Interview with Kyoko Yoshida

What a treat to interview Kyoko Yoshida! She is the author of Disorientalism, a wonderful collection of short stories that plays with English and forces the boundaries of the reader’s imagination. In addition to writing, she is also an award-winning translator and a professor of literature. We met for coffee in Paris and talked about books, translation, travel, literary festivals, war brides, and baseball players. She and I met thanks to Jane Camens, founder of the Asia Pacific Writers & Translators Association, who works tirelessly to connect writers.

Kyoko, what brings you to Paris?

We visit France almost every year. My husband is from the department of Loiret in the Loire Valley region. He teaches African-American Literature at a Japanese university and right now he is doing a research on the triangular trade in Paris. I’m lucky to be able to tag along. We’ll be here till late September. I am working on a translation project right now and am hoping to finish my first draft while in Paris.

Why do you write in English? Is it a choice or does it come naturally? What are the challenges of writing in a foreign language? What are the rewards?

The short answer is: because my mother cannot read it! The long answer is: this came as a result of series of coincidences, but in the end, it is my personal choice. I always liked to recreate whatever objects that fascinated me, and telling stories (in words and pictures) was one of those activities I always liked. Meanwhile, when I started to learn English at age 11, I was struck how the grammar structure was radically different from the Japanese language. It was an opening to a different system, a different world. My first experience in writing a story in English was as an exchange student in Hudsonville, Michigan, at Mr. Burgraaf’s creative writing class. He read one of my stories aloud in class, commenting it is “almost publishable”—imagine what it does to a 16-year-old ego! Later when I enrolled at a graduate creative writing program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, it was the time to learn, through experiences, the real chasm between “publishable” and “almost publishable.”

Writing in English has always been difficult for me for different reasons at different times of my life. When I first contacted writer and professor Thomas Bontly in Milwaukee, he told me to come spend a year to improve my English to begin with. I was born and raised in Japan, never spent time abroad till I was 15, so English is an acquired, foreign language to me and will remain so. I am getting better at it, still working on it, but now I live and work in Japan in my native language environment. This now poses me another type of challenge because your native language is far more invasive in your mind than a second language.

But at the same time, this strangeness of English is the attraction for me. In the beginning years of my writing in English, I used to experience actually this physical fatigue in my brain after writing for a few hours. It was a distinct physical sensation as if you worked out a different, rarely used part of your brain muscles. I loved that sensation. It is a great way to mess up with your brain in a creative way. Writers have to make their language foreign even if it is their native language. By writing in a second language, I am playing with a foreign material, and that way, I am skipping the estrangement process. Another thing I like about writing in English is that I cannot afford to get pretentious or grand. I just write what I can write. Writing in English allows me to write about trifling things, negligible things, irrelevant things. I like that.

I love that you dedicated your collection of short stories to the city of Milwaukee! Why Milwaukee?

Thank you for asking! Because Milwaukee and people I met there made me the writer that I am today, and I just can’t name everyone there. I was there from 1996 to 2001 at the graduate program in English at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. It’s just amazing how much time and energy these writing professors are willing to spend for their students, sometimes sacrificing their own creative energy. And they didn’t even question my desire to write in my awkward English. They went through my text line by line, like it was the most natural thing to do. They encouraged me to keep writing. I owe them so much. First Thomas Bontly took me in as a visiting scholar. Sheila Roberts was my advisor, and John Goulet encouraged me to read challenging texts. Ellen Hunnicutt gave us many practical advices but at the same time she taught us those rules are meant to be broken as well. Gordon Weaver showed us that after all you have to make up everything.

And then there were my graduate colleagues from the workshop. I met some wonderful writers and made great friends there. We just kept talking about reading and writing and storytelling. They taught me as much as the professors did and they keep me going as my colleagues. When we meet once in a while, the first thing we still talk about is our writing. Acknowledging each other’s desire to write founds the basis of our friendship, and that is a relationship based on mutual respect. I believe the pedagogical essence of creative writing is ethical in that we have to respect each other’s wish to write.

