Soseki Natsume: writer, a man long dead. We can rebuild him. We have the technology. We can make him better than he was: better, stronger, faster…
With 2016 marking the 100th anniversary of his death and next year celebrating his 150th birthday, this is perhaps an appropriate time to honor one of Japan’s greatest writers, Soseki Natsume. And what better way to pay tribute to the author of classics such as Kokoro and I Am a Cat than by making a robot of him?
That’s exactly what the Nishogakusha University Graduate School is planning. In 1881, a young Natsume was enrolled there and heavily influenced by their teachings of Chinese poetry and Confucianism. And to celebrate the institution’s 140th anniversary they are hoping for his return, only this time as “Soseki Android.”
First, a team of students at Nishogakusha will conduct in-depth research into Natsume’s life, revisiting not only his extensive written works and life story but also gathering information about his physical appearance and size for an accurate android. To help out, major newspaper Asahi Shimbun has agreed to allow them access to their large collection of photos and works of their former employee Soseki Natsume.
▼ Old-timers in Japan may remember Natsume as the guy on the 1,000 yen bill
Once the necessary information has been gathered, a team at the Osaka University Graduate School of Engineering Science will take on the challenge of building Soseki Android with the assistance of robotics company A-Lab, who made headlines with their Asuna android last year.
The sound of Soseki Android will be extracted from samples of his grandson Fusanosuke Natsume’s voice.
When the robot is complete, they hope to program him to give lectures at universities, high schools, and junior high schools. Understandably, a robotic Soseki Natsume might be a little too intense for elementary school kids.
The aim is to breathe life into his works by allowing the students to witness Soseki Natsume reading and discussing them first-hand. It is hoped this will inspire them to read and write more, improving their language skills.
There has been a successful anime, a trio of movies, various games and even a musical, but one form of media the Death Note series has been noticeably missing is a TV drama.
But just like an entry into the infamous Death Note itself, a one-line news report revealed that a live-action drama was finally in the works. And we’ll be seeing it a lot sooner than you think!
It’s been nine years since writer Tsugumi Ohba and artist Takeshi Obata finished their thrilling story of Light Yagami and L that answered the question, “What would you do if you could decide who died and when?”
For Light, the easily bored high school genius, he wanted to use the Death Note to cleanse the world of all evil, or what he judged as evil. His nemesis/counterpart, the eccentric, candy loving detective L, strongly opposed the killings, and tried to do whatever he could to stop “Kira”, Light’s alias.
With a continually strong fan base around the globe, it’s a bit of a surprise that a major announcement appeared between panels of a comic and with it, the only information that’s been released so far: a July start-date for the series.
What can we expect from the TV drama, though? The anime followed the manga storyline quite closely, while the live-action movies had a delightfully unexpected twist that kept true to the original manga but also kept it fresh for those familiar with the series. The musical is set to premiere on April 29 so it’s not yet known how the duel between Light and L will play out. Since it has been nine years since the completion of the manga, there has been plenty of time for writers to come up with variations on the plot to keep fans on the edge of their seats.
Casting news has also been suspiciously absent. Who will we see starting in the titular roles? The actors from the live-action movies haven’t played those parts for almost nine years, so it’s likely that they will cast new actors. Whoever they bring in though, will have a tough time trying to surpass Kenichi Matsuyama’s performance as L.
More information will certainly be released in the coming months…
Columbia University student Karen Bao’s science fiction novel Dove Arising was published by Penguin Random House in February 2015.
Bao’s story concerns a 15-year-old named Phaet Theta who joins a paramilitary force to save her family. The story takes place 200 years in the future on the moon. As Bao continues to pursue her career as an author, she finds balancing her undergraduate studies at Columbia University a welcomed challenge.
Bao is part of a growing trend of Asian American women authors and writers such as Celeste Ng, who is the author of Everything I Never Told You. Ng has begun to compile a list of just some of the other Asian American women authors.
“We definitely have a lot of stories as an Asian American community, and I think some of us definitely have to speak up and get our work published,” Bao said.
To read more about how Bao’s parents supported her writing efforts, click here
From the author of the critically acclaimed debut novel Monkey Bridge comes The Lotus and the Storm, another look at the Vietnam War and its aftermath, this time from the alternating perspectives of Mai, a law librarian in the D.C. area, and her father Minh, a former commander in the South Vietnamese army.
