this growing up in Denver.
MK: With Sabrina & Corina, from the first lines of the opening story, I knew your work was going to be special to me. The stories in your book share a masterful use of distance, from both characters and events. It took my breath away. Especially the title story, “Sabrina & Corina.” I can see a story that starts off with a cousin’s death being successful with a more passionate or emotional approach, but yours is straightforward and dispassionate. This amplifies the sadness and the heartache. The strength of the tale stays with the reader. Is creating this sort of distance something you consciously cultivate on a story level? Or is this a stance that comes naturally to you when you write, something intuitive? If so, what influences that approach? Or is it more like it’s a part of who you are?
KFA: I’ve often heard Corina described as numb, seemingly cold for a young woman who has just been asked to do makeup for her dead cousin’s body. But I never felt that she would approach her task in any other way. I come from a long line of Colorado women, many of whom have endured great violence. Whenever these acts were repeated to me as stories, the elders in my family delivered these tales in a restrained, methodic tone. This is what happened, and someone died. I think for a lot of my characters, their emotions live under the surface between the cracks of what isn’t said. Their closed exterior is a form of self-protection, something that is both part of who I am and also hardwired into my family’s storytelling traditions.
I remember once in kindergarten, a little boy accidentally slammed a large plastic block into my face. No one else saw, and I calmly asked our teacher for a bathroom pass, where I went into the stall and cried. I was afraid that by showing pain I was vulnerable to more of it. I think many of my characters are deeply wounded and their ability to retell the story, to define it in their own terms, is an act toward healing.
This brings me to your work, and the kinds of women characters you write about in Breasts & Eggs. In the novel, I found a reality more like my own than I thought possible. Your characters work in bars, live in rent-controlled apartments, have absentee fathers, drink too much, hurt each other, and support one another all the same. They are also deeply connected to Osaka, the place where they come from. What is the significance of putting these characters front and center in literature?
MK: Talking to readers and writers from around the world, I can’t help but recognise a gap between their mental image of Japan and what it’s been like for me, in my own life, living there. In their minds, everyone in Japan is equally well-off, equally happy. And most of the characters you see in Japanese fiction tend to be these “harmless, eccentric little friends,” but it’s not like that at all.
I wanted to write in an unapologetic form of realism this time around, examining how people really live, how they get by. The goal wasn’t to get people to understand the “real Japan” or “real Japanese people.” I mean I wanted to tell the story of a living, breathing Japanese woman. It’s perfectly valid for literature to explore humanity in terms of statistics, or in terms of social customs, or in terms of animality, but I was more interested in writing about someone who can’t be satisfyingly explained through stereotypes or customs. I wanted to focus on an individual experience, an exception to the rule.
KFA: I love the “unapologetic realism” of your work. Your characters have introduced me to lives of women I feel kinship with, though up until reading Breasts & Eggs, I didn’t know they existed. Like finding a long-lost cousin.
MK: I wanted to ask you, how have Chicana readers, or the readers most connected with your writing, responded to your work? Do you find a difference between their responses and those of, say, liberal-minded Anglo-Saxon readers? In Japan, people who aren’t ethnically Japanese face much discrimination and deep-seated hatred, and it’s only been intensifying. But as a country that has no continental borders, where most people speak the same language, Japan tends to minimise all of its social problems as if they were “private matters.” In other words, Japanese society forfeits the opportunity to learn from “other” cultures by pretending they don’t exist. The society that you grew up in, the society you live in, seems much more directly exposed to this brutality. Without exaggeration, this is evident in every line you write.
“I was more interested in writing about someone who can’t be satisfyingly explained through stereotypes or customs. I wanted to focus on an individual experience, an exception to the rule.”—Mieko Kawakami
KFA: Since the publication of Sabrina & Corina, I have had the pleasure to meet Chicanas and mixed women from Toronto to L.A. who feel as though their reality is represented in my stories. They tell me beautiful things: “I’ve never seen my family name in a story before,” or, “Your work encouraged me to ask my grandma about her life.” Some readers from more privileged backgrounds, I’ve noticed, can find my stories unrelentingly sad, while readers from communities that have experienced historic trauma often find my stories hopeful, for they bear witness to our common experiences. There’s power in documentation, even if hard to look at.
