By default, three things at least define the literary career of Tsushima Yūko (b. 1947). The first is that her real name is Tsushima Satoko. The second is that she is the daughter of the novelist Dazai Osamu who killed himself when she was just one year old. The third, and the most significant, is that she's an accomplished writer herself, a multi-awarded literary figure in Japan. With Kōno Taeko, Tsushima blazes as the foremost female short story writer in Japan, a prolific and consistent teller of subtle stories concerning human relationships. Like Kōno, the majority of her works remains untranslated. At least three books of hers have made it in English so far: the short story selection The Shooting Gallery (1988) and the novels Child of Fortune (1983) and Woman Running in the Mountains (1991). All were handled by translator Geraldine Harcourt. The two novels were originally published in Japanese in 1978 and 1980 while the short stories appeared in the period 1973-1984. It is puzzling (but maybe not) that no recent book of hers has appeared in English – in French, for example, nine titles already came out – given that she is a considerable talent, her stories displaying a diversity of approaches that are hard to categorize into a single style.
The eight stories in her only collection in English are about the aftermaths of (or preludes to) a divorce from a lover or family. It reveals a writer concerned with gender disparities and with a woman's search for freedom. Tsushima's female protagonists are confronted with situations they either want to understand or, having failed to do so, they want to escape from. In their stubbornness and liberal attitudes they can be considered rebels of the time. The characters are almost exclusively single mothers, divorced or separated partners, or single women who tenaciously face their lot in life and dream of something better. What is exemplary in Tsushima is the unique chameleon-like style she deploys in story after story. The writing is clear and transparent, without any apparent tricks and obscurities, and yet the whole composition exhibits a strong sense of both familiarity to and estrangement from the narrative intent. Consider the opening of "The Silent Traders" in which a single mother begins her narrative straightforwardly, only to defamiliarize it with her unexplained fear.
There was a cat in the wood. Not such an odd thing, really: wildcats, pumas, and lions all come from the same family and even a tabby shouldn't be out of place. But the sight was unsettling. What was the creature doing there? When I say 'wood', I'm talking about Rikugien, an Edo-period landscape garden in my neighbourhood. Perhaps 'wood' isn't quite the right word, but the old park's trees – relics of the past amid the city's modern buildings – are so overgrown that the pathways skirting its walls are dark and forbidding even by day. It does give the impression of a wood; there's no other word for it. And the cat, I should explain, didn't look wild. It was just a kitten, two or three months old, white with black patches. It didn't look at all ferocious – in fact it was a dear little thing. There was nothing to fear. And yet I was taken aback, and I tensed as the kitten bristled and glared in my direction.
With this nest of stray cats in the background, Tsushima tells of an imagined transaction (the 'silent trade') between the narrator's two practically fatherless children and a cat. The children previously met their father six months before but it was a rather awkward reunion. The mother is thinking of a beneficial exchange between her children (who will leave food for the cat) and this same cat who could act as a "father figure" to them whenever he visits to eat his fill. This mutual trade she likens to an ancient transaction that is ideal but then is always accompanied by primal fear.
There are tales of mountain men and villagers who traded a year's haul of linden bark for a gallon and a half of rice in hard cakes. No villager could deal openly with the lone mountain men; so great was their fear of each other, in fact, that they avoided coming face to face. Yet when a bargain was struck, it could not have been done more skilfully. The trading was over in a flash, before either man had time to catch sight of the other or hear his voice. I think everyone wishes privately that bargains could be made like that. Though there would always be the fear of attack, or discovery by one's own side.
Such is the mother's wild imagination that she makes a leap from this trade of old to the current situation of her children. Their lack of a "human father" impels her to enact a similar trade in her mind, a beneficial one but also attended by fear.
The children leave food on the balcony. And in return the cat provides them with a father. How's that for a bargain? Once a year, male cats procreate; in other words, they become fathers. They become [fathers] ad nauseam. But these fathers don't care how many children they have – they don't even notice that they are fathers. Yet the existence of offspring makes them so. Fathers who don't know their own children. Among humans, it seems there's an understanding that a man only becomes a father when he recognises the child as his own; but that's a very narrow view. Why do we allow the male to divide children arbitrarily into two kinds, recognised and unrecognised? Wouldn't it be enough for the child to choose a father when necessary from among suitable males? If the children decide that the tom that climbs up to their balcony is their father, it shouldn't cause him any inconvenience. A father looks in on two of his children from the balcony every night. The two human children faithfully leave out food to make it so. He comes late, when they are fast asleep, and they never see him or hear his cries. It's enough that they know in the morning that he's been. In their dreams, the children are hugged to their cat-father's breast.
