An Interview with Nina Schuyler
Nina Schuyler is the most exciting fiction writer I have discovered this year. A natural story-teller who creates memorable, sometimes quirky characters, her novels explore the collision of cultures. Her elegant prose is always a joy to read. She is the author of two novels, The Translator (Pegasus, 2014) and The Painting (Algonquin, 2004). The Translator was the winner of the 2014 Next Generation Indie Book Award, was a San Francisco Chronicle Best Book, and was short-listed for the 2014 William Saroyan International Prize for Writing. The Painting was named a Best Book by San Francisco Chronicle and nominated for the Northern California Book Award. Her short stories have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best American New Voices. She is faculty advisor for USF’s Switchback and teaches at the University of San Francisco.
Garry Craig Powell: Thank you for agreeing to speak to me, Nina. I have read both The Painting and The Translator in the past few months, and it strikes me that, in spite of the differences, there are some similarities too. Could we talk about these first? An obvious one is setting. One of the two plots in The Painting takes place in Japan, and the majority of the action in The Translator also takes place in Japan (although the first is during the Meiji period, while the latter is contemporary). It seemed to me that beyond an apparent fascination with Japanese culture and aesthetics, you might have had deeper reasons for choosing that setting. In a way, both novels are about the relationship between East and West, would you agree? And if so, would you say that both books ask what one culture has to teach the other?
Nina Schuyler: Thank you for reading both novels. There is a subtle thread in both novels that raises the question: what could the two cultures learn from each other? I’m going to greatly simplify things, but here it goes: In the West, there is a deep-seated, mythological belief in the individual and individual rights, but in the East, there is heightened emphasis on one’s relationship to other, one’s ancestors, the community, the collective, the nation. When you meet someone in Japan, for instance, you bow, but the bow ranges from kneeling, with your head on the floor, to the slight dip of your head and shoulders, depending on your relationship to the other person. The Japanese language, too, changes dramatically, depending on your relationship to the other. Both value systems have strengths and weaknesses, and both my books put these two systems in conversation with each other.
Garry Craig Powell: Allow me to put my last rather general question in a more specific form. In The Translator, the chief conflict driving the plot is the estrangement between Hanne Schubert, a fiftyish polyglot who lives in the States, and her daughter, Brigitte. And yet when Hanne suffers a traumatic brain injury, and loses her several native languages, she is left with only Japanese and finds herself going to Japan (which is not where her daughter is), partly fortuitously, partly deliberately, and staying there, where she becomes emotionally involved with a Noh actor, Moto, who is currently unable to act and is drinking too much. In other words, he is anything but the stereotypical Asian guru-figure, a serene sage who imparts his wisdom. And yet it seemed to me that in some ways Moto embodies the spirit of Zen—which if I remember correctly is never mentioned explicitly—and that through the sometimes disturbing relationship she has with him, Hanne learns something about herself and relationships that enables her to approach her daughter later. Am I on the right track?
Nina Schuyler: You’re on the right track! Hanne and Moto are in direct conflict about their world view or philosophy. Hanne believes that existence is inherently meaningless and it’s incumbent upon each individual to create his or her own meaning. If you want to put a label on it–and Hanne would–she’d call herself an Existentialist. When Hanne and her daughter, Brigitte, move to a new apartment, Brigitte laments it isn’t a home. Hanne responds: “If it doesn’t feel like a home, change it so it is.” Hanne finds a great deal of freedom as well as responsibility in having to form one’s own meaning.
Moto, on the other hand, is playful, spontaneous, present in the moment, responding to what is in front of him. For him, it’s as if the world is a river and he’s willing to swim, however choppy. He believes the world has its own inherent meaning. Is that Zen? I’m not sure, but he says at one point: “There’s no need to do or make anything. It’s (meaning) just there. It’s life in all its glory, and, what’s the word in English? Banality.”
They are, to use Charles Baxter’s term, ‘counterpointed’ characters, people who bring out a crucial response from each other, with a latent energy rising to the surface, the desire or secret previously forced down into psychic obscurity. With Moto, I’m also playing with Asia’s much beloved inquisitor character who arrives and poses the question, what has your life been about?
Garry Craig Powell: I would say that Moto’s belief that the world has its own inherent meaning is Zen; it’s definitely Taoism. I see that Hanne could be regarded as an Existentialist. It strikes me that what Existentialism and Zen have in common is that both reject authorities; both are about experiencing life and finding meaning for yourself. If I might pursue the influence of Zen a little more, you have a rather unique style, especially for a western writer: simultaneously spare and simple, on the surface, yet also lush, or at least giving the impression of lushness—you pick out just enough telling sensory details to bring the canvas alive—and it seems to me that what is not said is as important as what is. And in the silences, the necessity of reading the subtext, I thought I detected the influence of poets like Basho and perhaps also novelists like Kawabata. Am I right? Are you consciously influenced by any Japanese writers? Are you aiming for the same sort of effects?
