Strong Lights and Dark Shadows: Mieko Kawakami Interviewed by Makenna Goodman

The English translation of a Japanese novel about two bullied teenagers and the philosophical implications of violence.

Cover of Mieko Kawakami's book heaven, which has a green cover with pink and yellow expressionist brushstrokes.

Mieko Kawakami is the author of the international best-seller Breasts and Eggs, a novel named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and one of TIME’s Best 10 Books of 2020. She has won numerous prestigious awards in Japan, including the Akutagawa Prize, the Tanizaki Prize, and the Murasaki Shikibu Prize. But Kawakami is more than Japan’s bestselling feminist author; she is a rising and rare literary master who enlivens, through a literature of philosophical ethics, the complexities inherent in the often-invisible societal dilemmas of modern culture. Heaven (Europa Editions), Kawakami’s latest novel, centers on the lives of two teenagers, brutally bullied, at a high school in Japan. It will undoubtedly cement Kawakami’s position as a foundational voice in contemporary literature.

Kawakami writes with a deep, lyrical clarity that defies any “ism” and is light enough to sit inside one’s palm like a silver feather. If that is a description more often relegated to the anointed few in this country, then do it, anoint her. After reading Heaven I experienced a conclusion deep within myself, something psychoanalytic, even spiritual, having navigated through the turbulent contradictions of good and evil, misery and hope, desire and weakness, like some kind of heroic sailor. In the end, Heaven left me breathless on the sand, but still very much alive.

—Makenna Goodman

This interview was translated by Hitomi Yoshio.

 

Makenna Goodman Heaven begins with the narrator, a fourteen-year-old boy, who discovers a note that has been tucked inside his pencil case. The letter is from Kojima, a girl in his class who, like he, is subjected to endless and brutal bullying at school. Their friendship begins through these secret notes, which offer a place of comfort and safety against the daily backdrop of their suffering. And yet, the narrator says, “I never lost sight of the possibility that this might be a trap.” Instantly we are met with an important contradiction that you return to throughout: how to trust goodness when inundated with the reality of violence and pain. What is the trap you’re exploring in this novel? 

Mieko Kawakami Those two characters face a very harsh reality. They have nowhere to go besides home and school, their relationships are limited, and they lack the language or the channels to seek help. They have no means of escape, no money. So it would be difficult for the narrator, or Kojima, to believe anyone who reassures him that this pain will not last; good things will come in the future.

The question of how we can believe in goodness in such a situation is very difficult. In Japan, every year, many children take their own lives on the last day of summer vacation. Whether the adults knew what was happening to them or not, in the end we cannot change the children’s reality that made them make such a choice. 

This novel deals with the subject of bullying in schools, but there are countless children suffering at home from poverty or abuse, living in hell. There are also children who might be financially stable, but are so controlled by their parents that they lack the minimum self-esteem to survive. These children may appear unharmed, but inside they are scarred and can barely breathe.

How can we let these children recognize and believe in the existence of goodness? I believe there are two ways to approach this: as an individual and as a writer. As an individual, we need to build networks and strengthen the social infrastructure, so we don’t miss the signs of help. We need to let the children know that there are real and concrete options and backdoors that will allow them to survive and live without going to school.

As a writer, I feel it is necessary to forcefully write the extreme about good or evil. If I can portray a moment with full intensity, whatever the subject may be, the reader will come face to face with the strong light that is born in that moment, as well as its dark shadow. 

Hope exists not only in happy stories where everyone feels safe. And despair is found not only in tragedies. Whatever shape they take, it is in the experience of coming into contact with extreme expressions that shakes the very foundation of what we consider right and wrong, our values, and our sensibilities. It opens the door to another world, even outside of books. I believe that it is my mission to continue to write works that provide such experiences. 

MG The two main characters in this novel could be seen as victims, and yet Kojima is convinced their weakness, in her words, has meaning. How do you define weakness, and do you think it has meaning? 

MK Yes, certainly. The essence of our human existence, I believe, lies in our weakness. 

As we experience and live life through various circumstances, we sometimes find value and beauty in strength. However, for better or worse, this is an illusion—it is only a season that is short lived. We are all born as babies, the weakest of all living things, and we grow up with the help of others. We grow old, encounter illnesses, and eventually die, once again as weak helpless beings. Humans are weak, in principle. No one can live alone, and no one can die alone. 

