‘Careless’ by Hiroko Oyamada, translated by Lucy North

A man and his wife have moved into a cheap apartment building which is infested with insects. This story captures the creepiness of reproduction, real estate, and (im)moral proximity in the 21st century. I think this piece of dialogue sums up the malaise of self-preserving willed ignorance and disconnection that haunts modern lifestyles:

…The best way is to just take no notice. We’ve been living here for well over four years, and they haven’t done us any harm. If anything, once you start paying them attention, it only makes it worse. There’s no controlling them. You have to will yourself not to see them. They’ll stop bothering you once you do that. It’ll be like they’re not there.

Translator Lucy North is one of my personal heroes, and this is incredibly well translated: I can’t find a single clunky sentence, odd word choice, unclear meaning, or anything else that jars or makes it obvious that this is a translation, and the text as a whole sings. 

From Oyamada’s short story collection Niwa (Garden), published in March 2018. First published in English translation by Granta in September 2019 and available online here

‘Spider Lilies’ by Hiroko Oyamada, translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter

Oyamada’s story is another two-part work, starting with a young woman’s formal visit to her fiancé’s home before moving on to a hospital visit years later when her husband is recovering from a car crash. Throughout the piece it’s what isn’t said that intrigues the reader, with secrets kept from family members, and the narrator, Yuki, acting as our access into this world. The two parts are connected by the titular flowers, called shibitobana in Japanese (‘dead man’s flower’), and the rumours about the plant’s qualities go nicely with the stories Yuki hears. It’s up to her, and us, to decide how much of it all is true.

‘Spider Lilies’ first published in English in 2014 in Granta 127: Japan, April 2014 and available for subscribers to read online here

‘Spider Lilies’ by Hiroko Oyamada, translated by Juliet Winter Carpenter / ‘Night Journey’ by Taeko Kono, translated by Lucy North

If we’re continuing with the autobiographical thread for now—which we are because I am doing this the day before it’s meant to be sent out to you, showing I haven’t changed much from my high-school self—then here are some Japanese short stories, because I taught English in Japan for two years after college. I had read Murakami in middle school, encouraged by a Russian friend just as zany, who had the most fun and drunken bat mitzvah I had ever been to, and we had to take two languages at my high school, so I took French and Japanese. I tried reading Murakami untranslated a few times, but I could never be sure if I was reading correctly and there really was a talking cat or a vanishing woman or if I was getting my verbs and subjects wrong. It wasn’t until much later that I read work by Japanese women writers like these two stories. Both are creepy in their own way – Hiroko Oyamada’s ‘Spider Lilies’ is about the deceit that lies beneath the surface of family stories, and Taeko Kono’s ‘Night Journey’ is the story of a couple who are on their way to visit another couple when their evening takes a strange turn.

‘Spider Lilies’ first published in English in 2014 in Granta 127: Japan, April 2014 and available for subscribers to read online here.

‘Night Journey’ originally published in Japanese in 1963. First published in English in Toddler Hunting, New Directions, 1996, and in a revised edition, 2018