“Islands of the Sun” Completes Tawada Yōko’s Trilogy Exploring Questions of Belonging and National IdentityBooks
Last fall, the English version of Tawada Yōko’s novel Chikyū ni chiribamerarete (translated by Margaret Mitsutani as Scattered All Over the Earth) was a finalist in the Translated Literature category at the US National Book Awards. Although Tawada’s novel eventually missed out on the prize, the English translation was chosen by Time magazine as one of its 100 Must-Read Books of 2022. The remaining two volumes in the trilogy are due to appear in English over the next couple of years. In this article, we introduce Taiyō Shotō (Islands of the Sun), which concluded the trilogy when it was published in Japan last October.
Scattered All Over the Earth is the story of a young woman from Niigata called Hiruko, whose homeland has vanished from the face of the earth while she was studying in Europe. She sets off in search of fellow survivors who might remember her vanished homeland and the language once spoken there. On her travels, she falls in with a group of companions from different ethnic, national, and linguistic backgrounds.
Knut lives in Denmark, where he is a graduate student of linguistics. He comes across Hiruko randomly on a television chat show, and soon joins her travels. The first place they visit together is an Umami Festival in the German town of Trier, where there is to be a talk by Nanook, who is billed as a Japanese chef who is studying umami. In fact, Nanook turns out to be an Eskimo from Greenland. In Trier, Hiruko and Knut meet Akash, from India, and a German woman called Nora. Akash identifies as a transgender woman and always wears red saris. Nora, a librarian who is sensitive to environmental issues, is Nanook’s ex-girlfriend. They all join Hiruko’s quest.
They soon find themselves in Arles, home to a sushi chef from Fukui Prefecture who goes by the name of Susanoo. Although they successfully track him down in the South of France, they find that Susanoo has lost his powers of speech and can no longer speak his native language. In the second volume of the trilogy, Knut arranges for Susanoo to travel to a hospital in Copenhagen where he receives treatment from an aphasia specialist.
These events form the main story of the second volume. During their travels, a strange feeling of solidarity and shared purpose develops among these young people thrown together by chance. The exchanges and interactions between the characters from very different backgrounds raise thought-provoking questions about communication beyond a single language, and Tawada’s suggestive handling of these questions is one of the strengths and delights of the trilogy.
When Borderlands Become Battlegrounds
In Islands of the Sun, Hiruko and her friends are joined by Susanoo, who has regained his powers of speech. Together, the six travelers set out on a mission to find Hiruko’s homeland. Has the island nation where she grew up really disappeared? Is there any sense in traveling so far to confirm what has happened? The travelers board a mail ship in Copenhagen and set off east across the Baltic. Their journey involves stops at the German island of Rügen, Szczecin in Poland, the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, as well as Riga in Latvia and Tallinn in Estonia, until they eventually reach the former Russian capital of St. Petersburg.
As always, Tawada tackles a wide range of profound topics in this latest work, probing questions of national borders, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, the environment, and gender issues. Among the ship’s passengers are Russians and people from a variety of backgrounds across Eastern Europe and Scandinavia. Polish émigrés and other enigmatic characters join the ship at each of the ports along the way. One of the most enjoyable parts of the novel are the varied conversations and debates that unfold among this multiethnic mélange of people from different backgrounds and languages. The story is full of points likely to make readers reexamine their preconceived ideas about the world and their own place in it. I’d like to mention briefly a couple of the conversations that made an impression on me.
At one point Akash asks, “Is it really possible for a country to simply disappear?” An exile who was born in Poland when the country was part of Russian territory replies: “For Poland, there is nothing particularly strange about the idea that a country might disappear. That’s why you can trust cities and towns more than countries. A town is built of bricks and stone. It won’t vanish just like that. But a country is made of paper—nothing more than a bunch of promises and documents. There’s no substance to it.”
Partway through their journey, the group visits Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania. They meet a man who was born in Vladivostok and became a resident of this distant land through marriage. He tells them:
“Europe wants to take us in, make us part of them. But we’d only be treated like second-class citizens. A lot of us feel we’d rather go our own way than have our pride hurt like that.”
Nanook says: “But surely Western Europe wouldn’t attack you just to increase their territory? That seems impossible to me.” The exile replies: “You’re right. That will never happen. But through investments and funding, and spreading democracy, they are slowly but surely trying to incorporate Eastern Europe. If our central government loses patience and responds with threats of its own, the borderlands could become a battleground. That’s what we’re afraid of.”
The Baltic Sea is lined with states whose borders intersect. Throughout history, the rulers of these countries have changed repeatedly, and each time the names of the countries have changed, along with the borders between them. The ship that takes Hiruko and her friends across the sea is an ethnic melting pot. Eventually, the ship arrives at St. Petersburg at the eastern edge of the Baltic, before turning around and starting back toward the west, heading to Finland. Will she and her friends ever reach their goal?
“I’ve lost all sense of direction,” one of her companions says at one point. “This is a journey with no answers.” Hiruko replies: “Maybe we’ve already received the answer during our travels—maybe several times. It’s only when you stop and look back on the past that you realize: ah, so that was the answer.” What does it mean to have a homeland, a native language? These are the weighty questions that Tawada Yōko explores in this trilogy of engagingly written novels.
Rarely have these questions felt as pressing as they do now. The author’s analysis of recent events in Germany has stayed with me since I read it in a Japanese newspaper article some months ago:
“Once cracks start to appear in a society, the sense of trust is eroded. Anxiety grows, and people become vulnerable to demagoguery. I think for us, the dangerous years have begun.” (Asahi Shimbun, February 10, 2023.)
(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: The cover of Taiyō Shotō. Courtesy of Kōdansha.)
By Tawada Yōko
Published by Kōdansha in 2022