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Yoko Tawada’s Enchanted World

Making art in the space between languages and nations

Scattered All Over the Earth by Yoko Tawada, trans. Margaret Mitsutani. New Directions, 256 pages.

Three Streets by Yoko Tawada, trans. Margaret Mitsutani. New Directions, 64 pages.

In Berlin and its environs, one finds a genre of restaurant that could be called “Vietnamese Sushi.” Frequented for the most part by white Germans, the Vietnamese Sushi restaurant tends to be small and unassuming. It serves up summer and maki rolls with equal panache, and unlike its sleeker Asian-fusion cousins, treats their proximity to one another as self-evident, leading one to wonder whether its patrons are simply not the sorts of white people who write negative Yelp reviews upon learning that their favorite Mexican restaurant is actually run by business-savvy Dominicans, or whether, perhaps, their notion of Asia is simply so homogenizing that as long as their sushi is being served to them by someone who appears to be of East Asian descent, they feel they have probably gotten something approximating the real deal.

The sushi restaurants in Yoko Tawada’s novel Scattered All Over the Earth bear a similar relation to the country of Japan: that is, a tenuous one. In one, a Danish linguist named Knut remarks to Hiruko, the novel’s Japanese climate refugee heroine, that he’s pretty sure sushi is Finnish. Her protests fall upon deaf ears. In another restaurant, the patrons are somewhat savvier, but a noxious mix of minimal knowledge about Japan and maximal white entitlement leads them to needle a server-cook named Nanook with questions about Buddhism, taking for granted that he’s from Japan. He is, in fact, from Greenland, and his coworkers hail from places like the United States and Vietnam. And Nanook soon learns that the Chinese chef who has been introducing him to the intricacies of Japanese cuisine in the kitchen—surprise!—learned everything he knows from a French chef in Paris. “When the original no longer exists,” the chef tells him, “there’s nothing you can do except look for the best copy.”

Throughout Scattered, which is set in a Europe of the near future, copies abound—especially, it seems, with regard to lost ways of life. In a small Japanese town, children learn about the region’s now-defunct industries from humanoid robots demonstrating farming and fishing techniques; in a different part of Japan, an elderly woman insists on shoveling snow even after her town’s streets have been outfitted with heaters that melt it automatically. Years later, that woman’s granddaughter, Hiruko, is hired at a cultural center in Denmark to tell corrupted versions of the fairy tales that disappeared from public consciousness when Japan was swallowed by the sea. But the copy most central to the novel’s narrative surfaces when Hiruko, desperate to find another Japanese refugee so that she can speak Japanese again, instead finds Nanook, who, as it turns out, has adopted the name Tenzo, taught himself Japanese, and has been playing along with his customers’ expectations. His Japanese is garbled, antiquated, and limited to the topics covered in his textbook, but Hiruko’s conversation with him still makes her happy, and leaves her with serious “doubts about the difference between native and non-native speakers.”

Words become objects that Tawada plays with, always simultaneously laden with present and past, connotation and denotation, intended and unintended signification.

With this last phrase, one feels that Tawada is reaching through Hiruko to express her own doubts, for the project of troubling the difference—and exploring the space—between native and non-native language has served as the basis of her creative work for the past thirty-five years. Rare among writers, Tawada produces original work in both Japanese, her native language, and German, a language that she did not learn until her early twenties, which she claims finally allowed her to see her mother tongue from without. This experience of defamiliarization has shaped her writing practice ever since; she now forces herself to switch between writing in German and in Japanese every few weeks in order to “prevent her[self] from taking things for granted.” At times she has taken this even further—while writing her novel The Naked Eye, Tawada switched between German and Japanese every few minutes, writing a few sentences in one language, translating them into the other, and then repeating this process ad infinitum, such that her prose in each language ended up molded by the thought-forms of the other. The result is a book full of sentences that may be grammatically perfect but still somehow feel like urgent missives from a dream, or like someone pressing a hand to a clouded pane of glass.

