“Why let anything trouble ‘you’?”

Kaori Fujino’s visit to campus to read excerpts from her award-winning novella “Nails and Eyes” was just one of many opportunities for Japanese language students to interact with Japanese authors during the spring 2024 semester.

Author Kaori Fujino reads excerpts from her novella Nails and Eyes to a packed crowd in the Wright Museum of Art courtyard. Author Kaori Fujino reads excerpts from her novella “Nails and Eyes” to a packed crowd in the Wright Museum of Art courtyard.

Over 50 people gathered in the Wright Museum of Art to listen as author Kaori Fujino and the book’s translator Kendall Heitzman took turns reading passages from “Nails and Eyes” in both Japanese and English.

Hina, the story’s narrator, recounts her experiences surrounding her mother’s mysterious death. She shares these thoughts in the second person to ‘you,’ the secret lover her father brings into the family just months after the loss of her mother. While ‘you’ remains indifferent to the young girl, Hina has kept a keen eye on this interloper, showing she has come to understand ‘you’ better than the woman knows herself.

Author Kaori Fujino reads excerpts from her novella Nails and Eyes while translator Kendall Heitzman reads along. Author Kaori Fujino reads excerpts from her novella “Nails and Eyes” while translator Kendall Heitzman reads along. Fujino is best known for fiction that reimagines tropes from horror, science fiction, Hollywood thrillers, urban legends, fairy tales, and museum culture. In 2013, Fujino was awarded the Akutagawa Prize, Japan’s most prominent literary prize, for “Nails and Eyes.”

Ten years later, the story was made available in English for the first time in the publication of Nails and Eyes, which includes the titular story as well as two additional stories.

Heitzman, the English translator, is an associate professor of Japanese literature and culture at the University of Iowa where he teaches literature, film, theater, and Japanese-to-English translation. His translation of Nails and Eyes received the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission Prize for the Translation of Japanese Literature.

Many good questions and answers

The event started with the reading of three excerpts from the book: an introduction to the characters, a series of observations about ‘you,’ and the immediate aftermath of the mother’s death. After the readings, members of the audience asked many questions of both Fujino and Heitzman, with Heitzman translating Fujino’s answers to English for the audience.

Susan Furukawa speaks to the crowd next to Kendall Heitzman and Kaori Fujino. Professor Susan Furukawa speaks to the crowd after Kendall Heitzman and Kaori Fujino have answered a question.

One student asked Fujino, “Where did the inspiration for the story come from?”

“There are a lot of stories out there about protagonists who are brilliant and easily hurt,” Fujino explained. “Instead, I wanted to write about somebody who isn’t really self aware and never gets hurt. When I got to a scene where this person ‘you’ – who has never been hurt, who gets away with everything – finally gets hurt: that is when I knew I had my story.”

Another student asked, “What does your writing process look like?”

“It starts with a situation or event,” Fujino shared. “From there, I try to determine who is important, who is peripheral, and who should be telling the story. Until I am confident in the scenario and characters, I write the story over and over again. If when writing I find that the story should start at another point or be told from another character’s perspective, it may be painful, but there is no choice but to start over again.”

A different student asked Heitzman, “What was the translation process like?”

“Because I knew Fujino-san, I asked her a lot of questions,” Heitzman said. He noted that things that can be ambiguous in one language sometimes need to be defined in a different language, leading to many questions about the details in the works he has translated: “Is this a single door or double doors,” or, “Is the convenience store clerk a man or woman?” He continued, “Sometimes the author really knows, and sometimes the author can guess with you on what is happening. For me, I get all kinds of fun backstories and could work with Fujino to know what is important.”

Learning from the experts

Kendall Heitzman and Kaori Fujino speak with students in the course on contemporary Japanese literature. Kendall Heitzman and Kaori Fujino speak with students in the course on contemporary Japanese literature.

This visit by Fujino was one of many opportunities for students taking Contemporary Japanese Literature (JAPN 230) to speak with the authors whose work they were reading and translating as a part of their course work.

  • Yasuhiro Yotsumoto: Poetry from the collection Song Rain – including “Song Rain,” “A Poem about a Dangerous Cucumber,” and “A Poem about Burnable Trash” – as well as several not-yet-published poems.
  • Keijiro Suga: Poetry from the collection One Week and Other Jaunts, including “To the Open Ground,” “Water Schools,” “One Week,” and “Tokyo Fragments.”
  • Yusho Takiguchi: Entries from his memoir A Moment Along the Way that We Will Inevitably Forget (Iowa Diary) recounting his visit to Beloit College for a reading.
  • Kaori Fujino: The first fourth of the novella “Nails and Eyes.”

“Our goal this semester was to read and translate recent publications by authors who are currently active in the Japanese literary scene,” explains Susan Furukawa, associate professor of modern languages and literatures. “Many of the students in this class had taken an advanced Japanese class with me before, so I wanted to try something entirely different.”

The inspiration for the course started when Furukawa attended a poetry event at the University of Iowa, where she met both Yotsumoto and Suga. Impressed by the Iowa students’ translations of their work, she decided to have her students work with poetry in the spring. On a whim, she asked both poets if they could be interested in talking with the class virtually, and both immediately said yes.

Heitzman, who visited campus previously with other writers from Iowa’s International Writing Program (IWP) and knew that Beloit students would be well prepared and engaged, helped arrange Fujino’s visit during her U.S. book tour for Nails and Eyes. Furukawa then reached out to Takiguchi, who visited Beloit in 2018 and also immediately agreed to speak remotely with the class.

“I have been amazed by the generosity of all of these writers,” Furukawa says. “Not only did they readily agree to join my class on their own time, but they also engaged fully with the students: reading their work for us, talking about their process, and answering specific questions students had about use of language and translation.”

Author Keijiro Suga meets with contemporary Japanese literature students remotely to discuss his poetry. Author Keijiro Suga meets with contemporary Japanese literature students remotely to discuss his poetry.

The opportunity to talk with the authors helped students better engage with their work in the course. The meetings provided clear deadlines for assignments, including bilingual research on the authors and their work as well as preparing questions they wanted to ask.

“Meeting the writers brought the language to life for them,” Furukawa explains. “Learning to read and translate Japanese is hard, and being able to ask the writers about specific words and images helped students to see just how dynamic the language is. The class definitely moved them out of the world of memorizing grammar, kanji, and vocabulary and into the world of engaging with a living, breathing, and always changing language.”

The students in the course say the same.

“Our conversation with Fujino-san and Professor Heitzman was riveting,” Mahala Berg’24 shares, “and it was packed with interesting stories, inspirations, and overall great advice about being an author/translator and the publishing industry.”

Charlie Starenko’24 agrees. “This class is like a sleeper hit, and the things we have gotten to do are unbelievable. As we have met with each author, the reality of how rare an opportunity this is set in, and it has made me realize the Japanese program at Beloit has prepared me for a wider range of job possibilities than I thought.”

Fujino and Heitzman’s visit was co-sponsored by Beloit College’s departments of English and Modern Languages and Literatures, the Japan Foundation New York, and the University of Iowa’s Center for Asian and Pacific Studies.

April 23, 2024

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