Miho Nonaka is a bilingual poet from Tokyo whose first collection of poems, Garasu no tsuki, was published in Japanese in 1998. She went on to earn graduate degrees from Harvard, Columbia, and the University of Houston. She is the author of the English-language collection The Museum of Small Bones (Ashland Poetry Press, 2020) and the Japanese translator of Louise Glück’s The Wild Iris (Kadokawa, 2021). Ever attentive to matters of both cultural and linguistic translation, she has published poems and essays in journals including The Christian Century, Adroit Journal, Iowa Review, Kenyon Review, Missouri Review, and Southern Review. She is an associate professor of English at Wheaton College, where she teaches creative writing and literature. She spoke with Nathan Suhr-Sytsma by video call and email about her literary education, her poems’ unexpected points of departure, the dilemmas posed by translation, their mutual admiration for the anime director Miyazaki Hayao, and Japanese writers who should be better known in North America.
Image: How did you come to poetry? Was there a single epiphany or a series of formative moments? And how did you come to practice your craft in the US as well as in Japan?
Miho Nonaka: I started writing poems when I was around seven—in free verse. In Japan, at least at the time, haiku was something you would read in a textbook, or a hobby reserved for the wizened and elderly, like shaping ineffable bonsai. So I was horrified when I came to the States and saw that kids were writing haiku! Anyway, free verse was the most natural choice for me. Other girls my age were drawing princesses with stars in their eyes. I tried that too, but I wasn’t good at it, and I wanted to do something different, something I could call my own.
My parents were very strict, and they wouldn’t let me have the manga and magazines my classmates were reading, so I convinced them to buy me a monthly literary journal meant for adults. Its emphasis was poetry and art. I started submitting my work there, and my first publication was an ekphrastic poem I wrote when I was thirteen. The journal also published poems in translation. That’s where I first read French symbolist poetry. I discovered Wordsworth, Emily Dickinson, and Langston Hughes. I read an excerpt of a poem by Sylvia Plath, “Death & Co.”:
I do not stir.
The frost makes a flower,
The dew makes a star,
The dead bell,
The dead bell.
Somebody’s done for.
Reading these stanzas in Japanese gave me chills. Many of the phrases were translated in five or seven syllables; for instance, “the dead bell” (tomurai no kane) has seven. To me, that sounds poetic, with a sense of finality, because I have a Japanese ear. In addition to the poem’s music, I was drawn to its imagery, someone’s despair reaching the point of crystallization.
My life changed when I was seventeen: my parents made me transfer from an all-girls Japanese high school to an American school. My father, as a young boy, miraculously survived strafing by a Grumman F6F Hellcat during the Pacific War, and he swore revenge when he saw the US soldier laughing and firing simultaneously. But he was good at English, and much later he studied at UC Berkeley and loved his experience there, and it became foundational to his person and scholarship. So he believed that the ability to speak and write in English would equip his daughter to eventually do something useful for Japan. What he didn’t understand was that it wasn’t a school for someone like me, with minimal knowledge of English. It was a school for diplomats’ kids, American kids whose parents had business in Japan, and Japanese kids with celebrity parents who had been educated in international schools all their lives.
I was perfectly miserable there, but I liked their library. Mrs. Dawson, the librarian, had studied at Smith College at the same time as Plath, and she would describe Plath’s charismatic presence to me so vividly that I could picture her pale and tall figure walking down the corridor with an entourage of young women. I found Plath’s poetry raw, surreal, and deeply confusing. I pretended to like it, but I think I was more in love with the idea of being in love with her poetry. And I kept writing poems in Japanese. I knew my parents were paying a hefty sum to send their daughter to a school like this, and I felt it was my duty to master English. I was doing my best to internalize this new language, but it was not easy. I wrote Japanese poems to stay sane. Each poem was like a talisman against the world that was trying to swallow me.
Since the American school was not recognized as an official high school in Japan, I couldn’t apply to a Japanese university as I had hoped. I ended up going to Wellesley College, where I would study poetry with Frank Bidart. Before that, by fluke, I attended a summer poetry seminar at the Poets’ House in Portmuck, Northern Ireland, and met Irish poets like James Simmons and Medbh McGuckian. I showed them my earliest attempts at versing in English. Some were directly translated from Japanese into English, and they were clunky. The people at the Poets’ House showered me with love and praise, which I didn’t deserve, but it was all so necessary in the sense that I was emboldened to start writing English poems in earnest. That’s the beginning.
