Back in 2017, I was blown away by A True Novel, Minae Mizumura’s 800 page epic, a book that found a place on my ‘Best of’ list that year. And now, this year, it’s An I-Novel which has floored me, another fabulous book which is certainly a strong contender for my Best of 2021 list.
An I-Novel is a gorgeous, lyrical meditation on language, race, identity, family and the desire and deep yearning to go back to your roots, to your own country. The novel is a semi-autobiographical work that takes place over the course of a single day in the 1980s.
Our narrator is Minae, a young woman studying French literature at a prestigious university on the East Coast, close to Manhattan. When the novel opens, it is deep midwinter, and Minae is alone, struggling to grapple with apathy and loneliness as a deepening pall of gloom pervades her apartment.
Her relationship with a man having come to an end, and at crossroads in her academic career, Minae stares at an uncertain future. She has completed all the coursework required for her graduate term and all that is required of her is to take the orals. But she postpones this several times on the pretext that her mentor is ill. Now she has reached a crucial stage where any further delay will culminate in the withdrawal of academic support from the university.
The intensity of stasis afflicting Minae is rooted in her unwillingness to take any decisive action regarding her future. After having lived for two decades in the United States, Minae has an aching desire to relocate to Japan, her home country. She has vague plans of writing her dissertation while settled in Japan, but before she embarks on that project, Minae has ambitions of writing her first novel, and that too in Japanese. Minae is aware that the sooner she takes her orals, the sooner she can start thinking about beginning life anew in Japan. And yet she cannot bring herself to do so.
“You know, the fear builds up, day after day, month after month, year after year. It just becomes more and more insurmountable.”
Minae is plagued with guilt and foreboding – If she goes back to Japan, her elder sister Nanae will be compelled to fend for herself, all alone in America. On this front, she can’t shake-off the painful ghost of Nanae’s attempted suicide years ago when a romantic attachment goes awry. It’s an incident that only underlines how unstable Nanae can be. Moreover, with their family now torn apart (the father is in a care home, and the mother has left him for a younger man in Singapore), Minae and Nanae rely on each other for emotional support, having become quite close despite their varied personalities.
As Minae and Nanae regularly converse over the phone about the latest happenings in their respective lives, Minae fails to muster the courage to frankly confess to her sister the news of her impending departure for Japan. Meanwhile, as the heavy snowfall amplifies the silence and heightens her solitude, Minae saunters on a trip down memory lane – her nostalgia for the Japan of yore, the awareness of being unmoored in America and never quite feeling at home in her adopted country.
All through my girlhood, I was consumed by thoughts of the homeland I’d left. I longed for it with an intensity that worlds like “yearning” or “nostalgia” could not convey. I felt I was someplace I didn’t belong, where I should not be. Japan steadily grew to near-mythic dimensions in my mind, transfigured into a place where life transcended the smallness of the everyday.
Like the snow falling steadily outside her apartment window, we are gradually given a glimpse into Minae’s interior life, as she ponders over her family, particularly, her relationship with her sister, her thoughts on life in the US, which in many ways both embraces and perplexes her, and never quite assimilating into its society despite all the privileges she has enjoyed.
Slowly but surely, the sisters’ backstory is fleshed out. When both Nanae and Minae are young girls, their parents jump at the opportunity to begin a new chapter in America. Those were the years when the war had left a bitter taste in the mouths of the Japanese and so all things American held a dazzling allure. Given the father’s respectable position in the company which posts him to the West, the Mizumuras live in a comfortable home and are reasonably well off. The parents quickly adapt to the country – the father develops a taste for rich American food and shuns the simplicity of Japanese cooked meals, while the mother revels in a slew of luxuries, immersing herself in fashion, art and culture and transforms from a housewife to an independent working woman. The Mizumuras have hazy plans of returning to Japan eventually but never take any decisive step towards that goal.
But while the parents have no qualms about life in America, both Nanae and Minae struggle in their own way. As far as personalities go, Nanae and Minae could not have been more different. Being an elder child, Nanae is the cynosure of her mother’s eye, and the latter pins a lot of hope on her future, sort of relegating Minae to the sidelines. Nanae is admitted to a conservatory for expensive piano lessons, and when she later drops out to attend art school, her parents indulge that whim too.
Of the two, Nanae is more outspoken and prone to throwing tantrums, always sharing a difficult relationship with her mother, the one person she wants to please and defy at the same time. She engages in relationships with a string of men which her mother puts up with in the eternal hope that Nanae will eventually settle down with a respectable Japanese man. Furthermore, in stark contrast to Minae, Nanae takes the initiative to blend in with the crowd, immediately learn English and adopt a plethora of American manners however outlandish they may seem at times.