In the above passage, the mother mentions the word "father" almost a dozen times, as if the very scenario she painted vividly in her mind already makes it a feasible trade, that the cat would be a substitute for her children's absent father. The other stories in the selection also cling to this idea of looking for suitable substitutes (or metaphors) or of creating ones. The finding of these substitutes-metaphors, usually some kind of animal (mythical or legendary or not), is often the objective of the characters, the very task they are trying to complete. In "The Chrysanthemum Beetle", the kikumushi beetle is the central metaphor of the story, in fact the beetle supplies a back story, making for a story within a story. It is an old ghost story that is then dissected by the characters through the lens of their personal interpretations of it. In the title story, the single mother of two young boys imagines herself as a golden dragon ("one day my back will sprout a pair of lance-shaped wings which will begin to beat, my body will visibly expand, and when the metamorphosis is complete I'll be a dragon that ascends spiralling to the heavens") to divert herself from boredom and perhaps to forget her difficult situation of raising her children. The soaring dragon is a projection of her desire for complete freedom and independence which are now undercut in part by her caring for her two boys all by herself.
It can be said that an essential itinerary of these stories, stories of self-discovery in some ways, is teasing out these overt metaphors, underlining the substitutions, the surrogate images that will fully describe the characters' petrified condition and thus release them from being mystified by their own boredom and discontent. The characters are seeking to unmask their avatars which will bring them to a more complete description of their states and thus toward a diagnosis of their afflictions. Their chosen avatars may or may not save them, the characters, who were somehow aware of their wishful thinking, but at least there is satisfaction to be had in knowing their lives at this point have meanings insofar as metaphors and details, both tangible and mystical, reflect their stories.
Aside from this tendency toward marked symbolism, another brilliant aspect of Tsushima's fiction is her remarkable structuring of stories. The stories seem to be composed of discrete "acts", as in a drama, where each succeeding act is seemingly disconnected to the previous. The recombined parts at the end of a reading do not always produce a neat puzzle-fit whole. Rather, the enjambment of disparate scenes create and reinforce surface tension as the plot jumps from one area of concern to another. Instead of relying on the limited rationality of decoding the sequence of dynamic scenes, Tsushima seems to encourage a multiple reading of her setups, that is, looking not only for substitutes and masks and symbols, but for the justification itself of the story's fragmentary expansion, teasing out the very seams in her sketched outline. At the level of the sentence or paragraph or broken chapter, this appeal for unbounded rationality can be spontaneous and immediate and unsettling. The beginning of "Clearing the Thickets", the story with the most unreliable narrator in the selection, illustrates these transitions.
The door opened and a red colour appeared. A clear, dazzling red. The young woman stared in admiration at the dress, whose wearer she knew.The narrator's awareness of the color red proceeds first from the color itself before identifying it as the young woman's dress. From the red dress, it moves to her recollection of the same shade of red in her high school art class, the supposed 'origin' and manufacture of that specific color, before going back to the red dress in question. The shifts in focus at the outset already signal a structural treatment of the story, for a few more paragraphs into it, the speaker branches off into an entirely new direction – a lengthy flashback, memory, daydream, or dream – another territory, another tale that does not organically derive from the first. This second act is about a woman's slow and tiring progress clearing out the grass weeds in the lawn with her gossiping mother and sister. It's a complete about-face from the red-colored dress, almost making for a diptych. It is a most strange story that otherwise wears its strangeness very lightly. As in the rest of The Shooting Gallery, the story is lucid, precise in its telling but approaches a state of hallucination via its procession of startling proxies and metaphors. Unlike the oil paint, the prose is not choking heavy and viscous. Yet this anthology of Tsushima's is the same rich red: a beautiful and stunning pigment of imagination.
In an art class once – years ago, in high school – a classmate had selected a tube from a box of oil paints and shown it to her grandly: 'This colour is produced by crushing a certain exceedingly rare species of insect and working it into a chemical base.' It was, she understood, a very expensive pigment, and although she wasn't sure whether to believe the story of its source, the squeeze of red on the palette certainly suggested an insect's body fluid. Although clear, it had a choking viscosity. A beautiful colour, there was no doubt about that. But she expected that once on canvas it would turn heavy and sombre beside the other tints. It's so rich I wouldn't know how to handle it, she had thought. She was even aware of an odour like an ant-lion fly's.
The dress was the same red. A light material, perhaps, for its triangle of skirt billowed coolly. It had no buttons, ribbons, or other trimmings. It suited the slender wearer well.
An autobiographical essay by Tsushima can be read here.