Rebecca Copeland, Professor of Japanese Language and Literature in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, is a nationally recognized scholar of modern Japanese literature, translator of contemporary Japanese novels, and now a novelist herself.
Copeland is the author of “The Kimono Tattoo,” a mystery set in Kyoto that transports readers to famous temples, little-known alleys, and even its zoo. The American protagonist of the novel, a failed academic working as a translator in Japan, is frustrated with her job and haunted by her past when offered to translate a new novel by a long forgotten writer.
In this Q&A, Copeland talks about her new novel, her work as a translator and scholar, and how the Western publishing industry orientalizes Japanese detective fiction.
What inspired you to write this novel?
I have always loved the mysteries that take you to other places. Sujata Massey’s Rei Shimura stories take us to Japan; The Inspector Chen series of Qiu Xiaolong in China. I have found “A Cup of Light” by Nicole Mones and “When We Were Orphans” by Kazuo Ishiguro, both also located in China, fascinating for the way they open up new landscapes with their writing and transport us through them. oceans and eras.
We travel, we learn and we detectives by reading. I decided to try my hand at a mystery set in Kyoto. I started writing in 2012 during the summers and finally found my way to “The Kimono Tattoo. “
You also collect kimonos. What fascinates you about the kimono as a cultural object?
My personal experience with the kimono dates back to my youth and my first Japanese dance lessons. I had to wear a kimono to every class, and the dance teacher demanded that I also learn to take care of the garment. This is how I learned to wear the kimono. Is it strange to say “learned to wear”?
In “The Kimono Tattoo” I try to dispel the misconception that the kimono is confined. Even in Japan, and certainly abroad, people often think of the kimono as conventional and restrictive clothing. But it was standard clothing for centuries in Japan, and men and women lived very happy active lives in kimono!
By creating scenes from the novel that involved the kimono, I tried to give readers an idea of the richness of the garment. Choosing a kimono signals a person’s status, gender, profession and age. The way you wear your kimono, the bow of the obi belt, the flexibility of the collar, the colors and fabrics you choose give clues to your character and sense of taste.
You are a frequent translator of Japanese fiction as well as a researcher and, now, a novelist. What kinds of ideas are you able to explore in writing fiction that you cannot explore in your research?
Fiction gives me another way to present Japan to readers. Before writing “The Kimono Tattoo” I experimented with a kind of hybrid approach to academic prose. For example, the introduction to “Diva Nation,“ the anthology of essays I co-edited with Laura Miller, avoided the usual outline / insight you get with such a collection. Instead, we produced an impressionistic, almost dramatic recitation of how we’ve interacted with the Diva throughout our careers. We achieved the same goals by introducing our topic, but in a much more active way.
How does writing a novel change your outlook on translation work?
It made a world of difference. I have a much stronger admiration for the authors I translate and the work they put into their fiction! I am also even more impressed with the successful translations. I find them almost magical.
When a translator finds the right word or phrase to convey the essence of a text from one linguistic system to another, it is a moment that is akin to pure alchemy – mysterious and inexplicable. I have found the same to be true for creative writing. As I write, I see scenes unfolding on the screen of my imagination – trying to reproduce that cinematic moment on paper is like translating.
You have already written about the tendency of promoters and publishers of Japanese novels in English to “orientalize” their materials. Why is the orientalization of fiction and Japanese authors so prevalent, and how does your writing combat these stereotypes?
Years ago, author Kirino Natsuo, then known for her harsh mysteries, complained to me about the cover of her novel “OUT”. The Italian translation depicted a geisha-esque woman with a face painted white. But the novel starred middle-aged housewives who ran a clandestine body removal operation! The cover had nothing to do with the story itself. It only aimed to exchange on the most outdated of stereotypes.
But this marketing scheme has not only been visited on Kirino’s works. I began to notice that almost all of the book covers for translations of Japanese writers, especially female writers, focused on the Asian female body. Many offered close-ups of the eye, and only the eye, in a strangely disfiguring way. Marketers clearly want to highlight the Asian character of the author, hoping to draw readership toward the promise of something “exotic.” In the process, they use the Asian female body in a way that dehumanizes and sexualizes it at the same time. Worse, the writer herself often writes against this very type of exploitation.
Many covers capitalize on the kimono to suggest the seductive and the tawdry. My novel describes a kimono that has a historical past, which can be haunted or cursed, but for the most part the novel also presents the kimono as a wonderfully flexible, playful and accommodating garment that men and women wear regardless of their age. or nationality.
You also have another book, “Yamamba: In Search of the Japanese Mountain Witch”. What is this collection about? What is the relationship between your fiction and your research?
The star of this collection is the yamaamba, and it’s hard to find a more convincing silhouette. Both demon and god, she is a feminine force akin to nature itself. Often translated as “mountain witch,” the yamamba is a notorious shapeshifter. You never really know where it will appear next or in what form. She is monstrous and cannibalistic in some ancient stories, nurturing and protective in others. In the mid-twentieth century, the yamaamba experienced another incarnation in the hands of Japanese writers who reconquered it as an intrepid feminist icon in the face of all those who would like to silence strong, independent and artistic women.
Our anthology is based on the yamamba as a figure of inspiration, an instigator, one might say, of an innovative art. Seeking to imagine the yamamba’s encounters in the 21st century, my co-editor, Linda Ehrlich, and I brought together various artists, academics and writers, and gave them carte blanche. As a result, the volume touches on mythology, Noh performances, avant-garde dance, graphic art, fiction and poetry. Each piece reveals a different point of view. Linda, for example, contributes a lyrical poem about the vastness of yamamba, while I take her to the mountains of North Carolina in my short story “Blue Ridge Yamamba”.