|[Deutsche Version ]|
| Linda Baur
Yoko Tawada: Writing Between Sensual Joy
Abstract: Having grown up in
Japan, Yoko Tawada now lives and writes in Germany. In her work, lingual
and cultural differences between her home country and the place of her
writing are turned into a reflexion on the features of language, and
on the conditions that enable us to speak and to understand what is
said. It is not so much language as a medium for communication that
interests Tawada; instead, she emphasizes experiences of failed communication,
of irritated perception. Her ethnological literary miniatures more readily
illustrate the incircumventable necessity of ascribing meaning than
they depict felicitous decipherments of world-symbols.
Yoko Tawada was born in Tokyo in 1960. Since 1982 she has been living in Hamburg, Germany. Tawada’s writings are caught in an in-between, moving to and fro between these two spaces, between Germany and Japan, between Japanese characters and the German alphabet. That in-between marks her description as a ‘German-Japanese author’. Neither the one nor the other county can completely claim her, and neither can either set of symbols. Many of her German publications are printed so that they can be read two ways – from the left cover to the right cover in German, and in Japanese in the opposite direction. In spite of this obvious tension between her ‘own’ and her ‘other’ language and culture, a perhaps more central focus of Tawada’s work lies in the otherness of language as such (1); for it is language acting as a protagonist, linked with meta-lingual utterances which in turn reference the philosophy of language, that seems to hold greater importance for Tawada than does the function of language as a medium for communication.
The experience of cultural and lingual otherness is a necessary condition
for all of Tawada’s writings: Many of her first person narrators
share the author’s way of life as a Japanese in Germany, and are
thus confronted with a systematically foreign language and a foreign
culture. This central motif of reading and interpreting cultural codes
keeps returning in Tawada’s literary essays, collected in the
volume “Talisman”. The eponymous story plays on the concept
of a talisman in various contexts. The first person narrator notices
strange pieces of metal in the ears of German women and is puzzled as
to their meaning; she assumes that they function as a kind of lucky
charm. But Gilda, who wears earrings, roundly refuses this interpretation.
The narrator’s seemingly naïve perspective claims the reader,
who begins to recognize all kinds of seemingly superstitious relicts
and unconsciously magical rituals throughout the daily life of Westerners.
Tawada’s pseudo-ethnological view is semiotic, it perceives not
only alphabetic letters, but objects, persons and cities as texts that
call for decipherment. But as language interests Tawada not merely as
a communicative medium, but in the experience of failed communication,
as the irritation of perception takes centre stage, her ethnological
literary miniatures illustrate the incircumventable necessity of ascribing
meaning rather than the felicitous deciphering of world symbols.
Tawada’s writing resembles a test assembly: Her experiment is
to write in a foreign language. In one of her lectures on poetology
at Tübingen, the author described the video of an artist who repeats
the word ‘lispeln’ [“lisp”] while standing on
his head, until he becomes unable to articulate it any longer, his tongue
having grown too heavy to accomplish the motions necessary for speech.
Tawada refers to this image to clarify her situation as a writer in
a foreign language: Often, Tawada describes the effects that the foreign
words have on her body. In “Foreignness Canned”, the first
person narrator claims that a German word has a “foreign”
taste to the tongue, as if the unfamiliar manner of articulation had
turned into a culinary sensation.
In her drama “Zürich”, Yoko Tawada has created a homage to Zürich’s Dadaists.4 Several traces can be found in her work that continue Barthes’ “aesthetics of the signifiant”. The materiality of the letters of the alphabet is brought up repeatedly. At the same time, the meanings ascribed to language are displaced, sometimes unmade, or at the very least questioned. In some cases, Tawada returns idiomatic expressions to their original meaning, as the narrator does not recognize expressions such as “to be fed up with” [or the German “die Nase voll haben”] as symbolic figures: She feels they are unpleasantly corporeal. But aside from these more or less theoretical considerations of language, Tawada views the text as an autonomous, resisting category: The text evades even its own author and becomes a mysterious entity. In “e-mail für japanische Geister” [“email for Japanes Spirits”], the letters of the alphabet are said to have a backside which surprises their own creator when they turn around. In this perspective, the letters appear as incalculably wilful creatures equipped with a physiognomy of their own, one that can go through surprising metamorphoses. While Japanese writing holds no threat for Tawada, as its imagery cannot and need not be translated directly into language, the alphabet has a menacing side to it: The letters demand that meanings be assigned to them, but they are also threatened by a loss of meaning. It is in this tension, between illegibility and obsessive interpretation, that Yoko Tawada’s tales develop their allure: The symbols, not the humans, are her protagonists.
Selected Works by Yoko Tawada:
Literature on the author and her books:
Breger, Claudia: Mimikry als
Grenzverwirrung. Parodistische Posen bei Yoko Tawada; in: Claudia Benthien
/ Irmela Marei Krüger-Fürhoff (ed.): Über Grenzen. Limitationen
und Transgressionen in Literatur und Ästhetik; Stuttgart: 1999;
(1) Cf. Gelzer, Florian: Worte von Gedanken trennen, Schreibweisen und Sprachprogrammatik bei Yoko Tawada. licentiate’s thesis; Basel: 1998, pp. 92-3. back
(3) Cf. Florian Gelzer’s chapter on the “context of language theory” in Tawada’s writing, proving the close relation to Roland Barthes’ theoretical treatises. – Gelzer, Florian: Worte von Gedanken trennen, Schreibweisen und Sprachprogrammatik bei Yoko Tawada; Lizenziatsarbeit; Basel: 1998, pp. 60-67. back
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