In Place of Alternate Realities

Rivka Galchen and Geraldine Harcourt

In Conversation

Barnes and Noble

It is spring. A young woman, left by her husband, starts a new life in a Tokyo apartment. Territory of Light follows her over the course of a year, as she struggles to bring up her two-year-old daughter alone. Her new home is filled with light streaming through the windows, so bright she has to squint, but she finds herself plummeting deeper into darkness, becoming unstable, untethered. As the months come and go and the seasons turn, she must confront what she has lost and what she will become. Foumiko Kometani of The New York Times wrote: “Yuko Tsushima is one of the most important Japanese writers of her generation.”

Here, the book’s translator Geraldine Harcourt joins Rivka Galchen, author of Atmospheric Disturbances, in conversation to discuss the translation process and how Harcourt worked to imbue the English version with Tsushima’s unique voice.

Rivka Galchen: Territory of Light, by Yuko Tsushima, is set in the Tokyo of the 1970s. It’s narrated by a woman living alone, raising her young daughter on her own; the opening scene is of her and her soon-to-be ex-husband looking for an apartment for her. The unnamed narrator is isolated, at times reckless, often lost, occasionally touched by love or a sense of grace. Even today, unlike in the United States, very few women in Japan raise children on their own. I loved this novel and am so grateful that you have brought it to English-language readers. Tsushima has written more than thirty books in Japanese, and is widely celebrated there, but not well known here. Among all of Tsushima’s books, how did you choose to work on Territory of Light?

Geraldine Harcourt: It’s Tsushima’s best-known book in Japan, and also in France, where a superb translation by Anne and Cécile Sakai came out in 1986. There was a long period when the English rights weren’t available to me, but by late 2014 I had done several chapters in hopes of publishing them as stand-alone stories (which they are designed to be) in magazines or in a selection of Tsushima’s stories I was working on, and then she encouraged me to take on the whole book.

The chapter “Flames” was accepted in the summer of 2015 for Jay Rubin’s anthology The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories. That was the only publishing progress that happened before she died in February 2016. I think she’d have been a little astonished by the way the English edition is being received as so contemporary, considering that the original was written in 1978–79.

Galchen: To me, this novel read as radically contemporary. It didn’t seem hampered by ideas of how the narrator wanted to come across, and there was no tacit insistence on motherhood as either misery or redemption. The novel has moments of humiliation, of humor, of tragedy, of longing, of awkward kindness . . . but the feeling never settles. Were you ever surprised by how “now” the novel was?

To me, this novel read as radically contemporary. It didn’t seem hampered by ideas of how the narrator wanted to come across, and there was no tacit insistence on motherhood as either misery or redemption.

Harcourt: All the time. This led me to translate it into contemporary English, with a few exceptions such as “mentally handicapped,” where the usage has evolved in both languages since the ’70s and I matched the now old-fashioned Japanese term with its English equivalent. About the feeling never settling: perhaps a higher tolerance of uncertainty could be assumed in her original readers, allowing her to present the character’s shifting ambivalences toward motherhood in such a close-up and immediate way.

Margaret Drabble has said of Tsushima’s writing, “I think she’s extraordinarily honest . . . She’s very honest about physical functions, she’s very honest about hostility within the family, about miserable relationships, offbeat, disjointed relationships, and it takes extraordinary courage, particularly in a very traditional society like Japan, to write about these things at all. And she writes about them with extraordinary freshness.” Drabble hadn’t read Territory of Light when she said this on BBC radio, in 1991, because it hadn’t been translated. But I think courage is exactly what it must have taken, and that may be what makes it startling in places even today.

Galchen: You began working on this translation before Tsushima died, in 2016. Did you and she talk over questions of translation?

Harcourt: Yes, sometimes in person but mostly by email. She gave thoughtful answers. I was also working on some more recent stories of hers, such as “Of Dogs and Walls,” originally published in 2014. When I’d ask about Territory, she’d often qualify her answer after reading over the text; when asked about “Dogs,” she’d come right back with more definitive answers. But all her readings sounded authoritative to me. I’m a believer in the author as authority on the text.

Some questions only the author can answer for sure. One of these was whether the mother and child slept in the same bed. The original passage could have meant that the child had got into the mother’s bed on the night she’s describing, but Tsushima confirmed that it meant “the futon we shared.”

At the same time, one has to create space for allusion and inference where that’s what the original intends. My conversations with Tsushima helped me to be sparing with the English wording, to try to capture the uncertainty without putting a lot of paraphrasing around it.

Galchen: Japan has what strikes me as a particularly strong and long-standing tradition of writers who are women—from Murasaki Shikibu and Sei Shonagon to Taeko Kono and most recently Yoko Tawada. Did Tsushima see herself as part of a long tradition in this way?

Harcourt: Yes, she was well read in the classics. She co-edited a volume of Heian-period women’s diaries, and her 1986 novel Driven by the Light of the Night takes the form of letters to the woman author of the late-Heian Tale of Nezame. While seeing herself as part of this tradition, she also saw as problematic the fact that women’s writing in the twentieth century was not integrated into the mainstream. To give you an idea of what I mean by this, when I first began to visit Japanese bookstores in the 1970s, literary fiction by women was shelved in a separate section labeled “Women Writers;” the men’s section was just “Fiction.” Bookstores no longer do this, however, and Tsushima’s career spanned the decades in which this attitude began to break down.

While seeing herself as part of this tradition, she also saw as problematic the fact that women’s writing in the twentieth century was not integrated into the mainstream.

You mentioned Taeko Kono, whom Tsushima viewed as a mentor to her own generation. In 1987, for example, Kono and Minako Oba were the first women to serve on the jury of the Akutagawa Prize. There was an organization called the Women Writers Association, established in 1936. In 2007, it disbanded, stating that it had completed its historical role. Tsushima was elected the last president of the association for the express purpose of winding it down.

Galchen: Your translation of Territory of Light has already been celebrated and received awards. What do you think it is about the novel and its translation that connects so strongly to readers now?

Harcourt: Maybe translators of Japanese fiction have been favoring alternate realities for so long that it was the right time for something down-to-earth?

Geraldine Harcourt was awarded the 1990 Wheatland Translation Prize. She is currently working on two books of Yuko Tsushima’s fiction. She lives in New Zealand.

Rivka Galchen received her MD from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, having spent a year in South America working on public health issues. Galchen completed her MFA at Columbia University, where she was a Robert Bingham Fellow. Her essay on the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics was published in The Believer, and she is the recipient of a 2006 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award. Galchen lives in New York City. She is the author of the novel Atmospheric Disturbances.

Yuko Tsushima was born in Tokyo in 1947, the daughter of the novelist Osamu Dazai, who took his own life when she was one year old. Her prolific literary career began with her first collection of short stories, Shaniku-sai (Carnival), which she published at the age of twenty-four. She won many awards, including the Izumi Kyoka Prize for Literature (1977), the Kawabata Prize (1983), and the Tanizaki Prize (1998). She died in 2016.