Image: I wonder if you could go into more detail about how your poetry in English is informed by your knowledge of Japanese poetics. Could you say more about how your process works in each language, or how you feel both languages coexist in you?
MN: Years ago, when I was still a graduate student, the Slovenian poet Tomaž Šalamun visited my program and told me that Czesław Miłosz had told him you cannot write poetry in your second language. And Tomaž took his advice. What’s more, the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, who was one of my most important mentors, told me he could write essays in English, but he could write poems only in Polish. So I feel sufficiently surrounded by a cloud of witnesses who are great poets and who believe poetry must be written in one’s mother tongue. That’s daunting.
But I live in the States now, and I dream in some mixture of Japanese and English. Sometimes a poem starts for me when a phrase or a certain rhythm gets stuck in my head. Then I start dreaming of a voice that speaks it. If the voice is in Japanese, then I must translate it—that is to say, I dream of what it would sound like in English. Translation for me is similar to a dreaming process. What words would be most appropriate, or what kind of syntax would make the voice flow most naturally? My mother doesn’t speak English, but if she could, what would she sound like? At times I use a Japanese expression that is a cliché, but once translated into English it’s no longer a cliché, which is very convenient!
My sensibility is very much informed by Japanese aesthetics, so the motifs of classical Japanese poetry are important to me. Cherry blossoms are so prevalent in Japanese culture; in haiku or tanka, when they say flower, they mean cherry blossoms. They are one of the stereotypical symbols of Japan. I find myself wanting to write poems about cherry blossoms in English, not to engage in a kind of false exoticism, but because I like the challenge of finding new possibilities for this classic motif. In “Anecdote of the Jar,” Wallace Stevens places a jar in Tennessee, and strange wildness starts to surround it. What happens when I place a blossoming cherry tree outside a McDonald’s in Tokyo or a small church in Chicago? My poem “Easter Cherries” starts with the contextual juxtaposition of a cherry tree in Chicago. It explores the tension between Japanese appreciation of cherry blossoms, which are considered beautiful precisely because they are transient, and our longing for permanence—to be one with God in eternity—as Christians.
Image: Your poem “Distance” includes these lines in memory of Roger Lundin: “We ache to feel exactly / what our fragile faith tells us we can’t // but must.” Could you reflect on how you’ve found poetry connecting with faith, fragile or otherwise?
MN: I often hear Christian writers say that when we write creatively, we are imitating God, because he is the ultimate creator. That sounds wonderful to me, but in practice I don’t really feel I am imitating God through my extremely slow and faulty writing process. What is important to me as a Christian writer is the doctrine of the incarnation. God became flesh in the person of Jesus, and he doesn’t call us to live just in our heads but to be embodied beings. He took on humanity, and that’s where we find Jesus—in the very depths of our own humanity.
Embodiment is difficult. I am a foreigner in this country, and there are times I feel more or less like a ghost. In college, shortly after I declared my major, which was English, my Shakespeare professor advised me to return to my country and study haiku instead of English poetry. I was so shocked that I didn’t know what to do but jump up, thank him, and leave. My mother—a very generous supporter of my study—sent me a Japanese translation of every single play I was to study in that class. I would stay up late, comparing the Japanese translation with the original. I got little sleep and paid little attention to my health, my body. But no matter how hard I studied, it was as if I couldn’t earn the right to exist in that class. The professor’s eyes would look right past me. By the end of that semester, I was at least ten pounds lighter.
I hope this kind of thing doesn’t happen anymore, but it’s an example of how easy it is to lose yourself in other people’s perceptions of you, other people’s feelings about you. It almost takes a supernatural power to insist on existing, belonging, and mattering as an embodied presence when you are an outsider. Of course you don’t have to come from a different country to experience this. It’s just very difficult to insist on your presence as an embodied being. When I look back, I realize many of my earlier poems were about the problem of embodiment or the desire for disembodiment. Even then, the actual writing process was part of my attempt at existing and not succumbing to fear; that’s what I think Christ calls us to do. He came to the world as flesh in all its fearful concreteness and specificity, even as the world hated him.
