Sometimes you choose a project. Other times it chooses you.
My first major translation project was Kirino Natsuo’s Grotesque. I came about the translation in a circuitous fashion. A Japanese Studies scholar in Canada wrote to tell me about an agent in the US who was representing Kirino Natsuo and searching for a translator. Apparently, this agent had tried all the well-known translators in the field, and they had turned her down. The scholar in Canada wasn’t interested in the project either, so she gave the agent my name.
I was (and still am) a HUGE Kirino fan.
I discovered Kirino Natsuo in 1997, while I was working on Meiji (1868-1912) women writers. That project would eventually culminate in my second monograph, Lost Leaves (University of Hawaii Press, 2000). I was in Tokyo and spending hours and hours reading—very slowly—writings by Meiji women writers. It was tough going on the best of days. The written prose style was dense and because these writers had not yet received much critical attention, their works were often collected—if they were collected at all—in old anthologies with old-fashioned orthography. Worse yet, if they had not been anthologized, their works were only accessible in facsimiles of old journals or newspapers. So, not only was the orthography archaic, the print was smeary and difficult to decipher. It would take me days to finish a short story.
Luckily, I found lifesaving help.! One of the highlights of that stay in Tokyo was working with Ogikubo Yasuyuki Sensei at Kokugakuin University. Ogikubo Sensei was a specialist in Meiji literature. Reading through these stories was pretty routine for him. So, once a week I would meet him in his office, and we would pore over the texts I was reading. He would answer my questions about language and contexts, sometimes amused by the kinds of concerns I raised, but always considerate and generous.
Another highlight of the year was reading mystery fiction. In the evenings, after I had finished my studies for the day, had taken a run through Hiroo—past the Japanese Red Cross Medical Center—and had had my dinner, I treated myself to Japanese mystery fiction. I preferred recent works by women writers. That fall I read Miyabe Miyuki’s Kasha (subsequently translated by Alfred Birnbaum in 1996 as All She was Worth) and Riyū (The Reason), and I also discovered Kirino Natsuo, who appealed to me even more than Miyabe. My first Kirino story was Tenshi ni misuturerata yoru (The Night Overlooked by Angels). Conforming to the hardboiled detective genre, the work reminded me of some of my favorite American authors, Sarah Paretsky, Sue Grafton, and Patricia Cornwell. Reading mysteries was my treat to myself. The stories were engaging and current. I could read a chapter or two and then walk through Shibuya and see the places described, even imagine interacting with the characters portrayed. I loved my work on Meiji women writers. But I fantasized about one day diving into a study of contemporary mystery fiction. No one had yet done such a study. Our field had not yet opened wide enough to admit popular fiction.
All that would change in a few years when three important studies by new scholars raced one another into the marketplace: Amanda Seaman’s Bodies of Evidence: Women, Society, and Detective Fiction in 1990s Japan (University of Hawai’i Press, 2004); Purloined Letters: Cultural Borrowing and Japanese Crime Literature, 1868-1937 (University of Hawaii Press, 2008) by Mark Silver, and Murder Most Modern: Detective Fiction and Japanese Culture (University of Minnesota Press, 2008) by Sari Kawana.
Whereas I gave up my idea of writing about Japanese mystery fiction, I decided instead to write my own mystery set in Japan. But how would that work? What would my lady detective have to say for herself?