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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

An I-Novel

Mizumura Minae

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To purchase An I-Novel

Title: An I-Novel
Author: Mizumura Minae
Genre: Novel
Written: 1995 (Eng. 2021)
Length: 325 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: An I-Novel - US
An I-Novel - UK
An I-Novel - Canada
directly from: Columbia University Press
  • Japanese title: 私小説 from left to right
  • Translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter in collaboration with the author

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Our Assessment:

B+ : deeply introspective, with an impressive sweep; adeptly done

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Japan Times . 30/1/2021 Nicolas Gattig
New Statesman . 30/6/2021 Lola Seaton
The NY Times Book Rev. . 7/3/2021 Benjamin Moser
Wall St. Journal . 12/3/2021 Sam Sacks
World Lit. Today . Fall/2021 Erik R. Lofgren

  From the Reviews:
  • "More than anything, An I-Novel is a story of modern Japanese people navigating the great abroad, coming into their own as they learn to be global citizens. (...) Whatever truths An I-Novel may embellish, its yearning for equality and belonging should universally resonate with readers." - Nicolas Gattig, The Japan Times

  • "An I-Novel combines these two elements -- the drama of decision-making and interiority, or that which propels the reader and that which compels them -- in purified, vacuum packed form. (...) An I-Novel's structural exclusion of the English reader can seem a little punitive, but it can also be read as an oblique form of address." - Lola Seaton, New Statesman

  • "In an age of so many books about identity, An I-Novel stands out for the tough questions it poses. It's not difficult to read, since Mizumura is a fluent and entertaining writer. (...) Mizumura's books reclaim the particularity, the untranslatability, of her own language. And they do so without the slightest whiff of nationalism." - Benjamin Moser, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The friction that results from imposing a dual-language text onto a story about choosing between languages has been lost in An I-Novel. In fact, the book's untranslatability is a feature rather than a bug. (...) As translating failures go, then, this one is healthy and instructive." - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

  • "(V)isually challenging, narratively robust, and emotionally compelling. (...) Mizumura‚Äôs novel is a genuinely pleasing read, satisfying for its insights into a life between cultures, to be sure, but also for its resonances that affirm how similar are the concerns that occupy us all. The metaphorical cherry on top is that Mizumura is an exquisite storyteller, and hers is a story well worth reading." - Erik R. Lofgren, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Closely autobiographical, practically confessional fiction is not new to literature, but long before the French coined the term autofiction for this kind of writing the 'I-novel' -- 私小説 -- was already well-established in Japanese literature; it has been popular there for over a hundred years, with many notable authors offering examples of it. Mizumura Minae's An I-Novel easily lives up to its title: narrated by a 'Minae Mizumura' and chronicling experiences closely matching the author's biography, it is a model of the genre.
       Mizumura's is, however, an I-novel with a (practically literal) twist -- as its full Japanese title, 私小説 from left to right (i.e. 'An I-novel, written left to right'), suggests. The writing in Japanese books is presented vertically, the characters read top to bottom rather left to right on the page, but, as translator Juliet Winters Carpenter explains in her introductory note, in this case: "the book was written and printed not vertically but horizontally, from left to right" -- i.e. like (essentially) all English-language books are (and, indeed, like this translation is). The main reason for this is that the original Japanese incorporates a great deal of text-in-English -- beginning, as you can see, with the *Japanese* title -- and it is very cumbersome to read that printed vertically.
       The different aspect of the writing/printing will already have been jarring to Japanese readers (though it does not make the text harder to read/follow; Japanese readers are used to Japanese text being printed left to right, too), but of course it is the extensive use of English -- even if generally in the form of individual words and short sentences, and sprinkled through the text, rather than in larger blocks -- that makes for a truly different reading experience. (A page of the Japanese(/English) original text is helpfully reproduced at the beginning of the book, allowing English-speaking readers to get an idea of what it looks like.) Carpenter notes that An I-Novel was even: "promoted in Japan as the nation's "first bilingual novel'"; that may be something of an exaggeration -- the original text can largely be read without any, or with very limited, English-reading abilities; much reveals itself phonetically, so familiarity with the Roman alphabet alone would go a long way already. Nevertheless, this extensive use of English makes for an obvious, enormous problem in presenting the novel in English translation. The solution Carpenter and Mizumura have come up with is to leave the original English text as is but print it in bold, easily differentiating it from the text that was originally in Japanese. (A few Japanese characters, names, and words -- kanji, hiragana, and katakana -- are also sprinkled into the translation, but always with an English-translation gloss/explanation (the very limited exception being a few examples late on of the young Minae copying a few examples of a Japanese writing she only has limited command of over and over -- the family's old Tokyo address, for example).) The bold bits of text are naturally somewhat jarring for English-speaking readers, but then that's the desired effect; while the text-bits do not strike the readers as 'different' in the same way they presumably do readers of the original Japanese text, they at least force the reader to see it as distinct, in juxtaposition to the rest of the text. It is an excellent solution to this particular translation-issue, and proves effective.
       An I-Novel is also a single-day novel, Mizumura's account anchored in the events of a single day -- "Friday, December 13, 198X", as the opening words of the novel specify -- that lead to a great deal of reflection on past, present, and future. [The year, oddly not specified, is 1983 (even though the thirteenth did not fall on a Friday that year ...); see below.]
       It is an anniversary date: twenty years, to the day, that Mizumura -- then twelve --, her sister Nanae, two years older, and her mother flew to the United States to join their father, soon to settle into the house on Long Island where the girls then grew up. Much has changed since then: the father, in poor physical condition, is now in a nearby nursing home; the mother left family and country two years earlier to take up with a man in Singapore; the Long Island house has been sold. Both the daughters are currently unattached, though they both had live-in boyfriends until fairly recently. Nanae, who had studied piano but gave that up is now a would-be sculptor, living with her two cats in a Soho loft she can barely afford. And Minae lives alone in a nearby town, a graduate student in French at an elite university who has completed her coursework but has repeatedly put off taking her orals, and is unsure about going on to write a dissertation. (The university is Yale, the place New Haven, though never identified by name.)
       The events of the day -- the 13 December 198x -- are fairly simple and routine. Nanae plans to visit their father in the afternoon, and she and Minae talk on the phone repeatedly during the day; Nanae wants to make sure Minae is coming over for Christmas. Minae decides she can't put off making a decision about taking her orals any longer, and she contacts the people who have to be informed. Somewhat conveniently, by day's end, Minae receives a letter from their mother, in which the mother also considers the options for the future, and how that might affect the various family members -- husband, daughters. It's cold, and it begins to snow heavily, eventually blanketing everything in white.
       An I-Novel is a crossroads novel, the twenty-year anniversary of her coming to America a convenient point for the now thirty-two-year-old Minae to take stock, and to try to decide on what she would like to do with her life -- and, equally, important, where. She went to art college before studying French, but she is unenthusiastic about pursuing an academic career. What she would like to do -- what she has been eager to try for a long time -- is to write a novel. And she would like to write it in Japanese.
       Minae has always retained a strong bond to her original homeland, and especially its literature, from the time they arrived in the United States. As her sister recalls in one of their phone calls on this long day, when Minae mentions her novel-writing ambition:

