Having looked at the six sessions with the writers shortlisted for this year’s International Booker Prize, I just have a couple more talks to discuss today in the last of my wrap-up posts on this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival. The first takes us to Argentina, for three rather sobering stories, before we head off to Japan for a slightly cheerier tale with a focus on family. It may be September, but there’s always time for Women In Translation Month, so please enjoy my final contributions to this year’s event 🙂
I enjoyed Selva Almada’s sparse debut novel The Wind that Lays Waste (translated by Chris Andrews) when I read it a few months back, so I was keen to hear what she had to say in her session “Giving Voice to the Victims of Femicide” on Tuesday, the 25th of August. The focus of the talk was Almada’s latest book in English, Dead Girls (released this week by Charco Press, tr. Annie McDermott), and with the irrepressible Mariana Enriquez once again on moderation duties, it promised to be an intriguing session. Unfortunately, however, there were several issues. Quite apart from the dogs I’m sure I wasn’t imagining barking in the background, this was a Spanish-language session, and even though there were subtitles provided, they had a life of their own and rarely coincided with what was actually being said at the time. Here’s hoping that’s been fixed over at the site…
When asked about the book’s background, Almada described how one of the stories detailed in her book had actually inspired a short story back in 2008. However, she’d always wanted to write about the case properly, and the end result was a non-fiction work looking at three crimes against women. Having received research funding, she worked on the book at the same time as she was producing her fiction, and it was eventually published in 2013. While the subject matter was sensitive, the writer said that the families and friends of the titular dead girls were happy to help, and glad someone was writing about their loved ones.
One part of the talk had the writer describing her journeys to interview relatives, with the discomfort she felt becoming an integral part of the book. One notable example was an interview she arranged with the brother of one of the women. From the start, she had a strange feeling about him, and the repeated delays, the deserted meeting place and the photo he showed of his sister (from the morgue…) only added to her misgivings. Nevertheless, she came through unscathed, and enjoyed her venture into non-fiction, sensing closure after having done her story justice.
When asked about the current situation in Argentina, Almada said that the lockdown wasn’t great for women suffering from violence, which is still a big problem in her country. In recent years, there has been a lot of awareness raising through campaigning, and she also told of how her book is read in schools, and of being invited to give talks. A sign of how far there is to go, though, is the fact that the work is still more of interest to girls than boys, with the stories within seen as “a problem for girls” – at which Enriquez reminded (or informed) us that abortion is still illegal in Argentina…
Let’s move on, then, to the final session I attended, which was actually the first one I booked (the moment I heard the schedule was live!). One of my favourite reads so far this year was Mieko Kawakami’s Breasts and Eggs (tr. Sam Bett and David Boyd – see my reviews here and here), and her session on Thursday, the 27th of August, made for a fitting end to my festival experience. The talk was called “Three Daughters of Osaka”, and Catherine Taylor (obviously the go-to moderator for J-Lit) was back to ask the questions, and generally gush about her love for the book.
Interpreter Hitomi Yoshio, who has translated some of Kawakami’s short fiction, was also back for the session, but despite the delay between question and answer, this session worked better than many others, thanks largely to Kawakami’s energy (if I say ‘genki personified’, anyone who’s been to Japan will know what I mean!). One fascinating feature of the talk was when the writer read from the first book of her novel, with the English version shown on the screen next to her as she read. This made for a much better experience than the usual source-language-followed-by-target-language procedure, and with Kawakami being an excellent reader, she brought the scene alive. As well as her natural laughs (as opposed to the flat ‘ha, ha’ of the page), there was a distinct difference between the Osaka-ben of the spoken passages and the standard Japanese of the narration/description – which, once again, makes me wonder what might have been if Louise Heal Kawai’s Manchester rendering of the first book had made it into the final version…
Having written the initial novella, Kawakami had many themes she wished to explore, but claimed she wasn’t talented enough to do so in the way she wanted to at the time, but on revisiting the book a decade later, she felt more capable of doing her ideas justice. In response to a question regarding the frank nature of the writer’s description of women’s bodies, Kawakami explained that for all of us both death and birth are mere facts of life, and unavoidable. We all die, and our bodies deteriorate, and these bodies are both intimate objects and a sort of familiar other. She went on to say that writing about the body helps her to write about society, and the larger issues outside our bodies.
Much of the talk discused the themes in the second book of the novel, with the writer explaining how the technology of artificial insemination isn’t that well known in Japan. She describes her home country as a conformist society, where doing things differently to others is almost unimaginable. This creates major hurdles, such as the fact that artificial insemination isn’t offered to single women in Japan (and that single mothers aren’t supported there, anyway). At one point, she also joked about foreign journalists being surprised that women can’t buy the pill at pharmacies in her country!
Another aspect of this side of the story was a look at the children of donors and their issues with the way they were conceived. As part of her research for the book, Kawakami read interviews and memoirs written by these children, learning that in Japan these children have no right to access information about donors and are thus unable to access important knowledge about their heritage. In effect, it was these stories that inspired her to write the second part of her novel.
To round things off, Taylor mentioned the explosion of female Asian writers in English now and asked who her female influences were, but rather than mention any contemporaries, Kawakami focused on a classic influence, Ichiyō Higuchi (c.f. In the Shade of Spring Leaves). Coming from a working-class background, Kawakami feels close to Higuchi and her life struggles. She explained how Higuchi wrote and observed life from the street level, chronicling places and stories that may not have come to light otherwise, and said that she was an enormous influence on her own work both for the content and the beautiful writing. Even though Higuchi was born almost a century before Kawakami, the modern writer feels we can learn all about contemporary society from her work – although that may just be a reflection on how little Japanese society has changed in that time…
Link to video of event: https://www.edbookfest.co.uk/the-festival/whats-on/mieko-kawakami-three-daughters-of-osaka
And that’s your lot! A big thanks to the people working at the EIBF for throwing these events open, for free, to a global online audience. Every year I feel envious of those of you able to attend the festival, mainly because of the sheer number of my favourite writers who end up there (Melbourne? Not so much…). I hope you’ve enjoyed my look back at the events, and who knows – maybe there’ll be more digital opportunities at next year’s festival. I certainly hope so 🙂