Title: Strange Weather in Tokyo
Author: Hiromi Kawakami (English translation: Allison Markin Powell)
Publication date: 2001 (English translation: 2012)
For this year’s Book Diaries, in a departure from my usual focus, instead of being inspired in a random fashion, I’m looking for inspiration that I can take to my writing. (See my general blog to find out why I’m doing this.)
Tsukiko is drinking in a bar one night when she encounters a former teacher; they strike up a conversation, and continue to meet, talk, eat and drink over the coming months. Gradually friendship starts to deepen into something more, and Tsukiko must come to terms with her feelings, both of love and loneliness, in order to find happiness.
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What did I find out?
One of the reasons I decided to do the Book Diaries slightly differently this year, i.e. take inspiration for my writing rather than for my life generally, was because of the theme I’d chosen: world literature. I realised that if I didn’t give myself a tighter focus, the ‘new things I found out’ would, for every single book, be the same: learning about a different country or culture.
This is not to decry the value in such discoveries – far from it – but it would have led to some very repetitive blog posts: ‘I found out about life in Nigeria‘, ‘I found out about life in Alaska‘, etc. So, as the purpose of this blog is to use books as a starting point for making personal changes, I chose instead to look for elements that I could relate to my overarching objective for this year: my writing.
However, there have been times when my overwhelming response to a book has had very little to do with writing – and this is one of those occasions. I’m therefore taking a pause, just for a short while, to acknowledge the ‘otherness’ of the cultures I’m reading about, and to reassure my own readers that I’m not oblivious to the impact these books are having on me: it is substantial, and goes way beyond the mere process of writing a novel. The issues I raise in these blog posts are only the ones I’m consciously teasing out: there will be many more cogs turning at a subconscious level, affecting me in ways I can’t yet see – but which will, nevertheless, change me (and, by consequence, my life) from this point forwards.
What do I now see differently?
I’m generally drawn to genre fiction rather than literary fiction; I can read it more quickly, it grips me more and I get caught up in its world more easily. Strange Weather in Tokyo is not what I would call genre fiction; it has more of the qualities that I would associate with literary fiction – a focus on the inner thoughts of the main character, a plot that drifts like smoke rather than running on a set route, and an utter joy in the beauty of language and evocation of setting.
And I found it a dream to read. I didn’t get weighed down with ruminations on the meaning of life and love, as I might have expected to with this kind of work; I merely went with the flow and enjoyed myself.
This was quite a novel experience for me, and it has reassured me that I don’t need to worry overmuch about distinctions of ‘genre’. Even if I am writing something more commercial than literary, I can still aim to imbue it with beautiful language: I needn’t sacrifice style and art for plot. True, this may prove to be more difficult in practice, but I am nothing if not stubborn, and having a high standard to aspire to is merely another challenge I intend to set myself.
How will this inspire my writing?
I’ve been aware for a while that ‘sensual’ details help to bring writing to life – descriptions of smells, tastes, and so on – but it’s often felt like a rather forced procedure: ‘oh, I need to add in a bit about how the ice cream melted on her tongue, how the scent of roses awoke memories of his childhood, etc’. This is not always something that comes naturally, and it’s been one of those things I’ve known I must practise in order to get right.
On reading this book I was reminded of how effective such details can be and why they are worth including. Tsukiko and Sensei frequently meet in a local bar; they eat there as well as drink, and the descriptions of the food are relayed each time in very specific detail. The texture of the sushi, the aroma of a stew cooking, even the consistency of the leftover bones… nothing is omitted. This appeal to our senses helps to embed us in the scene, and everything feels more real and personal as a result.
A number of my characters don’t eat and drink as such, as they are ghosts and don’t have normal human appetites. However, I’m intrigued to think that I could use this as another way of pointing out their ‘otherness’. Humans need and love food, even to the extent that our mouths water when reading about it, but ghosts don’t (or can’t) enjoy it in the same way. How better to distinguish between the dead and the living than by homing in on one of the key things that makes humans ‘human’?
A musical interlude
Sometimes I agonise for days over which song complements a book, but this track popped straight into my head. The life and culture of the performers is a world away from that described in the novel, but there is a strange mixture of beauty and quirkiness in both the song and the book that make them feel like a perfect fit.
It’s Madness, and It Must Be Love.