She's been anointed by Haruki Murakami and has won her country's highest literary honors. Now Mieko Kawakami makes her U.S. debut with her feminist masterwork, Breasts and Eggs.

By David Canfield
April 13, 2020 at 10:30 AM EDT
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About a month our from the American launch of her novel Breasts and Eggs, Mieko Kawakami wants to make something clear: “Fiction is not about sending a message.” She’s preparing for a new audience to read her work, and hopes they take it on their own terms. But the book is hardly arriving in a vacuum. This publication is loaded with meaning, the first time a novel of hers has been translated in English — despite more than a decade of literary stardom.

Kawakami, 43, has found many high-profile fans in her native Japan. Writer Haruki Murakami says she’s his “favorite young novelist,” and also said of Breasts and Eggs, “It took my breath away.” Her style is singular, intimate and specific portraits of the Japanese day-to-day, typically written in a (very) distinctive Osaka-ben dialect. Her politics — subversive, pointed, and feminist — are embedded in deeply human stories. But like many other female Japanese authors (like Yoko Ogawa, who broke out in the U.S. last year with The Memory Police), it’s taken a long time for her work to reach this part of the world.

Partly, you could say, it’s because she challenges the establishment. Her readership developed via her blog, which eventually got 200,000 hits a day; Breasts and Eggs started in blog form, too, in the mid-2000s, and “astonished literary conservatives,” per The Independent, when it won one of Japan’s highest literary honors. Kawakami senses why. “The characters and stories that appear in Japanese literature tend to perpetuate Orientalist views — the idea that Japanese people are slightly odd and mysterious, but harmless,” she explains. “I don’t want to write anything that helps to reinforce that kind of a misunderstanding. I made an effort to depict life as it truly feels to live it in Japan.”

Divided into two parts, the novel follows Natsu, a struggling writer in Tokyo whose sister and 12-year-old niece come to visit from Osaka. The story evolves into a meditation on motherhood, with Natsu contemplating her very limited options as a single woman in Japan. A knack for the minutiae of everyday life sings throughout, but Kawakami’s prose sharpens as she explores the mechanics of oppression — Natsu considering artificial insemination in a conservative culture, her sister obsessing over potential breast augmentation. Kawakami also possesses a poet’s soul. “[People] know nothing lasts forever,” goes one passage, “but still find time to laugh and cry and get upset, laboring over things and breaking things apart.”

The translation is by Sam Bett and David Boyd, experts on Japanese literature and culture. (They also translated Kawakami’s interview responses for this story.) Boyd read Kawakami as a student in Japan and recalls a class discussion on whether elements of an earlier version of Breasts and Eggs were “untranslatable.” “[It] got me thinking about how I would translate Mieko’s writing, if given the chance.” (He’s since translated several Kawakami stories into English.) Of her stature, he says the author is “one of Japan’s brightest stars.”

Adds Bett, "Mieko is a star, no question. Think Zadie Smith and Taylor Swift, combined. She has their sense of artistic rigor and their drive to create something genuinely enjoyable, while confronting vital themes."

Breasts and Eggs may take some adjusting to as a reading experience. It presents a unique vision of Japan — its sounds, its absurdities, its pain — that simply isn’t found in much writing available in English. Yet this speaks precisely to its value. Kawakami believes her novel holds universal appeal, calling it “a story about the joys and sorrows of people,” adding: “This thing called life is truly incomprehensible, and the feelings of shock and fear and resignation created by this incomprehensibility are at the core of my writing.”

This is the first in a major three-book deal between Kawakami and Europa Editions, her international publisher: the latest big moment in a wild career. Did you know she sang, too? Before her books went global, before her blog went viral, she was a fixture on the J-pop scene, releasing three albums. (She no longer sings in public.) Now it’s all writing, all the time. It hasn’t always been easy; she used to feel “overwhelming tension” in the process. “I can be a real perfectionist,” she admits. Good news for us.

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Breasts and Eggs is now available for purchase.

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