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Yoko Tawada

  • Interview by Claudia Steinberg
  • Issue 16
  • Free RadicalOctober 2017

Being a foreigner is an art, says Yoko Tawada, and she should know. She was nineteen when she left Japan for the first time, in 1979, eventually reaching Moscow via the Trans-Siberian Railroad. She learned to search for the undecipherable in uncharted cities; to listen for the confusing rhythms and melodies of strange languages; and to seek out unknown words—first in Russian and then in German, the language she adopted after moving to Hamburg in 1982. Though Tawada has lived in Germany for more than thirty years, in her writing she remains in transit: crossing borders, trespassing into the surreal territory of physical metamorphosis, and, most recently, inhabiting a different species. Memoirs of a Polar Bear, which was released in Germany in 2014 and will be published in an English translation from New Directions in November, is narrated by three generations of a polar-bear family: Knut, the adorable and lucrative star of the Berlin Zoo, who has been made a poster child of the melting poles; his mother, Tosca, who was a circus star in East Germany; and his grandmother, who was born in captivity in Moscow. Yoko Tawada inhabits her three protagonists—each based on a real animal—in the most physical manner, perceiving the world through their senses as opposed to the perspective of a “nose-blind” human being. The reader is transported into a realm where the cosmos can enter through the anus, where the will to live resides in the claws, and where reason is as sharp as an icicle.

Claudia Steinberg

In many ways, Memoirs of a Polar Bear is a book about writing. Is the white, empty page as treacherous as the Arctic?

Yoko Tawada

Since this is a polar-bear story, I tried to express my feelings about writing in connection with concrete images like acrobatics—the bears’ circus profession. With writing one enters an unpredictable place: in spite of having mapped the book, one never knows where one arrives. And one may very well discover something one didn’t want to know about oneself, or encounter a long-suppressed memory. In that sense, writing is dangerous.

What unwelcome memories arose when you wrote this book?

It brought up the question of whether things that were perceived as pleasurable in childhood, like sports or music, were enjoyed of one’s own volition, or whether they were performed for the sake of parental applause. That child—without having been brutally trained—was still a circus animal, and one doesn’t want to remember that.

If circus animals get pleasure from their cruelly instilled skills would you still condemn such acts? In your narrative, the bears are proud of their stagecraft.

My point is that these boundaries are not so clear. In the 1980s the West claimed that everything was forced in socialist countries, while at home everything was based on free will. But why was there so much psychological illness in West Germany? Parents can coerce their children in a thousand ways, even if everything seems completely voluntary. It is not easy to separate good parenting from bad. Actors—and also most authors, myself included—react to their audience. While we don’t necessarily adjust our writing to our readers, at a reading I will select a text that can be easily understood, and my reading itself has been developed as an interplay between me and the audience. At the same time, one wants to be entirely on one’s own and to write what one wants, even if everybody else rejects it. That is also part of being an artist—and it resembles hibernation.

As a child, did you try out words on adults that you didn’t yet understand, just to see how they would be received—like Knut figuring out what excites his audience?

As a kid I found it most interesting to collect and try out words that were far too difficult for me. The concepts behind them were incomprehensible, but sentences circulate; they are handed to us, and we repeat them like actors and watch our parents react.

During the Third Reich, the circus was one of the few places in Germany where Jews and other persecuted minorities could go into hiding. It was always an outsider institution, and rather appealing in that way.

Outsiderdom is generally interesting to me, not only among human beings, but also among apes and other animals. A polar bear who has been brought up by humans cannot return to his group: he will be eaten because he smells of humans, or at least like an outsider.

How do you feel under the circus tent?

I have very mixed feelings: I want animals to live free in nature. At the same time, the circus is so exciting—I love the stagecraft. But there is something more I want to know, something that has to do with art. I haven’t quite figured it out, and that’s why I got very close to the circus—internally, that is. In reality I have rarely gone to the circus.

The zoo is a similarly fascinating and questionable institution, cruel and antiquated in many respects.

Zoos are also very sad—the pacing, neurotic tigers, of course. We recognize that existence as terrible and unbearable, because we also live like that: it is familiar. Zoo and circus animals are much more like us than those in nature, even though we supposedly live the way we do by choice. I have studied prisons intensively, and I believe that everyone’s lives resemble those in prisons and zoos.

At the same time, the zoo often presents the last opportunity to see animals that have already disappeared in the wild—the last survivors have found their asylum there.

The zoo reflects several worlds. For some people it functions like a lexicon of animals. For others it still provides some kind of nature experience. Strangely, the animals in the Berlin Zoo are categorized as Africans, Indians, Australians, and so forth, but they have all been born in Berlin, just as many of the Africans in Neukölln have been: they are all Berliners. Giraffes are even fed old Christmas trees, which helps lower expenses. But what an astonishing image: giraffes in the snow, chewing on Christmas trees.

