October 2, 2012

On leave from academic duties, I have traveled to the mountains of Eastern Tennessee to spend a month in the rustic log cabin my father built by hand in the 1970s.  Here, in my “writer’s retreat” I have time to myself.  I’m supposed to be working on an academic study of kimonos and women’s literature. My argument is that the imagery of kimono often found in modern Japanese literary works serves as a language of its own, defining characters and adding semantic layers.  

But, I won’t be doing that here in this cabin.  I am here to write a mystery novel, surreptitiously. Perhaps I’m overreacting, but I’ve decided to keep my activities a secret afraid that others will criticize me if they find out. It wouldn’t be “seemly” for a professor on leave to spend time writing fiction, would it?  I’m not trained in fiction; I’m not paid to write fiction. My expertise lies elsewhere. I already feel out of my depth and inauthentic. Who do I think I am?  Some great novelist?  I have only told a few people of my plans. I write in secret.

I spend the day pushing ideas around, trying out plotlines, imagining characters. Because I’ve decided that the novel will hinge on the practice of translation and that my protagonist will be a translator, I store all my documents and scribbles in a folder on my computer that I’ve named “Translator.”  I don’t even allow myself to call the folder what it is: “Mystery Novel” or “Debut Novel.”  Am I that paranoid that someone will look over my shoulder, peer into my personal laptop and discover what I’m really up to?  

Maybe. 

Or, maybe I’m too afraid to admit to myself that I’m actually trying my hand at writing a novel. Will that jinx the process?  Will that only make it worse when I fail?  Perhaps the only person I’m hiding my real activities from is myself.

As I sit on the back porch watching the sun set, as I walk the ridgeline with my dog, Wilson, as I sweep the crumbs and cobwebs from the corner of the cabin, I think about my novel.  I haven’t gotten far.  But this is what I know.  

My protagonist is an American woman who has a PhD in Japanese literature and should be rising in life but instead is flailing desperately. She has failed in her career, unable to secure tenure.  She has failed at her marriage, unable to keep her husband from cheating.  Forty years old with nothing to show for herself, she returns to Japan, where she spent her childhood.  (Shall her parents be missionaries?)  It is the only place she ever felt at home, even though she never really “fit” in.  

She translates to support herself.  But her job is hardly a career, most of the other translators she works with are freeters.  They come and go as they please, signing on for a translating project when they need extra cash.  Most are Japanese.  She’s a fulltime employee.  That does not mean she has the perks and privileges that come with fulltime employment in most Japanese firms—or used to.  What it means is that her work is carefully measured and scrutinized.  She must meet a certain quota of translations every month.  She may not translate for any other company or even for another individual.  All of her translating energy must be devoted to her firm. 

And then, one day, a mysterious woman appears at her door, inviting her to translate the work of a famous novelist who has been missing for over twenty years.  No one knows what happened to him. He just disappeared. 

She wants to accept the invitation, but she knows that doing so will put her in jeopardy with her firm.  If she takes on the task, she’ll be translating on the lam—much as I am writing on the lam!

So, shall we name our translator?

I have thought of Meg.  Her parents (surely they are missionaries!) would have selected this name because it allowed them to call her Megumi, which in Japanese means a “blessing.”   Her Japanese boyfriends, if she had any, could call her “Megami” which means “goddess.”

Rachel is another contender.  The Japanese version might be Reiko.  Rei for lovely.

Naomi would be interesting…. 


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