The book opens with a carefree, tranquil picture of 5-year-old Mai’s world — her elegant mother, affectionate father and adored older sister — all embraced within the walls of the family’s lush French colonial style villa in Cholon, Saigon’s sister city, in 1963. To Mai, war seems far away, despite her father’s “satiny eggplant color” and “boots, muddied and nicked” after months away. It is when we are jarred into the more recent present of Minh that we realize those halcyon days will indeed have been shattered by unspeakable loss and tragedy.
With many parallels to author Lan Cao’s own personal story, as well as that of her father — relatives on opposite sides of a civil war, the death of a sibling, political intrigue and near-death escapes, the long-term devastating effects of war — The Lotus and the Storm is an important piece of the Vietnam War story.
In 2008, 27-year-old Justin Go, who is hapa Japanese American, quit his job at a New York law firm to move to Berlin and chase his dream of becoming a novelist. Similarly, young Tristan Campbell, the protagonist in Go’s debut novel, also leaves his American life for an epic adventure in Europe. However, Tristan does not leave his familiar life in San Francisco to seek creative inspiration. He embarks on his adventure to claim a fortune.
The Steady Running of the Hour intertwines two tales: A love story and an epic quest. In one story, present-day Tristan only has weeks to prove that he is the descendant of Imogen Soames-Anderson. If he is successful, he will inherit a fortune. Meanwhile, the other story takes place nearly 90 years earlier in 1924. This revolves around the relationship between Imogen and Ashley Walsingham — the very relationship Tristan is desperately trying to prove.
As readers, we certainly get caught up in Tristan’s race against time, but it’s even easier to become invested in the tragic love story of Imogen and Ashley. The relationship is immediate and intense, but also controversial and shrouded in mystery. As Tristan unravels the story behind his could-be ancestors, he gains much more than he expected.
Details Hardcover, $26, simonandschuster.com.
This story was originally published in Audrey Magazine’s Winter 2014-15 issue. Get your copy here.
Among contemporary writers, there’s no Japanese author with a bigger international following than Haruki Murakami. The novelist and translator is also highly respected within his home country, as Japan holds an especially deep respect for any of its citizens who succeed in making a name for themselves on the international stage.
As such, we imagine one young graduate student was hoping for some sage advice when she contacted Murakami and asked him for pointers on how to become a better writer. The response she got was as surprising, unique, and challenging as Murakami’s books themselves.
Despite the exalted status he enjoys both in his industry and Japanese society as a whole, Murakami is open to engaging with his audience and admirers. The award-winning writer regularly takes questions from visitors and personally answers them on his personal website.
▼ In a section where Murakami is represented by a juice-swilling cat
Recently, a 23-year-old woman with the family name Sakurai wrote in with a special request.
“Hello, Mr. Murakami. I’ve always enjoyed reading your books. Currently I’m a graduate student, so I’ve got to deal with reports, presentation planning, and emails and letters to professors, and anyway I have to write a lot of compositions. But the fact is, I’m really not good at writing composition. But be that as it may, if I can’t write I can’t graduate and I’m in a tough position, so since it can’t be helped I do my writing while struggling and groaning. Is there nothing I can do to make writing easier? If you have any advice, like what you’d find in a composition primer, I would be most grateful for it.”
Considering that getting into graduate school in the first place is no mean feat, we’re going to give Ms. Sakurai the benefit of the doubt and assume she has a decent head on her shoulders, problems with the pen notwithstanding. Also, having shown the wherewithal to recognize her own academic shortcomings, plus the initiative in reaching out to someone who appears to be a more-than-qualified mentor, we’d also say she’s got the commitment and work ethic necessary to overcome her difficulties.
So how did the famous author respond?
“The act of writing is the same as sweet-talking a woman, in that you can get better, to an extent, with practice. Fundamentally, though, your abilities are determined by the talents you’ve been born with. Well, anyway, do your best.”
You could argue that the troubled graduate student should have seen this coming. Despite now having decades as a successful writer under his belt, Murakami doesn’t come from a particularly literary background. After studying theater in college, he ran a cafe and then a jazz club before suddenly getting it in his head that he could write a book. That idea became his debut work, Hear the Wind Sing, which met with immediate success upon being published when Murakami was already 30.