Is the zoo audience a large, evil animal, hungry for entertainment and easily bored? Didn’t people turn away from Knut once he lost his baby cuteness?

The zoo audience is evil, but it needs to be there. The animals may not need an audience originally, but without one, Knut would not have been who he was. And people are interested, they want to see animals—that is human, and important.

The book is full of neologisms, which German especially facilitates: liebread, woodflesh, stingword, headtheater, milklust. One bumps against them—is that a joy for you?

A great joy: if a word is familiar, one doesn’t feel it, one perceives only its meaning, and the word itself is barely present. But if it’s a bit strange, it becomes interesting. When you learn a language—as a child, or as a foreigner—you don’t just learn words but also how to make them, you learn the mechanism of the language, and you can keep making new words. That is an integral part of every language, and of German in particular, but we usually just take what is on offer.

How did you get under the polar bears’ skin? Did you try to sharpen your sense of touch, of smell, of taste?

When you write a novel you often have to slip into a figure: into a historical character, into a man, into Napoleon. But I find Napoleon’s inner life much more difficult to imagine than Knut’s. His world seemed somehow very familiar to me.

To describe smells, we often depend on analogies from our other senses—we don’t have the vocabulary for them. For the polar bear, on the other hand, the nose is of central importance.

It is exactly this distance from language that interested me: like the polar bear itself, it is something that language can’t fully describe. The sense of smell is important to humans, of course, but the nose is just not as fast as the eye or the ear. Knut, however, could smell a seal on the other end of town.

The bears can also smell lies—the sense of smell is the sense of truth.

I imagined tax auditors would save a lot of time if they could smell tax evasion. Smells and the sense of smell are often used as metaphors for the sixth sense.

Your protagonists generally don’t know shame or disgust and are driven by curiosity and hedonism, which gives them a certain innocence—the bears seem to encounter humans, other animals, the zoo, and the circus without prejudice.

The book is also about the Cold War, about East and West Germany. I wanted to view this subject differently, and the bears became a way to do that. I read an outrageous newspaper article that claimed that Tosca didn’t accept Knut because the socialist circus had extinguished her sense of maternal love. I thought how absurd that must sound to an animal.

In all your books the world seems to be in flux and porous. Why are you so interested in changeability?

Matter morphs constantly and is immortal, though a human being won’t return as such but will be part of the soil, of plants, and perhaps of animals, so we are a mass of different forms of matter. Atoms don’t sit tightly on one another: there is space between them, and that is true for our body too, it’s not really solid. I find that very liberating. My story “The Bath” dealt with the fact that we look different every day. The human–animal boundary is a variation on that theme. In the Christian conception of the world, one cannot cross that border. But currently there is a debate about animal rights, and my bears are also contemplating that.

They talk about the human rights of animals.

In the United States the discussion is even more heated than in Germany. Last year I held a seminar at NYU with the title “Can Animals Think?” Some of the students came from the university’s animal-studies program, and they complained, saying that the title should be rephrased as, “How Do Animals Think?” It reminded me very much of the feminism debates of the Seventies—“How Do Women Think?” Before that the question was, “Can Women Think?”

A kind of animism also appears in your book: the trees have fingers that play on the water, the earth cries, and so on.

Animism is second nature to me, and it has something to do with language itself: in words, all objects are as much alive as animals. They have a soul, stones or iron as much as birds.

Did you see Knut when he was alive?

When he was little, there were hundreds of people in front of the zoo before it even opened; I didn’t feel like standing in line. I had no intention to write about him. When he was older, I visited him for the first time with Susan Bernofsky, my American translator, and then I saw him two days before his death, with my nephew. His body was re-created as a sculpture with the help of a computer and covered with his fur. I gave a reading in front of him at the Natural History Museum in Berlin—I thought it was spooky.

You describe Knut’s death so physically, as if you had slipped into his ailing body.

But he wasn’t even dead when I wrote that scene, I never expected him to die. Only according to the logic of my novel did he have to end that way, because his situation became more and more hopeless. In retrospect it looks as if I had known it.

Kafka, one of your heroes, appears in the Memoirs, when the bears criticize the ape from “Report to an Academy” for attempting to walk on two legs.

The most important thing is that Kafka even wrote animal stories, so the bears have a template for their own autobiography. But the story also brings up questions of migration and assimilation: the polar bear remains himself and still finds a way to live among human beings, if a bit ironically.

Homo sapiens appears as an ignorant, destructive creature whose essence is his contradiction—do you have any compassion for this stupid being?

He is always praised for his intelligence, though when you put him in the right light, he seems rather stupid—but not all stupid. He is a mutation; he can’t help himself. Nevertheless I ask myself every day, why did human beings turn out this way? What sense does it make?

You write that an animal has to give its very best at every moment, otherwise it will perish.

That is my ideal—to do only what is important, with all my force and effort. That’s how we are made.