[Deutsche Version ]

Linda Baur

Yoko Tawada: Writing Between Sensual Joy
and Theoretical Interest in Language


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.

Deciphering the World

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.

“Foreignness Canned” [“Das Fremde aus der Dose”] is a narrative that deals with the difference of container and content. The colourful picture of a Japanese woman on a super market can seems to bear no connection to the tuna fish contained within. The protagonist of this short tale has decided to spend her Sundays reading people instead of written symbols – humans that she sees on the streets and in cafes are turned into alphabetic characters in the narrator’s eyes: They are grouped into phrases, then drift apart again – but their encounters never assemble any coherent text that could be translated into lingual signs. In a contrary development, the letters on a billboard seem to transform into bodily creatures: The letter S becomes a snake, and so forth…

“Foreignness Canned” ends with the thought: Could the foreign city be ordered into a readable text? – but the individual symbols fall apart under the narrator’s eyes, and the text of the city can only be deciphered in fragments. Tawada’s semiotic perspective is inspired by Hans Blumenberg’s Legibility of the World [“Die Lesbarkeit der Welt”] as well as some more recent attempts to broaden the concept of readability beyond the limits of the text. Albrecht Klöpfer has described Yoko Tawada as a poetic ethnologist of her own and of foreign worlds; (2) and that is certainly one central motive for her writing. But as Tawada has pointed out herself, the persons that describe cultural and lingual details, such as the first person narrator in “Talisman”, are themselves inventions – whereas ethnologists, says Tawada, usually only invent their descriptions. The difference between the author and the protagonist must be well noted: Although several parallels make her female protagonists similar to the author’s own life, and might encourage us to confuse these fictitious persons with the real individual, the writing women in Tawada’s texts are not Tawada. Authenticity and fiction necessarily intermingle in the minds of her readers, and of course there are real experiences of cultural and lingual otherness reflected in her texts. But Tawada’s work far exceeds the scope of ‘Migrant Literature’ both in the complexity of its structure and in its numerous implications for the theory of language.

The collection “Talisman”, for instance, seems to be largely influenced by Roland Barthes: Returning from a journey to Japan, Barthes wrote Empire of Signs [“L’Empire des signes”], chronicling his experiences in a country pervaded by a system of symbols foreign to the author. Unreadable writings-images dominate the topography of the cities. Barthes, too, focuses on failed attempts at decipherment and on the confrontation with the illegible. (3) A difference to Tawada’s earlier prose, however, is that Tawada moves within the foreign language in her writing and designs her perspective on the other from inside the German language. That a foreign language can attach itself to one’s body like a foreign substance, so that the medium of language gains corporality and a correspondence between the body of language and the language of the body ensues: This is another aspect of Tawada’s poetology.

Body and Language

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 articulation, words penetrate the body, even the foreign sound of the pencil changes the relation of the person writing to her writing tool. She is used to knowing that tool as “Enpitsu” and is surprised to find imbued with a strange masculinity by the article that accompanies ‘Bleistift’ in German. The sensual qualities of language, especially of the voice, are emphasized in the story “Ein Gast” [“A Guest”]: The narrator has all but lost the ability to read or write alphabetic symbols – the world of written language refuses her. But when she buys a recording of a novel at a garage sale, the female voice reading the text (which bears no content of essential value) directly enters her listening body and claims it. Even when the record is no longer playing, the narrator remains obsessed with that voice that keeps on speaking within her.

The corporality of language becomes manifest as a disturbance, an irritation: routinely letting language flow, safely continuing speech, so easy for native speakers, is disgusting to the narrator in “Foreignness Canned”. Tawada’s interest is awakened wherever speech fumbles and articulation fails. That interest is another parallel to Roland Barthes’ fascination which begins at that same place where roughness and fracture accompany speech, those secondary sounds that do not appear in the acrobatic excellence of perfect voices. According to Tawada, a foreign language will enter the speaker’s body like a foreign substance. The topicality of such bodily consequences corresponds to the matter of the body’s readability in her texts: The face of the protagonist is “expressionless”, unreadable to a German friend, representing the failure of interpretation through cultural differences and the desire for a readability of the other. That the eroticism of language precedes that of bodies in Tawada’s texts is true only in as much as language and body interweave. Language gains a kind of power over the body, as it is not humans that use language, but IT, language, that speaks humans.

A Liberation of Letters, the Aim of Tawada’s Poetology?

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:

  • Das Fremde aus der Dose. Essay, Graz 1992
  • Ein Gast. Roman.Tübingen 1993
  • Verwandlungen. (Tübinger Poetik-Vorlesungen 5, Tübingen 1998)
  • Nur da wo du bist, da ist nichts. Prosaerzählung und Gedichte. Übersetzung: Peter Pförtner. Tübingen 1987
  • Talisman. Literarische Essays. Synoptische übersetzung des japanischen Textes von Peter Pförtner. Tübingen 1996

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; pp. 176-206

Gelzer, Florian: Worte von Gedanken trennen, Schreibweisen und Sprachprogrammatik bei Yoko Tawada; Lizenziatsarbeit; Basel: 1995

Grond, Walter: Das Deutschland der Yoko Tawada; in: Stimmen. Ein Roman als Konzept; Graz: 1992; pp. 89-100

Gross, Sabine: Lesezeichen. Kognition, Medium und Materialität im Leseprozeß; Darmstadt: 1994

Kreuzer, Helmut: Gastarbeiter-Literatur, Ausländer, Migranten-Literatur? Zur Einführung; in: LiLi, issue 56, 1984; pp. 7-11

Kritisches Lexikon zur deutschsprachigen Gegenwartsliteratur (3/00 64. Nachlieferung) pp. 1-17

Hugo Dittberner in Zusammenarbeit mit Andrea Ehlert und Linda Anne Engelhardt (ed.):
Mit der Zeit erzählen? fragt er, Marcel Beyer – Heiner Egge – Gundi Feyrer – Yoko Tawada, Das zweite Buch, Göttingen: 1995

Weigel, Sigrid: Laudatio auf Yoko Tawada; in: Jahrbuch der Bayerischen Akademie der Künste; 1996; pp. 373-386



(1)  Cf. Gelzer, Florian: Worte von Gedanken trennen, Schreibweisen und Sprachprogrammatik bei Yoko Tawada. licentiate’s thesis; Basel: 1998, pp. 92-3.  back

(2)  Kritisches Lexikon der Gegenwartsliteratur  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

Ausführlichere Angaben zum Thema über e-mail beim Verfasser des Artikels: Linda Baur


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