With this premise, there are those who have more energy in the present versus those who do not—and those who are blessed versus those who are not. However, such differences are simply a matter of chance and luck. Those who are fortunate, those who see themselves as strong—they have just been incredibly lucky. If you feel that you are in the position of power, you must become aware of this. You can share that power and strength with those who are lacking. Those who suffer from weakness are our former selves, our future selves, and our true selves. Weakness is the essence of human nature.

Japanese woman with chin-length hair in a black dress, in profile by a sunny window.

Photo of Mieko Kawakami By Reiko Toyama.

MG Women who write about philosophy and the concept of selfhood are more often than their male counterparts referred to as narcissistic, selfish, or weak-minded. Do you think the literary establishment views women writers as less able to penetrate the meaning of life than their male counterparts? 

MK There have definitely been such biased misunderstandings. It is often said that if a male writer writes about family, he is writing about philosophy or national history, but if a female writer writes about family, it is passed off as personal and trite. Those in power within the male-dominated literary world have never regarded women on the same level as themselves. Women writers are often praised for their work as being “effortless” and having an “innocent naïveté.” These people believe that men write with sense and reason, while women write with their sensitivity. In their view, women exist only for their bodies, whether for sex or for childbirth, with no brains attached. In recent years, it has finally come to be recognized how sexist and invalid such perceptions are.

At the same time, there are many writers who pretend to accept and understand gender equality on the surface, but on the inside still believe that men are superior or have it harder. When a woman achieves something, so many people, regardless of gender, want to believe that she only succeeded because she took advantage of being a woman to get ahead. Misogyny is deep-rooted—it is often a part of one’s identity.

However, I am no longer interested in what people think. I simply observe and scrutinize how they act and behave. In any field, how people behave on the outside is key for new talent to emerge that will eventually change the whole system. Even if you feel something discriminatory in your heart, the important thing is to have a rule that forbids these words and actions to come to the surface. Writers who are unaware of stereotypes and do not challenge themselves to improve will naturally disappear, no matter what era you live in. I tell myself this as well. 

MG You’ve written about the prevalence of social pressures to conform, the fear of stepping outside the boundaries of the status quo. You’ve also described childhood as hell. It seems to me that nowhere is the status quo more absolute than during adolescence, where any amount of perspective is hard to come by. But is a lack of perspective true of humans in general?

MK That’s a good question. A decisive event that happens at a certain moment in your life, what you feel and learn during that time, can influence you in unexpected ways and even become a guideline for the rest of your life. Lacking perspective often limits our possibilities, but in rare cases, it remains at our core, and helps us survive.

The important thing, then, is to learn to become flexible at some point in life, accepting experience as experience. And to reflect: How did you think and feel when you were going through a painful adolescence, when you lacked perspective?

I think it is meaningful to reflect and think deeply about these things, without beating yourself up. By repeatedly facing the pain and sorrow that we couldn’t express in words at the time, we may be able to notice many things and move on to a different place in life. 

MG I keep reading Heaven as a critique of human consciousness, and I have heard you talk about Japan’s “culture of forgetting that functions as hope,” a kind of amnesiac oblivion. Do you think there is a hopeful place that transcends human consciousness? Is there something we’re meant to live for, a beautiful place or idea we never see actually materialize?

MK I believe that each person has his or her own “realm of goodness” that cannot be put into words or communicated to anyone else. For some, it may be a relationship with God; for others it may be spiritual, a connection with nature, or feelings for people around them. 

In my case, that realm is memory. Not a memory for a specific event, like where I went or what I did—but sensations contained in a moment, like the way the tiles shined, my grandmother’s knees compared to mine, or words exchanged with someone. The kindness and reassurance you receive as a child are unforgettable, especially in times of hardship and sadness. These moments when words and thoughts shone brightly—the beauty of these memories cannot be materialized or shared with anyone. It belongs in the temporality of memory alone. Sometimes I feel that is what life is all about. 

MG Heaven is, to Kojima, a painting in a museum of two lovers eating cake. And yet, she says, “the more you look at pictures, not just of Heaven, but of anything, the more the real thing starts looking fake.” What is real, to you? 

MK It seems to me that there are many layers of reality, and these layers exist simultaneously. For example, what is happening in this moment is real, but memories are also real. I believe they exist side by side. 

