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story.lead_photo.caption Writer Yoko Ogawa is at home in Ashiya, Japan. Ogawa says she likes to “keep a certain distance from my native culture or environment.” Her novel The Memory Police is set on an island where an authoritarian government makes whole categories of objects or animals disappear overnight. (The New York Times/CHANG W. LEE)

ASHIYA, Japan -- When Yoko Ogawa discovered The Diary of Anne Frank as a lonely teenager in Japan, she was so taken by it that she began to keep a diary of her own, writing to Anne as if she were a cherished friend.

To conjure the kind of physical captivity that Anne experienced, Ogawa would crawl, notebook in hand, into a drawer or under a table draped with a quilt.

"Anne's heart and mind were so rich," said Ogawa, now 57 and the author of more than 40 novels and story collections. "Her diary proved that people can grow even in such a confined situation. And writing could give people freedom."

Decades later, Ogawa transmuted her imagining of Anne's world into The Memory Police, a dystopian novel that is Ogawa's fifth book to be translated into English and published Aug. 13. It takes place on a mysterious island where an authoritarian government makes whole categories of objects or animals disappear overnight, wiping them from the memories of citizens.

Those who retain their recall are outlaws who go into hiding. The narrator, a novelist, shelters her editor -- who remembers everything -- in a room reminiscent of the Amsterdam annex where Anne hid with her family.

"I wanted to digest Anne's experience in my own way and then recompose it into my work," Ogawa said.

Although The Memory Police was first released in Japan in 1994, the novel is particularly resonant now, at a time of rising authoritarianism across the globe. Throughout the book, citizens live under police surveillance. Novels are burned. People are detained and interrogated without explanation. Neighbors are taken away in the middle of the night.

All the while, the citizens, cowed by fear, do nothing to stop the disappearances. "Regardless of what had happened, it was almost certainly an unfortunate event," the narrator explains, "and, moreover, simply talking about it could put you in danger."

Anna Stein, Ogawa's English-language agent, said she and Stephen Snyder, the writer's longtime English-language translator, selected The Memory Police for translation in 2014. "Of course, the horror of it applies now more than ever in our lifetime," Stein said.

In Japan, where history itself has been subject to revision -- and those who bring up the country's wartime past can be denounced or even censored -- the novel's lament for erased memories could be read as veiled criticism. Yet Ogawa did not intend to write a political allegory, she said. "I am just trying to depict each individual character and how those characters are living in their current time."

Lexy Bloom, a senior editor at Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, said she is drawn to Ogawa's skill with character and detail. "In The Memory Police, she is tackling these big themes, but it's also about these small moments between people," said Bloom, who has long been a fan of Ogawa's work. "And that's a hard thing to do effectively."

None of the protagonists in The Memory Police are named. Few markers identify the island, a trait shared by some of Ogawa's other novels. "I myself like to keep a certain distance from my native culture or environment," said Ogawa, whose spacious two-story home in an affluent neighborhood overlooking the sea has a Spanish tiled roof, wrought-iron balconies and chairs upholstered in French floral tapestry.

Snyder, a professor of Japanese studies at Middlebury College, said Ogawa's novels relate to Japanese culture in "ancillary ways."

"There is a naturalness to what she writes so it never feels forced," he said. "Her narrative seems to be flowing from a source that's hard to identify."

Novelist Yoko Ogawa (The New York Times/CHANG W. LEE)
Novelist Yoko Ogawa (The New York Times/CHANG W. LEE)

Growing up, Ogawa wrote for herself. When she married a steel company engineer, she quit her job as a medical university secretary -- a common life step for many women of her generation.

While her husband worked, she wrote. She didn't intentionally keep it secret, she said. But her husband only learned about her writing when her debut novel, The Breaking of the Butterfly, received a literary prize.

"I wasn't telling anyone in a big voice, 'I'm writing a novel,'" she said. "But I always thought, no matter how my life changes, I want to have a life of writing. Whether I could make any money off it, I did not know."

Ogawa gave birth to a son, and when he was just a toddler, her novella Pregnancy Diary won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize for literature, cementing her reputation in Japan.

She continued to write. "I would change a diaper and then write a sentence," she recalled. "Then I'd make a meal and write a sentence."

Sometimes, Ogawa mused about what it would be like to write without such interruptions."But now that my son has grown, I feel like I was at my happiest when I was writing while raising my child," she said. "Now that I can write as much as I want 24 hours a day, it's not as if I produce any greater work now than I did in the past."

She now writes at a craftsman desk in an airy room with a twin bed for naps and a bookshelf that slides sideways to reveal another full shelf behind it. A whole section is devoted to books about Anne Frank and the Holocaust. She pulled out a copy of Anne's diary to show that she had tagged virtually every page with a sticky note.

On her desk, Ogawa keeps a beaver skull, an animal she admires for its industry. It gives her inspiration, she said, echoing the sentiments of the editor in The Memory Police, who says that touching objects that have disappeared "became a way of confirming that I was still whole."

Ogawa achieved best-seller status, and a film adaptation, with The Professor and the Housekeeper, another novel with memory as its theme. Much lighter in tone than The Memory Police, it tells the story of a single mother who takes a job as a cook and cleaner for a mathematician who cannot remember anything new for more than 80 minutes.

Along with memory, another of Ogawa's preoccupations is the human capacity for cruelty. The Diving Pool, a collection of novellas published in English (including the prize-winning Pregnancy Diary), features characters who use subterfuge to inflict pain on people close to them.

Ogawa said she does not write about cruel characters to damn them but rather to explore what might drive someone to physical or emotional violence. "People try to hide it from others or try to cover it up," she said. "But in the world of literature, you can reveal that nature, and it's OK to do so."

Given that she writes vividly about female bodies, and the violence that men can do to them, some critics have dubbed her a feminist writer.

"In a lot of her work she is interested in women's roles in the family and women's bodies," said Kathryn Tanaka, an associate professor of cultural and historical studies at Otemae University in Nishinomiya, Japan. "You really can't separate that from questions of feminism and untangle her from that gendered private space that her texts inhabit."

Ogawa resists the label, saying she considers herself an eavesdropper on her characters. "I just peeked into their world and took notes from what they were doing."

"I see a bridge from that item to the next scene, or I see a rainbow that I have to climb over to move to the next scene," she said. "That's how I write."

Style on 08/25/2019

Print Headline: Japanese writer says she eavesdrops on characters

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