An interview with Kyoko Yoshida

Kyoko Yoshida is a Japanese writer, translator and professor who writes fiction in English and translates to and from Japanese. She also teaches American Literature at Ritsumeikan University.

We first heard of her while scouring through the list of speakers at Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) and her name stood out; she was on several interesting panels on translation, writing programmes etc. So, we looked her up. She has no Wikipedia page and the internet is very quiet about her. The only information about her was on her website and on the JLF list of speakers. We made a note to see her panels though, and she was brilliant in all of them.

On the very first day, going into the bookstore, I spotted her debut short story collection, Disorientalism (named so, she mentioned, because of the constant imposition of orientalism on her writing that she experienced in her writing programme at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee). With its striking cover of what looks like a giant teddy bear’s head lying on its side with its tongue rolled out in some sort of a storage space, I was already drawn to it, and knew I had to buy it.

Later as we stood in line for Kyoko’s signing, we met Nataša Durovicová, herself the editor of the International Writing Programme at the University of Iowa, who was in an earlier panel with Kyoko. She put it best when she said of Kyoko’s writing, “She doesn’t waste your time”. I realised exactly what she meant when I read Kyoko’s fresh, original, disturbing, surreal writing in Disorientalism.

Kyoko was kind enough to let Pseudo Mag interview her later at the festival over lunch.


Pseudo Mag:  While translating from Japanese to English or vice versa, do you view the process as going from Language A to Language B (each as a distinct entity), or is it more heteroglossal— where the two languages flow into one another?

Kyoko Yoshida:  That is a great question! Because Japanese and English are very different languages, I never thought of that. When I translate from English to Japanese, I usually translate contemporary American novels into Japanese for a commercial readership, so I never thought of this merging point of two languages. It feels, not exactly mechanical, but (like going) from one (language) to another. But when I translate poetry there are moments, not intentional, when two things meet or there is some serendipity; the sound or meanings come together.

“When I translate poetry there are moments, not intentional, when two things meet or there is some serendipity; the sound or meanings come together.”

Pseudo Mag:  What’s your relationship like with the English language? It is your second language, but you also translate to and from it?

Kyoko Yoshida:  I started learning Japanese at eleven like many other Japanese students. Now they start learning English younger. It was an amazing discovery for me because the structures are so different. I thought it was just a difference of letters. That’s how I imagined it, but it’s a whole new world of not just culture and background but the logical way to say certain things in a different grammatical order. So I got fascinated by it.There are different levels (of comfort) with English for me. Sometimes I’m very comfortable; sometimes I get very awkward. I’m probably fluent in English, but sometimes I have a semi fluent moment and I think that’s a moment any second-language person has even if you are really good at it.

I’m married to a French man who also studies American literature—his specialty is African American literature and our household language in English. That’s interesting because that’s his second language and that’s my second language, so we kind of meet in the middle. That’s a neutral ground. And what happens is that we developed this kind of dialect. Every house has a dialect but in our case English has become a kind of dialect. I’m very comfortable with that language, but that’s the kind of language no one speaks.

“I’m probably fluent in English, but sometimes I have a semi fluent moment and I think that’s a moment any second-language person has even if you are really good at it.”

Pseudo Mag: What’s your opinion on the current surge in writing programmes in the US and all over the world and on this trend of professionalising art and the process of making art?

Kyoko Yoshida:  I have a very ambivalent feeling about it. This ethical contract or agreement you have in a classroom is the most wonderful thing a writing programme could provide to me and I know many good writing programmes that provide you that. That’s something I really like about them. At the same time writers get hired as academics, and it makes lots of money because many people want to take creative writing. So this phenomenon is not just cultural but it is also economic. It’s a good money maker. That’s good for writing in a way because if literature makes money that’s wonderful. But at the same time everybody’s not sure if you really love literature. So there’s that, and also I had wonderful writing teachers as a graduate student. Many of them are wonderful writers but they wear themselves out. So much work is required to read students’ work. Even if it is a really crappy piece of work, you have to spend time, you have to provide constructive criticism. Writing teachers spend hours (on this) and so much mental energy. I’ve seen older professors in creative writing who kind of get tired and they don’t have energy left for their own creative writing. That’s something sad. So I have ambivalent feelings about it.

Pseudo Mag: As the writer Junot Diaz said in an interview that in a writing programme you are writing for other writers and after you write and get published your readership is different. So what do you think about writing for readers and writing for writers?

Kyoko Yoshida:  That’s a very, very good question because when I first started to write I felt like I was writing on a piece of paper and putting it into this bottle and and shooting it into the universe and there might not be any aliens to read my stuff. That’s how I felt when I first started to write, but then once you are in a writing programme you see the faces of the readers. So that was a really reassuring feeling and it makes you feel comfortable as well. So after a year or two I started to realise that I cannot write for my classmates. You have to write for people on the outside. That’s tough and it is always challenging but now that I get to visit these literary festivals and other things— you realise  there are readers out there and those are the people I will probably never meet. We just happen to be here in the same space, and that gives enormous courage to the writer and in a way there are people out there — real people but you may not meet them. I think that’s the kind of people I have to imagine (when I write).

“When I first started to write I felt like I was writing on a piece of paper and putting it into this bottle and and shooting it into the universe and there might not be any aliens to read my stuff.”

Pseudo Mag:  What are some books that you would recommend to everyone and that you think are relevant to our times?

Kyoko Yoshida:  I love love everything George Saunders writes. That’s my favourite author. Another writer I like is Brian Evenson. He is a horror fiction writer. So he has horror genre writing but he also writes literary short stories and it’s very unique. You have to read that. I highly recommend that.


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Kyoko Yoshida and us after the interview. She let us interview her as she ate lunch. In the photo we’re trying hard not to hug her.

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Kyoko Yoshida on the ‘At home in the world’ panel at JLF
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Kyoko went out of her way to sign Tanvi’s book

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Article by Tanvi Joshi

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