Ultimately, the beauty of Tawada’s work is that she treats the uncertain footing of the second language learner—and of the native speaker looking back on their first language with new eyes—not as a source of anxiety, but as a source of boundless creative potential. In “Wolkenkarte” (“Cloudcard”), a story in her possibly untranslatable volume Überseezungen (the name of the volume is itself a bastardized pun: “Übersetzungen” means “translations,” but with a slight misspelling in the middle, it comes to mean “over-sea-tongues”) that is set in Basel, the narrator is asked if she has a “Kumocard” and later a “Velo,” words that remind her of the Japanese words for cloud and tongue and lead her to speculate on the logistics of possessing both. In “Die Botin” (“The Messenger”), a character writes out a series of Kanji characters that are meant to phonetically produce a German message if read out loud in Japanese. However, the reader is ultimately presented not with the actual German message, nor even the Kanji themselves, but with a literal translation of the Kanji into German, which reads like a selection from Tender Buttons.

Defamiliarized, words become objects that Tawada plays with, always simultaneously laden with present and past, connotation and denotation, intended and unintended signification. For there is no one way of speaking a language that is singularly true and pure. As Knut reminds us, “there are people who think everything native speakers say must be grammatically correct, even when all they’re doing is faithfully copying the way most of the people around them talk, which isn’t necessarily correct usage.” Language is nothing but a series of copies that grow increasingly unstable the further they get from their original, if there was ever an original in the first place.

In Scattered, the troubled status of languages is closely tied to a troubled geography. Hiruko’s quest takes her from Copenhagen to Trier to Oslo with a group of friends that grows at each stop: in addition to Knut, there is a German woman named Nora; an Indian man named Akash who dresses in women’s clothing; Tenzo/Nanook; and a Japanese man named Susanoo who, to Hiruko’s final disappointment, turns out to be mute. The continent they travel through is agglutinatively European, all of its countries distinct in their own ways but ultimately so bound together by historical flows and overlaps that none of them could be said to represent an entirely discrete concept. As if to underscore this point, Hiruko speaks a hybrid language she calls panska that is a mixture of Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish, holding that an immigrant doesn’t have time to learn multiple languages if they are shuttled from country to country. “Unclear if immigrants in one place permanently can stay,” she explains to Knut. Hiruko is looking for a generically European solution to the problem presented by officials’ attempts to send as many climate immigrants as possible to the United States, which, in her words, is a country with an “undeveloped health care system” and thus, to her, represents a non-option and an object of fear. But she herself has no preference for Denmark over Sweden, or either over Germany.

Tawada’s lifelong exploration of language is countered only by her lifelong search for Europe—where it begins, where it ends, and who it belongs to. The folio page of Tawada’s Nur da wo du bist da ist nichts (Only where you are is nothing) contains the first three lines of a poem called “Tourists”: Eigentlich darf man es niemandem sagen (You’re actually not supposed to tell anyone this) / Aber Europa (but Europe) / gibt es nicht (does not exist). With this, she “in no way meant to say that Europe had been lost,” she later wrote in a piece in her essay collection Talisman, fittingly entitled “Eigentlich darf man es niemandem sagen, aber Europa gibt es nicht,” but “rather meant to say that from the start, Europe was invented as a figure of loss.” Tawada’s Europe, like the languages she treats as fertile ground for invention, is always-already contested territory, its most aggressive claims to stability products of nativist fantasies that treat the complexities of the real world as a series of violent incursions on an ideal world that has been, in such cases, mistaken for real. Tawada is immune to the seduction of ideal worlds. Even when speculative, her fiction still manages to operate in the world that we actually inhabit: one characterized by slippages, ambiguity, and a history of territorial entanglements that began long before twentieth-century globalism—entanglements that, in fact, go back so far that they might be one of the few things coterminous with being human.

Yoko Tawada was born in 1960 in Tokyo. In 1982, she graduated from Waseda University—one of the most prestigious private colleges in Japan—with a degree in Russian literature. Unable to move to Russia because of the Cold War, she instead headed to Hamburg for an internship with a German book wholesaler, and, essentially, never left. Within a few years, Tawada had earned a master’s degree in German literature at the University of Hamburg, and in 1987 published her first book. Soon after, she started a doctorate at the University of Zürich and began to release a steady stream of poetry, short stories, essays, novels, correspondence, and plays, one after the other, sometimes publishing one or even two books a year.