Christian Wiman has a sobering thing to say about the danger of poetry as a narcissistic endeavor instead of “pure” ambition. If you write for yourself in order to stamp your existence on another existence, it’s corrupt and impure. I do sometimes worry I’m falling into that trap. But I also worry that our idea of purity itself is faulty. Whatever we do, in the end, cannot be completely pure in God’s sight, but that shouldn’t keep us from trying. We were called into existence, and we are called to survive. Poetry, for me, was a means of survival.
Image: In the opening poem of The Museum of Small Bones, a prose poem called “Rupture,” the persona cooks marbles on a stove. I noticed that the word “rapture” appears in some of the subsequent poems. How do you think about that relationship between “rupture” and “rapture,” or between difficulty and joy?
MN: I’m grateful that you saw a connection. The poem is about cooking glass marbles in a pan. When they get very hot, you place them in ice water, and the shock will create a silvery web inside, at the core of each marble. That’s something I used to do in middle school; my mother would get really mad at me. The idea of containment is important to my work. Those splinters at the core were contained, and to me that was beautiful. For the longest time I wanted to establish a perfectly self-contained, self-sufficient mode of being as an outsider. But of course life brings you moments in which your self becomes destabilized and shattered. My teacher Lucie Brock-Broido once told me—she was quoting Jorie Graham—“contained damage makes for beauty.” For me, the marble with its splintered center became a symbol for this. Now I realize that what is latent in that symbol is also a desire for the kind of rupture that is not containable, which results in the loss of the self, that is both rupture and rapture, as in bliss.
I recently reread a poem by Osip Mandelstam, translated by Christian Wiman, that captures a similar sensation. It’s titled “And I Was Alive.” According to Wiman, when Mandelstam composed it, he was aware that he was soon going to be sent to Siberia; he understood his fate perfectly. Still, bliss takes him over in the midst of “the blizzard of the blossoming pear,” and there’s this one line, “Blossoms rupture and rapture the air.” Wiman says, in My Bright Abyss, “abundance and destitution are two facets of the one face of God, and to be spiritually alive in the fullest sense is to recall one when we are standing squarely in the midst of the other.” This sounds like a nearly impossible goal. Nevertheless, I believe part of us longs for such a miraculous moment, when rupture and rapture become one and all of our self-protective measures are gone.
Image: Another poem in The Museum of Small Bones, “Floating,” bears an epigraph from André Breton, and it’s not the only reference to Breton’s Nadja in the collection. What has Breton—or surrealism, with which he’s often associated—meant to your self-conception as a writer?
MN: When I was at Harvard, I was deeply drawn to Takiguchi Shūzō, a Japanese surrealist, but my professor, who was obsessed with Japanese court ladies and Heian love poems, couldn’t stand him, or any modern Japanese poet for that matter. To me, Takiguchi’s work was a refreshing break from the courtly love poems the professor fetishized. I met Akiko, who shows up in “Floating,” at the Takiguchi Shūzō Archives in Tokyo. She was a student of Iwaya Kunio, a close friend of Takiguchi and Japan’s most renowned scholar of surrealism. Akiko and I ended up becoming best friends, and she would take me to different parts of Tokyo. Being with her always came with a sense of adventure, as if the city was a magnetic field teeming with inevitable encounters with art, landscapes, and people. Reading Japanese surrealist poetry and talking about André Breton with Akiko, and our subsequent explorations in the city, made me taste both rupture and rapture. The idea of who I thought I was became shattered in a positive way. I felt no more obligation to whatever type of Japanese poetry that was prized at Harvard. And I was blissful.
Image: A recollection of exploring Tokyo with a friend also gives rise to the title poem, “The Museum of Small Bones.” The speaker recalls, “I was still translating // from English in my head.” A few stanzas later, the speaker states, “I dreamed of a power // to make small, imperceptible things / perceptible, like the pattern of bones of a bat / in flight.” Is there a connection, for you, between translation and the value of small things? I suppose I’m asking in what ways this poem may be an ars poetica or statement of your own poetics.
