Yoko Tawada captures the unique joys of having an unclassifiable identity
I’m half Japanese, half Korean Zainichi and have lived in the United States for over half my life. I have a green card instead of US citizenship, so it’s hard for me to identify as an Asian American. To try to understand where I fit in, I’ve read many books by and about Japanese, Japanese-Americans, half-Japanese, Zainichi Koreans, and Asian-Americans – but this is not is that when I discovered Yoko Tawada that Me, an unclassifiable international person, I finally felt seen in a literary work.
Tawada, who lives in Berlin and writes in Japanese and German, tends to borrow fantastical premises from folk tales that delve into mind-bending hypotheses: what if a woman married a dog? What if it is the children who get sick and the elders who thrive? What if an anthropomorphic East German polar bear became a successful memoirist?
What if Japan no longer existed? This is the premise of his latest novel, Scattered all over the earth, which follows six people of diverse national, ethnic, and gender identities, who somehow come together to help a Japanese woman named Hiruko find another person who can speak to her in her native language. During this time, Hiruko invented a new language called Panska (a word combining “pan” and “Scandinavia”) which can be understood by most Scandinavians, but is so distinct that only she can speak it. The novel’s narrators rotate between the six characters as they travel together across Europe, seeking to help Hiruko but also themselves.
Since the release of the English translation of this novel in early March, critics have hailed it as “bitingly funny” or “deeply inventive” and called it “science fiction”, “dystopia” and even contrary to that, “the first great utopian novel of the 21st century.
What none of Tawada’s critics seem to consider is the realism of his stories once you get past the assumptions, and the importance of his work on people like me who don’t fit easily into a existing national or ethnic identity. People gradually losing their native language – something that is somehow considered so sacred that losing it would reveal a person’s laziness or acceptance of cultural annihilation.
I still remember the day my brain switched from thinking in Japanese to English. I was in CM2, third year in a public elementary school in Palo Alto after growing up in Tokyo. I was arguing with my Japanese mother about something probably trivial, and as I understood what she was shouting at me in Japanese, I felt completely frozen when I tried to answer in his language. Instead, I let out my emotions in fluent English, rich in ’90s California lingo (“Oh my god, Mama, you don’t You understand”). We continued our back and forth, understanding each other well enough while almost jubilant in the language of our choice.
It wasn’t until I discovered Yoko Tawada that I, an unclassifiable international person, finally felt seen in a literary work.
My mother was the furthest thing from a “tiger mom”, never forcing me to go to Japanese school on Saturdays like other Japanese families, encouraging me to continue my education in English even if it meant that our conversations would continue to seem confusing to strangers. Over the years, my mother too started learning English as a hobby, taking the TOEIC English proficiency test for fun. She bragged about being able to watch episodes of sex and the city without using Japanese subtitles.
Later in life, she reconnected with a friend in Palo Alto and asked me to help her edit her emails. She was simultaneously undergoing chemotherapy for brain tumors, and perhaps as a result, her writing was filled with all sorts of grammatical errors and typos. But I, her daughter and somehow bilingual, could understand what she was trying so hard to communicate.
In one of my favorite mistakes, she wrote, “It was a wriggling heartworm.”
Once I corrected that to “it was heartwarming,” the choppy part didn’t make sense, and I would lose so much of what it originally intended to convey. For her, the word “comforting” was not about a warmth on the heart, but about the heart writhing like a worm. In Japanese, there is a phrase that can be translated as “heart trembles”, which could be what she had in mind. It was a phrase that only existed between the two of us, an original joke that I still carry with me more than a year after his death.
Back when I was studying at an international high school in Tokyo, my bilingual friends and I invented our own language which was both part Japanese and part English, which wouldn’t make sense to a monolingual. It was something we did out of sheer stupidity. “That’s so yabbers” was a combination of English grammar and the Japanese word for “yabai,” slang that literally means terrible but once meant awesome or amazing. My mother, always looking for a moment to listen to me talk like this with my friends, liked to call her Inter-goan abbreviation of the word “international” followed by to gothe Japanese word for language.
