Yoko Tawada: Voices From Everywhere

Edited by Douglas Slaymaker
Lexington Books, 2007

Foreword by Marjorie Perloff


Yoko Tawada, the subject of Voices from Everywhere, was born in Tokyo in 1960 and studied literature at Waseda University. In 1979, she took a trip to Germany on the Trans-Siberian railroad (made famous by an earlier poet, Blaise Cendrars) and decided to stay on, continuing her literary studies at the University of Hamburg, the city where she settled in 1982. Since that time, Tawada has published dozens of books—poetry, fiction, drama, literary criticism, essays-both in Japanese and in her adopted language, German. She has lectured all over the world, held numerous residencies, and won many prizes, culminating in the Goethe Medal in 2005. She currently makes her home in Berlin.

In the English-speaking world, Tawada is now finally gaining the recognition she deserves. The short-story collection Wo Europa anfängt (1991) was published as Where Europe Begins by New Directions in 2002, and the same publisher is bringing out Tawada’s new collection Facing the Bridge in 2007. In the decade to come—and here this distinguished collection of essays will surely be instrumental—Tawada’s poetry, plays, and her remarkable essays on language and literature, especially her Tübingen lectures called Verwandlungen (Metamorphoses) are poised for wide dissemination in the English-speaking world. For Tawada is not just another accomplished “foreign” author; she is perhaps the leading practitioner today of what we might call, following the poet’s own lead, exophonic writing—which is to say writing in a second language, a language always other from one’s own. Tawada’s German is not quite like that of any of her German peers, for she is aware—comically but also painfully–of its “foreignness,” its distinction from her native Japanese, with its particular grammar, syntax, and way of forming vocabulary. In a recent piece called “Speech Police and Polyglot Play,” for example—an essay written in commemoration of the great experimental Austrian poet Ernst Jandl—Tawada muses:

Much about language is mysterious. Everything can be called into question, and yet there is n doubt that elephant is a noun. That is a riddle (Rätsel) with a long trunk (Rüssel). There are many adjective that end with ant, for example: significant, reluctant, elegant, or arrogant. Still, everyone knows that an elephant can never be
an adjective. (my translation)

But exophonic writing is much more than an awareness of verbal or grammatical difference. If we believe that, as Wittgenstein put, “the limits of my language are the limits of my world,” then the poet / fiction writer is, as here, one who can delineate the clash of alternate worlds by studying syntax and etymology. In her own essay included here—“Tawada Yoko Does Not Exist,” the author meditates on Creation myths, especially the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis—a story she cannot fully fathom because her native Japanese offers no parallel:

. . . we know the Kojiki was compiled by early leaders in order to clarify national origins and bolster their political aspirations. Nonetheless, there seems never to have been, in Japan, the thinking that a God produced humankind, meaning that for Japan the created thing known as humankind exists without any “creator.” The god of a monotheistic religion is a man who creates sons with or without a wife; and it seems that the “creator” of literary works shares some of these qualities, at least in the West. . . .
[In Japan, on the other hand], the informal word for author, monogaki, the “writer of things,” is semantically connected to monokoke, a “changeling.” Which means that this “writer of things” also describes a person in he clutches of changelings and shapeshifers, a person under the spell of the things.” (MS 26-27)

It is also the case, as Keijiro Suga points out in the first essay in Voices from Everywhere, that exophonic writing like Tawada’s inevitably involves xenoglossia, the use of foreign words and literal transposition in one’s writing. “In translational poetics,” writes Suga, “under the influence (or in-flux) of the original foreign texts, the translated text is charged with half-meanings, that offers itself to a variety of acceptations.” In this sense, Tawada’s poetry and fiction can be regarded as “Creolistic”: they carry the sedimentation of other languages, whose particular locutions become part of the fabric of the poet’s chosen German or Japanese.

Only a writer extraordinarily sensitive to the splendors and miseries of such exophonic writing could produce an oeuvre as distinctive as is Tawada’s. Her familiarity with Greek and Roman myths (Ovid is a great favorite) as well as Japanese legend, and especially her knowledge of German literature from Kleist to Kafka as well as the French Surrealists, animates her work and gives it its extraordinary range and depth. German and Japanese, moreover, make a very special combination: for Anglophone readers, they are, after all, the twin languages of the enemy in World War II, even as their lexicon, grammar, and rules for “good” writing could hardly be more different. And in the U.S., where Japanese American culture plays a central role, the triangulation produced when English is put into the mix creates an especially dense field of action.

But I do not mean to imply that Tawada’s literary works are primarily language puzzles. She is a great story-teller—one who conveys, with great wit and precision, the strangeness of the ordinary. Her avowedly feminist fictions are at once “every-day” and fantastic. As the critics in this collection argue, this young poet-novelist-critic has an astonishingly rich imagination and a real gift for narrative and performativity. Indeed, the ten essays Doug Slaymaker has assembled here, prefaced by his own very helpful theoretical and scholarly Introduction as well as the poet’s “Tawada Yoko Does Not Exist,” which explores the role the media, especially the digital media, play today, will go a long way in helping Anglophone readers make sense of Tawada’s oblique—and always challenging– writings. Not only is Slaymaker’s collection, incorporating, as it does, German, Japanese, French, and American perspectives, valuable: it is a necessary collection of essys about a truly necessary writer.