Milwaukee is a literary city. It has a strong poetry scene and wonderful independent bookstores, Woodland and Pattern and Boswell’s to name a few. People attend readings. Its many used bookstores downtown are underappreciated. It is the only major city that I’ve ever been to that features a serious used bookstore inside the airport.

People in Milwaukee as well as the city nurtured me to write, so the first book was decided to be dedicated to Milwaukee. And of course, I met my husband there.

You teach American Literature at Ritsumeikan University in Japan, work as a translator, and just had your first book published. Where do you find the time? What do these different hats (teaching, translating) add to your writing?

All these things are connected closely as you can imagine, and yet they compensate with each other. Reading encourages me to write and writing trains me to become a better reader. On the other hand, while you craft your textual voice on page all by yourself, you get to use your actual voice and body working with students. I think for many writers, teaching is a wonderful way to meet and work with people. You can’t deal with imaginary people only all the time.

Writing is a solitary practice and translation is, to certain extent, but you have an immediate text to translate, an author to listen to. I also translate because I get to work with wonderful poets and playwrights as co-translators and it is like taking free lessons from masters in playful English.

I am a slow writer and not a most productive type of person around, so the way you describe what I do makes me sound like another being! College professors are lucky to have summer months to work on their projects. Without that, many of us will just give up teaching. We need that time to balance our sense of purpose in life. During the semester, I barely manage to write fiction, but without the suffering of writing fiction, I will be unhappy. So I try. Deadline helps, of course, though fiction writing rarely comes with a deadline.

Many of your short stories have been published in literary journals. What advice would you give to a writer interested in submitting their work?

Persistence. I collected 56 rejections before I had my first story accepted. It was a great way to learn through experiences how literary magazines operate, too. After that, I wasted less in postage by responding to the calls for submissions in literary journals. When you receive a “nice rejection,” make sure to respond as soon as possible with another submission.

I also served ‘The Cream City Review’ from Milwaukee first as assistant fiction editor and eventually as co-editor in chief. When you first look at piles and piles of manuscripts, you may feel discouraged, but actually plowing through the slush piles gives you a sense that the real competition is not that fierce as it seems. You’ll come across some good examples and lots of bad examples. You’ll learn to appreciate concise cover letters—introduce yourself, don’t hesitate to mention your past publications, but don’t try to explain your story; be brief. Working for a journal, you also learn that luck play a role, too. Once we were under the editor in chief who’d absolutely refuse to publish any story that has to do with baseball. That never shows up in the submission guideline, like, “Please, no baseball story.”

What is the best advice you have ever received?

You get to choose your reader line by line. We don’t have to please everyone, we don’t aim to. Everyone may read your first line, but after that, line by line, you get to narrow down the type of reader you’d like to take along till the end. John Goulet told that to us. I think we tend to see it the other way around, that we lose readers line by line. But if you look at it this way, you know that you have control over your prose and the course of narrative. It is also a relief to be aware that you are not writing for everyone.

What books are on your nightstand?

Mostly fiction. Two or three novels that I’ve been reading for pleasure and teaching. Several anthologies of flash fiction and short stories for random readings when too tired to read a novel. Recent purchases that I may or may not finish reading.
Right now, I don’t have a nightstand in the Paris apartment, and in my kindle I have Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt (a Paris novel), Rivka Galchen’s new collection of short stories, and satirical novels such as George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World—because of the course I’m teaching in the fall semester.

What’s next?

I’ve been talking about this historical baseball novel that I mean to write. Set in the 1920s in Japan. I’ve done so much research on the history of Japan-U.S. exchanges in baseball and baseball novels in general, I wrote a monograph on cultural representation of baseball even before I finish my novel. It is very challenging for me, because my stories tend to be surreal and absurd but I want this novel to be historically accurate.


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