What lends Tawada’s work such consistency is not its thematic content but her singular viewpoint, one that results from a carefully cultivated ability to make herself foreign in any place, including her own home. As it would happen, this is also the key tool in the arsenal of the anthropologist, whose ability to defamiliarize is central to the ethnographic method. But Tawada upends anthropology’s foundational dynamic: until relatively recently, the anthropologist was presumed as a matter of course to be white and their subjects of study non-white, the idea being that Europe writes about the Other; the Other does not write about Europe. So, if Tawada is an anthropologist, she is one who has made a career of talking back to Europe and doing so on terms that are not merely those of the Other, or of Japan, but are entirely her own.

To date, Tawada has lived in Germany for four decades, and the very possibility of her writing lies in the effort she puts into resisting complete acculturation. In a 2009 interview with the Heinrich Böll Foundation, she says that

The author always needs to be foreign, even in their own country, [to ensure] that they aren’t a blind part of the whole, that they maintain distance, that they are capable of disagreeing and not taking things for granted, that they are always able to recognize that things could be different, that is being foreign. . . . Everyone must find, discover, their foreignness.

If unsought foreignness is the realm of the immigrant, cultivated foreignness is the realm of the artist. (And in this way, we see that the line between immigrant and artist is not so stark.) Becoming an artist requires breaking down the default frameworks that shape how one perceives one’s world, and in the best of cases, this gives rise to a practice of seeing that is inimitable. Think Björk in a 1988 TV interview opening up the back of a cathode ray tube television and explaining that the tiny vertical transistors form a city; Josef Beuys developing an affective language out of felt and fat; Maia Ruth Lee documenting an esoteric symbology in the metalwork of Brooklyn fences in her 2019 piece Labyrinth. Like these other artists, Tawada inhabits an enchanted world, one in which Western rationality never succeeded in deadening the vitality of objects. “As a child,” she says, “I saw gods everywhere—in a cicada shell or in veal or even in a bicycle.” But she “wasn’t raised religious.” Tawada’s world is not enchanted because she was raised in an animist tradition, but because she has a highly idiosyncratic mind that she has cultivated with great intention. What makes her work so special is that it allows her readers—even if only for a few hours—to slip into this mind and allow her to do the seeing for us.

This is a sort of attunement that people are drawn to like magnets, and that certain critics feed off of—sometimes parasitically. Many years ago, as an undergraduate, I attended an event with Tawada in which a venerated and very tenured German professor asked Tawada (in English, despite Tawada’s express request that the conversation be held in German) why she had chosen to have the narrator of The Naked Eye associate the name of the Pergamon Museum with the image of a migratory bird. Tawada frowned at her and said that she wasn’t sure, but perhaps it was because the word Pergamon made her think of a migratory bird? “Aha!” cried the professor, as if she had just discovered the key to a puzzle. “So you are the narrator!” Tawada’s frown deepened. The desire to discover the mechanisms by which magic is produced is powerful in those who have none of their own.

Tawada’s Three Streets, a slim collection of short stories out last month from New Directions, opens with the image of a small child walking down the street “as if it’s making its way across the surface of the moon,” its winter clothing serving as space gear and the lights on its small shoes suggesting to the narrator that it may be not a child, but a robot. The three stories that make up the volume, each set on a different street in Berlin, follow the narrator through the former East Berlin neighborhoods of Prenzlauer Berg, Pankow, and Friedrichshain as he—or she—documents surroundings rife with hidden meaning. The handlebars of a bicycle bring to mind sheep horns; the doorway to a building resembles an initial. And this Berlin is quite literally haunted. In “Kollwitz Straße,” the narrator is dragged into an organic supermarket by a hungry ghost-child from World War I whom no one else can see and forced to buy him sweets. In “Majakowskiring,” the narrator finds themself in an abandoned restaurant with the ghosts of Vladimir Mayakovsky and his lover, and in “Pushkin Allee,” the narrator watches in awe as the Treptower Park Soviet War Memorial comes to life. “Perhaps there are seams between present and future, with tiny holes in them through which people go back and forth” muses the narrator in “Kollwitz Straße.” In all three stories, ghosts slip through these holes as easily as the throngs of Irish aos sí fairies that make their way into the human realm through the thin places every Samhain.

