Mono No Aware: Writing Japan

Lian Hearn and Kelly Luce

Lian Hearn and Kelly Luce are perhaps not the two most obvious writers to have in conversation with one another. Lian Hearn is the pseudonym of a writer who lives in remote Australia and writes epic stories of a medieval, mythical Japan. Kelly Luce is a young writer based in California who has published an acclaimed story collection, Three Scenarios in which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail, and whose debut novel, Pull Me Under, the story of a Japanese-born woman who returns home to confront her violent past, will be published by FSG this November. But once you start pulling at the threads they have in common—Japan, obviously, where they have both spent a lot of time; a strong current of violence in each of their work; and a sort of insistence on letting loose a ravishing, unbridled imagination on the page—it becomes clear that they’ll have a lot to talk about.

Emperor of the Eight Islands

Kelly Luce: The world in The Tale of Shikanoko is incredibly immersive. How have you gone about researching it? Did you spend time in certain areas of Japan, for example, or read the history of a particular era?

Lian Hearn: I’m glad you said that about the immersive world. I always hope that is the experience readers will have, to allow themselves to be immersed in this unfamiliar world. I like early photographs of Japan where human figures are dwarfed by huge trees. Humans used to be tiny within the landscape. I wanted the sense that the characters in the books live their lives in a world where everything is greater than they are—the landscape, the spiritual world, the demands of Heaven and Earth.

KL: I love this idea. Is this something you’ve noticed many artists depicted at the time, or is it more of a personal interest? Any favorite images?

LH: Here’s one.

And some of the landscapes in this collection.

I spend a lot of time in this landscape, imaginatively, but where does it come from? It is an attempt to try and capture a feeling I have had when in remote areas of rural Japan, of an ancient world that is still somehow present. I do a lot of basic research, reading books about the corresponding period in Japanese history (in this case towards the end of the twelfth century). However, I am not looking for accurate historical details so much as insight into customs, relationships, everyday life, which will ground my story. I’ve read and reread The Tale of the Heike, and other warrior tales, my favorite being The Tale of the Soga Brothers, and I use background information from these too. I try and walk as much as possible when I am in Japan—there’s no substitute for knowing how the light falls, and what birdsong can be heard. I also watch movies, and look at paintings and other works of art. I use books on flora and fauna, and also use the internet for this side of research.

KL: Yes, absolutely. Walking is the best way to get to know a place. Learning the flora and fauna unpacks so much culture, doesn’t it? In researching my novel, I learned about the uguisu, the Japanese bush warbler. Its body is drab but its song is beautiful, and heralds the return of spring. It’s a symbolic bird often found in old poems . . . but it’s also used in modern times to refer to female announcers at baseball games and advertisements. It’s also part of an architectural term for floorboards that are left intentionally squeaky (like the bird) to warn sleepers of approaching ninjas . . .

LH: Which I used in the first Tales of the Otori novel, Across the Nightingale Floor (“bush warbler floor” didn’t sound quite so poetic!). I was so excited the first time I heard the uguisu and the first time I saw a tanuki [Japanese racoon dog].

KL: How closely do the folklore and mythology in the books follow “real” Japanese folk religion and lore? What liberties, if any, have you taken? (And does the question of “taking liberties” even make sense in the context of fantasy writing . . . if that is what you consider this series? I am a huge fan of imaginations and always find myself wishing writers relied on them more . . . I feel like there’s a question in there but I’m not sure what it is.)

Similiarly, I wonder how closely the story line follows medieval Japanese history. Are there specific stories from Japan’s history that inspired or helped shape the plot of the series?

LH: The folklore and supernatural elements all come from Japanese traditions in one form or another, though I let my imagination wander freely with them. If I take liberties it is within the constraints I’ve set myself, that everything should be consistent with a Japanese medieval world. As regards the history, the story revolves around two great rival families, similar to the Minamoto and the Taira, but I don’t follow historical events as they really happened. However, I try to keep my events to things that might have happened at that time. The Tale of the Heike is an extraordinary work, complex and dense. I would never be able to replicate it in any way, but I do take some of its emotions, like courage, ambition, grief, and sorrow.