On the other hand, Minae is left to fend for herself for the most part. Even though she displays an aptitude to write and speak English based on her progress in high school, she shows least inclination to do so simply because her inner self rejects the idea of abandoning her Japanese heritage and language and letting English become a dominant force in her life.
Eventually, I became so consumed by this imagined past that my own parents struck me as frivolously modern. Yet I myself never suspected how obsolete I was becoming; I simply thought I was being Japanese.
An I-Novel, then, throbs and pulses with big ideas on language, race, identity, family, freedom and loneliness, all presented in Minae Mizumura’s stylish, understated and elegant writing. She manages to brilliantly convey the dilemma that plagues our narrator – the sense of never really settling down in a new country and longing for the country of your origin, the impression of being adrift, uprooted and never belonging anywhere. No place you can truly call home.
Throughout her formative years Minae spends her time alone, cooped up in the house, getting completely immersed in Japanese novels. These novels conjure up images of a Japan of the olden days, a Japan that has vanished, its remnants barely visible. The modern Japan, fed on a diet of capitalism and commercialism, is not the Japan of Minae’s imagination but her resolve to go back to her country does not diminish although she laments the loss of many of her country’s traditions.
The rebel in her questions the place of English as the most dominant language in the world. Post the war, Japan is clearly attracted by Western influences – not only in food and culture, but also in its bigger ideals of freedom and independence. But these influences don’t remain one-sided. Eventually many facets of the Japanese culture find a way into the fabric of American society. And yet, when it comes to communication and expression, English makes rapid strides to become the most widely spoken language in the world, while the Japanese language is restricted only to the archipelago or spoken by the Japanese expatriates. Minae expresses her desire to pen her first novel in Japanese, and is not daunted by the fact that she has barely spoken or written the language during her long sojourn in the US.
In the final analysis, did not literature arise out of the deep desire to do something wondrous with a language? In my case, it was a desire to be born once again into my language so as to appreciate and explore it anew. As I spent ungodly amounts of time assembling futile strings of words in languages that remained foreign to me, this desire had grown inexorably, year by year, until my craving to write in Japanese now seemed intense enough to move mountains.
Mizumura also ponders over the question of race in America, the dominance and limited worldview of the whites, and the inability of many Americans to distinguish between various people of the South Asian and Eastern countries. For Minae, who prides herself on being Japanese, it is a shock for her to discover that in the States, she is viewed through the wider prism of being “Asian”, how her Japanese identity is obliterated.
Ultimately, the novel explores the idea of identity – is Minae American or Japanese? Certainly, while her head is in the US, her heart is definitely in Japan. Minae acknowledges the community spirit of America, how her family is warmly welcomed in the town they settle in when they were very new in America, but she admits it’s not sufficient enough for her to settle there permanently.
Another aspect the novel dwells on is how Japanese customs widely differ from those in the States. For instance, in Japan, the education for women was largely relegated to grooming them as “women of accomplishment” to be eventually married to respectable Japanese men. For Japanese families residing abroad, the sons were sent to Japan for education, the daughters had the freedom to pursue an education in the US with the aim of ultimately settling into traditional Japanese families. Having grown up in that atmosphere, Nanae and Minae, pursuing art and French literature respectively, are forced to confront the fact that they will have to employ the education they received not to marry but to support themselves financially, something that becomes painfully clear to them when their family breaks apart. In this vein, other themes expanded upon are the concept of family and how its disintegration can leave an individual engulfed in alienation and loneliness.
The loneliness of such women built up gradually during the day, growing discernably as evening came on and finally exploding in the hush of night, making those lucky enough to have a confidant reach for the telephone. In the middle of the night, the wires across America were filled with the voices of women whose struggle with loneliness had proven too much to bear quietly alone.
Over and over, Nanae and I comforted each other with the same words.
“It’s so hard.”
“It really is.”
“But it’s hard for Americans too, I think.”
Yet were American women really as lonely as we were?
An I-Novel, then, is a deeply absorbing book with its stunning articulation of complex, relevant themes. Having grown and lived in Mumbai all my life, I haven’t experienced firsthand the feeling of being uprooted in a foreign land. But Mizumura has done such a commendable job of conveying the essence of that sentiment that you can actually empathize with the uncertainty and slew of emotions that flood Minae’s mind. The book is also dotted with a myriad of atmospheric black & white photographs (also a notable feature in A True Novel) that enhances the overall reading experience.
For all her exuberant, outgoing nature and her willingness to integrate herself into the ways of America, is Nanae the one who is really lost? Will Minae finally summon the courage to let Nanae know of her decision to go back to Japan and how will she respond?
Shimmering with a rich kaleidoscope of ideas, An I-Novel certainly is another winner from Minae Mizumura.
American settlers had left the fences of the Old World in search of freedom, making it imperative for them to accept loneliness as a basic condition of life. Perhaps more than an ideology, it was a faith. And what could fortify a human being against life’s adversities better than faith?