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Sideways Review: Into That White Hot Center

Sara Yu
on Where Europe Begins
by Yoko Tawada

I am a feverish dreamer. Every night I am plagued by wild dreams packed with elements of a good story: sensory details, action, ridiculous tension. But none of these dreams ever makes sense, which is the way dreams are, and all leave me unsettled and exhausted with no particular purpose or gain.

The essence of writing is going into a scary place, or as Robert Olen Butler states in a book I find indispensable, From Where You Dream, going into that “white-hot center.” However, as a reader, do I want to—should I want to—go into that awful place? Butler quotes Akira Kurosawa: “To be an artist means never to avert your eyes.” Yes. But again, as a reader?

My father used to tell me that abstract artists and minimalists were lazy. Ever since I opened a magazine to see the squares and lines that made up Ellsworth Kelly’s paintings, I haven’t been able to shake my father’s particular view. Although I did learn to appreciate minimalism in literature, later I became suspicious of surrealist writers, dismissing them as bored attention-mongers digging up madness from a place of need—to cope with their inherent boredom.

For years as I struggled to write one complete, beautiful story, I thought creating a “real” sense of place—even better if I could call it home—was my biggest challenge. My feeling of rootlessness has led me to a handful of authors, including Yoko Tawada, one of the most eccentric authors I’ve encountered in a long time. Tawada was born in Japan and lived there until moving to Germany in her twenties. She writes fiction in both Japanese and German. In the preface to her collection, Where Europe Begins, Wim Wenders writes that it’s “not a book about ‘Europe’ versus ‘Asia’ or the other way around,” but one

that comes to us from a no-man’s land where words, names, signs have no meaning any more, a place where everything is put in question, and where the only actions that count are perceiving, taking in, feeling and relating the experience of it all.

Tawada’s fiction is indeed much like a dream but without the wasted chaos. In her stories I am right there as the narrator senses, and deals with, her foreignness, and she is often just as surprised (though for different reasons) as I am when weird things happen. For example, in “A Guest,” the narrator visits a doctor for ear pain. When the doctor looks inside her ear, he tells her he sees a theater and women dressed in kimonos. He goes on to describe a suicide scene, to which she replies condescendingly, “that is Madame Butterfly, what you describe is not original.” All I can think is this is what I want from a book—not to feel as if cramped in a theater chair watching a show but to participate in a bogus meditation therapy session even if it means lying still like a stone while failing to suppress laughter, to enter an alley where broken clocks and old jackets are for sale and novels are called mirrors, and even if painful, oh so painful, to imagine going back home to my mother’s house after a long time abroad. From “The Bath,”

“How did you get such an Asian face?”
“What are you talking about, Mother? I am Asian.”
“That’s not what I meant. You’ve started to have one of those faces like Japanese people in American movies.”

My mother’s face was covered with luminous scales.

Each story in Where Europe Begins is like a symmetrical arrangement of odd objects that wouldn’t otherwise be found in the same sentence. Folk tales and cities merge. Mirrors, tongues, recorded voices, birds, scales, and missing letters appear frequently throughout, linking the stories. The collection speaks to me not in a special code or as an inside joke but through exquisitely rendered, fresh, sometimes jolting, language. It shows me that everyone is “A Guest” somewhere:

It’s been years since I last read a novel in which I could make the letters disappear. This probably has nothing to do with me, but with the city: the only books here are written in a foreign script. As long as I’ve lived here I’ve been unable to enter novels. I read and read, but the alphabet never vanishes before my eyes, but rather remains like iron bars or like sand in salad or like the reproduction of my face in the window of a train at night. How often my own reflection in the glass has kept me from enjoying a nocturnal landscape. Even when there was nothing much to see, I would have liked to gaze into the darkness, not at my own mirror image.

As a writer, I must go into the white-hot center alone. As a reader, when a writer has done her work, I don’t think about whether or not to go. Because the writer is there, I look up to find myself there.

~

Sara Yu received her MFA from VCFA. She is currently writing stories and translating Korean author Yi Pyong-Ju. She lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland, with her husband, son, and four chihuahuas.

More Sideways Reviews

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Where Europe Begins
Yoko Tawada
New Directions 2002

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Diane November 14, 2011 at 8:40 pm

Thank you, Sera. Once again your articulate words whet my appetite for a book I might not have heard of but for you.

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