KL: I love that you don’t shy away from evoking emotion in these books. There’s a popular misconception that Japanese culture must always be cool and reserved, that passion gets quashed. Whereas, if anything, the opposite is true: The Japanese have words for feelings we don’t even name in the West—mono no aware, the ephemerality of things, or natsukashii, a kind of joyful-bittersweet nostalgia. You capture Japan’s understanding of, and respect for, emotional subtlety so well, vis-à-vis your characters.

Speaking of characters, another thing I admire about this series is the structure and point of view. Specifically, I’m talking about how each chapter switches point of view among a cast of characters; this kind of thing normally annoys me because it pulls me away from a character I’ve gotten comfortable with and forces me to assimilate to a new life, backstory, situation. But with these books, you only switch points of view during continuous action, which makes the jumps feel seamless, even energizing. Was this a technique you decided on before writing, or did it emerge during the drafting process?

LH: The last two historical novels I had written were both first-person narratives. I really like the focus of that technique but it was too limiting for this story. Tales of the Otori starts out with two narrators—the first person (Takeo), and the third person (Kaede). By the time I reached the fourth and fifth books, I had other characters whose point of view seemed too interesting to ignore, so I used shifting multiple viewpoints but always staying in each character’s POV. I like building up the background and the narrative with different elements, and keeping them moving along from different viewpoints and attitudes. I hope readers find each character compelling enough to stay with them.

KL: What drew you to Japan?

LH: There’s no one clear-cut reason for my interest in Japan. Sometimes I think it might be because I was born in the war when anti-Japanese feeling was very strong in England. I’ve always had a powerful need to know why individuals or groups are hated. I’ve always wanted to understand the other side. My childhood was spent in the shadow of nuclear weapons, and Hiroshima and Nagasaki seemed to me to be a warning of what could happen to the small town I lived in. When I was seventeen I saw the film Hiroshima Mon Amour, probably the most influential film of my life, with its themes of memory, forgetting, love, and loss. I’ve read Japanese novelists and watched Japanese cinema all my life. When I made my first visit to Japan it felt eerily familiar to me. I decided learning the language and trying to understand the culture and history would be my project for the second half of my life. Six years later I received an Asia Link Fellowship and began trying to write about it.

KL: I’m curious, selfishly, about your experience as a western, female writer writing about Japan. Have you encountered any pushback to writing about a culture not your own? (I’ve only had the one small book, so questions have been few for me so far. But I do occasionally hear questions to the tune of, “why not write your own culture?” to which I reply, “I’m a woman—can I not write male characters? I’m in my thirties and have no children—can I not write from the POV of a fifty-year-old mother?”)

LH: When I started writing Tales of the Otori I was full of fears and doubt. I still have those, but I try not to be too analytic about it. My standpoint is homage, and my own deeply felt response to Japanese history and culture. I think cultures interact with each other and always have done so, and that cross-germination is a wonderful thing. When people talk about cultural appropriation they are often really talking about exploitation of the weak by the strong. Obviously we should strenuously oppose this. But you could never describe Japanese culture as weak. It is immensely strong, vigorous, varied, and admired throughout the world. It inspires many different artists and is reinterpreted in many different ways.

KL: Yes, that’s a wonderful distinction. Something I think about when I write about Japan, especially as someone who grew up in a Western culture, is the way in which folklore, mythology, and the Shinto religion are part of everyday life in Japan. It’s interesting that even modern families who don’t identify as particularly “religious” throw beans outside at Setsubun, for example, or how signs in city parks might include pictures of angry oni [demons] causing natural disasters (Here’s one of my favorites in the second city I lived in while in Japan, Tokushima—where my novel is largely set.)

