Mieko Kawakami is Japan's brightest new literary star

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Mieko Kawakami is Japan's brightest new literary star

Staking claimMieko Kawakami is Japan’s brightest new literary star

The author talks to Prospero about the country’s publishing industry, feminism and motherhood

Prospero

IT HAS been over a decade since Mieko Kawakami lobbed a literary grenade into the fusty, male-dominated world of Japanese fiction with “Chichi to Ran” (“Breasts and Eggs”). Originally written as a blog in the choppy dialect of Osaka, Japan’s freewheeling western city, the novella put working-class women at its core: Makiko, an ageing hostess obsessed with her sagging boobs, and Midoriko, her reproachful teenage daughter. Traditionalists hated it. Shintaro Ishihara, then Tokyo’s governor and himself a literary star once, called it “unpleasant and intolerable”.

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Ms Kawakami, now 42 years old, was unmarked by this criticism. “Writers have to ignore social rules,” she says during a chat at a West Tokyo café. In any case, her clout today allows her to laugh off detractors. “Breasts and Eggs”, which sold 250,000 copies and will soon be published in English, set off a run of prizes for fiction, poetry and short stories. Last year she won a lyrical tribute fr om Haruki Murakami, the grand old man of modern Japanese fiction. Like a tree that can be counted on to reach for the sky or a river to flow towards the sea, he said, Ms Kawakami “is always ceaselessly growing and evolving”.

The river didn’t always follow a straight line. A Björk-loving former musician, Ms Kawakami was several albums into a singing career when writing took over. Her blogs, delving candidly into sex, family and womanhood, were devoured by fans hungry for an authentic new female voice. The ability to reach readers directly, bypassing an industry that seemed to be controlled by men, was liberating, says Ms Kawakami, even if her writing left someâ€"like Mr Ishiharaâ€"cold. “It’s difficult for men to understand women’s bodies, she says.

“Breasts and Eggs” set out her fictional stall. It is anchored by female characters with rich and complicated interior lives (Ms Kawakami’s gift, says Ms Kawai, is being able to write well about loneliness and to turn the “mundane into something extremely poignant”). Makiko, a single working mum on the brink of middle age, is worn out from raising her teenage girl. Midoriko lives in fear that she will end up like her eccentric mother. Guilt and resentment curdle their lives as Makiko ponders the move she thinks will restart her life: breast implants. It is, Ms Kawakami now realises, a feminist novel.

“When I was young, my image of feminism was hysterical old women on TV,” she says. “But as you get older it just seems so obvious for women to be feminist.” Battling patriarchy can be exhausting; she compares her six-year marriage to another author to a “war”. Parental duties are not evenly shared. “He was raised in Japan and the idea that childrearing is a woman’s job has sunk into his bones,” Ms Kawakami laments. Her next novel, she says, smiling, is about a future world in which women will be able to reproduce without men.

Ms Kawakami grew up in pover ty in Osaka and had what she describes as a “difficult” relationship with her father. She calls childhood “hell” and says that families are “really complicated.” The lonely, confessional voice of children resonates throughout her work. In “Ms Ice Sandwich”, her latest novella to be published in English, the young narrator’s father is dead and his self-obsessed mother is oblivious to her son’s first sexual crush, on a young woman behind the counter of his local supermarket. Such writing is difficult, she says, but it is worth it.

Motherhood has dented her productivityâ€"she now writes just three hours a dayâ€"but not her passion for women’s causes. The #MeToo movement has been slow to ignite in Japan but change is coming, she insists: “Women are no longer content to shut up.” Three years ago she began a series of interviews with Mr Murakami, the highlight of which was her polite but stubborn probing into what she saw as his overly sexualised female cha racters. “I believed it was absolutely my job to ask about it,” she later said. Reading those transcripts, it was hard to avoid the impression that the ground was shifting under the Japanese literary landscape in a way that might make some male writers squirm.

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