Writing in the Ravine of Language

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Author: Doug Slaymaker
Editor: Lawrence J. Trudeau
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 6,412 words

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[(essay date 2007) In the following essay, Slaymaker discusses Tawada’s 2002 short-story collection Yogisha no yakoressha (Suspects on the Night Train) and “The Bridegroom Was a Dog.” He argues that Tawada uses folktales, fantasy, and memory to question notions of identity based on such traditional markers as language and geography.]

Only in one’s mother tongue can one express one’s own truth; in a foreign language the poet lies.Paul Celan1

Japan wafts through Tawada Yōko’s writing like a memory, and “Japaneseness”2 haunts at the edges of her tales. “Japan” (both as nation and cultural imaginary) hovers dream-like at the margins of her work, but Japan is more than an apparition; it forms an important reference point in the peripheral vision of the characters, a touchstone, a landmark, for navigating their travels. A tenuous relationship with a country of origin, subtle acts of sparring with cultural traditions, and the choosing exhibited in Tawada’s writings align with increasingly common experiences in an age of migrations and in a time of remembered and chosen traditions. This essay is an exploration of those negotiations and migrations via interactions with history, language, and memory.

Tawada writes in Japanese and German. Much of her fiction represents travel and the space between cultures; many of her essays articulate experience in the space between those two languages (and by extension, cultures). Tawada’s tales are organized by migrations and traveling, by language and loss, cultural practice and memory; the resultant gaps, gullies, and the self-serving misrememberings give her work their landscape, a terrain that extends beyond national boundaries in the face of globalizing cultures. Foregrounded in that exploration are the nature of language, the constitution of subjectivity, and the markers of identity; they all play out on the unstable terrain across which the characters travel. These themes are particularly prominent in her 2002 novel The Fugitive’s Night-Time Railway [Yogisha no yakoressha], which will be my focus here.

The interplay between remembered pasts and lived presents locates one of the more striking thematic nodes of her work; by invoking ancient tales of cohabitation with animals in “The Bridegroom was a Dog”,3 for example, she presents a version of a postmodern, globalized, modernity (in the senses used by Arjun Appadurai and Salman Rushdie). One of the many attractions of a work like “The Bridegroom was a Dog” is the masterful interplay between the recounted traditional tales and their placement in contemporary settings. These tales have the ring and the timbre of actual folktales and come complete with variants recounted with an anthropologist’s cataloguing completeness. Yet they are as spurious, self-serving and, likely, as false and misremembered as anything spouted off by Salman Rushdie’s Saleem Sinai, for example.4 Culture and memory, with myth and imagination, form the glue binding the novel’s elements. Interplay between past and present is represented through migration and travel; the characters straddle various worlds, with one foot in a particular cultural tradition (a remembered past) and the other foot in the (also...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100123404