I know you love Japan and everything. Boy, that's been your passion ... or rather, your obsession for, oh, I don't know how many years. Japanese this and Japanese that and I never hear the end of it. But writing in Japanese is another matter.
       It is an issue: while retaining her fluency in the spoken language, Minae barely has any practice writing it, especially the complex kanji characters; even already in high school she had lamented how she was: "rapidly forgetting how to write even ones I had learned in grade school". The teenage Minae had immersed herself in Japanese literature, spending whatever time she could in doing the one thing that allowed her to remain connected to what they had left, reading the wonderful haul of classics that the family fortunately had on hand on Long Island; she was fully literate -- but writing is, of course, a different matter. Still, Minae insists to Nanae: "My English is worse".
       More fundamentally, as Minae points out: "The problem has always been simple: to return or not to return". The family had always expected to return to Japan, but as the years went on they remained stateside. Minae did not even visit Japan again until she was college-age -- though after that she did travel back and forth more frequently -- and once on the American educational track, higher education in Japan was largely out of reach (the exam-based entry into the system almost impossible for those not drilled in Japan to crack). Nominally still a student, Minae must consider her next steps -- whereby completing her orals would then be sufficient credential to obtain some kind of academic posting in Japan, should she wish to pursue that route.
       Minae mulls over her novel-writing ambitions -- unsure even what she could write about. With her reading long so steeped in classical Japanese literature, much of which even contemporary Japanese readers rarely bothered with, she may well be out of step in yet another way; meanwhile, she tells her sister:
     "I know. But I don't want to write about life in America." My life in America had always seemed unreal. Words I learned from old Japanese novels evoked a world far more real to me
       Nanae, meanwhile, suggests:
How about something like My Insane Youth in America. Write something that'll be on the bestseller list. Be famous.
       An I-Novel is then very much about Minae's (and Nanae's) experience of growing up and living in the United States, as much of the book looks back on earlier times and the two girls' paths to their current points. It's hardly an 'insane youth' Minae had, but still a quite striking one. Throughout, she sees herself very much as other, no matter what. Obviously, beginning school with barely any English already made her aware of her other-ness, but it continues through to adulthood, with Minae describing many examples of her and Nanae in situations where it comes into play. As she sums up:
     Where we lived, being Asian never caused us any particular difficulty, but neither could we ever forget that that's what we were. It was less an awareness than a sensation. The moment I crossed the threshold on the way out of my apartment, the sensation came over me like a clinging shadow.
       An interesting feature in the novel is Mizumura's willingness to consider other perspectives -- how others might have experienced certain situations. There are several instances where she describes situations and then realizes that, from another perspective, it might have looked and been interpreted completely differently: "It made far more sense to look at the situation from the other side".
       She also considers a variety of others' experiences, from Nanae's Polish boyfriend to those of other Asians. Looking back to her schooldays, she also mentions the black students (only eight in a class of five hundred at her lily-white high school) and teachers at her school. Some of this unfortunately comes across uncomfortably -- saying that the wife of one of the black teachers, invited as an outside speaker, spoke: "with perfect command of white people's English (as did he)" is among the most cringeworthy sentences in the novel .....
       Despite some awareness of these issues, it is striking how rarely Minae looks beyond experiences in her close proximity: the social and political situation in the United States, especially during Minae's formative years, is passed by practically without a mention. There's nothing about the Black Power Movement, the notable assassinations of the times, such as of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, or Robert Kennedy, or really anything about the Vietnam War. Even in their protected corner of Long Island, one might have expected some of this to trickle through -- but the omission also simply further emphasizes how Minae was elsewhere -- not least, in the other-world of those classical Japanese novels. Her world isn't entirely interior, but it's notable what parts -- because so many -- of the broader American experience barely rate a passing mention.
