Where we explore the fluidity of being, language and borders.
Yoko Tawada has spent the last year touring the world. From Amsterdam to Manila to Toronto and back to her hometown of Berlin, she’s been sharing her unique perspective to enthusiastic, often sold-out crowds. I sat down with the award-winning author after her talk at the Japan Foundation, Toronto, and we had a chance to chat about everything imaginable—from evolution and regression to boundaries and Kafka. And, of course, her latest book, The Emissary.
Set in an isolated Japan in the decades following a massive disaster, The Emissary is a dystopian story that explores mortality through the relationship between the seemingly immortal elderly and the rapidly evolving younger generations. The idea of boundaries and evolution creep up in many of Tawada’s stories—including Memoirs of a Polar Bear,The Naked Eye and Where Europe Begins. Tawada is fascinated with the idea of the “other”; people and creatures who move across borders and make new homes for themselves. Inspired by polar bears that are born in Russia, then travel through northern countries and find themselves in Canada, in Memoirs of a Polar Bear Tawada explores this notion with a family of polar bears that share their history in autobiographies as they traverse the world.
An award-winning author, Tawada has been recognized around the world for her vivid prose.
In The Emissary, the idea of borders, both real and imaginary, and “otherness” are also challenged. Tawada found inspiration in her own experiences after moving to Hamburg, Germany, when she was 22. She had originally intended to travel further east, however, Soviet policies in the 1980s made settling in Russia or Poland difficult. Tawada also explores the boundary between human and animal in her writing. Inspired by Kafka’s zoomorphic tales as well as the stories absorbed during her youth, Tawada’s stories include humans that develop bird-like characteristics, the aforementioned polar bears that write autobiographies and dog-like men who fall in love with princesses. This notion of a fluid boundary between humans and animals is often rare in German literature, but quite common in Japanese prose. As a writer that straddles these boundaries, Tawada is in a unique position to deliver these unfamiliar ideas to new and anticipative audiences.
While in Toronto, Tawada spoke at a Japan Foundation, Toronto—Goethe Institute co-sponsored event and discussed the uidityof language with Japanese Literature and Film professor Ted Goossen and German Film and Literature doctoral student Yasmin Aly. They spoke of the psychological impact of the 3-11 Fukushima disaster in Japan, language barriers and the difficulty of translating concepts and ideas across languages. The Japan Foundation has recently awarded Tawada with the 2018 Japan Foundation Prize for building bridges to advance understanding of the fluidity of language and boundaries through her vivid prose. The Emissary is also a finalist for The New Yorker’s 2018 National Book Award for translated literature, and has received numerous accolades in Japan, Germany and America. When asked about the awards, Tawada humbly admitted that she is most thankful for the opportunity to visit new places and trade stories about our shared experiences.
The Emissary and Tawada’s other books are available from the Japan Foundation, Toronto Library.