Finding oneself at home
Both Angela Carter and Natsume Soseki found new insights into their respective homelands when living abroad. Caryl Phillips reflects on the role of the writer as 'outsider'
Caryl PhillipsSaturday 21 January 2006 01.35 GMT
wenty years ago I first visited Toronto. I was attending my first literary festival, and the invitation had arrived by way of my London publisher. Initially, I was sure my publisher had made some terrible mistake and that the invitation was intended for one of its more illustrious authors. Unless I was misreading the letter, the proposal was that I be presented with a free round-trip air ticket from London to Toronto, housed in a grand five-star hotel for a week, paid a generous daily stipend, taken on a variety of outings to places such as Niagara Falls, and furnished with invitations to various parties and dinners celebrating myself and my fellow authors. In exchange for this largesse, I would be expected to read from one of my two novels for a mere 20 minutes and, incredibly enough, for this reading I would also be paid an additional fee. Such was my initiation into the world of literary festivals.
Although I now try to avoid such gatherings, I look back at that first literary festival and remember much of it with great fondness. Many enduring friendships were forged in Toronto, but as one year leads to the next, there is a single incident from that time that I find myself returning to time and time again. It concerns my late, and much lamented, friend, the writer Angela Carter. One morning we were walking down a street near Lake Ontario, either on our way to, or on our way back from some appointment, when a smartly dressed Japanese man approached us. Angela was a tall woman and so he looked up at her as he asked for street directions. She dealt with the inquiry with characteristic grace, but I knew immediately that there was something strange about the encounter. However, as I watched the clearly charmed man set off purposefully in the right direction, I could not put my finger on what was amiss. Angela and I walked on and perhaps a minute or so passed by in silence before she turned to me and smiled. "You know," she said, "around about now it will be occurring to him that I just spoke to him in Japanese." I almost stopped walking for I too had missed this fact.
In 1969, Angela Carter won the Somerset Maugham literary prize, which carried with it a stipend of £500 and a "suggestion" that the winner (who had to be younger than 35) should use the money for travel. The 29-year-old promptly took off for Japan for, as she later stated, she wished to live in a place that was outside the Judaeo-Christian world so that she might "see what it was like". She already felt she was situated somewhat awkwardly on the periphery of English society as a part Yorkshire, part south London, lower middle-class woman of obvious, and to some irritating, brilliance, but having been awarded the prize she consciously chose to remove herself to a place that would encourage her to see herself anew.
Years later she declared that it was her two years in Japan that radicalised her as a feminist thinker, but her two years in Japan also transformed her into the willful, stubborn, and outstanding writer that she subsequently became. Which is not to say that there was not already a precocious literary mind at work prior to her departure for Japan. When one looks back at her fiction and essays from the 60s, it is disconcerting to discover that a writer who was still only in her 20s could be so confident and sure-footed. In later years, she felt a little embarrassed by what she described as the "over-written and over-literary" nature of her early writing, but there is nothing for her to feel embarrassed about. Over-writing is the rite of passage for most authors, and in her case the dazzling insight which informs her observations, and her deft verbal play, more than make up for any temporary gushing.
In 1969, £500 did not go a very long way, especially in Tokyo. Carter was forced to take on a variety of jobs to support herself, including bar hostessing, modelling and freelance journalism. If one looks to her literary journalism from this period - much of which was published in the now defunct New Society - one can chart the "growth" of Carter's mind. She was fully aware of the fact that the very act of living in a country where she would be a complete outsider would bring her face to face with herself at a critical time in her literary development. Although she knew that, as an exceedingly smart and outspoken young woman, it was already somewhat problematic for her to feel fully at home in British society, she absolutely understood that in Japan it would be almost impossible for her to ever belong. In other words, by travelling to Japan she would, in a sense, be free to reinvent herself without having to wrestle with the multiple anxieties of belonging.
Carter's writing about Japan is a joy to read. She is by turns sharply observant, witty, and when she feels the occasion demands it, she can be acerbic. Over the years, critics have tried to read and interpret her writing on Japan by focusing on what it tells us about Japan, but this writing should more properly be read for what it tells us about her. Today, most of her essays read like period pieces, but behind the temporal façade one can sense Carter, the writer, rising to her feet.
"I am the first coloured family in this street. I moved in on the Emperor's birthday, so the children were all home from school. They were playing 'catch' around the back of the house and a little boy came to hide in the embrasure of the window. He glanced round and caught sight of me. He did not register shock but he vanished immediately. Then there was a silence and, shortly afterwards, a soft thunder of tiny footsteps. They groped round the windows, invisible, peering, and a rustle rose up, like the dry murmur of dead leaves in the wind, the rustle of innumerable small voices murmuring the word: 'Gaijin, gaijin, gaijin' (foreigner), in pure, repressed surprise. We spy strangers. Asoka."
After her time in Japan, Carter returned to Britain and continued to enjoy a peripatetic life in the 20 years she had left. She taught at the University of Sheffield and at Brown University in the United States, and she continued to travel extensively. After Toronto I met up with her in Germany and then again in New Zealand, as well as on numerous occasions in London. By this stage she was both a dear friend and, to my mind, the outstanding British writer of her generation. Whatever it was that I recognised in her, or she in me, I am sure that it had something to do with her curiosity and fascination around issues of belonging, a preoccupation that was fed by her two years in Japan. Angela Carter was not only unafraid of being "the only one in the room", she seemed to intimately understand that sometimes it is necessary to be this person so that one might begin to see clearly.