MN: It’s a type of ars poetica. When I first started writing poems in English, there was a little fear—How dare I?—but mostly I was excited. I could dream of writing in such a way as to make imperceptible things perceptible, tracing the contours of things that were once invisible—because I was naïve and unaware of rules and limitations. I now feel embarrassed by my own naïveté, but another part of me wants to insist on that dream. I believe that a writer in any language must dream such dreams at some point, dream of new rhythm, sound, and syntax. Often new syntax is born as a result of translation, because translation forces you to put strange words in a strange order. In fact, that is what made twentieth-century Japanese modernist poetry possible.
I am drawn to small things. I wrote the poem after seeing an exhibit of the skeletons of small animals like bats, moles, and baby lizards. I was surprised that the place was packed, that people in Tokyo would take time to appreciate things that are small, fragile, and seemingly trivial. It was a hopeful sign. And you could tell much care had gone into every display. There was a sense of dignity to the architecture of each animal’s bones. When you see something like that, you can’t help but reflect on God’s creativity as an artist. And for me, smallness matters, because it makes God’s intentionality and investment in each creation appear that much more acute.
Image: The mattering of small things is certainly apparent in the prose-poetry sequence at the heart of the collection, “The Production of Silk.” The sequence views silkworms from numerous angles, including references in Japanese literature stretching from the eighth-century Man’yōshū (Collection of ten thousand leaves), with its images of cocoons, through the twentieth-century Nobel laureate Kawabata Yasunari’s Snow Country, in which the character Komako is compared to a silkworm. How do you imagine your affiliation with these texts that have come before you? Is there something about prose poetry, as a form, that you find enabling?
MN: Years ago, I attended a summer program in Prague, and two famous American poets came to the poetry workshop as guests, and they criticized “The Production of Silk.” Actually, criticized isn’t the right word; they refused to engage with it. One of them said, “This isn’t a poem. I don’t believe a word of it.” In particular, he couldn’t stand the image of the speaker’s unborn sister inside a silk cocoon. I would’ve welcomed any real criticism, but their flat refusal left all of us speechless. If it wasn’t a poem, shouldn’t they at least have said a thing or two about what I or anyone in the workshop could learn from this, given that they were paid to be guest teachers? My friend said, “Never mind, these poets are like cowboys. They show up and they shoot you up.”
I had admired their work, and I was genuinely shocked that they could write poems with beautiful tenderness and generosity about grandparents from eastern Europe or voiceless blue-collar workers in an American industrial town, but they had no sympathy for anything outside their big, “worthy” subjects, such as what lives inside a small cocoon. Later, in my parents’ house in Japan, I happened on a tanka by Kakinomoto no Hitomaro from Japan’s oldest poetry anthology, which compares his beloved to a silkworm locked inside a cocoon. It felt as if the poem was calling to me, to remind me that this image wasn’t random; whether or not it was made believable to certain American poets through translation, I must know that the image of a silk cocoon as a longed-for, lyrical interior goes back to the dawn of Japanese poetics. Consciously or unconsciously, in Snow Country, Kawabata Yasunari uses the same image to describe the precarious white space where Shimamura’s lover lives.
I love prose poetry. Baudelaire, Russell Edson, James Tate. I regularly teach Carolyn Forché’s “The Colonel,” and I keep rereading and reflecting on that mysterious prose poem by Brigit Pegeen Kelly, “Closing Time; Iskandariya.” In Kelly’s poem, the speaker requests a fish but God gives her an ugly scorpion. She can’t eat it or take it on a walk like a dog, but soon she realizes that this shy creature actually means no harm; it stings only when it’s driven into a corner. She describes it as “a thing like me, but not the thing I asked for, a thing, by accident or design, I am now attached to.” She admires how the membranes of its lungs are like the unfolded pages of manuscripts and calls it “a little mirror of the library at Alexandria, which burned.” I am drawn to the poem’s wild and rebellious energy. Jesus assures us of the goodness of our heavenly Father, but what if God mishears or even twists our requests on purpose? Based on this premise, in feigned innocence, the poem spins a tale that feels apocryphal and somehow deeply personal. As you know, I am partial to small things, and I am mesmerized by how this small scorpion ends up embodying the legendary library in Alexandria, with all its historical and tragic grandeur, in long, breathless sentences.
