[REVIEW] “Pursuing Her Japanese Identity: A Review of Minae Mizumura’s An I-Novel” by James Au Kin-Pong

{Written by James Au Kin-Pong, this review is part of Issue 46 of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Minae Mizumura (author), Juliet Winters Carpenter (translator; in collaboration with the author), An I-Novel, Columbia University Press, 2021. 325 pgs.

Minae Mizumura’s An I-Novel, translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter, depicts two decades of the author’s struggle to settle in the United States from the time she first set foot in the country as a teenager with her family. When they started living on Long Island, she and her elder sister Nanae promptly faced not only language problems, but also cultural shock and racial discrimination.

In one episode, for instance, Minae recalls how frustrating it was to be put in a remedial English class when she was in eighth grade. Unlike Japan, the US has a hierarchical education system where students belonging to the honour classes deride their peers in the remedial ones as “dumb”. In another reminiscence, of a blind date Nanae had—a sort of dating game arranged in high school—her little sister felt wretched as she was assigned a fat, ugly Korean boy simply because she was the only Asian in the group.

Her strange, solitary life in the States leads to Minae constantly pursuing her Japanese identity. Reading Japanese classics from her Grandpa Yokohama’s library, such as novels by Natsume Sōseki and Higuchi Ichiyō, enabled Minae to stay close to Japan and to learn kanji (or Chinese characters) she could no longer access; during class in seventh grade, she kept writing her old Tokyo address lest she forget the strokes of the Chinese characters. To turn herself away from the English environment, Minae even chose French as her major in university.

Though Nanae is seemingly the opposite of Minae, neither sisters fits well into American society. Notwithstanding her spoken English, Nanae has had a few failures in love. One of the most intimidating moments was when a bartender asked Nanae to leave the bar because her former Polish boyfriend Henryk kept kissing her. She decided it was because of her—an Oriental girl—that made a white guy look “cheap”. However eloquently she speaks English, Nanae always feels a look of contempt from others, a sign telling her she can never be an American, not even a Japanese-American.

Written as a first-person narrative, the story not only chronicles the two sisters’ helplessness to live as strangers, but also their yearning for a hometown that does not exist anymore. Having left Japan when young, Minae’s ideal Japan is the collage of her faint childhood memories and what she read from the Japanese classics. As she explains elsewhere in the story, her hometown is in reality is a far cry from her imagined one: the former’s being always poetic and natural while the latter industrialised and modernised.

The fiction can also be read as the author Mizumura’s confession of her life struggles in the United States. As suggested by the title An I-Novel—a confessional autobiography—it is justifiable to almost identify Minae in the story as the author Mizumura. Both left Japan while young; both studied French literature in university and graduate school, and upon graduation, each became a novelist writing in Japanese. The experiences written in the form of an autobiographical narrative were perhaps to tell readers how excruciating it can be for a non-white, non-English speaker to live in American society, where English is a dominant language.

Mizumura’s An I-Novel was not even intended to be translated. First serialised in 1992 under its original title Shishōsetsu from Left to Right (『私小説from left to right』), it was originally written in Japan horizontally from left to right, unusual in Japanese publishing where fiction is habitually printed vertically from right to left. Those who can read the original version will find that An I-Novel was written in both English and Japanese (and occasionally French), with four distinct types of writing: the Roman alphabet, hiragana, katagana and kanji, the latter three of which together constitute the Japanese language system.

As the author explained around 15 years later in The Fall of Language in the Age of English (or Nihongo ga horobirutoki – eigo no seiki no nakade 『日本語が亡びるとき――英語の世紀の中で』, first published in 2008), An I-Novel is also a bilingual fiction written to emphasise the asymmetrical relationship between English and non-English languages as the former has grown to be a global hegemonic language. Therefore, this work, as Mizumura predicted, could be translated into all other languages except English.

Translator Juliet Winters Carpenter acknowledges in a translator’s note all the challenges to translate the work, including the impossibility of retaining the bilingual format of the original. To bridge the untranslatable parts, she employs a different typeface for words written in English. The device is clever and does address the issue of bilingualism of the original text, although readers might sometimes forget about this mingling of the two languages and the translated text end up being read as a monolingual one.

What is also lost in the translated text is the atmospheric transition between the narrative part and the conversation. In Japanese, the more the Chinese characters are employed, the more formal the writing style will become. The narrative part is written chiefly in a formal style, which Minae/Mizumura imitates from the classics she has read. To exemplify the formality, read an episode where Minae describes a New Year’s Party she and her parents attended. In the original, only “Manhattan” and “Upper East Side” are written in English while formal and usual expressions like 華奢 (kyasya, delicate) and 胸高に締めた帯 (munedaka ni simeta obi, obi so tight that makes one hard to breathe) are employed to describe the fashion.

As mentioned earlier, since the Japanese language alone consists of three distinct writing system and Mizumura played with them in An I-Novel, it is exceptionally hard for the translator to retain the mood. When Minae recalls, for example, how her junior high school English teacher Mr Keith praised her composition, she suddenly realises that during her school life in Japan she had been good at writing. The original was written in a mixed form of kanji and katagana as “ソウヨ、アタシハ作文ガ得意ダッタンダ” (souyo, atashi no sakubun ga tokui dattanda) (345) while the translation reads “That’s right, I was good at composition. My teachers used to read my compositions aloud in class!” (243), in which the childish, naïve tone is apparently lost.

A reader who can read both Japanese and English may be picky about the translation, but, frankly, no translator could have done a better job than Carpenter in face of such a challenging text. Thanks to the translation, Mizumura’s struggle in the English dominating world can now be made known to wider audiences and, hopefully, in future, the problem of what Mizumura calls the asymmetry between English and the other languages can be solved and the diversity of languages and cultures can be promoted.


Mizumura, Mina. Shishōsetsu from left to right. Tokyo: Chikumo Bunko, 2009.
—. Nihongo ga horobirutoki – eigo no seiki no nakade. Tokyo: Chikumo Bunko, 2015.

How to cite: Au, Kin-Pong James. “Pursuing Her Japanese Identity: A Review of Minae Mizumura’s An I-Novel.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 17 Apr. 2021, chajournal.blog/2021/04/17/an-i-novel/ 


James Au Kin-Pong is a Master’s graduate of both Hong Kong Baptist University and the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London. He is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Tokyo, writing his dissertation about the relation between history and literature through close readings of East Asian historical narratives in the 1960s. His research interests include Asian literatures, comparative literature, historical narratives and modern poetry. During his leisure time, he writes poetry and learns Spanish, Korean and Polish. He teaches English at Salesio Polytechnic College and literature in English at Tama Art University. His Cha reviews can be found here.

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