Japanese and American Writers: Literature Inside and Outside 'the Box'

NEW YORK, May 4, 2013 — In conjunction with the Ninth Annual PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature, Asia Society hosted a cross-cultural encounter between leading American and Japanese writers that explored the challenges and rewards of contemporary literature in translation. Award-winning novelist Paul Auster and poet Charles Simic joined leading Japanese novelist and critic Gen'ichiro Takahashi and Mina Ishikawa, a fresh new voice in tanka poetry, in an afternoon of readings and discussion.

All of these writers are showcased in the current issue of Monkey Business, the innovative Japan/American literary journal (now in its third year) founded and edited by Motoyuki Shibata, a well-known Japanese translator of contemporary American literature. Monkey Business co-editor Ted Goossen moderated the afternoon's discussion with Shibata.

Poets Ishikawa and Simic explored the metaphor and formalism of poetry, especially short forms. Drawing on his book Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell, Simic referred to the work of the American visual artist Joseph Cornell, who created art works from boxes of found objects. Ishikawa offered the idea of tanka form as a version of Cornell's box, a small container which can contain what could be considered disparate words and concepts, "like putting words in a small box." Auster and Takahashi, both of whom are noted for their range across genres, came together with Auster commenting on how Takahashi's work encompasses everything from "violent satire to the most tender... [and] philosophical" modes.

Auster also lamented the current paucity of literature in English translation, noting that in the U.S. only 3% of books published are translations in compared to 60% of fiction published in Japan, which he feels "frustrating" as it is deprives him of being able to read more of Takahashi's work — out of Takashi's 15 novels, only his first book, Sayonara, Gangsters, has been translated into English.

Reported by Anne Kirkup

Video: Highlights from the discussion (3 min., 53 sec.)

Related Links:
Watch the complete program
Interview with Monkey Business co-editors Ted Goossen and Motoyuki Shibata