WIT Life is a periodic series written by professional Writer/Interpreter/Translator Stacy Smith (Kumamoto-ken CIR, 2000-03). She starts her day by watching Fujisankei’s newscast in Japanese, and here she shares some of the interesting tidbits and trends together with her own observations.
Last week I had the chance to see English author David Mitchell at Symphony Space. He appeared with several actors who read short stories he had selected as some of his favorites, and then Campbell Scott read a sample from his novel Cloud Atlas. Mitchell was alternatively humorous and self-deprecating, and he offered many insights into what had grabbed him about the short stories he had picked as well as the way he pursues his craft.
Cloud Atlas is actually composed of six interlocking novellas that span centuries and characters, and they are connected by the theme of souls being reborn in different places and times. Cloud Atlas is challenging to read at times, but really fascinating stuff so totally worth it. The movie version is being released later this week, and I’m very eager to see how much of this comprehensive work they will be able to translate to the screen, even when taking significant liberties with the plot.
Mitchell most recent novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, is set at the turn of the 19th century on the island of Dejima off of Nagasaki. The main character has come to this Dutch trading post to gain some wealth before heading home, but while there he falls in love with a Japanese midwife and learns about some truly evil happenings taking place. The story lacks the complicated setup of Cloud Atlas, but is just as absorbing.
After reading Thousand Autumns with our JETAA book club, I was curious to know why Mitchell was able to paint such a rich picture of a specific location in Japan during a particular historical period. It turns out that like many of us, Mitchell was greatly influenced by spending time in Japan. In the early 90s he lived in Hiroshima, and it was there that he wrote his first novel (which he ended up getting rid of). He began working on something new, and the fruits of this labor became his first published novel, Ghostwritten. It features a section set in Tokyo, and this city is also the backdrop for his second novel, Number9Dream (dedicated to his wife Keiko, with whom he now lives in Ireland with their two children). Inspiration for Thousand Autumns came when Mitchell went to Nagasaki in 1994 and stumbled on Dejima by accident by misreading a map and getting off at the wrong streetcar stop.
In an interesting essay written during his time as a gaijin in Japan, Mitchell begins by saying, “I knew I wanted to be a writer since I was a kid, but until I came to Japan to live in 1994 I was too easily distracted to do much about it. I would probably have become a writer wherever I lived, but would I have become the same writer if I’d spent the last 6 years in London, or Cape Town, or Moosejaw, on an oil rig or in the circus? This is my answer to myself.”
An interesting question that all of us who have spent extensive time in Japan can ask ourselves: How did this experience change the trajectory of our lives?