LITERARY FORUM, TOKYO-WASEDA UNIVERSITY
PEN-Japan hosted this year’s annual PEN Congress from September 23-September 28, and I was privileged to be present.
The Congress began with a literary forum, presented at the prestigious Waseda University, which featured my work and that of Franco-Syrian writer Salwa al Neimi, whose Proof of Honey was a cause celebre in the Middle East. The other featured writers were Japan’s Takashi Atoda, Nigerian Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, China’s Mo Yan, and the Ukrainian Marina Lewycka.
It was exhilarating to be part of the literary forum. For each of us, Shinobu Yoshioka created a script based on our writing. For my segment, based on Writing in an Age of Silence, he asked Midori Mori to compose original music, which accompanied a reading of the script by the professional actor Yamane Motoyo. During the reading, a slide show illustraed the work, including film footage of Martin Luther King, Jr., the original Equality Day March on 5th Avenue in 1970, and even photo footage of my childhood home in Kansas. The whole show was filled with images created by the great brush-stroke artist Hidekichi Shigemoto.
Motoyo Yamane, who did the dramatic reading of my work, is a well-known television personality. She told me she was in the news room the day LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the whole news room burst out singing “We Shall Overcome.” In the restaurant where our group was celebrating at the end of the day, she and I dumbfounded the entire place by singing “We Shall Overcome” for them.
The end of the performance was a virtuoso exhibition by Shigemoto–he painted live in front of the audience a series of pictures that illustrated the conclusion of the text, namely, America in the post 9/11 world. After the formal production, I gave a lecture on “The Uses of Literature;” I’ll post that later (I gave four talks while in Japan, and about 10 press interviews–all interpreted by different skilled bi-lingual Japanese. At one event, one of the regular commentors on this blog introduced herself: she used to be the head of the National Library of Japan and now works for a social justice candidate for the Diet. It was very fun to meet another regular visitor to this site!)
It was an extraordinary event, and I was most privileged to be part of it.
Meeting writers from around the world was exhilarating; I came home eager to write new work, wishing for the energy to write everything that comes to mind.
Prisoners of Conscience
On a more sombre note, while PEN, which exists to support freedom of expression around the world, was meeting, Iran imprisoned Hossein Derakhshan for 19 years for insulting Islam. I’ll try to get details on how to protest this outrageous act and post them as soon as possible.
From Tokyo, we went to Kyoto, where I had the opportunity to speak to the advanced English seminar of Professor Masami Usui. Professor Usui graciously opened her home to my husband and me, and we spent a splendid evening with her, with Yayoi Yamamoto, who has translated all my books into Japanese, and two of Yayoi’s friends, the translator Yasuko Endo, and American professor Jane, from Nashville.
Professor Usui’s Kimono
Professor Usui surprised me by giving me the most beautiful kimono, an old one with gold and red flowers embroidered on it. I don’t know if I will ever figure out how to wear it, and perhaps should hang it on a wall–but it’s so beautiful I long to have it on my body.
Yayoi entertained us beautifully and royally during our trip. She hosted a brilliant party, where we met her friends, who include writers, wine collectors, scientists and translators. My career in Japan is due to Yayoi’s work; she is universally hailed as a brilliant and exceptional translator. During my seminar at Doshisha, Professor Usui asked Yayoi to speak on translation. She said after she reads a work in English, she floats between English and Japanese as the English text settles into Japanese images in her mind. This image is so beguiling that I keep coming back to it, thinking of the mind floating between two very different languages and cultures.
Professor Usui, Yayoi, and her other friends turn to ancient Japanese arts and rituals as a way of keeping centered in the middle of their busy lives. They study tea ceremony, calligraphy, embroidery or music; Professor Usui quoted to me a Japanese saying that “The person who is too busy for ritual is most in need of ritual.”
I hope, before my life gets out of whack again back here in Chicago, to explore rituals that might help me keep centered in my own life.
Courtenay and I had one free day during the trip, which we spent at the ancient capital of Nara. Along with a thousand screaming schoolchildren, we visited the great Buddha of Nara. It stands 15 meters high and has survived war and fire for 1300 years. Afterwards, while Courtenay rested, I visited the Isuiden Gardens outside the Daibutsu-den. It was raining, and I had this exquisite, peace-filled garden completely to myself.
I learned about the garden from members of the “Vic Fan Club,” a group of energetic feminist women who honor me by their interest in my work. We had dinner in Nara, organized by the Web designer Sukimo Sugiya.
The women told us that they have made such strides in the last fifteen years in most arenas of work and life that the young men coming out of university seem bewildered, and apathetic. Everywhere we went, we were told that today’s young men are “grass-eaters,” compared to the young women, who are “meat-eaters.”
Just before boarding the flight back to Chicago on October 2, I walked through the rice fields near Narita airport. I was alone. As the early morning mists rose from the fields, I felt my heart stand still in the face of the beauty of the stream that ran through the fields. Surrounded by high wild rice plants, with birds singing, and the hills rising in front of me, I realized how very fortunate I am on this planet that I could witness such beauty and see such sights.