Blue Shells: Translated Fiction and Interview with Toshiya Kamei
June 25, 2009 § 1 Comment
by Naoko Awa (Translated by Toshiya Kamei)
I’m going to tell you the story of a mysterious flared skirt I used to own. Sadly, I no longer have it. When I became obsessed with the skirt, my family hid it from me. Shortly later, it was burned in the war.
But I have never forgotten the dazzling blue of the skirt. Even now, when I close my eyes, I can see the color.
The skirt was made of silk, with an amply wide hem, which was rare in those days. During the war, most women wore monpe pants. So you can imagine how I attracted attention, how people spoke ill of me.
I was never a stylish girl. As a child, I wore only my sister’s hand-me-downs. My looks were homely, and my intelligence was average. I was a quiet, ordinary girl, and there was nothing special about me. I’m going to tell you how I became smitten with the blue skirt.
When I was twelve or thirteen, I was friends with a very beautiful girl named Michiru. The daughter of a foreign father and a Japanese mother, she had eyes blue as an iris. She lived with her mother in an old Western-style residence near my house. No one had seen her father. Rumor had it he was an Italian trader, an American sailor, or a German officer.
“My father is on a ship. He’s in the middle of the Pacific Ocean,” said Michiru. “He came home late last night and gave me a present.” When she opened her palm, a necklace of shells spilled over.
I wanted to meet Michiru’s father, just once. But she never invited me to her house. No one had been inside the house surrounded by thick shrubs.
Even so, Michiru and I often played together. We went out and bought beautifully patterned chiyogami paper, showed each other boxes full of ribbons, and talked about books we read.
I was very fond of Michiru. When we walked together, she made passersby turn their heads. I was secretly proud of having such a beautiful friend.
One day – it was spring or early summer – Michiru came to my house. It was early afternoon, and the scent of thick green leaves wafted from the hedge.
“Michiru-san is in the back yard,” Mother said. I ran out the back door and found Michiru, whom I had last seen a few hours earlier. Wearing a new linen dress, she stood still.
“Yae-chan, can you keep a secret?” she whispered suddenly when she saw me. “I’ve come to say goodbye,” she said, lowering her voice.
I remained silent, stunned.
“We’re moving tonight,” she said.
“What? Where are you going?”
“A town by the sea. My mother’s home. But don’t tell anyone,” Michiri said and handed me a small package. “I give you this as a keepsake.”
“A keepsake? Is she going away for good?” I thought. Before I could say a word, Michiru left, as if fleeing. I still remember her white feet and her geta sandals echoing behind her. I unwrapped the package and found a blue flared skirt inside.
The next day I went to Michiru’s house. A crowd of people gathered around it. They looked at each other, whispered, and nodded: “Come to think of it, I heard a low clattering sound at night.”
“I see. He must have been using a typewriter.”
“That foreigner came out only at night, always hiding. No one had seen him by daylight.”
“I never imagined there was a spy in our neighborhood!”
A spy? My heart froze for a moment. Fear crept up my legs, then spread over my body. “It’s a lie! It’s not true!” I screamed inside my head, straining my ears to listen to the people in the crowd.
“The foreigner seems to have left early.”
“The wife and child followed him.”
It was the middle of war. Excited, the neighbors wondered about the whereabouts of the foreigner and his family.
“I hope they’ll get caught soon!” said the greengrocer’s wife, raising her fist into the air.
I screamed inside my head, “Run, Michiru! Run!” I prayed she and her parents would escape safely.
My knees buckling, I staggered away. I held a secret – Michiru’s destination. She had told me not to tell anyone.
As I walked, I kept telling myself not to reveal this secret. Even if the whole world turned against Michiru, I was still her friend.
The neighbors knew she and I were close friends. When they saw me in the street, they asked me all kinds of questions – whether I had met her father, or how her family lived. Every time they asked me a question, I told them I didn’t know. After a few days, I didn’t feel like going out.
I shut myself up in my room and thought about Michiru all day. I had a nightmare every night. I dreamed someone was pursuing me.
A town by the sea – these words weighed heavily on my mind, and my heart began to ache as if someone had died. For a twelve-year-old girl, it was a daunting task to keep a secret to herself.
One night I jolted awake by the same recurring nightmare. I slid a drawer of the chest open and took out the blue skirt Michiru had given me.
I put on the skirt. Since she was tall, it was too long for me. “I’ll have to raise the hem,” I whispered. I opened the workbox, found a blue thread, and passed it through the eye of a needle. I don’t know why I started needlework in the middle of night.
At any rate, I decided to raise the hem about five centimeters. But sewing the hem of the flared skirt was a lot of work. The hem was incredibly wide. Besides, the skirt was made of thin silk, and no matter how many times I stitched, I made little progress. The needle seemed to be motionless or moving backward.
As I kept moving the needle slowly, I thought about Michiru. I wondered where she was, how she was doing. After a while, the hem of the skirt began to look like the edge of the sea, like the long, arching shore.
Then I thought I heard Michiru’s footsteps from inside the cloth. She was running alone.
For some reason, she had no shoes on. She ran along the beach barefoot. I stood on the shore while the waves foamed, making white lace-like patterns on the sand.
“Michiru!” I cried in spite of myself, and broke into a run. The sand felt soft and wet under my feet. I, too, was barefooted. “Michiru, wait!” I kept calling her, but she didn’t look back. She ran faster and faster.
“Why, Michiru? I’m doing everything to keep your secret,” I thought. I watched her figure grow smaller and smaller in the distance.
On the verge of tears, I sat down. Then I saw her crouch down in the distance. She seemed to be picking up something. Or had she fallen down and wasn’t able to get up? Feeling sad, I stood up and plodded toward her.
I went up to her and called her from behind: “Michiru!”