But when we consider today’s information technology, especially with regards to social media, what is “real” goes beyond what I just described. We need to be able to discern what is “fact.” It can be dangerous to assume that what is “real” for you is a “fact” for society. What is “real” and what is “fact” can be very different things. 

MG Kojima insists that the narrator’s lazy eye represents his truest self—but “Eyes” is the nickname he is given by those who torture him. Kojima, too, has a relationship to her body, which gets progressively thinner as the story goes on. She attributes this to getting closer to her true self. This is one of the central questions you explore in the book: How does one transcend suffering, if not to abandon the self? Why should Kojima’s body be “truer” the more it is removed, when the narrator’s is truer the more it remains the same? 

MK In the novel, two things that seem to pull in opposite directions—the transformation of the body and the maintenance of the status quo—work together to strengthen their function as sacraments. From Kojima’s perspective, the narrator was bestowed with the stigmata of the “lazy eye” from the beginning, which means that there is a basis for his suffering. But in her own case, she had to find the signs on her own, or she could not live with the reality of such extreme torment. In order to overthrow the prevailing rule of “the strong are strong; the weak are weak,” Kojima had to acquire her own stigmata which turned out to be uncleanness and anorexia. 

MG Kojima is bullied for these “signs”—signs of class, perhaps—which she embodies purposefully as a way to retain a relationship with her father, a man she describes as too poor to buy new shoes, who her mother left for a wealthier man. How does class play into the philosophical framework of Heaven and your work in general?

MK I was a child with strong philosophical interests from a young age. I also grew up in a poor family as a young girl. So, for me, the three issues—philosophy, gender, and class—are inextricably rooted in my thoughts and sensibilities. It’s impossible to separate the three issues. Class and gender are clearly connected, and since our lives are so inexplicable, no one is immune to philosophy either.

If we were to attempt to separate the three, the issues of class and gender are, for me, more physically and emotionally pressing than philosophy. When I try to understand the world philosophically, I may marvel at the wonders of existence and language, but I rarely try to correct the grammar or become angry at language itself. The fact that there is logic and language, and the very existence of the world—these fundamental conditions seem too colossal to call them human disasters. (In Breasts and Eggs, I offered the possibility that these issues could be connected to the human disaster of childbirth.) 

But it’s different when you try to observe the world from the perspective of gender and class. There are issues that need to be rectified, there is clear anger, and these are rooted in physical pain that is very real (of course, there are philosophical questions that cause pain too). Within my work, these three inseparable pillars function as major sources of motivation.

MG Let’s go back to the narrator for a moment, who considers having an operation to fix his eyes. Kojima sees this as a betrayal—she believes if he has “normal” eyes, he will leave her behind. As she becomes more rooted in her way of seeing, the narrator opens to new interpretations of meaning, even from one of his tormentors who offers up his own philosophy for “why”. But is the narrator’s evolution in thinking the kind of progress that should make us hopeful? I can’t help but think it is a warning to the reader. 

MK Kojima gradually begins to resemble a martyr, and her transformation leaves the narrator to feel confused, sad, and uncomfortable. In the end, he becomes so torn to the point that he cannot tell apart the claims of Momose and Kojima, who are supposed to be on opposite spectrums. The narrator’s decision may be interpreted in many ways—as a warning against the dangers of being a fundamentalist, or as a questioning of whether moderation is sufficient in such a situation.

MG I love the way you write the narrator’s mundane relationship to his desire, the mechanical nature of his ejaculations. In some ways, the myth of Heaven seems like the male orgasm, building up to something that is momentary and ultimately meaningless. In the final scene, which I cannot stop thinking about, Kojima’s body is used as a device for the narrator to test his ethics—how much will he stand before he acts? In many ways, this novel is about a young man’s journey of self-actualization. Can you speak about Kojima in general and her role in the narrator’s “hero’s journey”? Is she a prop, used as a buttress for his transformation? 

MK A novel should be read from various perspectives and angles. When viewed critically through today’s feminist standards, Heaven could indeed be read as portraying Kojima as a tool for male self-realization. Perhaps some readers may be troubled by the fact that the central characters are male and female in the first place. As an author, I cannot judge what is the right or wrong reading; I believe that a work can only be how the readers receive it. The evaluation of a work should be updated as many times as possible from the present perspective. 

