August 2005

Rowan Riley

features

An Interview with Banana Yoshimoto

Banana Yoshimoto, née Yoshimoto Mahoko, was born on July 24, 1964 in Tokyo. She is the author of numerous best-selling books, and the daughter of Yoshimoto Takaaki, an influential Japanese philosopher. But if you were Japanese or living in Japan, you already would have known this.

“Bananamania,” as the press likes to call it, first swept Japan in 1988 when Yoshimoto’s debut novella, Kitchen, first came into print. Since then Yoshimoto has written nearly a dozen books, and Kitchen--a quirky story about a transsexual mother, her offbeat son, and a young girl who loves kitchens--has gone into more than 60 printings. While online shrines are routinely constructed for Yoshimoto in Japan, she remains somewhat of a mystery overseas, which is why this interviewer feels compelled to exhaustively describe Yoshimoto and her work before delving into the actual interview.

Perhaps what’s most striking about Yoshimoto’s work is her close proximity to the reader. She writes curious and inviting stories, the kind that make you pause and wonder about the author. “Does she brush her teeth before or after breakfast? Does she even eat breakfast?”

Yoshimoto’s characters deal with youthful troubles and urban existentialism--two themes that have been beaten many times but never seem to die. Yet unlike Bret Easton Ellis, and all the other urban writers with their detached, bird’s-eye perspectives, Yoshimoto writes gritty stories with warmth and dogged innocence.

In spite of the fact that her father’s work was the bible for Japan’s radical youth movement in the '60s, and that she routinely rubs elbows with the likes of Pedro Almodovar and the Dalai Lama, Yoshimoto’s prose is wholly devoid of the privilege and pretense that sometimes surrounds her. She takes pleasure in the small things--be it the crack of a floorboard or the smell of kimchee.

Given the humane nature of Yoshimoto’s work and the fact that she renamed herself Banana, it is not surprising that food is a recurring theme in many of her stories. Were it not for this nation’s shockingly small appetite for foreign books, Americans, too, would succumb to Bananamania. I wish I could say that I sat down with Yoshimoto and discussed love, loss and human frailty over shabu-shabu and sashimi, but in truth, this interview was conducted via e-mail with the help of a Japanese translator. As a result, it reads less like a casual conversation and more like a nosy inquiry. Enjoy.

You clearly like to write about food. Is it appetite or the taste of food that interests you so much?

Oh, I am more interested in the taste of food, and in the feelings that people have when they are making a dish. I like to ask myself what tastes or environments will trigger a particular thought or memory.

It is said that the nicer the restaurant, the smaller the portions. Do you think the same could be said for modern prose?

Quality is always more important than quantity. This is true for everything. Even if you write only one line in your life, if it stays in someone’s mind forever, it is satisfactory.

And since we’re on the subject, what do you think of the food portions in America? And of American food in general?

America’s food portions are too much. Japanese like to eat a variety of different foods in smaller portions.

Now that I’ve worn out the food metaphor, let us move on to meatier topics (sorry, I couldn’t resist). You approach difficult subjects, such as death, adultery and sexuality, in a decidedly casual and accessible manner. Do you ever write with a specific audience in mind?

I have in mind sensitive, somewhat adolescent people who are stuck between reality and fantasy. Young, rebellious people like to read my books, but I guess what I really like is to encourage adults who still have playful, adolescent minds.

Like the characters in your stories, you seem to have led a beautiful but crazy life; do you find a lot of yourself in the characters you write? Are there any characters that you particularly relate to?

Not really. My life is sober and simple these days, so no one in my stories resembles me. Mostly I write about people who live remote and distant lives.

I read that you really liked the film The Brown Bunny. This was a very controversial film, at least for the American public. What drew you to this film?

The acting of Chloë Sevigny was wonderful.

In many of your stories, the characters experience strange dreams or are haunted by premonitions. Do you yourself have a rich dream world?

Yes, I do. I have many rich dreams. I go to sleep for dreams, they are the seeds of my work. When I do not know what to write, sometimes I find my next story in a dream. I should probably never wake up, that way I would have more stories to write.

Your settings are always quite stunning and vivid. Do you do any research or preparation before writing?

Rather than concrete research or preparation, I try to think in the abstract. such as the feeling of air in certain places, humidity, winds and so on.

You have traveled all over the world, and yet your stories are always set in Japan. Why is that?

Because I can only connect with other places as a traveler.

What was it like to be a teenager in Tokyo during the '80s? Have you ever imagined living elsewhere?

I do not have wonderful memories. Everybody in Tokyo seemed to be in a hurry at that time. I often had the thought that I should leave and study abroad.

We share a love for Truman Capote. He once wrote, “There are certain shades of limelight that really wreck a girl’s complexion.” Having lived in a large city for a good portion of your life, would you agree?

Yes, I would. For me though, large cities are really a part of who I am, so I’ve grown used to the unflattering aspects. I can swim in a large place without much difficulty.

Your prose is very rhythmic; do you ever listen to music while writing?

In fact, I do not listen to music while writing. I feel my own rhythm would go out of tune if I listened to music.

You dedicated Lizard to the late Kurt Cobain and you wrote about Sonic Youth in Kitchen. What is it about grunge rock that inspires you so? And what musicians are you listening to these days?

They were companions for me at that blind point in my life, when I was groping for something. Nowadays my favorite band is Britain’s Prefab Sprout. In the U.S., I love the Eels.

I heard that you are attending hula school. How did that come about?

While I was researching a short story, I gradually fell in love with the hula (dancing).

You don’t write a lot about motherhood, but clearly it is a big part of your life. How has it changed you? Has it affected your writing in a noticeable manner?

In essays I write about my son, but not as much in stories. The change for me is that I tend to think I want to live longer. Before, I was just in a hurry to live.

In Hardboiled & Hard Luck, you wrote, “You have to live a hardboiled life. No matter what happens, keep going around with your nose in the air.” Do you think you’ve lived your life this way?

No, not at all. I just live lazily and slowly. I just want to live as myself.

You are one of the most (if not the most) popular female novelist in Japan. What, if any, challenges have you faced as a popular female writer in Japan?

Everybody seems to be interested in the number of books I sold and how much money I earned, rather than the content of my work. This makes me rather unhappy.

You’re somewhat of an enigma over here--have you spent much time in America?

Recently, I went to Naples. In the past I visited New York where I met Paul Auster. He was a spectacular person.

Are there any places, customs or words that particularly appeal to you?

I really liked Naples. There were alligators and the nature was so beautiful. Sanibel Island is one of my favorite places.

In America, writing professors who are trying to be hip will often assign a Banana Yoshimoto story, and as a result, you have become quite popular with young and aspiring writers. Do you have any advice for this miserable lot?

That is very, very delightful. I would say to them, “just write and write.” Without any fancy theories or logic. Express yourself with your words, not others. This is all I can say. Thank you very much.