People From My Neighbourhood | Hiromi Kawakami #JPNshortstories

From the best-selling author of Strange Weather in Tokyo comes a collection of playful, delightful, delectable Japanese micro-fiction. Take a story and shrink it. Make it tiny, so small it can fit in the palm of your hand. Carry the story with you everywhere, let it sit with you while you eat, let it watch you while you sleep. Keep it safe, you never know when you might need it.

In Kawakami’s super short ‘palm of the hand’ stories the world is never quite as it should be: a small child lives under a sheet near his neighbour’s house for thirty years; an apartment block leaves its visitors with strange afflictions, from fast-growing beards to an ability to channel the voices of the dead; an old man has two shadows, one docile, the other rebellious; two girls named Yoko are locked in a bitter rivalry to the death.

Small but great, you’ll find great delight spending time with the people in this neighbourhood.

During my time with People From My Neighbourhood a lot of bemused head scratching took place. Kawakami gives us a series of 36 micro stories, set in the same neighbourhood, with many reoccurring characters and places. However, most of the people are rather odd and even odder things seem to happen to them. From the surreal, mysterious, off-key, speculative, strange, and absurd to the just plain weird!

A perfect example is from my favourite chapter, towards the end of the book, Weightless:

For the first time in ages, we had a no-gravity alert. ‘This is the Disaster Preparedness Office Speaking. We have been informed that a no-gravity event will take place between two and five o’clock this afternoon. Please remain indoors during these hours. If you must go out for any reason, please make sure you are well weighted down. This has been a message from the Disaster Preparedness Office.’

The entire tiny, little book is full of such quirky, amusing ideas.

Whether it’s babies that make their way to you from the east, passing through various phases of development before reaching you or a family with fifteen children that sends the youngest out to live with their neighbours on a rotating basis decided by a lottery.

Most of the chapters are barely 2-3 pages long. Each one is a complete, stand alone vignette. Kawakami has been writing these stories for years now. Apparently she is not done. There are more to come. More that might look like this:

  • There’s a hell, the old man said, for people who are mean to chickens. (my 8 yr old nephew would agree with this wholeheartedly).
  • My family lost the Hachirō lottery. Twice.
  • One shadow was docile and submissive, the other rebellious.
  • You could only visit the Music House if it was your birthday.
  • A person suffering from pigeonitis sounds like a pigeon when they try to talk.
  • Towards the end of the year we found out that Kanae’s sister and Michio were plotting a revolt against the government, with an eye to having their statues erected.
  • The shack would absorb human emotions and turn them into energy for its own growth.

There are a few recurring characters – a dog principal at the local park, a lady who runs the Love drinking establishment, and our protagonists best friend, Kanae along with her older sister. The afterlife, demons, and transformations figure in many of the stories. An air of magical, supernatural possibility is never far from the surface. Yet each story is also grounded in the minutiae of every day life and relationships. The disconnect, the loneliness and the unexpected joy of living.

All of the stories were first published in Monkey magazine, the English-language version of the Tokyo-based Japanese literary journal MONKEY, created by Motoyuki Shibata and Ted Goossen. Goossen said,

I suppose you could call Kawakami canonical in Japan. She’s sitting on the boards that decide on literary prizes, has been publishing steadily for about thirty years at least, has a large number of readers, etc. So she’s very well-established, and the fact that she was willing to publish this series of short stories with MONKEY has been a tremendous asset to us.

I’ve been translating these stories since the very first issue of MONKEY (then called Monkey Business) came out ten years ago. Every year, I get to translate at least two or three new stories, and it’s become incredibly pleasurable

Of Dreams and Dames: Ted Goosen on Translating Hiromi Kawakami

These stories get under your skin. Kawakami has packed her ultra-slim volume full of unforgettable images and possibilities. It was a great book for my walking backpack – a story per walk to my local coffee stop. A story that would make the return walk home a little less ordinary.

Facts:

Fandom:

All translation is mistranslation. But maybe there should be a second part to that phrase. All conversation is misunderstanding. I think about the discrepancies that will always exist in the gaps between languages whenever I go anywhere outside Japan, anywhere where Japanese, my native language, isn’t spoken. But even when I use my native language, the same thing does apply. All language is misunderstanding. In degrees.

Blue Moon | Hiromi Kawakami | Granta | 24 April 2014

Rather my purpose was to express my amazement at how our daily lives can go on so uneventfully day after day and then, suddenly, be dramatically changed by external events. The experience left me with a quiet anger that still has not subsided….For when all is said and done, it is always a joy to be alive, however daunting the circumstances may be.

God Bless You, 2011 | Hiromi Kawakami | Granta | 20 March 2012

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