Hmm…you know, as we reread the author’s response, we’re not entirely sure whether or not the 66-year-old Murakami is subtly implying that he could charm the pants off the 23-year-old Sakurai, if he so chose. What we are certain of, though, is that his “advice” isn’t really any help at all.
Celeste Ng (center), surrounded by (clockwise, from top left):
Lan Samantha Chang, Nina McConigley, Hanya Yanagihara, Ru Freeman
This summer, I traveled around the U.S. to promote my debut novel, “Everything I Never Told You.” At one university where I’d been invited to speak, I asked the professor hosting me how he’d found me. He admitted he’d needed an Asian American woman fiction writer to balance his speaker lineup. “There aren’t a lot of you out there,” he said, with evident embarrassment.
Many universities and events deliberately try to select diverse speakers, and I think it’s a fine way to expose audiences to writers of different backgrounds. But I was startled to hear there weren’t many Asian American women fiction writers. Off the top of my head, I could think of several dozen.
Still, I’d heard similar statements throughout my book tour, in multiple cities: sometimes in delighted surprise at having found me, sometimes in disappointment at finding only me. I heard it enough to realize that even many serious readers — the kind of people who come to author readings on gorgeous summer evenings — just can’t name any Asian American women writers beyond the phenomenally well-known Amy Tan.
This blind spot is all the more surprising because 2014 has been full of attempts to highlight issues of diversity in literature, and to move the literary default away from, well, white men.
Early on, 2014 was designated the “Year of Reading Women.” Partly inspired by the annual VIDA count — which for four straight years has shown a huge gender disparity in major literary publications — the #ReadWomen2014 movement encouraged readers to do just that.
In May, Book Expo America was widely criticized when the initial lineup for BookCon, its public event, contained virtually no women and virtually no people of color. The#WeNeedDiverseBooks Campaign arose in response, to promote greater diversity in children’s and YA literature. (Full disclosure: I took part in a BookCon panel myself, in the awkward position of a woman of color who had actually been invited months before the controversy.)
The literary world has been exploding with talk about writers of color. Roxane Gay’s 2012 article “We Are Many. We Are Everywhere.” reignited the conversation surrounding their under-recognized voices, and was followed by an exciting Nation column aiming to improve coverage of these writers. In June, NPR criticized the publishing industry for staying “stubbornly white.” And just this week at the literAsian festival, Asian-Canadian novelist Madeleine Thein bemoaned the under-representation of writers of color in Canadian literary awards.
As a reader of color, I appreciate the attention given to this issue. One of the greatest rewards of reading is seeing yourself — your unarticulated hopes, dreams, and fears — rendered on the page in a way that is at once recognizable and enlightening. Though I loved to read growing up, for years I stayed away from writing by or about Asian Americans — partly because it was scarce, and partly because I feared I would find just more versions of Disney Mulans, Lucy Lius, and Amy Tans. I was suspicious that a book would turn out to be a literary fortune cookie — something that Americans recognize as Chinese, but that is absolutely foreign to actual people. I didn’t know what I was missing.
Let’s take a moment to thank the books that not only established my faith in the power of Asian American literature, but that also helped me finally see myself in literature as a young Chinese-American. Today, these books point to a robust tradition that is clamoring for new voices.
1. ‘Waiting’ by Ha Jin
“Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu.” So startsWaiting, Ha Jin‘s National Book Award-winning novel about love, loyalty, and a changing China under the Cultural Revolution. Lin Kong is a young doctor who waits 18 years for his peasant wife Shuyu to divorce him so that he may marry the love of his life, the educated and fashionable Manna. More than simply a stunning piece of writing, Waiting presents portraits of Chinese people so true that they may incite uncontrollable sobbing. Here are the secret heartbreaks and unfulfilled dreams of parents and grandparents, brutally and beautifully exposed.
Waiting was the first book I ever read by a Chinese-American writer, and it fulfilled an urge I didn’t know I had: to read books about people like myself and my family.
2. ‘A Thousand Years of Good Prayers’ by Yiyun Li
Yiyun Li‘s short stories are marvels. They are sometimes strange and twisted, but always deeply compassionate, illuminating the dark sides of history and the human soul with an almost impossible level of elegance. The stories are about China and Chinese America, but there is no air of exoticism or literary tourism. “Immortality,” a story in A Thousand Years of Good Prayersabout the rise and fall of a Mao look-alike, is one of the most astounding stories you will ever read.
