Questions for Gail Jones on the novel Dreams of Speaking by Ayano Fukuda, Aki Irimajiri, Asuka Kimura, Tadayuki Kin, Hiroyuki Koreeda, Joyce Jie Xuan Lim, Yusuke Matsumura, Chihiro Seko, Yuichiro Tanakamaru, Reiei Tei, Junichi Tran, Yasuhiro Wakai, Erika Yamauchi
Tokyo University 28/06/06
Can you explain the title Dreams of Speaking? [We have one theory that Mr Sakamoto is too elegant, tolerant, and even omnipotent (for example the episode of the waiters). He can be seen as a symbol of perfection (especially on how to live with technology) and exists to offer Alice a kind of salvation. His sudden death can be interpreted as the end of a reverie, a dream. Whatever the imaginary Mr Sakamoto communicates therefore represents the ‘dreams of speaking’ of the title. How do you feel about readers interpreting your work in this extreme kind of way?]
What a wonderful theory! I think that texts finally belong to readers and I’m delighted at such an ingenious and interesting reading of the text. According to Maurice Blanchot, the French philosopher, the text doesn’t come into being until it is read and that there is a kind of collaboration in meaning-making. I don’t think of Mr Sakamoto as having a dream status, but he does offer Alice salvation because of the force of his humanity. The novel was originally called The Voices, but I had to find a new title when another novel was published with that title just before mine. So the original idea was to meditate on the status of the voice in relation to friendship and technology – what people say and don’t say to each other, what families, friends, lovers say and don’t say. But I prefer the title Dreams of Speaking and for me the ‘dream’ is in part the aspiration to a kind of open and honest conversation.
A critic in the London Times has said that Dreams of Speaking is no page-turner. But in fact the scattered nature of the episodes and biographical stories encourages the reader to turn the page to discover what you the author have in mind. Was narrative tension a consideration in how you structured the many episodes in this novel? If not, what determined the order?
I wanted lots of mini-narratives so there was a sense of the many lives and stories that contribute to our own. I’m, not really interested in the linear plot and the idea that there is a classic arc of building up tension and then resolving it. I’m more interested in a structure that gives a particular “texture’ to reading, so that there are intellectual and emotional tensions operating at many levels in the text. The order of episodes was rather random; I wanted some things at the beginning of the friendship the cinema, the telephone, the forms that connect Alice and Mr Sakamoto – and I wanted more complex (even more painful) kinds of technology – like the MRI imaging machine – to come at the end. But I had no fixed sequence and tried to find my way intuitively.
Alice makes an impulsive decision to visit Mr Sakamoto in Nagasaki. She lives in Paris for a long time off an unfinished writing project. Alice and Mr Sakamoto strike up an immediate rapport in a train. What role does authenticity have to play in this novel?
I’m not really sure what ‘authenticity’ means. I do think there are forms of honest and intimacy that I wanted the pair to discover, and most of this is achieved in conversation (actual or in email). Alice is not really sure who she is, but Mr Sakamoto has a very firm sense of self, achieved over his lifetime and by contact with suffering an a catastrophic scale. So I do privilege him in the relationship as the wise one.
Mr Sakamoto’s ‘scientific’ messages are primarily biographical rather than centring on discoveries or inventions. The sense they give is that no matter how far technology develops, it will never overcome man’s sense of doom and his emotions. Does the biographical emphasis suggest that the human mind and heart will always be superior to modern technology?
Yes, I suppose so. Mr Sakamoto is interested in the life behind the invention, and the fact that there are hidden narratives to every object we use. He is a kind of radical humanist; he no longer believes in god, but he does believe in beauty, community and the power of love.
Most of Dreams of Speaking is about Alice, but it is not written in the first person. Did you ever consider writing the novel in the first person, as a way of allowing more immediate access to Alice’s emotions?
I wanted Alice to be a little remote. I can’t imagine writing an entire novel in the first person (but who knows? Maybe I will some day.) It may be a problem for readers that Alice begins so detached; she is the one who has to learn that the head and the heart are not separated (I’ve never believed in this cruel and banal division).
There are many pauses in Dreams of Speaking. It seems sometimes like a haiku, and you refer to haiku several times in the novel. Is there a deliberate resonance between your style of writing and the style of haiku?
I’m very pleased with this question. I do have an interest in haiku, and also love Sei Shonagon’s Pillowbook. What interests me here are small illuminated insights we have that are very fleeting but very precious, moments in which we sense the mystery of things, and their beauty. There is a book by Elaine Scarry called On Beauty and Being Just and she says that when we come across a beautiful thing – an orange-mauve moth on a brick, or a perfect sentence – it is like a tear in the fabric of the world that pulls us through to a vaster space. I’m very interested in the poetics of concision and in the honouring of small special moments.
