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Beloved Japanese: Taiwanese writer Li Kotomi’s journey to Akutagawa fame

By on July 23, 2021 0

Li Kotomi was named alongside Ishizawa Mai as the 165th Akutagawa Prize winners. She is the first writer from Taiwan to win the prestigious award she received for her work Higanbana ga saku shima (The island where the spider lily blooms). She began studying Japanese as a teenager and then moved to Japan, where she wrote poignant works in her adopted language. In this article, we take a look at what drew Li to her adopted country and her path to Japan’s most prestigious literary award.

From his first Japanese novel Hitorimai (Solo Dance) received the Gunzō New Writer’s Award for Excellence in 2017, Li Kotomi received critical acclaim in Japan. In 2019, his work Itsutsu kazoereba mikazuki ga (Count to five and the crescent moon…) Was nominated for the Noma Literary New Face Award and was also shortlisted for the Akutagawa Award, with Li receiving accolades from judges like Takagi Nobuko and Shimada Masahiko.

Li has gained attention again with his most recent novel Higanbana ga saku shima (The island where the spider lily blooms). Released this year, it was among the nominees for the prestigious Mishima Yukio Prize and was chosen with a novel by Ishizawa Mai for the 165th Akutagawa Prize. In earning the honor, Li joins some of Japan’s greatest literary figures while making history as the first writer from Taiwan to receive the esteemed award.

Second language

Li is from a group of established Taiwanese authors writing in Japanese that includes Higashiyama Akira and On YÅ«jÅ«. What sets her apart from her Taiwanese literary contemporaries, however, is that she didn’t grow up speaking Japanese like Higashiyama and On, both of whom have lived in Japan since childhood. Instead, she spent her formative years in Taiwan immersed in her native Mandarin and only learned to write novels in Japanese after years of dedicated study and practice, making this an unusual path. towards the first literary prize of Japan.

Attracted by Japan’s diverse pop culture offerings, she began studying Japanese as a teenager. After graduating from one of the top universities in Taiwan, she came to Japan in 2013 to study at the Graduate School of Japanese Applied Linguistics at Waseda University. After graduating from her masters, she stayed in Japan, working for a Japanese company while honing her language and novel writing skills.

Taiwanese writers have already won Japan’s other major literary prize, the Naoki Prize. Awarded at the same time as the Akutagawa Prize, which rewards new fiction writers, it is the largest Japanese prize for popular literature of any genre. KyÅ« Eikan received the award in 1955 and Chin Shunshin in 1968. Chin was born and raised in Kobe, Hyōgo Prefecture, and KyÅ« grew up speaking Japanese in Taiwan, while under Japanese rule, before coming to Japan. . What makes Li’s achievement so remarkable is his mastery of Japanese after only starting to learn the language at the age of 15, not to mention his writing skills.

She displays the same mastery as a writer in her native Mandarin. Rather than translating his novels Solo dance and Count to five and the crescent moon. . ., she rewrote the works in Chinese. In a 2019 article for Nippon.comLi, who is also an accomplished translator, described the act as “perhaps not unprecedented, but certainly unusual.” Its main literary focus, however, remains on Japan.

Learn Japanese

Li grew up in a small town in central Taiwan, far from Japanese influence. She says none of her friends and no one in her family spoke the language, and that until she started studying in college, she couldn’t even recognize a single hiragana character, the main phonetic script in Japanese. . Going from zero Japanese to winning the Akutagawa Prize is unprecedented.

She developed an affinity for the Japanese writing system early in her studies, describing it as “kanji gems embedded in a sea of ​​hiragana”. Cartoons, TV series, and other Japanese pop cultures are widely available in Taiwan, and Li is said to study by copying and practicing the lines she has heard. As her skills increased, she started speaking to herself in Japanese and even dreaming in the language.

She had mastered the katakana before the most common hiragana for the simple reason that all the names of Pokemon character are written in the script. She strengthened her vocabulary by watching cartoons, learning words like Kimi (you), shnen (boy), and suki (As). She made her way through well-known titles such as Case closed, Inuyasha, and Hikaru no Go, and listened to a wide range of J-Pop artists. Once she satisfied her interest in the linguistic offerings of the Japanese subculture, her desire for a deeper understanding of the language led her to novels and lyrics, where she learned the rich expressions that characterize his novels and other Japanese writings.

Although she grew more confident in her adopted language, Li was not convinced that she could make her way as a Japanese novelist. She spoke about the inherent sense of uncertainty of a non-native speaker and his deep awareness of being a stranger, saying that “a native speaker is always right and a non-native speaker is not allowed to interpret. what he says otherwise. “

Winning the Gunzō New Writer’s Award in 2017 exorcised those worries for Li by validating her abilities as a writer of Japanese novels, a status she worked intensely to achieve. Speaking after accepting the award, she expressed her happiness, stating that “I feel like I have become not a citizen of Japan, but a Japanese speaking citizen.” With the Akutagawa Prize, her uneasiness about being a novelist writing in a foreign language should be allayed for good.

Li, as a sexual minority herself, populates her novels with a cast of LGBT characters. Her emphasis on identity and direction also reflects the growing openness of Taiwanese culture, as evidenced by the popularity of Taiwan’s first transgender cabinet member, Digital Minister Audrey Tang.

In The island where the spider lily blooms, Li explores the theme of identity through the eyes of the novel’s protagonists, a girl with no memory of her past who finds herself stranded on a strange island. There she meets residents who communicate in one of the two languages ​​according to gender. Speakers of the female dialect eventually dominate society, but the girl, learning to use the female language, discovers the tragic history of the island.

The story was influenced by Li’s travels around Okinawa, including Yonagunijima. Although part of Japan, Yonagunijima is an outlier both geographically and culturally, being closer to Taiwan and even China than mainland Okinawa. The island’s history and customs have a deep connection to Taiwan, and Li borrows imaginatively from his experience during his travels in Okinawa to determine how the juxtaposition of borders and diversity influences a person’s identity. .

As the daughter of the novel, Li upon arriving in a new country broadened her identity through language, and in the process she obtained one of the highest honors in Japanese literature. The fact that she won the Akutagawa Prize is a testament to her love for her adopted language, as well as the adoration and acceptance she received in return.

(Originally published in Japanese on July 15, 2021. Banner photo: 165th Akutagawa Prize winner Li Kotomi during a visit to the offices of Nippon.com in July 2019.)