Berlin is, fittingly, rife with thin places, volatile sites where the past intrudes with particular force into the present. Reams of books have been written about the city’s Erinnerungskultur, or memory-culture, and how it has led to a cityscape extraordinarily dense with memorials. But this level of density often leads to apathy, and this is what it would seem that Tawada is explicitly writing against. In her unsettling portrait of Berlin, she shocks her readers into recognizing the violence that undergirds the city, something that tends to recede so far into the background that it becomes little more than white noise for the city’s inhabitants. The ghosts of “Kollwitz Straße” are the starving children of the drawings of Käthe Kollwitz, figures whose misery could not contrast more sharply with the lazy security of the wealthy Prenzlauer-Bergians who otherwise populate the story. Mayakovsky’s ghost is impoverished and hungry, and when the Soviet War Memorial comes to life, Treptower Park descends into a state of war, with military planes circling overhead, forced conscription, and intermittent explosions. All of these scenes contrast sharply with the peaceful, tree-lined streets of the Berlin of the present.

In her unsettling portrait of Berlin, she shocks her readers into recognizing the violence that undergirds the city.

Tawada never explicitly spells out her politics, even in her nonfiction. But she was raised by leftists and explained in a 2019 interview with the Louisiana Museum that for her parents’ generation, studying Russian and German literature in the midst of the Cold War was a political act. Tawada, of course, spent the last decade of the Cold War studying both, and the implicit politics of her work are clear: in defamiliarizing the taken-for-granted and attuning us to flows and slippages that most people are unable to see, mired as they are in stark distinctions and pre-fab categories, she productively unsettles her readers. It is hard not to make recourse here to Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht in that both advocated for a dialectics that—via confrontations with potent traces of the past or shocking attestations to the current violences of capitalism—illuminates the true nature of the present, awakening a formerly slumbering public to the world’s true potential for positive change. Three Streets is one of the most explicitly dialectical works in Tawada’s oeuvre. It pursues a left project not only in form but also in content—an engagement with the plight of the poor, the disenfranchised, the forgotten—and leaves her readers no doubt that, at the end of the day, her project has political stakes.

Yoko Tawada is enormously prolific. To date, she has published nearly thirty books, which are gradually being made available in English by Susan Bernofsky and Margaret Mitsutani (who translate Tawada’s work from the German and Japanese, respectively). Despite their explicitly European settings, Scattered All Over the Earth and Three Streets were both originally written in Japanese. And perhaps surprisingly for the translator who shares Tawada’s 2018 National Book Award, Mitsutani’s rendering of Tawada’s Japanese prose is loose and often awkward, standing in marked contrast to Tawada’s precise and at times even ethereal German (and Susan Bernofsky’s masterful translations thereof). But at the end of the day, I do not speak Japanese and for this reason am unable to pass a final judgment. For all I know, Mitsutani has rendered the original with absolute precision, and Tawada’s Japanese is simply not as beautiful as her German. I find myself, finally, in that space of uncertainty between languages, unable to fully get my bearings, unable to access anything other than a copy that has, to an audience with no Japanese, become a new original.

Of course, for Tawada, this would represent not a problem, but merely an encounter with the true nature of our world. The problem would instead lie in treating the goal of translation as the precise transmission of information, as if language were computer code or semaphore, rather than an always-hybrid, always-contested project in which two bodies laden with history, values, violence, and wonder come in contact with one another, and neither emerges unscathed.

Just as a literary encounter with the starving ghost-children of Kollwitzstraße might, in the most successful of cases, cause a reader to think twice about the past lives of the streets that they walk on an everyday basis, an encounter with Tawada’s linguistic philosophies via Hiruko’s panska and Nanook’s Japanese might, in the most successful of cases, compel a reader to reflect on the linguistic conditions of possibility of the very book that they are holding in their hands, and to approach its flaws and oddities with generosity. “When I ask about a work’s translatability,” Tawada writes in an essay entitled “Celan Reads Japanese” (translated by Bernofsky), “I don’t mean whether a perfect copy of a poem can exist in a foreign language, but whether its translation itself can be a work of literature.”

Regardless of their somewhat awkward prose, or any possible critiques that might be made of their content or structure, Scattered All Over the Earth and Three Streets are exceedingly original works by an artist who never ceases to challenge her readers to see the world differently. When taken as inroads into Tawada’s singular mind and larger conceptual project, both books must be not only understood as literature, but literature of an inimitable sort. We can only hope for more.