‘With carefully chosen images and words, the reader is transported across the tyranny of time to face a century of terror and awe.’ This sentence comes from a review of Dreams of Speaking in Time Pacific magazine and it sums up your book beautifully. However, your carefully chosen words are at times long and difficult to understand, especially for non-native speakers, often requiring a dictionary. The unusual academic vocabulary can give the impression that you’re writing for a specific group of readers, but not everyone – the reader can sometimes feel excluded. How much do you think ahead toward the concerns of potential readers, or do you accept that the readership for a novel like Dreams of Speaking is limited?
I hope I’m not excluding any readers, but I understand your question. I’m concerned not with an ideal of transparency in language, but in drawing attention to language and complicating the texture of the prose. As a reader I always love discovering a new words in a novel, so I’m hoping this is part of a form of discovery and pleasure – not exclusion – for any readers willing to take the ride.
The story of Mr Sakamoto’s early life, and his home in Nagasaki, provide a useful means of including a discussion about the atomic bomb. However, he seems slightly unreal, to be pushed around in the service of the novel. Is he modelled on any real Japanese person?
Oh dear: I hope Mr Sakamoto isn’t “pushed around at the service of the novel” because he is truly the centre of value and I want readers to feel a kind of grief when he dies. He is not modelled on anyone in particular, but I hope the character pays respect to a certain type of Japanese masculinity – one who has learned to cross cultures, who has developed a deep understanding of human struggles and experiences. Last week I gave a lecture on Murakami Haruki, The Wild Sheep Chase, and the ‘boku’ of Murakami is the opposite to Mr Sakamoto. He is not the post-modern subject who is drifting and lost and on a strange quest, but someone grounded in the dense and painful history of his own place and respectful of the complexity of Alice and Uncle Tadeo.
To what extent do you, as the author, recognise Alice’s own responsibility for her solitude? Her aloneness creates the melancholy mood of the book, but although she herself seems unaware of this, her loneliness can often be seen as self-inflicted. She chooses to stay in a small hotel room and has a meal alone rather than going out. Also, when talking to Norah, she hides specific facts about Mr Sakamoto. If she has no intention of opening up to others, then it’s not so surprising they keep their distance. Do you think Alice Black is guilty of self-pity, of being her own worst enemy?
Alice Black has a lot to learn. She probably is responsible for her own solitude, which is why Mr Sakamoto’s spontaneous gift of friendship surprises and delights her. I didn’t want an all-knowing heroine, but someone very flawed. The tensions between her intellectual world and the life of the body (her windsurfing, her wound when she windsurfs at the end of the text) are meant to suggest what she has not resolved. It is only in losing the beloved body of Mr Sakamoto that she begins to understand her own lack of humanity. Or rather, what she cannot speak. In the end she must speak about Mr Sakamoto.
At the end of the book, the scene where Alice talks to the answer-phone is great. However, the adoption scene that precedes it seems to raise some problems. Loneliness, isolation and a sense of lost identity are ubiquitous in the modern world, a theme the novel explores. However, Alice’s loneliness is ultimately attributed to the secret of her birth, and this revelation excludes readers from sharing Alice’s feelings of alienation (as they have done previously). Adoption gives a persuasive, rational explanation to her sense of isolation. Why did you choose to add this explanation at the end of the novel?
Yes, you’re right. If I had another chance to edit the book I would take out the adoption. I realized only after Dreams of Speaking was published that the adoption would be read as an “explanation” for Alice’s character and I really wanted to make her more subtle than that. You’re such a clever group of readers to make this comment, and absolutely right that it over-rationalizes her loneliness.
Is the death of Mr Sakamoto the beginning of Alice’s recovery, of her reconciliation to ‘nuance and eternity’? Or is it a new source of suffering to add to Alice’s deep loneliness as described since the beginning of the book? If so, is there any positive message at the end of the book – where can Alice expect to find help? Do you have any opinion about happy endings?
I hope that the last sentence, that implies that Alice will now tell the story of her friendship, implies that speaking will allow her to move from grief to wisdom. So although the novel is framed by grief, it also shows the reconciliation of the sisters and insists on forms of recovery through story. The speech-act with the answer phone, when Alice speaks truly of her feelings – is, I hope, the beginning of recovery. I’m not sure that all stories can have happy endings: this one is certainly mixed, since it is only through loss that Alice achieves growth. There will be a transformation, but she will always be shaped by loss.
I want to conclude by thanking you for such clever, sensitive and compelling questions. It is an honour to have such a brilliant group of readers. These sort of questions help me as a writer to become more circumspect about my process. I do hope Dreams gave you some pleasure – or at least some food for thought!