A MacArthur fellow, Li was included in he New Yorker‘s list of 20 best writers under 40, and has received various other accolades. She is “the real deal” when it comes to Chinese-American fiction.
3. ‘A Gesture Life’ by Chang-Rae Lee
East Asian men are dealt a shoddy hand in American racial stereotyping; they are portrayed as quiet, passive, and unassertive at best. Doc Hata, the Japanese-American protagonist of A Gesture Life, seems at first to fit this profile snugly. But Chang-Rae Lee‘s strange, dark story of love, honor, and family makes these qualities feel as heroic and deeply human as the anti-sociability of Dostoyevky’s Underground Man.
Though Lee is better known for his breakout Korean-American novel, Native Speaker,his prose in A Gesture Life is his best, carrying the quiet seeping wonder of Marilynne Robinson or Kazuo Ishiguro. Its accumulative force is staggering.
4. ‘Mona in the Promised Land’ by Gish Jen
Asians can be funny! In fact, Asians can be hilarious. So proves Gish Jen in the laugh-so-hard-your-abs-hurt Mona in the Promised Land. The book centers on Mona, a Chinese-American high schooler who falls in love with a Japanese boy who can barely speak English, decides to convert to Judaism after he flips her (literally and metaphorically), starts to date a Communist “authentic inauthentic Jew,” helps her best friend harbor a homeless pancake flipper in her basement, and so forth. Mona goes beyond being a bizarre and incredibly witty tale. Through humor, it unapologetically presents the sorest and most politically incorrect issues of identity, race, and class.
5. ‘Coming of Age in Mississippi’ by Anne Moody
Now wait. This isn’t a book by an Asian American at all. This is an autobiography of a young African American woman who grows up in Mississippi at the start of the Civil Rights Movement!
That’s right. This book has absolutely nothing to do with me, a Chinese-American woman who has never lived in Mississippi, except for the fact that I picked it up at a garage sale when I was a kid and reread it well over a hundred times during the course of my adolescence. Why was I drawn to this book? And why is it on this list? Because as a young reader, I identified fiercely with stories of slavery and the Civil War as told in African American literature. For whatever reason, Asian American literature was not as abundant or available as these books when I was a child, and so this was what I picked up. Moody’s inspiring story of real-life adversity, though quite foreign to me, was the closest I could get in literature to understanding my own struggles and sense of alienation as a minority living in the United States.
6. ‘The Woman Warrior’ by Maxine Hong Kingston
“Chinese-Americans, when you try to understand what things in you are Chinese, how do you separate what is peculiar to childhood, to poverty, insanities, one family, your mother who marked your growing with stories, from what is Chinese?”
This sentence embodies the crux of Kingston‘s imaginative, genre-bending memoir of growing up as a Chinese-American. It is also wisdom that, unfortunately, many critics did not take from her work. The reception of The Woman Warriorwas wildly positive, but Western audiences assumed that Kingston spoke for all Chinese-Americans, rather than with her own incredibly “peculiar” voice. The result was backlash from writers such as Frank Chin, who criticized Kingston for her inaccurate portrayals of certain myths. But Kingston’s writing is bold, exhilarating, and cannot be pigeonholed into the binary of fact and fiction. If anything, The Woman Warrior is a book that calls for even more deeply individual and strange works of Asian American writing.
7. ‘Dogeaters’ by Jessica Hagedorn
Hagedorn is Filipino, American, and hip. “I don’t care if he’s a little gordito, or pangit, or smells like dead goat. That’s Boomboom Alacran, stupid. He’s cute enough for me.” Here was Junot Diaz’s electric urban language before Junot Diaz had arrived. Finding Dogeaters excited me about the possibilities of the Asian American novel, and the diversity of the Asian American literary voice. It is a novel as much about finding a voice after imperialism as finding a voice after immigration.
Bill Cheng‘s first novel, Southern Cross the Dog, debuted in June. His book, a fine example of writing what you don’t know, has been billed as “audacious” and “ambitious,” but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a review that doesn’t wonder at the novelty of a Chinese-American man from Queens, New York, writing about rural black Mississippi.