Nina Schuyler: Thank you. That’s very kind. I love haiku, so concise, dense, and powerful. Have you read W.S. Merwin’s East Window? It’s lovely. Basho, Kawabata, Ono no Komachi, Izumi Shikibu. I’m the kind of writer that runs a sentence through her mind over and over and can’t move forward until it’s right. And what makes it right? Now you are moving into a discussion that is deeply personal to each writer–what sounds like music to your ear? What makes a sentence pulse and reverberate?
For The Painting, there are two parallel story lines, one takes place in Japan, the other in France. I tried to make the style of writing different for each story line to capture the respective countries’ aesthetic values. In Japan, there is a term called “wabi-sabi,” and though there is no direct translation, qualities of this term include simplicity, intimacy, asymmetry. For the French story line, I wanted lush, full writing, so I was more liberal with my adjectives. For The Translator, Hanne has a keen ear for language, as do most writers, yet she also has a severe side to her. Her character led to a pared down, yet precise prose style.
Garry Craig Powell: Yes, I can see that: like Kawabata’s. I very much admire the subtlety of your work and its obliqueness. (And the latter is a very non-western quality!) In a sense, both novels are about challenging relationships—the estrangement I mentioned in The Translator, and in The Painting, an unravelling marriage and a surprising love affair—and these are really gripping stories, and yet at the same time they are about spiritual quests, aren’t they? Even so, the characters are not consciously grappling with the big abstract questions, such as the existence of God, but instead, through contact with foreign cultures, are forced to re-examine themselves and make new discoveries, often with the aid of very real cultural artefacts: in The Painting, a Japanese painting that falls into the hands of a Danish thief in Paris, and comes to obsess him, ends up completely reconfiguring his life; in The Translator, watching a Noh play, which at first strikes Hanne as so boring that she falls asleep, also transforms her. It’s as if these characters need the encounter with the immediacy of Japanese art to develop true mindfulness and understand their ego-limited follies. Is there anything to this interpretation, or am I just reading my own interest in Zen into your fiction?
Nina Schuyler: Wow! I hadn’t really thought about this pattern in both books. Which goes to show how, at some level, the making of art is happening at a very unconscious level.
Both characters, the Danish thief and Hanne have significant character arcs. I know few people who undergo significant change without an external force acting on them. For the Danish thief, I drew upon the history of ukiyo-e, the floating art world, and how it significantly influenced European artists. They’d never seen art like this before and it changed the way many artists approached painting. For Hanne, who is so tightly wedded to words, I wanted to throw her into a situation where words were of no help. Have you ever attended Noh play? Most native Japanese speakers can’t understand what the actors are saying. A text is provided to the audience, if you want to look up a word.
Garry Craig Powell: I haven’t attended a Noh play, unfortunately. It seems that Ayoshi, the woman who painted the picture that by sheer accident (or is it?) ends up transforming the life of Jorgen, the Danish thief—Ayoshi seems to need the independence that the West offers, and which she learns about from Sato, a Japanese trader with first-hand knowledge of the West.
Nina Schuyler: The Japanese rules and expectations for women were too constricting for Ayoshi, who fell in love with an Ainu. The Ainu were regarded by the ethnic Japanese as an “inferior race.” In 1869 many Ainu were forced into slavery; their language was banned and their land taken away. Ayoshi was forced to marry someone whom she didn’t love because her history had tainted her. Ayoshi craves the independence that she associates with the West. She is loosely based on a Japanese language teacher who married an American man and moved to San Francisco. When he died, she had the option of returning to Japan, whereby, according to unwritten customs, her older brother would have to financially help her. She chose to stay in San Francisco and teach about 20 Japanese language classes a week, so as to keep her freedom.
Garry Craig Powell: Could you tell us something about the time you spent in Japan and how it changed you? Have you consciously set out to write about Japan and cross-cultural relationships or has it simply happened to you? I mean, have you chosen the subject or has it chosen you?
Nina Schuyler: I grew up in Washington state and first visited Japan when I was 10-years-old. The trip made a deep impression, as it was the first time I understood that culture was a set of agreed upon assumptions. That culture was malleable–and that was interesting. The fascination led me to study Japanese and later, at college, Japanese Economics. I lived in Japan for three months, and after graduating from college continued to study the language. It’s such a profoundly different culture and language, it continues to intrigue and baffle me, so I guess I’d say the subject of Japan chose me.
Garry Craig Powell: I’m also curious about why you set The Painting in France at the time of the Franco-Prussian war, and in Japan at about the same time. The historical settings are wonderfully evoked, but why did you choose that particular period? I suppose because it’s when the western fascination with Japan begins, and Japan is opening up to the West? And why France, particularly? It’s certainly a highly dramatic setting, with the German guns drawing closer day by day.
Nina Schuyler: Both places were in upheaval and forever changed during this time period. Japan opened up to the West, and during the late nineteenth century, embraced all things Western. The Franco-Prussian War was a precursor of German military aggression during the World Wars of the twentieth century. Both places reverberated with change. I was fortunate to find Paris Under Siege, 1870-1871: From the Goncourt Journal, a first-hand account of the invasion of Paris, written by Edmond de Goncourt. Goncourt’s eye for detail was wonderful. If you’re writing about the past, finding a journal by a writer is a goldmine.