But the first time I understood the way poetry and prose coexist goes back to my middle-school days, when I discovered Murakami Haruki’s fiction. My cousin is one of his editors, and when I met him, very naïvely, I tried to communicate the excitement I had felt about his early fiction. The thing is, his style was born of multiple translation processes. Murakami wrote his first novel in Japanese. Dissatisfied with the result, he tried to translate it into English using his typewriter. Because of his limited vocabulary, it came out simpler, sparer. Its essence had to be more condensed. Then he re-translated the English version into Japanese. There is this distilled, unmistakably lyrical quality to his early fiction that is absent from his later works and doesn’t translate into English (I think his translator, Jay Rubin, said something similar). I was struck by Murakami’s poetry in his prose, which was born of translation but also of his linguistic limitation, a pressurized place where one’s usual eloquence is stifled. I lived with that voice during my teenage years, and the mode of poetic prose comes naturally to me either in Japanese or in English.
Image: Although in free verse rather than prose, it seems to me that the poems in Louise Glück’s The Wild Iris (1992) have a similarly spare quality that contributes to their power. What did you find most challenging about translating Glück’s collection into Japanese?
MN: Many poems in The Wild Iris are spare and sonnet-like. That’s what I noticed most. Each poem has a distinct turn of thought or argument near the end. They are tightly wound and sharply rhetorical. It seems like Glück wanted to avoid having her poems labeled as sonnets, though; only a few poems have exactly fourteen lines. I struggled to make the turn in each poem a genuine surprise for the reader while not totally out of the place. Since English and Japanese are vastly different languages, I couldn’t use the line breaks of the original poems; I had to invent them. For me, if a poem is a dance, line breaks are a kind of choreography. A line break teaches the reader where to take a breath, where the potential leap is, where the important information is suspended, et cetera. I broke and rebroke the lines until the very last minute, to my editor’s chagrin; it became a consuming obsession.
My first real poetry mentor, Frank Bidart, said that Glück’s poetry is concerned with the state of the soul in the world, and I felt the weight of that statement acutely throughout my translation process. While the soul yearns for metaphysical reality, it’s dependent on the stuff of the physical world, if not made of it. And this world is not unbeautiful; it is sublimely beautiful, with the caveat that it exists in chronological time; it’s mortal. In Glück’s poems, flowers and the poet-gardener, who are both spirit and body, cry out to God, who is only spirit. So in a way what drives her book is the tension between body and soul, the concrete and the abstract. I found it relatively easy to translate the concrete stuff into Japanese, but I struggled with the abstract words like metaphysically. It’s not that there aren’t Japanese words for these things—there certainly are—it’s just that they sound foreign and academic. Metaphysics is one of the words that didn’t exist in Japanese; they had to come up with a combination of Chinese words to translate the Western concept in the nineteenth century. You could say that the mind-body problem itself is foreign to the Japanese philosophical tradition. And of course some of the biblical words and motifs are foreign, so my editor and I had to come up with the least obtrusive way to include footnotes.
But the most challenging part was working with God’s voice. I enjoyed translating the poems in flowers’ voices, like “Trillium,” “The Red Poppy,” and “The White Rose.” I also liked the repeated “Matins” and “Vespers” poems, prayers that exhibit varying degrees of distance, defiance, desperation, and urgency. They felt familiar to me; I have prayed less articulate versions of such prayers myself. But I had never spoken as the only uncreated, immortal entity before, and the God in Glück’s book sounds at times like a frustrated, gnostic author, a hater of matter, who calls his creation “a draft to be thrown away,” a mere “exercise.” I am not criticizing; surely the more unreasonable God is, the greater the drama becomes. And he is a lot more complex than how I just described him. Nevertheless, it was not fun to translate the poems where he is the speaker. In those poems, he addresses his creation as “you,” and in English it sounds neutral, but in Japanese there are multiple forms of you. And I had to choose the you that suggests someone who is obviously inferior to the I. The power dynamics between the creator and creation become more emphasized. God ends up sounding bossier than in the original.
Image: Has that experience left any traces on your thinking or writing practice that you can discern?
