The Monkey Business of Contemporary Japanese Literature

Japanese literary anthology Monkey Business International launched its third volume this week, and several events in New York have been held to celebrate it. JapanCulture•NYC sat down with translators and editors Motoyuki Shibata and Ted Goossen, along with writers Mina Ishikawa and Gen’ichiro Takahashi, before the Monkey Business cabaret-style party at Joe’s Pub on May 1, which was a nice blend of readings, conversation, and music by New York-based (mostly) Japanese bands Neo Blues Maki and The Suzan.

You will not find Haruki Murakami in the latest international volume of Monkey Business: New Writing from Japan, the acclaimed anthology of newly translated Japanese writing and the literary offspring of the Tokyo-based magazine Monkey Business, which was founded in 2008 by Motoyuki Shibata, the award-winning translator of contemporary American literature.

“There was a lot of Murakami in the first issue, a little Murakami in the second issue, and no Murakami in the third issue,” says Ted Goossen, professor of Japanese literature and film at York University in Toronto and co-editor, along with Shibata, of the Monkey Business franchise. “The purpose of the magazine is partly to show English readers that there is more to Japanese literature than Haurki Murakami.”

Monkey Business, Motoyuki Shibata, Ted Goossen, Roland Kelts, NYC, Joe's Pub, Mina Ishikawa, Gen'ichiro Takahashi, tanka, fiction, writing, Kevin Brockmeier, Japan, Japanese writers, contemporary fiction

“I apologize for our lack of symmetry,” says Motoyuki Shibata, with Ted Goossen at Joe’s Pub.

Goossen, of course, means no disrespect to Murakami, the best-known Japanese writer to Western readers. After all, Murakami is quite possibly the reason Westerners know anything about Japanese literature in the first place. The author of thirteen books and scores of essays, short stories, and translations, Murakami indirectly contributed to the start of Monkey Business after appearing in the first issue of A Public Space, an American literary magazine based in Brooklyn.

“The first issue of A Public Space, which came out six or seven years ago, featured Japan,” says Shibata. “So Roland [Kelts, half Japanese writer, lecturer, and author of Japanamerica] interviewed me, he interviewed Haruki Murakami, and it was well received.”

That planted the seed for Monkey Business, which A Public Space publishes each year.

So instead of dwelling on what Monkey Business doesn’t have, let’s talk about what the anthology actually does have.

It has established and emerging writers of contemporary Japanese literature. It has tanka, an ancient Japanese poetry tradition with modern themes by Mina Ishikawa. It has the postmodern-esque style of novelist and critic Gen’ichiro Takahashi. It has an edgy manga based on Kafka’s The Metamorphosis by the Brother and Sister Nishioka. It has works by a Korean poet who died of tuberculosis in 1937. It has a submission from a young psychiatrist; a writer who made her literary debut at age 78; and an American who carved a niche by writing keitai shosetsu, fiction that’s intended to be read on Japanese cell phones.

“It’s an attempt to break down boundaries between genres, between national literature,” says Goossen.

Genres and labels such as “postmodern,” which Takahashi describes as “meaningless,” tend to collide when reading an anthology containing a wide range of styles. There is a thread that ties these works together, however.

“We mostly translate contemporary authors who write non-realistic fiction,” says Shibata, who jokingly referred to himself as the club president of the weirdos. “So we choose Kelly Link over Jonathan Franzen, or Paul Auster over John Updike.”

Monkey Business, Motoyuki Shibata, Ted Goossen, Roland Kelts, NYC, Joe's Pub, Mina Ishikawa, Gen'ichiro Takahashi, tanka, fiction, writing, Kevin Brockmeier, Japan, Japanese writers, contemporary fiction

Tanka poet Mina Ishikawa

Ishikawa says that contemporary tanka is primarily realistic, where the writer talks about herself or everyday reality. But Ishikawa, who credits Shibata for shaping her view of American literature through his translations of works into Japanese, says she’s influenced by fiction that blurs reality with fantasy. As long as tanka writers stick to the form – five lines with the syllabic structure of 5-7-5-7-7 – the subject matter is anything goes, Ishikawa says.

This is evident in her reading at Joe’s Pub, which contained references to witches, dismembered limbs, and a maniacal baseball manager who devours his players. To Ishikawa, reading her tanka aloud to the Joe’s Pub audience was a good way for her to remember tanka’s roots. When it was developed more than 700 years ago, tanka was oral literature, whereas these days it is generally written.

Written, for the most part, in Japanese. As a tanka poetry writer, Ishikawa says her work “is made to fit the ideal rhythm of the Japanese language, so usually I don’t think about my work being translated. So when I see my work translated into other languages, I see new possibilities for tanka. And I can take a different look at my form, which is very exciting.”

Monkey Business, Motoyuki Shibata, Ted Goossen, Roland Kelts, NYC, Joe's Pub, Mina Ishikawa, Gen'ichiro Takahashi, tanka, fiction, writing, Kevin Brockmeier, Japan, Japanese writers, contemporary fiction

Novelist and critic Gen’ichiro Takahashi

When Takahashi started writing novels in 1980 – the year Ishikawa was born – he was influenced by American writers such as Philip Roth. Throughout his career, Takahashi has become increasingly difficult to categorize, even by himself, because, according to Shibata, his novels are completely different from each other.

“Before you read him, you think you know what a novel is. After you read him, you don’t,” Shibata says of Takahashi. “Every work of art, every good piece makes you wonder about the genre. What a painting is, what tanka is, and likewise his novels make you think what novels are.”

Takahashi gave an example with his reading at Joe’s Pub. First, he read in English, rather than in Japanese, apologizing ahead of time for what he described as his poor pronunciation. “If you can’t catch my words,” he said, “please imagine or apply your favorite word. That would be better than the correct one.” He then read from “Demon-beasts,” the story of Tanaka, a former prisoner who was hired by a body modification company staffed by people with lengthened tongues and split penises.

Monkey Business, Motoyuki Shibata, Ted Goossen, Roland Kelts, NYC, Joe's Pub, Mina Ishikawa, Gen'ichiro Takahashi, tanka, fiction, writing, Kevin Brockmeier, Japan, Japanese writers, contemporary fiction

Fantasy writer Kevin Brockmeier

Also appearing at Joe’s Pub was Arkansas-based fantasy writer Kevin Brockmeier, who read his story “A Fable with Slips of White Paper Spilling from the Pockets.” Although Brockmeier’s work doesn’t appear in Monkey Business, Ishikawa recommended him after she reviewed his work that had been published in Japan. Brockmeier’s reading didn’t contain a split penis or a detached arm; instead, it was about a man who bought God’s coat at a thrift store.

Hmmm, sounds like another “weirdo” to add to Shibata’s club. Perhaps we’ll see Brockmeier next year in Monkey Business 4.

Keep up with the folks at Monkey Business by following their tumblr blog and liking them on Facebook.

Check out the photos on Flickr.