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Stronger Than Stereotype : A Conversation With Nobel Laureate Kenzaburo Oe

October 30, 1994

Japanese writer Kenzaburo Oe was named winner of the 1994 Nobel Prize for Literature. The spotlight of the prestigious award always raises the question of a writer's "representativeness." Several years ago, Oe met with Japanese-born writer Kazuo Ishiguro (author of "Remains of the Day," among other novels), who was raised in England and has written about both England and Japan. The following are excerpts from that conversation, in which the writers addressed the issue of being grounded in a specific tradition and yet speaking to audiences outside it. This dialogue was published in Grand Street magazine in 1991 (Issue 38).

Oe: In my book "The Silent Cry," I wrote about Shikoku. I was born and grew up in a mountain village on that island. When I was 18, I went to the University of Tokyo to study French literature. As a result, I found myself completely cut off from my village, both culturally and geographically. Around that time my grandmother died, and my mother was getting older. The legends and traditions and folklore of my village were being lost. Meanwhile, here I was in Tokyo, imagining and trying to remember those things. The act of trying to remember and the act of creating began to overlap. And that is the reason I began to write novels. I tried to write them using the methods of French literature that I had studied.

Ishiguro: One of the reasons I think "The Silent Cry" is such a special work is that it's often difficult for a writer to get a certain distance from very personal events in his life that have touched and disturbed him. This book seems to stem from such an event, but at the same time you seem to have kept control, to have maintained an artistic discipline, so that it actually becomes a work of art that has meaning for everybody. It's not simply about Mr. Oe. It strikes me that one of the ways in which you manage that is a certain kind of humor, a unique tone. It's very different from the kind of humor found in most of Western literature, which is mainly based on jokes. In your books, everything has a peculiar sense of humor that is always on the verge of tragedy--a very dark humor. This is one of the ways in which you seem to have been able to keep under control events that must be very close to you. But do you think this sort of humor is something unique to your own writing, or have you gotten it from a larger Japanese tradition?

Oe: I think that the problem of humor is a very important one. This is one of the points in which I differ from Yukio Mishima. Mishima was very strongly rooted in the traditions of Japanese literature, especially the traditions of the center--Tokyo or Kyoto--urban traditions. I come from a more peripheral tradition, that of a very provincial corner of the island of Shikoku. It's an extremely strange place, with a long history of maltreatment, out there beyond the reach of culture. I think my humor is the humor of the people who live in that place.

Ishiguro: I would be quite interested to hear what you feel about Mishima. I'm often asked about Mishima in England--all the time, by journalists. They expect me to be an authority on Mishima because of my Japanese background. Mishima is very well known in England, and in the West generally, largely because of the way he died. But also I suspect that Mishima's image confirms certain stereotypical images of Japanese people for the West. Of course, committing seppuku is one of the cliches. He was politically very extreme. The problem is that the whole image of Mishima in the West hasn't helped people there form an intelligent approach to Japanese culture and Japanese people. It has perhaps helped people to remain locked in certain prejudices and very superficial, stereotypical images of what Japanese people are like. I wonder what you think about Mishima and the way he died, what that means for Japanese people, and what that means for a distinguished author such as yourself.

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