MN: After translating Glück’s book, my nerves were shot. I wanted to take a nice long break from poetry. But several Japanese journals solicited my work, and even though I hadn’t written poems in Japanese for more than a decade, I forced myself to do it. To jump-start the process, I gave myself a concrete motif to focus on. I wrote about monarch butterflies. I wrote another poem on wild mushrooms. Of course these poems weren’t really about butterflies or mushrooms. They all pointed to the tension of being pulled between two worlds, two linguistic systems, something I had experienced acutely while translating Glück. With my writing in English, I noticed that I became a harsher critic of myself. I was less tolerant of extra fat on the body of a poem I was drafting. Many lines in The Wild Iris felt like clear and essential bones, and I wanted to emulate that. Glück herself would likely be wary of the desire to sound inevitable, like each word is a bug caught in amber. Having translated her poems, I find myself wanting to eradicate what seems like extra stuff, and I have to work consciously against that urge, at least in the drafting stage—nothing will survive otherwise.
Translating Glück deepened my sense of the differences between Japanese and English. As I mentioned, Japanese has multiple forms of you, multiple forms of I. Also, in Japanese, the speaker’s gender is often indicated at the end of a sentence by adding extra syllables like wa, noyo, kashira. I ended up translating some of the flower poems, “Matins” and “Vespers,” in a feminine voice, because a neutral voice in Japanese sounds masculine. The poems in The Wild Iris are dramatic monologues, and I envisioned the book as a kind of theater. If God sounded masculine, and the rest of the characters sounded masculine because of the perfect neutrality of the language, it would be a dull and unrealistic representation of the world, and there wouldn’t be enough dramatic energy to constitute a theater. The fact that a neutral tone is very difficult to achieve in Japanese without sounding masculine—that’s an insight I didn’t have before translating Glück’s book.
Image: Have you ever translated fiction, or been tempted to?
MN: I have translated fiction only from Japanese to English. Decades ago I translated a short story called “Rabbits” (“Usagi,” 1976) by Kanai Mieko. To me it’s a piece of metafiction, and I was captivated by its ruthless exploration of appetite and trauma through the language of dream. It’s quite bloody; I showed my translation to Richard Howard, and even he said it was too violent for his taste. If the translation rights get cleared, it may be included in a textbook anthology a friend is putting together, but otherwise I don’t think my translation will see the light of day.
I do want to translate fiction from English to Japanese, though. The Wild Iris was my first work going from English to Japanese. Translating from your second language to your first, instead of the other way around, is ideal, but I had simply never had the chance before. While translating Glück’s poems into Japanese, there were moments when I felt I’m actually good at this, which shocked me, because I almost never feel I’m good at something. I was starting to wonder if this was my calling.
What is it like to translate fiction? No doubt it comes with its own challenges and a different economy. And I felt I would very much welcome a different economy after translating Glück’s voice in The Wild Iris, which is often tight, rhetorical, and oracular. What would it feel like to translate a piece of writing that doesn’t resemble a pressurized container? The Wild Iris consumed me so much that after the translation was done, I fell apart. It took me months to recover from it. Maybe that’s my weakness, but I’m the kind of person who has to devote herself completely to an assignment.
Image: I know you admire the work of film director Miyazaki Hayao. While he is probably best known in the US for Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi, 2001), you and I both especially admire his earlier film Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (Kaze no tani no Naushika, 1984). What aspects of his artistic vision have you found most compelling?
MN: Miyazaki’s film Nausicaä is based on his seven-volume manga series of the same title. The manga version is darker, more complex, and ends up reversing its initial vision of the restoration of the earth. I bet the story is still unresolved in Miyazaki himself. I loved the film when I first watched it as a twelve-year-old. It was in the eighties; no one had seen a work of animation of that quality. It was all the rage at school, and I was so taken by the heroine Nausicaä that if there had been a bracelet that said What would Nausicaä do? instead of What would Jesus do? I would have surely worn it every day. I remember writing in my diary: “I want to become a person who is as kind and brave as Nausicaä.”
Ever since a classmate had taken me to her Sunday school when I was seven or eight, I had been drawn to Christianity and the idea of following Jesus. But I also sensed that the spiritual climate I grew up in was against my becoming a Christian. It wasn’t just a vague feeling or an intellectual notion; in those days, I would have nightmares and get paralyzed in bed. I think I am constitutionally suited to an animistic culture and the idea of multiple gods in nature. When I see a Japanese mountain, I can’t help but sense a spiritual presence, and my body wants to respond to it. When I am in the forest, I feel spoken to by trees; I want to talk to mushrooms and moss and flowers. But when I became a Christian, or when I was seriously considering becoming one, I felt like I had to close those pores in my body and soul that were naturally open to the voices in nature.
