I read Yūko Tsushima’s novel in stories, Territory of Light, during the early days of the pandemic and though it was originally published in Japan in the late ‘70s, the descriptions of the narrator’s circumscribed life alone in her apartment with her young daughter after leaving her husband seemed to speak to my own sense of isolation like nothing else at that moment. In ‘Flames’, the narrator finds herself frequently encountering funerals, and is haunted by a series of deaths in her community, which reach a climax when chemical factory explodes nearby, lighting up the night in surges of sparks and color. The story is infused with a sense of grief—including the narrator’s own feelings of loss over the end of her marriage, implicit but never directly stated—but it also includes surprising moments of tenderness, as when the little girl attempts to care for her mother when she comes down with a fever, delighting in this reversal of roles. ‘Flames’, to some, might be considered a “quiet” story because not much happens—or, rather, the dramatic events in the background are not what matters here. “Quiet” tends to be used as a pejorative—one that’s been directed at my own work many times—but I have always believed in the power of quiet fiction, and ‘Flames’ is proof that plot is not what gives a story gravity or meaning.
Included in Territory of Light, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2018
Tsushima, an acclaimed Japanese writer was the daughter of famous author Osamu Dazai and ‘The Watery Realm’ deals with the subject of her father’s suicide. The story moves between the protagonist, her son’s wish for an aquarium toy, which reminds her of the ‘Dragon Castle’ of Japanese myth, and her elderly mother’s viewpoint. The mother recalls her husband’s death, refracted through her fear of Suijin, Shinto spirit of the watery realm, who finally claimed him. Delicate and heartbreaking like all Tsushima’s work, only a fraction of which has been translated into English.
Published in Of Dogs and Walls, a £2 Penguin Modern, 2018
This story begins in medias res, as if, like Pegman on Google’s Street View, the reader is dragged and dropped into the narrative on a sizzling Japanese beach, “…and so my timing was thrown off. And so a space opened in my emotions.” These are the summers we all can’t quite remember – the summer of our burgeoning sexuality, of our changing bodies in our brand-new swimsuits, of our crushing crushes and fizzing desires, of being stung by jellyfish, burned by the sun and scorched by first love.
Yūko Tsushima (1947-2016) was the daughter of the extraordinary Japanese novelist Osamu Dazai (check out his No Longer Human in all its Japanese existential autobiographical angst). Her father had left the family home to live with his mistress and, just after Yūko’s first birthday, he and his lover had committed suicide by drowning themselves in the Tamagawa Aqueduct. There is a lot of water in Tsushima’s work, a lot of death, a lot of missing fathers, and her fiction concentrates on abandoned woman fighting their way in a misogynist society, a feminist viewpoint against a male-dominated society.
The story has similarities to Yukio Mishima’s ‘Death in Midsummer’, which also concerns sunburns, sandcastles, the sea, death, fathers and also has a character called Keiko. Tsushima’s work is sparse and incandescent, dreamlike while dealing with real problems. For further reading, go to Territory of Light and Child of Fortune, both Penguin Modern Classics. Another of her summer stories I could have chosen – ‘The Watery Realm’ – is in the pocket-sized Penguin Modern series along with ‘Of Dogs and Walls’.
First published in the short story collection Watashi (I), 1999. Its only English translation is online at Words Without Borders. Chosen by Steve Finbow. Read Steve’s Personal Anthology here