As we progress further into the 21st century, it is almost baffling that human beings still put so much stock into race and/or nationality. Because it is getting confusing.
Perhaps 200 years ago, when the only human beings you had a chance of producing offspring with lived in a fifty-mile radius, it made sense to identify with people of a certain place or look. I am from here, these are my people; those are the others. But these days, trying to identify in such terms often leads only to bewilderment and oversimplifications. I had this one friend in high school. He was half-Thai and half-Bulgarian, but he was born in Japan and grew up there until he went to high school and college in America. What does he consider himself? What do others consider him? How does he see himself? Where is he from? Does it even matter to him? When the answers are this complicated, do the questions themselves mean anything anymore?
These are some of the issues that Dany LaFerrière addresses in I Am a Japanese Writer, his latest novel to be translated into English. I Am a Japanese Writer is about a black writer in Montreal who sells his latest book to his publisher based on the title alone—I Am a Japanese Writer. So does it mean anything to the reader to know that Dany LaFerrière is, in fact, a black writer living in Montreal who has written a book called I Am a Japanese Writer?
What we have here is not a memoir, of course, but a meta-fictional vehicle in which to explore issues of racial and national identity. The novel begins with the unnamed narrator getting a call from his publisher looking for the next book in the narrator’s contract. The narrator has no such next book, and looking at all the junk littering his editor’s desk, he pulls a title out of his head: I Am a Japanese Writer. His publisher loves it, but to the narrator it’s nothing special at all, telling the reader: “It was pretty banal, actually—except for the word ‘Japanese.’ And that was no joke: I really do consider myself a Japanese writer.” He starts telling people randomly on the street about how he is a Japanese writer:
On my way out, just to gauge his reaction, I tell him, “I am a Japanese writer.”
His eyes cut back to me.
“How’s that? You changed nationality?”
“No. That’s the title of my new book.”
A worried glance at his assistant, a young man busy wrapping fish. My fishman never looks at the person he’s speaking to.
“Do you have the right?”
“To write the book?”
“No. To say you’re Japanese.”
“I don’t know.”
“Are you going to change your nationality?”
“No way . . . I already did that once, that’s enough.”
“We should find out about that.”
“I don’t know, at the Japanese embassy . . . Can you imagine me waking up one morning and telling my customers I’m a Polish butcher?”
“I’d think you’d be a Polish fishman, since you’re in fish.”
“Anything but a Polish fishman,” he answers, turning back to the next customer.
The rest of the novel follows the narrator doing everything except writing the book. He constantly is reading the Japanese poet Basho or evading his landlord. He befriends a Japanese musician named Midori and her entourage, even getting mixed up in one of their suicides. But even so, word spreads of his latest book until it causes an uproar in Japan. Members of the Japanese embassy start visiting him to help him go to Japan, learn about it, so as to better write his book, but as the fervor for his book grows more and more intense, the narrator becomes increasingly desperate to escape the attention.
I Am a Japanese Writer is written almost like a noir—the tone is dark, and the plot almost Kafkaesque in its gritty lunacy. David Homel deserves credit for his excellent translation in keeping the tone of the work consistent and for rendering various cultural nuances and artifacts clear and recognizable in American English. But the novel is at the same time incredibly fun to read, with an absurdism that makes the novel both incredibly funny and at the same time nightmarish. What else is there to do but utter a bewildered laugh when a character named Haruki Murakami, the same name as the most popular and famous Japanese writer in recent memory, is a black, gay New Yorker?
It is a recurring element throughout the novel: nearly every Japanese person in the book, regardless of who they are or what they do, is named after a famous Japanese writer or cultural figure. In fact, all cultures and peoples in the novel are portrayed using the most obvious clichés and stereotypes. For as the narrator himself tells us, “the problem with being a foreigner is that you’re not allowed to play anything but folklore.”
By using these deliberately clichéd elements, I Am a Japanese Writer offers an amusing and very readable analysis on the flimsiness of racial identity, and illustrates the power literature has to transcend ideas of race. The ideas would work well without them, but the meta-fictional games LaFerrière uses bring a whole new depth and clarity to his arguments. As the narrator describes reading Mishima as a teenager:
I dove into the universe set before me the way I dove into the little river not far from my house. I hardly even noticed his name, and it wasn’t until long afterward that I realized he was Japanese. At the time, I firmly believed that writers formed a lost tribe and spent their lives wandering the world and telling stories in all languages. That was their sentence for some unnamable crime . . .
I don’t understand all the attention paid to a writer’s origins. Because, for me, Mishima was my neighbor. Very naturally, I repatriated the writers I read at the time. All of them. Flaubert, Goethe, Whitman, Shakespeare, Lope de Vega, Cervantes, Kipling, Senghor, Cesaire, Roumain, Amado, Diderot—they all lived in my village. Otherwise, what were they doing in my room? Years later, when I became a writer and people asked me, “are you a Haitian writer, a Caribbean writer or a French-language writer? I answered without hesitation: I take on my reader’s nationality. Which means that when a Japanese person reads me, I immediately become a Japanese writer.
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