Nausicaä, for me, resolved that tension. Here is a fighter princess who loves nature even in a postapocalyptic world, cares about the toxic plants and trees in the Sea of Decay, weeps and communicates with mutated insects and gigantic Ohms. And the way she gets killed and resurrected near the end of the film, wearing a dress dyed blue with the blood of a baby Ohm—that makes her a Christ figure.
I don’t think that’s what Miyazaki intended at all. He doesn’t like Christianity. He was part of the team that created the Japanese TV series Heidi, and they managed to get rid of anything that smacked of Christianity, even though the original book is very Christian; it’s ultimately a story about conversion. Also, he claims his biggest influence as an animator is the 1957 Soviet film The Snow Queen. It’s a beautiful film in many ways, but they eliminated all the Christian elements to disastrous effect. Even though the setting is a European city, there is no church, which feels unnatural, and more importantly, the way the Snow Queen is defeated seems merely accidental, and the ending makes little to no sense.
I read in an interview that Miyazaki wanted to avoid the kind of ending where Nausicaä becomes a Joan of Arc figure and her standing in the golden field creates a piece of religious painting. But he had to do it. He needed Nausicaä to stop the Ohm stampede, and he couldn’t end the film with his heroine dead. So Nausicaä’s self-sacrifice and subsequent resurrection became inevitable. As a result, I found an ideal figure for me who is both Christlike and marked by a deep kinship with nature.
Image: I noticed that some of your recent poems in the Adroit Journal concern your mother. In what directions is your writing self drawn these days?
MN: My mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s a few years before the pandemic hit. Then I couldn’t visit my parents in Japan for almost three years, and I dreamed of being back there nearly every night. I kept grieving the gradual loss of who she was. Even though she was very bright, her parents couldn’t afford a college education for her, not after having sent their only son to college. None of their four daughters received education beyond high school. It was important to my mother that I go to college. I would call and say, “I am not smart enough to be studying in America.” She would say, “Yes, you are. You’ll be just fine.” Then, as I mentioned before, she would send me the Japanese translation of whatever text I was studying at the time. Shakespeare plays, the Romantics, Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. I often wondered what would’ve happened had she gone to college. Her favorite book was Daddy-Long-Legs, an epistolary novel by Jean Webster, a grandniece of Mark Twain. It’s about an orphan girl who is sent to college by a mysterious benefactor. She writes him letters detailing her wonderful life at an all-women’s college modeled after Vassar, where Webster herself studied. I wanted to write a story where my mother went to college. I started writing it in Japanese and couldn’t finish it. The poem you read in the Adroit Journal describes the story I failed to complete. I don’t have big ideas for a book or anything, but I think I will continue to write poems that have some connection to Japan, because that’s where my mind returns when I dream.
I’ve also been wanting to write an elegy for Adam Zagajewski, whom I loved. As a teacher, he was neither efficient nor organized; he wasn’t good at leading class discussions; he wasn’t even eloquent in the usual sense of the word. And yet his quiet, loving presence was transformative to so many students; his words had a way of both piercing and nourishing us. I miss him, and I think often of his mode of being, his poetry’s search for radiance, for truth.
In terms of prose, I plan to write an essay on zuihitsu. Sei Shōnagon, the tenth-century Japanese court lady, is said to have established the literary genre of zuihitsu (“running brush”). Her Pillow Book is popular in America. When I teach it, sometimes students say, “It’s nice that we get to read one of the earliest works by female authors, but why is Shōnagon listing her personal favorites and pet peeves?” Her writing can seem trite, like she is writing blog posts from over a thousand years ago. It’s easy to forget that her words are translated from a highly stylized classical Japanese into modern English, which makes her sound accessible, plain, and blunt. What’s also overlooked is that The Pillow Book is tinged with Shōnagon’s grief over the political and physical demise of Empress Teishi, whom she worshiped and served as a lady-in-waiting. She is writing to preserve her memories of Teishi; there is a subtle elegiac tone. In my essay, I want to reflect on what’s underneath the persona of Sei Shōnagon as a self-conscious creation. Moreover, I want to question the way her writing is perceived in America as yet another form of lyric essay. The Pillow Book is quoted or excerpted by lyric essayists like Maggie Nelson, John D’Agata, and Jenny Boully. On the one hand, I’m glad that Shōnagon’s writing is considered relevant by these influential authors, but on the other hand, I wonder what is really zuihitsu, separate from the conventions of American lyric essays like fragmentation, juxtaposition, and a nonlinear order of events.
