2005 Annual Meeting: Border-Crossing Sessions


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Session 11: Omniphony in Japan: Tawada, Itō, and Yi and Writing across Language Borders

Organizer and Chair: Doug Slaymaker, University of Kentucky

Keywords: Omniphony, multilingualism, Japanese, migrancy, Tawada Yōko, Itō Hiromi, Yi Yang-ji.

This panel focuses on writers who explore creative spaces where languages meet, converge, and impinge on each other’s borders. It is about how the disetinctions commonly made between languages are belied in lived experience. "Omniphony," a term invoked by Suga Keijirō, provides our theoretical construct. Suga borrows the concept from Martinican writer Patrick Chamoiseau and relates it back to Edouard Glissant’s notion of "echos-monde." Suga’s presentation will provide the theoretical underpinnings to our panel and apply it to contemporary writings. Omniphony extends beyond simple multilingualism, which presupposes a distinctive, mutually excluding, independent body of languages that are usually fashioned and maintained as ideologically discreet systems by and for a nation-state. Omniphony, rather, designates an awareness that every language has a porous body that is constantly shot through by translational, transnational flows.

Remaining panelists will focus on writers who stand at, and exploit, those porous borders and who introduce related terms: "exophony," "migrancy," "M/other tongues." Doug Slaymaker will discuss the writings of Tawada Yōko (b. 1960), particularly her articulation of "exophony" as a "journey beyond the mother’s language" in her prize-winning German and Japanese language works. Kyoko Ōmori will speak to the issues raised in the work of highly-acclaimed performance artist and poet Itō Hiromi (b. 1955), whose recent pieces are explorations in the liminal space between English and Japanese. Catherine Ryu will present on the way that "omniphony" elucidates Yi Yang-ji’s (1955–92) writing at the boundary between the Japanese and Korean. The intent is to highlight the theoretical possibilities embodied in these creative writers.

Writing Omniphone in Japanese

Keijiro Suga, Meiji Gakuin University

"Omniphone" is the term introduced by the Martinican writer of creoleness, Patrick Chamoiseau (1953–), to designate the state of a language in which many different languages permeate and echo. A language, by its nature, transcends always already the national boundaries fashioned after physical territorial borders. Moreover, there are different registers and regional variations within every putative national language. Some of the major writers (Dante, Rabelais, Joyce, Faulkner, Celine, Franketienne, according to Chamoiseau) succeed in founding a new language true to this dynamic, pluralistic view of linguistic transformation. Molding the adjective into the substantive, I use the word "omniphony." This is not "multilingualism" in the ordinary sense, which presupposes countability of languages as distinctive, closed and stable entities. It rather raises consciousness that every language has a porous, multi-layered body that is constantly shot through by transnational, translational flows. What is at the basis of Chamoiseau’s idea of omniphony is the vision of "echos-monde" articulated by his mentor Edouard Glissant (1928–). Glissant, the powerful theorist of relational poetics, considers that in every little, local language of the world echo the whole of the world and its languages. The world is a resounding agglomeration of heterogeneity over which no single language (English, for example) can claim dominion. Seen from this perspective, there is a strain of omniphony in contemporary world literatures of which Japanese literature is no exception. Here we will examine "omniphone Japanese" writers, among whom Tawada Yōko and Hideo Levy offer exemplary cases.

Tawada Yōko and Writing in the Language Ditch

Doug Slaymaker, University of Kentucky

Tawada Yōko is a highly acclaimed writer who writes elegantly about working between two languages, about the transnational and translational flows that push at the edges of the Japanese and German that she uses. The imagery of edges is among the most fertile in her work: "I do not wish to cross the boundary that separates languages and countries, rather, I wish to live on that border," she writes. By doing so, she is placed, I will argue, among the "exilic" writers that Azade Seyhan has identified as representative of our world, resident in unstable communities and multiple discourses, where translation works like communal memory, and which includes writers such as Salman Rushdie or Ermine Ízdamer, to look in one direction, or Itō Hiromi and Yi Yang-ji, to look in another.

"Exile" is not entirely accurate, as I will explain; further, the salient points of Tawada’s writing encompass much more than the details or techniques of writing in multiple languages. This presentation will discuss the omniphony of Tawada’s fictional work, read in tandem with her critical essays. She notes of Paul Celan, for example, that even though he lived many years outside of Germany while writing in German, he did not reject the languages he heard and saw around him. Celan did not write in multiple languages as Tawada does; rather, he incorporated graphic and morphemic elements into his language. This too is exophony—writing beyond the mother tongue—and requires that we think about the nature of the languages we use, the histories they incorporate, and the identities subsumed therein.

We Japanese in Japan Should Find Our Own English: Migrancy, Identity, and Language(s) in Itō Hiromi’s Recent Prose

Kyoko Ōmori, Hamilton College

While Itō Hiromi established her reputation as an avant-garde poet in the 1980s, by the mid-1990s, she found herself trapped within the rules of modern poetry, ironically because of her very success in the genre. In addition to providing Itō with a means to break away from her own established artistic modes and concerns, her new prose writings also expand the geographical and linguistic boundaries of the very idea of "Japanese literature." In her recent prose efforts, such as "House Plant," ‘Three Lil’ Japanese" and "La Ni˝a," for example, she gives thematic expression to the condition of migrancy. Even more important, she enacts these thematic concerns through a range of formal strategies that expand the limits of established literary expression in Japanese by focusing on the generative possibilities of foreign-language and even pre-linguistic sounds in depicting everyday life. In doing so, Itō problematizes simple categories of linguistic or national identity.

Her choice to translate her own work into English, a language over which she does not have full command, also fits into this larger interest. Such an approach to translation as mode of imaginative exploration further dramatizes her effort to construct an interlingual/omniphone subjectivity through engaging with other languages. To elaborate on the significance of her work, I will consider some of Itō’s recent prose in light of Spivak’s discussion of the politics of translation and Benjamin’s assertion that "[t]ranslation passes through continua of transformation, not abstract ideas of identity and similarity." Itō’s current work offers a way to imagine a "Japanese" literature that moves beyond the borders of a parochial nationalism and monolingualism to take on the manifold linguistic and cultural challenges of our contemporary global existence.

Linguistically Yours: The Persuit of the M/other Tongue in Yi Yang-ji’s Yuhi

Catherine Youngkyung Ryu, Michigan State University

This paper examines how a second-generation zainichi Kankokujin author Yi Yang-ji (1955–92) explores, in her award-winning novel Yuhi (1988), the space between the Korean and Japanese languages. In particular, I focus on Yi’s novelistic trespassing on the linguistic and cultural borders between the two languages, borders which have become ideologically solidified in colonial and postcolonial Korea. Yi’s writing strategies for Yuhi include the deployment of an unnamed Korean woman—who has no knowledge of Japanese—as the first-person narrator of the novel, which is written in Japanese only, with some highlighted Korean expressions. Emerging from such implausible linguistic premises is the compelling portrayal of the Korean narrator and the protagonist Yuhi, a second-generation Korean Japanese woman. Yuhi, an international student and a tenant in the narrator’s aunt’s home, has abruptly returned to Japan, aborting her attempts to master Korean, her supposed mother tongue. By the end of the novel, the two characters’ linguistic and psychic identities become merged into one inseparable narrative consciousness that is defined by no particular national language. This paper will elucidate just how the author’s novelistic construct of meta-national language obliterates the distinction between Korean and Japanese as a "mother" tongue, or an "other" tongue, for the main characters. I ultimately argue that Yi’s narrative language punctures not only the linguistic and ideological borders between the Korean and Japanese languages but the received notion of a "mother" tongue.