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  • Yuki Tejima

Kaori Ekuni on Writing the Details of Your Life

This summer I attended a talk at a Tokyo bookstore with beloved Japanese novelist Kaori Ekuni, in conversation with famous literary translator Motoyuki Shibata. The names may or may not ring a bell, but what they talked about, I think, will make sense wherever you are in the world.

A young woman in the audience asked the 55-year-old Ekuni, a Naoki Prize winner who debuted in 1985 and now has over one hundred books to her name, where she writes her novels.

Does she write at home, or have an office, or write in cafes? Ekuni is one of Japan’s most well-known writers, period. We want to how she does it.

She replied, “I write at home. I can only write at home, because I write my novels by hand. It would be too heavy to carry all those papers around.”

“If I somehow learned to use a computer,” she continued, “I’m sure my writing would become more…efficient. Less useless details.”

That’s when Motoyuki Shibata (a frequent Haruki Murakami collaborator who is prolific in his own right) piped up with, “Then please don’t ever learn!” The packed house nodded its collective head. “Because a novel is all about the seemingly useless details.”

Ekuni agreed. She had just shared an excerpt from her new novel that included the following description of a Nashville apartment, encountered for the first time by two young women traveling across the US in her novel Kanojotachi no Baaiwa (In Their Case), not yet translated into English. They’d been given the keys by a new friend Haley, who they’d met on the road.

Here, the apartment’s contents:

a red plastic lip-shaped sofa, a coffee table with an empty pizza box, lid open, piles of clothes, books, empty cans, magazines, CDs along the wall. A gym bag with a towel hanging out, cushions, a clown doll, a hair dryer and phone (land-line) and CD player and ballpoint pens and notepads and one ashtray and a bag full of plastic forks, a real (she thinks) rugby ball, off-season flip-flops, small bags of almonds, framed movie posters, numerous remote controls on the floor, scissors and nail polish bottles.

(From“Kanojotachi no Baaiwa (In Their Case)” - P 234)

These details tell us about the owner of the room and the two girls journeying across America without their parents.

Seeing what mundane American (in this case) things become objects of interest to a Japanese reader, we might imagine the plainest details of a Japanese teenager’s room - fake eyelashes, colored contacts, photo stickers, empty boba cups, TikTok lighting equipment, miniature portable fans, etc. - to see a new world open before your eyes.

That’s the joy of reading translation.

One person’s mundane is another person’s treasure. But we would never know it, unless these novelists wrote about them.

So, do tell.

What seemingly mundane details in your life tell your life story? They’re everywhere, if we remember to look.

Like the just-right cup of cafe au lait in a Tokyo cafe as I write this, sitting next to a not-young couple on a first date, giggling and making awkward conversation loud enough to make the people around them blush.

When I’ve heard just enough of their audible sweet nothings, I pop in my earphones and search for a song that will get me writing.

I land on Galileo by the Indigo Girls.

A song that takes me back to an evening jog through Central Park in NYC a few years ago when the duo was playing SummerStage in the park’s outdoor venue. When I’d heard that familiar intro, I’d flopped onto the nearest lawn and listened, hard as I could. I remember the sentimental mood I was in, who I was missing right then, how far I’d come since my best friends and I played the song repeatedly in our cars during high school.

We’ve come a long way. It wouldn’t hurt to remember that once in awhile.

Thanks for reading this today. Here’s to the details.


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