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  • Yuki Tejima

Yoko Ogawa on Why She Writes

Earlier this year, I read an essay by widely-revered Japanese author Yoko Ogawa where she said something to the effect of: “Writing novels is about facing death.”

I could only imagine, with 100% vagueness, what that meant, especially when novelist Hiromi Kawakami, in an unrelated interview from an unrelated year, said the same thing.

Since reading those words a few months ago, I feel I’ve been subconsciously seeking an answer to that question.

In two in-depth conversations between Ogawa and Dr. Hayao Kawai, a renowned Japanese Jungian psychologist described as "the founder of Japanese Analytical and Clinical Psychology", the author cites her meeting with the great teacher (who passed away in 2007 at age 79) as a turning point in her life as a novelist.

The conversations took place in 2005 and 2006, shortly after her bestselling novel The Housekeeper and the Professor was turned into a film.

Kawai, a former high school math teacher himself, watched the film and wrote a recommendation for her novel.

Unfortunately, he passed away before they could complete the last third of their conversation. The first two lengthy conversations, as well as an essay by Ogawa, has been compiled into this book, translated loosely (by me for this blog post) as To Live is to Create Your Own Story.

The following excerpt, which I’ve translated loosely, as an official translation seems not to exist, was written by Yoko Ogawa as Part 3 of the book.

In it I found a clue as to why she says “writing novels is about facing death”.

I made my novelist debut relatively early, in my mid-20s, and the most difficult question I faced in interviews was, “Why do you write novels?” No matter how it was worded, whenever I was asked to speak about my own novels, I had a fear I would be found out, that people would see I didn’t have a clear idea as to why I write.
Am I writing for myself?
That felt wrong, instinctively. If I were writing solely because there was something in my inexperience that I wanted to get out into the open, I knew I would quickly run out of ideas.
So am I writing for others?
If I said aloud that I was, I felt it could be interpreted as a declaration that writers ought to cater to their readers, and that didn’t feel like my truth either.
If I had given the question any real thought, I would come to the conclusion that I didn’t need to be able to explain my reason. But I was young and wanted to impress my interviewers, even if I had nothing to impress them with. Instead of letting the the interviewers’ words echo inside of me and listening closely for an answer, I was swinging the bat wildly, hoping to hit the ball in any way I could.
That was about the time I came into contact with Professor Kawai’s works, and learned his interpretation of a “story”.
Stories are necessary for us to be able to come to terms with our fears and sorrows, and the one question that cannot be answered logically. That is, all lives end in death. And finding something in nothing, which is essentially what telling a story is, is the only way to understand the existence of death. Only by having a story are people able to connect the body and soul, the outer and inner worlds, the conscious and unconscious, into one.
In the form of a story, we are able to put into words the chaos of our deepest darkest places.
To live, then, is to create a story that suits each one of us.
Through this interpretation, I was able to take in, without stress or burden at the core of my soul, my reasons for writing.
Oh, I realized. I’m not writing novels because I’m a novelist. Every person is creating their stories by living life, and I write those stories down because I am human.
Why do you write? is like asking, Why do you live?
I write stories because I cannot explain them. (p125-128)

She owes much of this discovery to Dr. Kawai, stating that meeting him and his works were a turning point for her.

Now, Ogawa is not only one of Japan’s most-read contemporary novelists, her works have captivated, stunned really, readers around the world.

I’ve read and reread many of her works this year as The Memory Police was released in English (translated by the great Stephen Snyder) and became a National Book Award contender.

Here are my mini-reviews on Instagram: The Memory Police, The Housekeeper and the Professor, and the non-translated The Professor’s Bookshelf.

That’s it for me today. Thanks as always, for reading to the end.


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