Garry Craig Powell: Let’s return to The Translator. I was enthralled by the sub-plot—if you can call it that—in which Hanne, having rather freely translated a novel by a famous Japanese writer, who to her consternation rejects her work angrily, finds herself almost literally in love with his fictional protagonist, Jiro, whom she finds out was inspired by Moto, the great Noh actor. Hanne is convinced that she understands Jiro better than the author himself does—and this might be partly because she is a little arrogant, and partly because she misses her ex-husband, Hiro, whose name, one can’t help noticing, is very similar. And so, as she comes to understand both the novel better, through meeting and getting to know Moto, and also herself, she finds that she has to re-evaluate her whole way of looking at the world. Plunging herself deeply into a fictional plot, as it turns out, has a decisive effect on her life, the main plot. It’s a real testament to the power of art, as is the painting in your first novel.
Nina Schuyler: One of Hanne’s many flaws is her need for perfection. As the translator, she was handed the authority and responsibility of bringing Jiro to life on the page in English. She acted as a writer acts–like a god, fashioning a world, populating it with characters as she saw fit. Let me add here that there is no such thing as a literal translation. Translators draw upon the knowledge of language, their experiences, life to translate literature’s subtleties, nuances and subtext. Hanne spent a year with Jiro–that was how long it took to translate the Japanese book–and was so lonely that she slipped into a deep fantasy and made of him an ideal mate for herself. But of course, life isn’t so neat and uncomplicated, so when she meets Moto, who served as the inspiration for the Jiro character, things get messy very fast.
Garry Craig Powell: That brings me to the complexity of your characters and the fact that they aren’t necessarily particularly ‘nice’. The first time we communicated, I believe, we agreed that there were too many sympathetic characters in contemporary fiction, and you said you were more interested in characters with flaws. Can you expand on that? What are the advantages of severely flawed characters like Hanne and Moto, Ayoshi and Jorgen, and what are the risks?
Nina Schuyler: This continues to be a hot topic in the fiction world: should your characters be likeable? I hope there’s lots of room for different kinds of novels, including protagonists who are nuanced, flawed, complicated and compelling, who both confirm a reader’s understanding of experience and also confront it. In The Translator, I was interested in creating a 53-year-old women who is ambitious, intelligent, and unwilling to view herself as a victim. She doesn’t feel deficient or inadequate; she doesn’t have low self-esteem. She’s lived life and has views and opinions and is willing to share them. She is also deeply flawed, and from here, story emerges, with flaws leading to problems, and problems, of course, lead to conflict–the heart of story.
When you challenge stereotypes, though, you run the risk of alienating the reader who doesn’t want to disturb his or her assumptions or preconceived notions. As one reader told me–“Sometimes I just want to read for entertainment and be lulled to sleep.”
Garry Craig Powell: I would prefer not to have that kind of reader! You too, I suspect. For me your characterization is one of your greatest strengths. I find them all very compelling, even if I don’t like all of them. Do you begin with characters, or the plot, or perhaps the themes?
Nina Schuyler: Thank you. I’m letting that sink in, because for both books, the characters came last, and when that happens, creating complex characters takes a long time–many, many, many drafts. The Painting was inspired by an image. I’d finished a Japanese language lesson, in which my professor had talked about ukiyo-e, and as I headed home, I imagined vibrant woodblock prints from Japan flying through the air and landing in Paris, where someone found one of them. For The Translator, I read The New Yorker article, “The Translation Wars,” by David Remnick about a married couple that was busy re-translating all the great Russian novels into English. What caught my eye wasn’t the word “Translation” in the title, but the words “Tolstoy” and “Dostoyevsky” in the subtitle. As a girl, I loved the Russian writers, and it turned out a nineteenth century British woman, Constance Garnett, had translated much of the Russian greats, but not very well. According to Remnick, when she came across a word or phrase she didn’t know, she skipped it. But it got me thinking about translation and all the great works that I’d read in translation, and what might happen if a translator unknowingly made a mistake? An egregious error?
Garry Craig Powell: That’s interesting—especially Hanne’s errors are caused not so much by her lack of knowledge of the language, as by her misunderstanding of Jiro’s character—because she’s projecting on him the qualities that she desires in a lover. (And by the way, the newish Pevear/Volokhonsky translation of War and Peace is certainly superior to Constance Garnett’s.) I suppose you’re working on a new novel? Would you be willing to divulge anything about it? Will it again be set or partly set in Japan?
Nina Schuyler: I’ve left Japan for now. But writing is a strange undertaking, with deep-seated unanswerable questions pulling at you all the time. I’m early in the process and I don’t know where I’ll end up.
Garry Craig Powell: I shall look forward to reading it. Thank you very much once again for discussing your work with me.