Cheng’s writing is strong. Take, for example, this quick characterization: “Cutter was unclean, one of the men said. Kept goofer dust in his shoes and a bag full of devils.” Or this description of a storm: “Thunder rolled, and stitch by stitch, he could feel the sky unravel.” Cheng’s invigorating language makes every sentence thrilling.
Unfortunately, most reviewers and interviewers seem to care less about the quality of Cheng’s writing than they do about the answers to these questions: Did the Chinese guy get it right? Can an authentic picture of the South come from a man of Asian descent who grew up in Queens?
Instead of addressing those questions directly, I would like to take a step back and look at the assumptions with which they’re laden. In doing so, I can’t help but recall the reception of another book I recently read, The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson. If it sounds familiar, that’s because it won the Pulitzer for fiction earlier this year.
Johnson’s book is about North Korea, even though Johnson is plain old American. Even so, there are few questions as to the authenticity of his account. In fact, the book has been billed as a, “nuanced picture of what life in North Korea might be like,” that “open[s] a frightening window on the mysterious kingdom of North Korea.” Instead of being asked, “Why, as an American, are you writing about North Korea?” Johnson is praised for the depth of his research. Reviewers assume that the white author has done his homework, and can be trusted as an authority. With Cheng, on the other hand, eyebrows are raised. The underlying question isn’t about authenticity. Rather, the question is: “Don’t you have your own heritage to write about?“
How many celebrated white writers have written characters who were not exactly like them? William Faulkner, Joseph Conrad, Mark Twain, Pearl S. Buck, Colum McCann, Yann Martel, and Arthur Golden immediately come to mind. In a society masquerading as post-racial, it is still only the white man who can speak authoritatively for every man. People of color, on the other hand, are expected to speak only for themselves.
Johnson’s book is, arguably, more masterfully written than is Cheng’s (Johnson is, after all, two books, a prestigious professorship, and a Pulitzer ahead of Cheng), but it isn’t any more authentic. In fact, one expert on North Korea who reviewed the book said that Johnson’s “setting is cardboard heavily salted with factoids from the internet,” while anothe remphasized that it is fiction. Indeed, the North Korea of The Orphan Master’s Son is so reminiscent of an Orwellian dystopia that one can’t help but wonder how many of Johnson’s ideas about the Communist society come from residual Cold War stereotypes, rather than from North Korea itself. These implicit biases would be acceptable if the book were read strictly as fiction, but, too frequently, Johnson’s themes have been interpreted as commentary on North Korean society instead of the insights into general human nature that they are. Worse, Johnson’s book has been widely advertised as a work of freedom that shines the light of truth into the dark and evil corners of the world.
This type of rhetoric, which Johnson himself has unfortunately adopted in interviews, is far more dangerous than is Cheng’s writing about the American South. Cheng, after all, is not only accountable to the entire literate population of Mississippi, but he is also in dialogue with a robust tradition of Southern literature. What’s more, Johnson will most likely not confront many North Korean readers, whereas Cheng has gone on a book tour in the South. Because Johnson is one of very few novelists covering North Korea, his account will too easily be mistaken as definitive by an unknowledgeable audience. But, if anything, the paucity of voices that reach the West from places like North Korea should cause us to more rigorously challenge the authority of Johnson’s work.
Ideally, the authority of a work of fiction should be judged against the standards of the world that it creates, not by its alignment with a rigid notion of reality. By this measure both Cheng and Johnson’s books are empathetic, engaging, and deeply imaginative. Both are worth a read. Both are fiction.
Meena Alexander, a poet and scholar, seems to be in perpetual motion. She spent much of her early years living in different landscapes, from India to Sudan, to England. Today, Alexander calls New York City home, where she’s an English professor at the City University of New York.
But Alexander is far from “settled.” She continues to write prolifically as an award-winning poet and literary scholar who explores migration, the politics of place and the trauma of dislocation. Her work is that of a traveler who helps readers see how a place — something that feels so static — can actually be both dynamic and unsettling.
This is especially evident in her newest collection of poems, “Birthplace with Buried Stones” (September 2013, Northwestern University Press, 140pp. $16.95). The poem “Experimental Geography,” excerpted from the book, was recently featured on the PBS NewsHour’s poetry series and captures the powerful sense of fragmentation that permeates much of the book.