       Interestingly, beyond her teen experiences, Minae also does not describe her own path to the present-day that closely. She mentions going to art school in Boston -- living there with Nanae -- and then taking up French, but there's little explanation what sent her down this path (or much from it, except the most recent experiences). Instead, she focuses more on Nanae, in whom their mother had always invested more, hopes and all, first fostering her piano career and then hoping for a good match for her, with neither panning out. Nanae's experiences going back to Japan to visit the family of the man she envisioned marrying -- it did not go well -- are also one of the major markers in the girls' ongoing debate of whether they want to or would be able to return to Japan.
       Mizumura weaves a compelling tale out of this, quite effortlessly moving back and forth between past and present-day (literally: day), introducing a variety of friends and acquaintances in passing -- none of whom she ever is really close to. There are long, drawn-out scenes of her telephone conversations with Nanae, on this and other days, and other experiences together; clearly, her connection with her sister is by far the closest in her life, even as the sisters are very different. There are sharp, well-drawn reminiscences from childhood, school, and university -- as well as a few of Nanae's too --, while all the while there's the tension of the decisions of the moment: should she take her orals ? should she abandon academia and try to write a novel ? should she return to Japan ? (and what to do with invalid dad -- or, for that matter, the somewhat hapless Nanae ...). Recurring, too, is that constant theme and obsession, and its present-day ramifications: "All I ever read was Japanese", Minae admits (though in fact she does give other examples, of texts she was presented with at school -- and then, of course, there's the fact that she's been studying French literature for the past few years). Still, she continues to wonder:
     But years later the question kept coming back to me: why, oh why had I always rebelled so vehemently against English and clung so passionately to Japanese ?
       An I-Novel is her reckoning with that -- and, with its express, very prominent inclusion of English, proves to be a fascinating way of dealing with her languages and her experience. An I-Novel was not Mizumura's first novel -- as Carpenter notes in her Introduction, the first was 続 明暗, in which Mizumura daringly completed Natsume Sōseki's great unfinished work, Light and Dark -- a full immersion in the classical-modern Japanese literary tradition. An I-Novel, then, is a full turn inwards -- an embrace of an often-used form, but adapted to Mizumura's own particular circumstances (complete with her being situated in an English-language environment for such a significant part and time of her life, as well as the Japanese literature that she turned and clung to all the while).
       It is a fascinating literary experiment, but also a fascinating exploration of identity, place, language, and self; some of Mizumura's story (and narrative approach) will be familiar to readers of her other translated books, but this is the most thorough examination of self and family. (It should be noted, however, that it's not entirely revealing: the father-figure remains almost entirely a secondary one and, as noted, Mizumura's art-school, college, and most of her graduate school experiences are barely mentioned.) If limited in some of its perspectives (and occasionally well-(self-)aware of that), An I-Novel is a very fine novel of the experience of growing up between (more so than in) two cultures -- cultures which were, on top of it, much more markedly different at that time -- and of trying to find one's place, in every respect.

       (Note: the novel is quite clearly set in 1983 -- even if the 13 December didn't fall on a Friday that year, and even though the weather was positively balmy that day (though a cold front soon swept in). Aside from being the actual twentieth anniversary of Mizumura's arrival in the United States, Minae also mentions that one of the reasons she has put off her orals is because she's unsure whether her main advisor (whom she calls: "Herr Professor") would be able to preside at her orals, as he's been in hospital, gravely ill; indeed, things did not look good, she's told during the course of this day. Although not named, that advisor was, of course, Mizumura's too: Paul de Man; he passed away 21 December 1983.
       Note also: it's interesting to see that the narrator (and author) are presented as 'Minae Mizumura' -- i.e. written Western- rather than Japanese style -- the explanation being, as a 'Note on Names' at the end of the book spells out: "Except for the name of the author, who has an established identity in English, Japanese names are rendered family name first, as custom dictates in Japan".)

- M.A.Orthofer, 10 February 2021

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An I-Novel: Reviews: Mizumura Minae: Other books by Mizumura Minae under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Mizumura Minae (水村 美苗) was born in 1951.

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© 2021 the complete review

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