Yoko Tawada and the Strange Hopefulness of Disaster

Yoko Tawada is a spectacular writer of both Japanese and German, and has received iconic literary prizes in both places (Akutagawa Prize, Goethe Medal, and more). She writes across genres and geographies in a way that manages to pick playfully from each; for example, in THE NAKED EYE, her protagonist is a young Vietnamese woman who ends up, kidnapped, in cold war-era Europe, obsessed with a film star. In MEMOIRS OF A POLAR BEAR, she explores a fictional family tree based on Knut, the famous baby polar bear in the Berlin zoo.

Her newest book, THE EMISSARY, seems at first to delve completely into the genre of science fiction: after a mysterious disaster, Japan has cut itself off from the outside world and all foreign cultural cues are slowly banned. In an almost Benjamin Button-like mode, children are aging faster than their grandparents and older relatives. Older people seem to have suspended aging, and are the primary breadwinners of households, while children are delicate, prone to injury, and constantly reminded of their own mortality.

However, like her other books, Tawada’s EMISSARY is another angle by which she explores humanity’s relation to that which is around it (animals, plants, atmosphere, but also more ethereal things — time, thought, the soul). She approaches the strangeness of life — and it is strange, to both the reader and Yoshiro, a grandfather who must take care of his grandson Mumei — with the light touch of someone writing realist fiction. The getting up, the dressing, the eating, the taking to school… All these facets of life that we find so familiar are included.

Yoshiro moves between his daily tasks and flashbacks to the relationship with his wife, his son’s life, and his own childhood. As we make our way through the book in such a familiar mode, that’s how we can tell the myriad changes that have occurred in Tawada’s world. Culture is not gone, but is an uncanny afterimage of itself. Foreign words have disappeared: german bread is now “Sanuki Bread,” the “Rent-A-Dog” dog walking store is plastered with a new katakana sign.

Such an eerie landscape provides ample opportunity for Tawada to map speculative connections between people, and even different species. Take, for example, the conversation between Yoshiro and his baker only a few pages in:

“I used to think stretching to limber up was nonsense, but you know, the human race may be evolving in a direction no one ever imagined. I mean, maybe we’re moving toward the octopus… A long time ago people would have thought of that as devolution, but it might just be evolution after all.”

As human generations grow further and further apart, elderly people are unable to know what to expect from youngsters physically or mentally. Even the passage of time itself is disrupted by the slow aging of elderly people and the delicate nature of the youth. So in a strange way, all questions that might seem absurd are instead on the table as legitimate possibilities. How could the descendants of our protagonists possibly interact in a recognizable way?

Tawada’s willingness to speculate, through the eyes of her characters, mimics much of what we’re doing in 2018. In an age of instability and potential disaster, how do we interact openly and empathetically with other countries? And as technology advances in myriad different ways (from facial recognition to mobile virtual reality headsets to artificial intelligence conversation partners), the capacities of human bodies are stretched in directions that could never have been imagined. Does this give us more power? Perhaps. If so, what is our due to the environment around us? What these changes certainly do is ensure that our daily lives will be, and already are, so different from before. And Tawada’s tale makes sure that our line of questioning stays broad, thoughtful, and hopeful.

I’m tempted to refer to THE EMISSARY in so many ways: science fiction, cli fi, anthropocene fiction; all these key words I use day to day as I talk about genre fiction. But Tawada ignores genre characterization with ease. She shies away from the high drama of an obviously nuclear disaster and resulting fallout, or the space opera-ready plot of an alien invasion. Instead, the complexity of this glorious book comes from the steady motion of life in its new mode as characters seek to adapt and find new, joyous ways of living.

The Emissary Cover Image
By Yoko Tawada, Margaret Mitsutani (Translator)
$14.95
ISBN: 9780811227629
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: New Directions Publishing Corporation - April 24th, 2018

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