The Big Idea: Yukimi Ogawa
It’s a special talent to write in a language that you’ve learned along the way. In this Big Idea for author Yukimi Ogawa’s new collection of short stories, Like Smoke, Like Light, she explains why this choice was an essential one for her.
Years ago, somewhere on the internet, I saw someone remark that they thought people in Japanese anime were all white, a very weird observation that does not make sense. My first reaction was, “What, do you think we Japanese people see white people as those who have pink hair and purple eyes?”
This was the very first spark of the Colorful Island stories, which constitute almost half of Like Smoke, Like Light, my first collection of short stories. (Most, but not all, of the other half deals with yōkai, beings from my country’s folklore.) On this island that I imagined, you can find all the beautiful colors of jewelry on human skin, and the nation as a whole survives by showing these colorful and patterned people off to the other parts of the world.
After I wrote the first story in this world, “The Colorless Thief,” I realized I wanted to create a place where the rarity of the skin colors and patterns is all that matters—where your gender, age, or the family you were born to won’t do anything for you if you cannot offer what the government wants from you. And if these colors and patterns are so precious, so important, then they must be genuine, I reasoned. Like natural gems versus synthetic ones, you have to be born with the colors or patterns, and artificially adding patterns to your skin or altering your patterns in any way should be very obscene, or even a crime.
In the earlier stories set in this world, “The Colorless Thief,” “Ever Changing, Ever Turning,” and “Blue Gray Blue,” I explored how the colorful and patterned people, who are supposedly the elites of their nation, have to deal with their fear of losing what they have. It was fun and heartbreaking at the same time to write about them—when your colors change, the way the whole society treats you changes, and then your world is not the same anymore. Then later on, the character of Kiriko came along. Kiriko is a completely colorless and patternless person, who has been forced to work in the “backcloth” of the city—an unimportant laborer employed at an atelier that sells patterned goods, like fabrics for furniture including curtains and table cloths.
That is not the only thing the atelier does, though; she and her partner can mitigate physical discomfort like headaches and allergic reactions by drawing patterns on human skin. However, in this island where it’s so important that patterns be “genuine,” she and her partner cannot fully exert their skills, at least not openly.. Despite the challenges, she cannot help but feel grateful that she found this job, doing what she loves every day no matter what others may think of her.
Through Kiriko’s eyes, I was able to add more texture to the island. Those first three stories were more about losing something you always took for granted, but Kiriko knows what it is like to have nothing in the first place. Conversing with her in my mind, she and I came to agree that there is only so much we can do about the world around us—but in her stories, I let her search for a shape of the world with which she can cope, even if she isn’t entirely comfortable with that shape.
I think one of the reasons I chose English as my writing language lies near this conversation. English is my second language, as you can probably see when you read this book, and I still fumble for command of it. I cannot speak it most of the time. I’ve been wondering why I do this; I’m a slow writer to start with, and engaging in the second language further slows the process. There are things I cannot express in English.
But after seeing my stories gathered in one book, the stories that I had to take so much trouble, to go so out of my way, to complete, I think I have a better idea of why. I did not, do not, like many things about myself and my life, and I needed a way to change it, even if in fiction: chiseling it and pruning it, and painting it over and polishing it.
As a writer, I needed a tool that I acquired, instead of something I’ve always had, always taken for granted. I still worry about not being up to the standards of the world, but I’d like to believe that the world shouldn’t have the ability to bend me. That I want to be the one who can choose the shape of the world around me. And the distance from the world that my second language gives me somehow became a sort of shield, when I need to deal with that world’s raw, unwanted shape.