Image: Are there other Japanese writers who you wish were better known in North America?
MN: For a long time, Murakami Haruki was the star, and I have nothing against that. I am a fan of his earlier work myself, and I coauthored a chapter on his epic novel 1Q84 in Magical Realism and Literature (Cambridge University Press, 2020). But I am very excited that more female authors have been in the spotlight in recent years: Murata Sayaka, Yū Miri, Kawakami Mieko, just to name a few. Last fall I taught Murata’s Convenience Store Woman, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori. I was impressed by the quality of the translation, and it was one of my students’ favorite texts.
Meanwhile, they really struggled with Snow Country. Their frustration with its protagonist, Shimamura, a wealthy idler, who has an affair with Komako, a hot-spring geisha, escalated to the point where it was almost impossible for them to engage with Kawabata’s writing style and poetic techniques. And even though I had liked Edward Seidensticker’s translation before, I was dissatisfied with it this time. He was of course one of the most famous translators of Japanese literature, and it is said that his translation won Kawabata the Nobel in 1968, but even a great translation ages. I felt that in that book he compromised the poetic nature of some of Kawabata’s signature moments. As we all know, stereotypes of Asian women as mysterious, submissive, and sexually available are problematic to say the least, and in a way my students were showing a healthy resistance to those ideas.
There are other stereotypes, though. These days I feel an exotic prewar Japan is completely overshadowed by a weird or bizarre contemporary Japan. Look at these strange cafés in Tokyo with exotic animals or waitresses in costumes; look, the Japanese are so lonely they must avail themselves of a rental family service—that sort of thing. But the bizarre exists in every country, and besides, what the media likes to feature is not everyday life in Japan at all. You need time and money and proximity to downtown Tokyo to experience these things, and I do not know a single person who has rented a family member. If not taught carefully, a novel like Convenience Store Woman, in which a protagonist falls in love with a convenience store, literally or figuratively, can promote the bizarre-Japan stereotype. It’s one of the most assigned texts in Japanese literature courses in America.
One Japanese writer I wish were better known is Hara Tamiki, a poet who wrote the short story “Summer Flowers,” a survivor’s account of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in terrifying detail. It was first published in 1947, and at that time in Japan under US occupation, all major publications were subject to American censors, who were especially sensitive to descriptions of the atomic bombings as direct criticism of the United States. Hara was forced to change the title and make several cuts in his manuscript.
After a long struggle with the symptoms of radiation sickness and PTSD, he took his own life, but before that, he had a close friendship with Endō Shūsaku. Hara’s life and death had a significant impact on Endō’s Christology, especially his understanding of the humanity of Christ. I did a translation of Endō’s essay on Hara that was published in Copper Nickel. I also translated an excerpt from Hara’s “Requiem” to include in my translator’s introduction:
So, am I all finished then? Nothing left inside me? No more need to spin, to exist? No…. I have something. I do. I still have grief left. I do. I do. I have a lament. I do. I have a myriad of laments. A single lament links to a myriad of laments. A myriad of laments reverberate with a single lament. My own sound rings in my ears. I sound. I echo. Lament and I link. I connect. I connect with a myriad…. I must endure. Endure silence. Endure illusion. Endure the depths of life. Endure and endure and endure enduring. Endure a single lament. Endure a myriad of laments. Oh lament, pierce me through. Pierce me who has no more place to return. Pierce me in my abandoned world.
Nathan Suhr-Sytsma is an associate professor of English at Emory University and the author of Poetry, Print, and the Making of Postcolonial Literature (Cambridge). He has published essays on topics ranging from the presence of Japan in Irish poetry to interreligious encounters in Nigerian fiction.