Thoughts on life after the PhD
Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being moves back and forth between a remote island in British Columbia and the urban blight of Tokyo, telling a story so heartbreaking that it borders on melodrama (and occasionally crosses that border). But the story itself is gripping and immediate enough that I found myself utterly drawn in, even as voices in the back of my mind quibbled with the details.
Ozeki’s novel begins with a woman named Ruth discovering a diary in a plastic bag on the beach. In the diary is the story of Naoko, a miserable teenage girl who is ready to kill herself after being uprooted from a pleasant life in California to a hellish existence at the hands of bullies and indifferent parents back in Tokyo. Ruth’s own situation is hardly ideal–she lives on a damp, cold, and isolated island with her artist husband, Oliver (the lives of these characters clearly mirror Ozeki’s own–her husband is an artist named Oliver, and they live in Cortes Island British Columbia). Struggling with writer’s block and her feelings over the recent death of her mother, novel-Ruth dives into Naoko’s story.
It’s the sort of tragic story that we’ve grown used to hearing about Japan. There’s sadistic bullying, multiple suicide attempts, attempted rape, and teenage prostitution. Reading Ozeki’s work and the work of many other English-speaking authors writing about Japan (Karl Taro Greenfeld, Sara Backer, Sujata Massey), I can’t help but wonder if we have come to fetishize Japanese suffering. Must all stories feature utterly beaten-down victims and sadistic abusers as though they were the norm? Must sex always be depressing? Do spouses always have to hate each other? Does everyone have to attempt suicide?
Another aspect of Ozeki’s work that I find troubling is that her victims, it seems, can only be saved by leaving Japan. Without giving too much away, I can say that in Ozeki’s previous work, My Year of Meats, and in A Tale for the Time Being, her female characters’ only hope for a decent life seems to lie in the U.S. or Canada. This is a refrain that I hear again and again in novels, in the words of Japanese friends who’ve lived abroad, and from foreign nationals who’ve spent a long time in Japan: just leave. (Which, of course, is not an option for the majority of Japanese.) Is there no happiness to be found for a Japanese person within Japan’s borders?
I was moved by Naoko’s story–by its unreliable narrator, by the ambiguous ending, even by the somewhat abrupt way in which she and her suicidal father may find a way out of their misery. But I’m conflicted by these seemingly endless stories of Japanese suffering crafted for an English-speaking audience. Why do these stories speak to us? Do they reinforce a narrative of the suffering, downtrodden Other that we’d do better to abandon?
I’m not sure what to make of A Tale for the Time Being or the fact that I deeply enjoy Ozeki’s work. It’s good work. She’s a gifted writer with a wonderful eye and ear for the details of Japanese life. I just wish there was a space for other stories of Japan–stories with less of a focus on sadism and horrific suffering, for example. Stories that reflected the reality of my own existence in Japan a little more closely (though as a foreign national, I realize that my life here will never really mirror that of a native). But maybe my own life here, like anyone’s, is full of more than a few illusions, and any story that dug a little deeper would inevitably venture into dark places.
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