Listen to This Poet Blending German and Japanese
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this mystical author is writing the future.
By Sanjena Sathian
After the poetry reading, a gaggle of teenage girls follow Yoko Tawada out of the room. Oblivious to their presence, she brings me into the author signing booth, telling me she can talk now, because “no one will come to ask me to sign anything.” The girls wait patiently until they can approach. “Ma’am,” they say — and I do not get the sense that these are girls who read a lot of poetry — “we loooved what you did in there.”
What Tawada did was read her work in three languages: German, Japanese and English. She writes in the first two. And though perhaps one or two people in the audience understood the original, something was still comprehended. She performs, holding up images of Chinese characters to which she refers; she reads part of a poem written on a latex glove that she wears, then turns the glove inside out, where the rest of the poem awaits. Sometimes, Tawada performs her work accompanied by a pianist. She is strange. Her work says things like, “They couldn’t read my face like a text,” and she says things like, “Language is like a co-author — I have something I want to write about, and then I discuss it with language. Sometimes language wants something different.”
The author of short stories, novels and poetry collections, Tawada can be difficult to come by in English. A few recommendations available in English: the short-story collection Where Europe Begins, which was translated more than a decade after it was first published in German, and her novel The Naked Eye. Both involve stories of migration and distance, of strangers in strange lands, but they are about as far from Salman Rushdie’s or Jhumpa Lahiri’s immigrant tales as you can get.
At age 22, Tawada left Tokyo for Germany, to study German literature and to become purposefully lost in a foreign tongue. When she arrived, she was startled by how few people there were on the streets. In Tokyo, on busier turf, her father was a bookseller and she lived in the center of Nakano District — already her life sounds like the plot of a Haruki Murakami novel. She used to make puppets out of the pages of books. She loved Franz Kafka, whom, she says, “predicted reality,” which leads one to wonder what on earth Tawada’s reality is.
In Tawada’s work, people are often alone, confused by those around them and by both the physical shapes and the sounds of words. Though comparisons are difficult, the ones that come to mind are Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges and, yes, Murakami. Tawada, who is single, tells me, “I think it’s important for women to be alone if they want to write.” She believes that is necessary to avoid the mind becoming polluted by the wants and words of others. “To find your own language,” she continues, “you must be alone — and by that I mean not language as a language of communication, but language as an art, which has a structure with many hidden meanings.”
Listen to Tawada’s language — or languages — as, recorded outdoors, she reads in all three.