In 1900, almost exactly 70 years before Carter travelled to Japan, the great Japanese writer Natsume Soseki arrived in late Victorian London to study for two years. His writing about this period is not so well-known to English readers, perhaps because they feel they have had their fill of narratives about fog, chimney sweeps, maids and the draughty misery of this period from countless numbers of English writers from Dickens to Conan Doyle. However, as with Carter, the real drama of Soseki's "English" writing is not what it tells us about England, but what it tells us about Soseki himself.
Soseki returned to Japan after his two years in London and began a tragically short, but singular, literary career that was marked by a furious sense of independence. With regard to literary form he was an avid experimenter; in his academic career he shocked his contemporaries by turning down a very prestigious professorship, and in terms of his public voice he was loud, vocal, and critical. He had many things to say about Japanese society that were uncomfortable for some Japanese people to hear. That said, the more I read of Soseki's work, and the more I discover about his literary life and career in Japan, the more convinced I am that his being an exotic Asian stranger in London at an early and critical stage of his intellectual and literary development helped him to become the fully mature and outstandingly gifted writer that he subsequently became in the Japanese world that he eventually returned to.
In one startling passage from "Letter From London" (1901) we see Soseki as he sees himself.
"In any case, I feel small. An unusually small person approaches. Eureka! I think. But when we brush past one another I see he is about two inches taller than me. A strangely complexioned Tom Thumb approaches, but now I realise this is my own image reflected in a mirror. There is nothing for it but to laugh bitterly, and, naturally, when I do so, the image laughs bitterly, too. When I go to the park, herds of women walk around like horned lionesses with nets on their heads. Amongst them are some men. And some tradesmen. I am struck by the fact that they are for the most part better dressed than many a high-ranking official in Japan. In this country one cannot work out someone's status by their dress. A butcher's boy, when Sunday rolls around, will proudly put on his silk hat and frock-coat."
These sometimes alarming English encounters continually throw Soseki back upon himself and down into deep wells of self-reflective contemplation. He finds both who and what he is being continually challenged in a very profound manner, and one can sense in Soseki's writing a man who is becoming unmoored in a most fundamental way. "When I was in Japan I knew I was not particularly white but regarded myself as being close to a regular human colour, but in this country I have finally realised that I am three leagues away from a human colour - a yellow person who saunters amongst the crowds going to watch plays and shows . . . In one park I heard a couple arguing whether I was a Chinaman or a Japanese. Two or three days ago I was invited out somewhere and set off in my silk hat and frock-coat only for two men who seemed like workmen to pass by saying, 'A handsome Jap'. I do not know whether I should be flattered or offended."
The literary exchange between Japan and the west has been explored by other writers aside from Carter and Soseki. One has to think no further than Shusaku Endo, the first Japanese person to study in Europe after the second world war, or the Swiss writer Nicolas Bouvier, whose meditation on Japan (The Japanese Chronicles) is as brave and eloquent as any piece of modern non-fiction that I am aware of. There is a fascinating self-searching literary energy that is generated in these writers by their having suffered the discomforts of temporary literary exile, but what they seem to gain is an often extremely penetrative socio-cultural vision that is the clear legacy of their often gloomy sojourns.
During my one brief visit to Japan in November 2002, I found myself constantly wondering about both Carter and Soseki. And I began to speculate what, if any, are the links - conscious or unconscious - between, on the one hand, the African diasporan world that I represent, and which has formed the bedrock of the subject matter that I have written about for more than 25 years, and, on the other hand, the world of contemporary Japan.
My own visit to Japan was hardly "exile" but being outside of what Carter rightly describes as the "Judaeo-Christian world", it did force me to look at myself in a new way and each day to scrutinise this country in which I was most certainly Gaijin. Clearly I was in a society that had some difficulties reconciling vigorous expressions of individual identity with national expectation, and I reminded myself that this same problem has plagued people of African origin as they try to make a life for themselves in a wide range of societies. Certainly the Britain I grew up in operated with a tacit understanding that some individuals, because of their class, gender, race, or religion, should have the good grace to remain mute, obedient and simply know their place. Mercifully, this has, to some extent, changed. In fact, the great majority of people of African origin who live in the west now do so with a strong understanding that they should resist any attempt to encourage them to live in an obedient silence. This impulse to speak is important for it is often activated by a moral impulse to tell the truth and avoid the tyranny of silence. To my mind, Endo is a great moral writer, a writer whose best known work is called, appropriately enough, Silence
But Carter and Soseki are also great writers whose own temporary exiles eventually led them back through the door of themselves toward the moral centre of the debates that were raging at "home". While travelling in Japan it became clear to me the extent to which their sojourns abroad, as strangers in strange lands, had inestimable significance to their development as writers. Now, having re-read their work, I am sure of this fact. I also understand that an umbilical cord often connects the pain of exile to the pleasure of literature. It takes a politically determined, clear sighted and brave writer to purposefully embrace willful exile. Carter and Soseki were such people.