Aki Shimazaki is an outstanding voice in contemporary fiction. Her unforgettable characters and her unique style linger with the readers, long after they have finished her books. We were delighted to be able to ask her more of her literary process and choices, both analyzing her works and asking her about future projects.
Your books are written in an unprecedented style. Somewhere between fiction and lyrical poems. Was it difficult to find your narrative path?
I write my novels in French but always choose as title a Japanese word related to nature, so far at least. Japan has a very rich nature, and nature is venerated there. Many Japanese commune with the art of “haiku”: a poem of seventeen syllables with one word, the “kigo”, referring to one of the four seasons. It is not easy to express all that one wishes to say in a few words. I do not write haikus but I very much enjoy reading them. I admire this traditional art which demands simplicity, precision and depth. This cultural influence seems deeply ingrained in me. When I started my first novel Tsubaki (camellia), I was not really conscious of this. It just happened naturally, and this became my style.
My form of narrative comes to me rather instinctively. I first choose a title and then start writing without a concrete plan. When I finish a chapter, I do not know myself what will follow. It’s a kind of exploration, a journey without a destination, always searching for what I want to say. The text settles down only after many rewritings. Similarly, when I terminate a novel in a pentalogy, I have no clear idea what will be the theme of the next one or who will be its main character. Even though they are fiction, my novels describe life, where things seldom turn out as planned.
I always write in the first person, as if writing a diary. In each novel, the protagonist is different: child, girl or boy, adult, man or woman. I am often astonished by what I discover in myself. Sometimes I sympathize too much with the hero, especially if the story is sad and tragic. However tragic, I always try to leave the door open to some hope. I am quite pleased when readers believe that I write autobiographically.
Why do you think Japan is the perfect setting for your novels?
The theme of each one of my novels is an individual human drama involving love, death, sex, marriage, family, work, war… which are all universal. It does not have to always be in Japan. In fact, my first novel Tsubaki starts and ends in an imaginary country. I also used Montreal in part of my sixth novel, Mitsuba (trefoil). However, I do feel comfortable using characters living in Japan.
I was brought up in Japan, studied and worked there until twenty-six. I had never travelled abroad before leaving for Canada. My mentality is naturally rooted in my homeland, no matter how long I have lived away and been speaking other languages.
Do you believe the historical context somehow interacts with the characters of your books?
In my first two pentalogies, there are some historical events that occurred before, during and after the second world war. Such as the colonization of Manchuria and Korea, the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, the deportation of Japanese soldiers to Siberia, etc. The characters certainly interact with these events directly or indirectly. But all the dramas in my novels could happen without them. Forbidden love, adultery, betrayal, abuse of power, parricide… have nothing to do with culture or history. They have to do with human nature.
So why did I use these historical events? I had to clarify for myself questions that had preoccupied me since a long time, especially after I immigrated to Canada. Living in another country allows me to observe more objectively my motherland, for better or for worse. And while I was studying the history of Japan, I felt a strong urge to express my thoughts. So when the idea of my first novel Tsubaki emerged in my mind, I decided to let the characters live through these historical events. However, these are backgrounds, not main themes.
The way you associate your main characters with flowers is exquisite. How did you decide to use floral elements?
Most of my titles are names of plants: camellia, forget-me-not, yellow rose, thistle, narcissus, lily of the valley, etc. Yet there are also insects, birds, mollusks… When I ponder a general theme for a novel, a Japanese word comes into my mind. This often happens while I am observing the plants, the trees, the grass, the birds, the insects around me or in a magazine. I choose a title as I would choose a kigo for a haiku. Sometimes, I start to imagine a story, inspired by the name of a plant which may evoke, for instance, Greek mythology, like the narcissus, “suisen” in Japanese, that became the title of the third novel of my third pentalogy.
Could we already ask you about your future projects and whether Suzuran is the first part of a pentalogy like its predecessors?
Yes, Suzuran (lily of the valley) starts a fourth pentalogy. The second part is due in May 2021 and now I am working on the sequel. As to the French title of the whole pentalogy, I will as always decide it only after it is nearly completed.