Author Kyoko Nakajima at the ‘Authors on Tour’ event with the Toronto International Festival of Authors in Union Station on Oct. 27.
TORONTO — For Japanese author Kyoko Nakajima‘s award-winning novel, The Little House, she set out to tell the story of regular people living through the Second World War.
Inspired by the stories her grandmother would tell her about living as a housewife in Japan during the 1930s and 40s, Nakajima found herself interested in the daily lives of real people and how their lives changed during the hardships of war.
“[My grandmother] would tell me stories about being around [before the war]. They were so interesting and so funny. She would talk about going to Ginza, buying kimonos and going shopping and just a really kind of glamorous and fun life,” Nakajima explains. “And as the war worsened, the everyday life of the people, that’s what I wanted to write about. So I thought that taking one woman, just an average woman, and making her the voice [of this story].”
The Little House, translated into English by Ginny Tapley Takemori, is set release in Canada at the end of November.
The 55 year old author from Tokyo worked in publishing before quitting her job in 1996, and studying at the University of Iowa for a year. When she returned to Japan the next year, she began working as a freelance writer. Nakajima was in the city for the Toronto International Festival of Authors and her visit was supported by the Japan Foundation. Between participating in various panels and talks as well as a screening of the film adaptation of her book, Nakajima sat down with Nikkei Voice and translator Jocelyne Allen to talk about writing The Little House on Oct. 26.
Originally published in Japan in 2010, as Chisai Ouchi, the book was awarded the Naoki Prize, a prestigious literary prize recognizing the year’s best in popular fiction by a rising author in Japan.
The story is told by Taki, an old woman writing a memoir about the golden years of her life, between 1930 to 1945. As a young woman, Taki is sold by her parents to work as a housemaid for a beautiful young bride, Tokiko Hirai, who is not much older than her. Taki lives with the Hirai family, a middle class family in the outskirts of Tokyo in the book’s titular house, a European-style house with a red roof.
The story is carefully and intricately tied to historical events of the time. While the history is not the centre of the plot, events and their impacts move the plot forward and influence character’s decisions. Tokiko’s husband is a toymaker and towards the beginning of the story, Japan was getting ready to celebrate the 2600th anniversary of the first Emperor’s accession to the throne and leaders from around the world were coming to the country. Tokyo was also set to host the 1940 Olympics.
The world’s eyes were going to be on Japan and Hirai was making a designing toys for the world to see. Of course, the world’s eyes would be on Japan for a different reason, and the celebrations were cancelled with the beginning of the Second World War.
In preparing to write this book, Nakajima turned to newspapers and magazines from the time period, especially looking at woman’s magazines and diaries and journals written by children.
“They were really important, they really had detailed descriptions of daily life at that time,” said Nakajima.
Nakajima was looking for more than just the historical facts and timelines to give her story authenticity, she was looking for the details of how people lived and how their lives changed before and during the war. One detail Nakajima came across in so many of the children’s journals, were their complaints about their bentos. As food became more scarce, children were not allowed to bring umeboshi (pickled plum) on their rice. All the kids would hate this rule, and asked their mothers to put the umeboshi under the first layer of rice.
“It’s also really indicative of the times, because that was a period when food was slowly becoming more scarce, and there was less and less resources available, so showing how Taki is making due with what she has, you see her ingenuity, but you also see the times itself,” says Nakajima.
Nakajima decided to tell this story through the voice of Taki. As a maid, she was inside the Hirai family and household, but not part of the family. She sees everything that is going on, and understands the family’s secrets. The story is biased, told through a character who loves and admires the Hirai family. It is in the final chapter of the book, when the perspective changes, and the full story and mystery is revealed.
“If we’re only seeing the world through Taki’s eyes, then it’s the story that Taki wants to write. So that becomes a very narrow, small story,” says Nakajima. “Because we’re not alone in this world, it’s made up of different people, I wanted to add another viewpoint in.”
The Little House has already been translated and released in the U.K. and China. Nakajima worried how Chinese audiences would perceive the story. Since the story is a more personal story of an average Japanese family living through the war, there is no look into the invasion of China by Japan and the hardships that caused for Chinese people in Taki’s story. She worried the readers would feel that part of history was skimmed over.
“It really hurt my heart to think about Chinese people reading this and feeling skimmed over that way. So I was worried about it, but when the book came out in China, the readers there reacted just the same way readers in Japan were reacting,” she says. “They laughed in the same places, they cried in the same places and even though it’s a different country, we have this shared emotional understanding and they really came to the book like that, so I felt such a huge sense of a relief.”
Nakajima says she hopes that when the book is released in Canada at the end of November, Canadian audiences will appreciate a story told from a perspective different from ones they have read before, but see commonalities that exist in all people.
The Little House by Kyoko Nakajima and translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori will be released in Canada on Nov. 29, 2019.
Published by Darf Publishers, the book will be available for purchase in most major bookstores and online.