When I moved to New York for college, I met a 20-year-old who was just like me: a Japanese citizen who grew up in both countries, spoke both languages, and even went to the same international high school than me. fact, even though we didn’t know each other because of our age difference. He had his own version of Inter-goit turned out, influenced by Japanese internet slang where a single “w” meant “lol”.
Our text exchanges have become a hybrid of several languages, slangs and subcultures. As we fell in love, I kept wondering if our shared language was leading us to deeper connections and understanding, or if we were just two lucky people who found a connection apart or despite our shared languages.
In Nashville, where foreigners are generally friendly and chatty, I am constantly asked questions about Japan and the experience of being Japanese in the South.
We finally got married. A decade has passed. During this time we moved from New York to Nashville, and I slowly came to terms with the fact that my husband and I were on our own strange island with our own language that, especially in the South, was not shared with a larger community. In fact, a world in which Japan only exists in the popular imagination as “sushi country” – like the so-called “science fiction” premise in Scattered– is exactly where I currently live in Nashville.
While this may seem like a horrible situation to some, I’ve found being as weird as a talking polar bear has its perks. In Tokyo, my outward appearance blended in with most people around me, but inside, I was a stranger eager to hang out. In New York, where most of the people around me were also from other countries, no one bothered to ask me about Japan because they thought it was rude, or worse, they thought already know everything they need to know.
In Nashville, where foreigners are generally friendly and chatty, I am constantly asked questions about Japan and the experience of being Japanese in the South, and I can tell this often comes from a place of sheer curiosity as opposed to racist assumptions. In Scattered, an Indian character experiences the same change when he moves from London to Denmark. “Some people say that asking an Indian too many questions about India is a kind of prejudice…but that kind of prejudice doesn’t bother me at all.”
As I spend more time in Nashville, I also meet Americans who are passionate about Japan in ways that go beyond my own knowledge of the country and its customs. There is a woman who leads forest bathing excursions inspired by the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku; a ramen chef whose passion was born after hosting a Japanese exchange student; and a half-Japanese mother who can hear the subtle difference when her baby babbles with her English-speaking grandparents and her Japanese grandparents.
While I may be losing my ability to speak fluent Japanese like I used to, I find deeper connections to these Nashvillians than if I were to just walk into a room full of people who speak Japanese. A language, after all, is not just the spoken and written word. It’s also about sharing food, music, plants and art. It wasn’t until I arrived in a place where Japan was so far away from me that I realized that I’d rather be half fluent in one language but form a lasting friendship, than fluent in multiple languages and n have no one to talk to. and become vulnerable with it.
All along Scattered, different characters provide distinct reasons why the concept of mother tongue or mother tongue is “rather childish”. When Hiruko realizes that the person she thought was Japanese was actually something else, she is surprised by her own reaction: “When I found out that we didn’t share a native language, I wasn’t disappointed. least in the world. In fact, the whole idea of a mother tongue didn’t seem to matter anymore; this encounter between two unique speaking beings was much more important.
Another character named Knut, a Danish linguist, says he had long doubted the concept of “native speaker”. “Most native speakers are too busy to think about the language and tend to use the same words and phrases all the time, while non-natives, who move back and forth between two languages, are always on the lookout for new ones. words and phrases, so which one is most likely to have a larger vocabulary? »
My mother continued to write to her correspondent almost until her death. English became more difficult for her to write toward the end, her brain filling with even more tumors. It has also become more difficult for me to understand his poetic intentions. But the thing is, she kept trying.
When Hiruko speaks Panska to someone she loves, she says “although it’s spontaneous and far from perfect, as the words flow down the wrinkles of my memory, catching every twinkling thing, no matter how small- her, they take me to magical distant places. Only panska can take me there, not my mother tongue.
The idea that Panska allows Hiruko to express herself more authentically than Japanese is one that gives me hope for a future where we can be more tolerant of those who are fluent across languages, just like us let’s become more tolerant of those who are not binary with other metaphysics. borders.
When I saw how others around Hiruko accepted her as a Panska speaker, I became nostalgic for the Inter-go from my high school years, the new Inter-go dialect that continues to evolve between me and my husband, and my mother’s miraculous expressions that emerged from her non-native efforts. I like to think that if my mother had read Scattered, she would have felt as seen as me.