Then she finally looked back. “It’s you, Yae-chan,” she said, flashing a friendly smile. “I’m gathering shells. Look, blue ones,” she said. She opened her palm, revealing a shell. It was small and thin as a cherry-blossom shell, but it was blue.
“Beautiful,” I mumbled. “I’ve never seen such a beautiful shell.”
Michiru gave a cheerful smile and said, “I’m gathering shells. I want to make a necklace.”
“A necklace?” I asked.
“Yes. We once made a necklace with camellias in the temple,” she said. “I want to make a long one with these shells. But I can’t focus on gathering shells. Every time I find one, someone comes after me.” She looked up and strained her ears. “Do you hear footsteps?” she said with an edge of fear in her voice. “It’s not just one person. There are three or five.”
“I don’t hear anything. That’s the sound of waves,” I said, laughing.
Then we went back to picking up shells. After gathering a few, however, Michiru looked up again and said, “I hear footsteps. Not just one person. It’s ten or twenty people.”
“I don’t hear anything except the sound of the wind,” I said and laughed again.
Looking worried, Michiru nodded and began to look for shells again. But soon she cried, “I hear footsteps. They’re after me!”
She got up and ran. The shells fell from her skirt, scattering over her feet. They had the same color as the sea. When I held a shell against the sun, it became tinted with purple, filtering the sunlight. Captivated by the beautiful shells, I didn’t go after Michiru. I stayed there for a long time.
When I realized it, she was only a dot in the distance.
“Michiru! Michiru!” I called her as a burst of wind scattered my voice. I kept calling her. “Michiru! Michiru!”
A voice called me from beyond the sea. “Yae-chan, Yae-chan.” Beyond the sound of the wind, a familiar voice kept calling me.
When I looked back, I saw a naked light bulb flicker over my head. The shoji door slid open, and my older sister peeked in. “Yae-chan, what’s the matter? You were screaming,” she said.
Later, she told me I was shaking, looking pale. With my eyes hollow, I looked as if I had a fit.
A few days later, I heard a rumor about Michiru. In her mother’s hometown, she and her mother threw themselves into the sea. I wondered if she, a blue-eyed girl, met with a cold reception over there. Or the rumors about her father had already reached the town.
Then I became captivated by Michiru’s blue skirt. I wanted to see her again. As my longing to see her grew, I started acting boldly.
After school, I slipped into the skirt, went out shopping, and went to a friend’s house. “You shouldn’t wear a foreigner’s skirt,” my friends said. “She looks like one of them,” they said behind my back.
But it didn’t bother me. As I walked, the hem of the skirt swirled, making me feel cheerful. When I ran through the wind, I felt as if I were floating in the air. When I played jump rope with my friends, I was able to jump higher than before. When I jumped really high, I thought I caught a glimpse of the sea beyond the roofs of houses. Yes, beyond the sea, I saw an island carpeted with evening primroses.
“Yae-chan, you’re like a bird,” my friends said.
Oh, how I wished I were a bird! I wished I could fly to the beach where Michiru and I had gathered shells. Maybe it was a faraway island. Those beautiful shells weren’t found anywhere in Japan.
When I thought about the blue shells, my heart became tight with yearning, tears welling up. My family kept an eye on me from a distance. One day when I came home from an errand, I discovered the blue skirt was gone. Maybe my mother locked it up in a drawer. But no one ever mentioned it again. No matter how many times I asked, I received no answer.
A few years later, the skirt was lost in the fire.
Q&A with Translator Toshiya Kamei
Q: Tell me about yourself.
A: I’m the translator of The Curse of Eve and Other Stories (Host Publications, 2008) by Liliana Blum and The Fox’s Window and Other Stories (UNO Press, forthcoming) by Naoko Awa. My other translations have appeared in Straight to Darkness (Kurodahan Press, 2006), The Global Game (University of Nebraska Press, 2008), and Sudden Fiction Latino (W.W. Norton, 2010).
Q: Where are you from?
A: I was born in Saitama, Japan, and went college in New Mexico.
Q: Are you still a student at the University of Arkansas?
A: No, I graduated in May 2008.
Q: What is your degree in?
A: I hold an MFA in Literary Translation from the University of Arkansas, where I was the 2006-2007 Carolyn Walton Fellow in Translation. Excerpts from my thesis, a translation of Spanish writer Espido Freire’s novel Irlanda, have appeared in Fairy Tale Review, The Modern Review, and Words without Borders. At Arkansas, I also studied fiction with Molly Giles and poetry with Geoffrey Brock.
Q: What is your first language?
A: I spoke Japanese at home and learned English and Spanish at school.
Q: How many languages do you speak? What are they?
A: I have taken graduate courses in Spanish. I have traveled in Spanish-speaking countries, such as Mexico, Peru, and Spain.
Q: What are your goals?
A: I hope to get married and start a family.
Q: What are your hobbies?
A: Reading and traveling.
Q: How did you come across “Blue Shells” to translate?
A: The story will be included in The Fox’s Window and Other Stories, Naoko Awa’s first story collection in English. I have selected and translated 30 stories she wrote during her literary career, which spanned three decades.
Q: Did you know Naoko Awa?
A: No. I read her stories as a child. I still own a yellowed copy of her book, which my parents bought me just as I was beginning to read independently. Some of the stories I have translated for the collection appeared in textbooks in Japan.
Q: What do you know about her?
A: If she were alive today, she would be my mother’s age. In Japan, she is known for her lyrical prose, which explores the intersection between humans and nature. It’s my honor to introduce her works to English-speaking readers.
Q: Do you write original pieces?
A: Yes. Not enough time, though.
Q: If so, can you tell me about them?
A: Maybe next time.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share?
A: The Fox’s Window and Other Stories by Naoko Awa will be published in 2010.