That was something I was drawn to about the culture of Japan—the spiritual aspects of the past, present, and future seem to coexist peacefully. Exiting a karaoke box or love hotel in, say, Sapporo or Tokyo, beer cans and cigarette butts littering the stoop, then walking twenty meters and finding oneself in a tiny, silent, immaculate urban Shinto shrine.

I’d love to hear more about your study of Japanese language.

LH: I think language is the key to understanding a culture and I would never have attempted to write these books without studying Japanese at the same time. When I was a teenager I spent several summer holidays in Kano where my mother and my stepfather were living. I was captivated by the way most people there spoke at least four languages (English, French, Arabic, Hausa), and by the understanding between people of different ethnic backgrounds because they spoke each other’s language. I studied French and Spanish at university, and had always wanted to learn a non-Indo-European language with a different writing system. Finally, many years on, I had the time to learn Japanese.

KL: I, too, studied Spanish and French in high school and at university. When I moved to Japan shortly after graduating college, I hadn’t studied Japanese formally at all, so was not only functionally deaf and mute, but also illiterate—a humbling experience for someone who identifies as a lifelong reader. What was your experience like, learning Japanese? How did you go about doing it? How far along were you in your studies when you made your first trip to Japan? What fascinates you about the language; what frustrates you?

LH: I had a very similar experience. I really hated being illiterate. When I first went I had done one evening class and a few chapters of Japanese for Busy People. When I came back to Australia, I did two years of adult-ed classes, and then private lessons on a rather intermittent basis. I bought Beginning Japanese by Eleanor Harz Jorden, which had accompanying tapes, and the book that went with it, Writing Japanese. (I think Jorden’s system is good, with lots of drills, but it is written phonetically, and I think it would have been better in the Japanese writing system. Their theory is adults should learn the spoken language separately from the written one.) Then I basically tracked down native speakers wherever I lived and begged them to come and talk with me. I was always disappointed with myself as I had found European languages so easy, and I still think I should speak much better than I do, considering how much effort I’ve put into it. Reading was just a question of using a dictionary, looking up kanji over and over again until they sank in. I’ve used a couple of online programs: Read the Kanji, and FluentU. I think it’s frustrating that you can’t just make things up and muddle along and be understood as you can to a certain extent in French (and for non-native speakers in English). But the more I study the language, the more I love it.

KL: You’re heading to Japan soon, right? Is there anything in particular you’re looking forward to doing or a place you’re excited to explore?

LH: This time I’m going to the northern part of Honshu to see some old friends who moved to Hachinohe. It will be cold and snowy and there is a winter festival going on which sounds very interesting. We are also spending two nights in Yokote for the kamakura [snow cave] festival. I’ll have a week traveling and a few days on either side staying with friends in Ibaraki Prefecture and Nagoya. It’s such a short trip but I am excited at the prospect of being back in Japan, spending time with friends and eating some delicious food.

opens in a new windowTale of Shikanoko



Check out Lian Hearn’s instagram for more images of her research and travels in Japan.

Lian Hearn is the pseudonym of a writer—born in England, educated at Oxford, currently living in Australia—who has a lifelong interest in Japan, has lived there, and studies Japanese. She is the author of the bestselling series Tales of the Otori.

Kelly Luce is the author of Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail, which won Foreword Reviews‘s 2013 Editor’s Choice Prize for Fiction and was a finalist for book prizes from the Texas Institute of Letters and the Writers’ League of Texas. Her work has been honored by fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, Ragdale, Jentel Arts, Tin House, and the Sewanee Writer’s Conference, and has recently appeared in O, The Oprah Magazine, the Chicago Tribune, Electric Literature, New England Review, American Short Fiction, and other publications. She was a Fellow at the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin, where she received her MFA. She lives in Northern California.


A Conversation between Garth Greenwell and Hanya Yanagihara

The Other Side of the Wall by Sloane Crosley

The Writer’s Privileged Addiction: Retaining the Craft by Ceridwen Dovey

Dominic Smith on Forgeries and Figments