Mizumura Minae’s An I-Novel begins with a caveat: the author herself once suggested that translating the novel, originally published in Japan in 1995, into English was singularly impossible.
Mizumura is deeply invested in the study of language. In her 2008 The Fall of Language in the Age of English, she explored the ways that the global reach of English both helps and harms human learning and expression. An I-Novel is an innovative expansion on that theme.
In the translator’s note, Juliet Winters Carpenter writes that An I Novel was promoted in Japan as Japan’s “first bilingual novel”. In Japanese, several features set it apart from a conventional Japanese-language novel. The words flow horizontally left to right as in many European-language books, as opposed to vertically and right to left as in most Japanese-language books. It also freely moves from English to Japanese and back, the way a fluent speaker of both languages like Mizamura might.
The author herself once suggested that translating the novel into English was singularly impossible.
Carpenter’s compromise is to use different typefaces to represent the use of different languages. A great deal must be lost in translation, but the novel is still a thoughtful reflection on language and culture.
An I-Novel is a self-conscious successor to Japanese literature’s Shishōsetsu (“I-Novel”), an early 20th-century genre of autobiographical fiction. Although there are many flashbacks, the action of the novel itself takes place over the course of a single day in Mizumura’s life: the day she decides to take her graduate school oral exams and then return to her native Japan as she has always planned. (In addition to writing a bilingual Japanese-English novel, Mizumura, both author and narrator, also holds a graduate degree in French literature.)
During that day she reflects on her life in the United States, her place in the US as an Asian “other”, her relationship with an emotionally needy sister Nanae, and all that she lost when her ex-partner left her.
Mizumura’s reflections on race are some of the most eloquent in the book. She recalls, for example, her humiliation on being paired off with a Korean student on a group date simply because they were both “Asian” and her unexpected racial solidarity with a black art teacher. Her description of Japan as “a country where the notion of race was as abstract as the notion of winter for people living near the equator”, is perhaps disingenuous, but her innocence is nevertheless destroyed when she finds herself grouped with all people of color “who had been assigned a negative racial value”. “All men are created equal,” she quotes,
Perhaps. But all lives did not have equal value. This was true in all societies; everywhere, people were sorted into groups and were assigned greater or lesser value by various markers—the way they dressed, behaved, spoke. Yet here in America where people gathered (or had been made to gather) from around the world, race, in its most loosely defined form, was a marked that superseded all others.
Given her keen awareness of difference, it is remarkable that Mizumura’s autobiographical narrator, who immigrated to the United States at a young age, sometimes succumbs to the Orientalism of which so many non-Japanese are guilty. She feels a “yearning” for a place that grows to have “near-mythic dimensions” in her mind, a place where “life transcend[s] the smallness of the everyday”. But as much as Mizumura idealizes the country of her birth, she is also fundamentally Americanized. She imagines kissing the ground when she returns, then realizes that “kiss the ground” is an English phrase—an example of what she calls “translationese.”
Underneath these issues of language and culture is Mizumura’s most pressing question: can she, a Japanese expatriate who has never written so much as a diary in Japanese, ever be a real Japanese novelist? Nanae urges her to write what she knows. She responds,
“But I don’t want to write about life in America.” My life in America had always seemed unreal. Words I learned from old Japanese novels evoked a far more real world to me: 味噌こし misokoshi, “miso strainers,” 黒縮緬 kurochirimen “black silk crepe,” 軽井沢の白樺 Karuizawa no shirakaba, “the birches of Karuizawa…”
[Nanae] absorbed this, then quickly added in a comical tone, “You can’t just turn your back on it either, though.”
An I-Novel ends without a conclusive answer, but it becomes clearer that Mizumura’s distinction between her “Japanese-language self” (her “real self”) and her “English-language self” isn’t a comfortable one. Her dual identity makes her a keen critic of two very different cultures that are, in some ways, inseparable.