If the characters in this novel were to be assigned roles, the narrator, Kojima, and Momose might signify religion, friendship, and ethics, respectively. Kojima is faithful to Nietzsche’s interpretation of Christianity, and she keeps “recruiting” the narrator, so to speak. With the words, “We are friends,” she appears before the narrator as the embodiment of “neighborly love,” a more universalized version of Judaism. In this relationship, which is not romantic but one of solidarity, how will weakness and strength, and good and evil take shape? These questions are what I had in mind when I wrote the novel.

However, with regards to Kojima, I feel confident that I have written an individual with solid details and agency, and not a typical girl that is often portrayed in such stories. At the very least, Kojima is not a formulaic existence of a girl, nor is she a convenient, sexual object for the narrator. Because the novel is written in the first-person, the ending may be read as if the narrator becomes a “hero” by transforming and going out into the other side of the world—but I don’t think that’s all of it. It’s quite possible that Kojima undergoes an even bigger transformation than the narrator and has become a “hero” herself. To me, she is not a tragic figure at all.

MG I heard you discuss in an interview the writer Higuchi Ichiyō, who was writing in Japan at the end of the ninteenth century. You spoke about how, even though she was born one hundred years before you, you are able to understand contemporary Japanese society through her work better than in modern novels. This is particularly interesting to me, as readers in the US will be reading Heaven twelve years after you first published it in Japan. Does it make a difference that the book is being released now, during a global pandemic, in light of mounting protests in Japan and the US against sexism, racism, isolation, and police violence? Or are the themes you explore everlasting, changeable only as humans have changed, slowly, incrementally, barely at all?

MK This interview has given me the opportunity to remember and think about Heaven twelve years after its original release. Strangely, I don’t feel that much time has passed. Of course, the Great East Japan Earthquake and the global pandemic have brought so many changes, but I feel that the fundamental problems still remain untouched. I feel ambivalent about this, thinking on the one hand that there needs to be more fundamental changes, and on the other a certain acceptance that of course things will not change after a mere twelve years. 

At the same time, I’ve been overwhelmed by the enthusiastic responses Heaven has already received from readers overseas, and it reminded me of the fervent response the novel received when it originally came out in Japan twelve years ago. It’s encouraging to feel the readers’ excitement that they have encountered a universal story that transcends gender, language, environment, and customs. If this novel could connect with readers in meaningful ways, I cannot imagine a greater happiness.

MG What would you hope a writer would learn about their world from reading your work, one hundred years from now? 

MK It’s hard to imagine what the world would look like a hundred years from now, but there’s nothing in particular that I would want people to learn from my work. I would be happy if people could imagine the past and experience what life was like back then—the conversations, the sorrow, the emotions. To leave behind a memory that cannot be put into words, a flickering image, a moment of poetry… these are what books could ever hope for.

Finally, I’d like to thank you, Makenna, for this interview filled with love and passion. I read your messages and questions over and over again, and it filled my heart with joy to imagine how you read my work. Each question was so deep, filled with love, and thoughtful. I was so impressed from beginning to end. Thank you very much. 

In addition, I would like to thank my two translators, David Boyd and Sam Bett, for making this opportunity possible. I would also like to thank Hitomi Yoshio for translating this interview, and Miwako Ozawa for being my assistant. And of course, to all my editors and agents. It was the collective effort by these people that allowed my novel and my voice to be delivered to you. 

Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Heaven is available for purchase here.

Makenna Goodman is the author of The Shame, which was named a Harvard Review Favorite Book of 2020, a White Review Recommended Read, a Refinery29 Best New Book, a Literary Hub Recommended Read, a Bustle Most Anticipated Book, a Boston.com Book Club Pick, and more. She has written for the New York Review of Books, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Electric Literature, Literary Hub, Catapult, Harvard Review, the White Review, and others.

Hitomi Yoshio is Associate Professor of Global Japanese Literary and Cultural Studies at Waseda University. Her research includes women writers, feminist literary communities in late 19th and early 20th century Japan, and the work of Mieko Kawakami. Yoshio’s translations of Kawakami’s short stories and essays have appeared in Granta, Freeman’s, Monkey Business, Denver Quarterly, Words without Borders, Wasafiri and The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories.


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