There’s actually a story in Breasts & Eggs that made me think of this. The character Makiko, Natsuko’s sister, references an underage girl named Nozomi, who is brutalized in a hotel room. The reader must look at Nozomi’s injuries, at the violence which has been enacted upon her body by a man. Your work refuses to turn away from the realities of violence. Can you talk about your decision to show abuses against women and girls?
MK: When I decided to write the life of a woman, I guess it was really obvious to me that this was going to be a part of it. This is the reality I’ve seen throughout my own life, the streets I know, places where poverty and violence are commonplace.
Now that I’m in the publishing world, most of the people around me belong to the intellectual class, an educated elite, who had cultural and economic capital behind them from the time that they were born. On the one hand, they probably never experienced violence in its most obvious form, but on the other hand, they weren’t able to live life for themselves. Their parents ruled their lives. So there are all kinds of violence. When it’s internalised, you may not even know the violence is there. Most women in Japan experience this kind of discrimination. When women are assaulted, they’re unable to speak up, out of fear of being punished further, because of the conservative stance of society, but the reality is virtually every woman who has grown up in Japan has been sexually victimised at some point in her life.
“Many of my characters are deeply wounded and their ability to retell the story, to define it in their own terms, is an act toward healing.”—Kali Fajardo-Anstine
KFA: That really stays with me, the fact that virtually every woman in Japan has been sexually victimized, because I think unfortunately that’s probably true where I’m from, too.
MK: Speaking of where you’re from, I’m so impressed by your activity on social media. I feel like I can see Denver and the energy of a woman living life on her own terms. I started using Instagram a few years ago to promote my work, and started on Twitter a couple of months ago for the same reasons, but in that time I’ve learned so many things by listening to different people from different walks of life. Social media gives us an opportunity to listen to the voices of all sorts of people that we might not otherwise hear from: social workers, healthcare professionals, young women addicted to plastic surgery, single fathers, and so on. Kali, what do you think is good or not so good about being a writer on social media?
KFA: Thank you! Through Instagram, I’ve met new friends, connected with readers and educators, worked with community organisers and activists. I’ve seen my book’s readership grow thanks to word-of-mouth on the site. Just as there are physical meeting spaces, digital spaces also serve as community gathering sites. Social media offers this and more, but the downfall is sometimes you need to get offline and write!
Speaking of social media, I love your Instagram selfies and your sense of fashion. Do you find your taste in fashion correlates to your writing style?
MK: Thank you! I love clothes. There’s so much drama and history there, a record of our self-consciousness as human beings. They’re a mirror of society. I actually write a good deal about fashion, in a regular column.
I hadn’t thought about how fashion might relate to my writing style. I know that I feel noticeably different when I put on a particular accessory. Weird, right? Most days I’ll be at home with my son, so I dress pretty casually. What you see on Instagram is what I choose to keep—my best shots!
KFA: I didn’t know you had a fashion column! I will have to read it immediately.
MK: Sorry for all the long questions. One final thing. Kali, thank you so much for your wonderful work. I hear you’re finishing a novel. I can’t wait to read it. Also, please come to Japan. When I go to America, I hope we can meet and talk about literature. This summer, I’m sure that many readers in Japan will find your work and be blown away by the experience, which is sure to be unlike anything they’ve ever known. Thank you so much!!!
KFA: Thank you, Mieko! I’m grateful for your work and thanks for the awesome conversation. I hope you’ll get to see where I’m from in Colorado someday, and I dream of the day I can visit Japan! You have quickly become one of my favorite writers. I want to share your work with everyone I know!