February 26, 2013

Literary roster as mirror: the Tokyo International Literature Festival


Shh, look, a reader! Quick, unleash the authors!

This spring, Tokyo reminds us all of their status as one of the world’s cultural capitals with an impressive new International Literature Festival. The festival is slated to run March 1st – 3rd, and includes some standard readings and discussions as well as some innovative twists. As reported in The Japan Times

[N]ovelist Shinji Ishii will be taking his work to the streets — or, rather, to the rails. Ishii is known for his sonoba shōsetsu, or “fiction of a specific place.” He creates short works of fiction on the spot, inspired by the place he’s in, whether it’s a cafe, a temple or the stage of a former strip club. He writes longhand and reads out loud as he goes. He will live-write a piece in the most novel of the festival’s venues: a fully rented-out carriage on the Toden Arakawa streetcar.


“[Yoshitaka] Haba will also take over the loudspeaker of one of Shinjuku’s largest department stores (to be revealed soon) during the festival and replace the usual announcements to shoppers with Japanese poetry.”

Festival organizer David Karashima tells the Japan Times that in many ways the festival is more than an effort to get authors together in one place, but an effort to break down resistance to books and events framed as too literary.

“Readings and book-discussion groups are just starting to take off, though it’s mostly been for business books,” he says. “We want to grab those readers who are already looking for that shared experience and expand the kinds of books they reach out for.”

The line-up for the festival is decidedly impressive, including names like J.M. Coetzee, Junot Diaz, Pico Iyer, Nicole Krauss, Geoff Dyer and Deborah Treisman alongside Japanese literary stars like Risa Wataya and Shuntaro Tanikawa. One could hardly choose a better line-up to help kick off a new literary venture.

The roster of names is also a strong statement about the current image of Japanese literature on the world stage. It is a peculiar thing: the festival seems to be importing international impressions of the nation’s literary tropes back into the nation itself. The Japanese authors are the exception: they seem to be excitingly varied, with a broad range of professions—authors, translators, editors, a bookseller, a few from that peculiar atopos that exists in Japan where any sort of fame transforms one into a “personality”—and a broad range of ages. But the international personalities would seem to have in common an affinity of some sort or another with another whose name is not on the roster: Haruki Murakami. Some, like Jonathan Safran Foer, could be said to write in a loosely playful vein akin to Murakami’s work. Chip Kidd designs Murakami’s books here in the U.S.  Lexy Bloom has edited him and Treisman, of course, has published him in The New Yorker. It is not a general rule. David Peace and Pico Iyer stand apart from Murakamiana, though their own work has involved Japan heavily.

It is not wrong to populate a festival with a given circle or style of writer. And certainly, Murakami is a Japanese writer. The roots of his style go back to Akutagawa and long before. Perhaps these authors and editors who’ve worked beside him are popular in their own right in japan. It is simply interesting, and perhaps unavoidable, that so much of a nation’s International Literary Festival should seem, from the outside, to be flavored to compliment international tastes in that nation’s literature.


Dustin Kurtz is the marketing manager of Melville House, and a former bookseller.