Interview: Henrique Yuichi Komatsu

How did you come to writing, and who are some of your creative influences?

I’m not sure how I came to writing. To tell the truth, I’m not sure if I ever “came to it.” But if I am to answer the question with a minimum of objectivity, I’d say I came to it through words. Using words always seemed to me like performing a magic trick. Words magically showed or hid something that had always been there, right in front of me.

Take, say, a color: when I began painting lessons as a child, we would squeeze the paint out of a tube onto a wooden pallet. It was just some creamy substance, neither red nor brown nor pink. But then someone would say, This is crimson.” That word would give the creamy mass a meaning. I would leave class seeing crimson all around my world, as if the color had been hidden from me my whole life up to then. Words were the cues to a world I kept stumbling into and yet ignoring.

At some point, I began paying attention to the things I felt, searching for what I might be leaving unnoticed in the world and had no words for. This search, for some reason, involved reading. Eventually, I would find in some blessed writer the word, the sentence, the paragraph, the page I was missing, one that would describe whatever it was that had been passing me by. I wanted to learn that trick of unveiling the unseen.

It seems to me that words, written and spoken, are like the cosmic background radiation that scientists talk about. They are simply there, echoing an immemorial story that you and I—luckily enough—share. Our relation with words is this encounter with a pre-existing history, our own history, which, for some reason, we were not aware of. Maybe words, like the radiation of microwaves in the background, are the noise of existence. A noise we do not really hear or understand, but one that points to our history. We can’t avoid the encounter—words are there, after all—and we are doomed to peer into their meaning.

The other day, I watched a documentary (À Ciel Ouvert) about a place in France where therapists try to reach out to autistic children. In one of the interviews, a professional briefly explains the difference between someone who is psychotic and someone who is neurotic. If I am not mistaken, he says that at some point in our early childhoods, we all experience a collision with language. And from this crash two things may follow: (1) the “meaning” might escape us, and we will spend the rest of our lives searching for it; or (2) the “meaning” might land deep within ourself and ,in this case, we will no longer need words, other people, or the world. I think this is a beautiful way to consider the question about how one “comes to writing.”

The question of “creative influences” can also be regarded from these perspectives. What I read, what interests me, is what my antenna—with its limited reach—can grasp from this universal noise that is constantly telling an absurd story. Reading is a way of finding the meaning that was lost after the collision with language—if I am neurotic—but it can also be a way of cherishing the meaning that landed deep within myself, if I am a psychotic. Who can tell?

Lately I’ve been reading Lydia Davis and Donald Barthelme. I think their words came from one hell of a collision!

Lydia Davis is a writer and a translator. In some of her texts, she discusses the difficulties she has to face in order to express a certain sentence in another language. This gap between languages is where she struggles as a translator. And in her stories, we can see her attempts to translate into words these little pieces of reality that seem to be untranslatable: imprecise feelings, experiences, and thoughts for which words such as frustration, sadness, fear, memory, empathy, relationship, mourning are simply insufficient. This gap between language and reality is where she struggles as a writer.

Donald Barthelme shows that through clean, precise, and sober prose, we can express great absurdities. The sobriety in his use of language, the choice of familiar words and expressions doesn’t guarantee a familiar prose and doesn’t prevent us from getting in touch with strange ideas. On the contrary, it leads us unconsciously and unaware—due to his simple and clear prose—to absurd thoughts and even immoral stories. Donald Barthelme reminds us that language is never a comfortable place—even when it feels comfortable.

Brazil is home to the largest Japanese population outside of Japan, and your essay in this volume, “Dead Time,” details your participation in the Bon-Odori festival as a child. How else have the Japanese in Brazil built community? How have Japanese-Brazilians been represented in Brazilian literature?

Three years ago, I visited an uncle of mine who had migrated from Japan to Canada. Walking around Vancouver, I was impressed by how nisei (children of Japanese immigrants, the second—ni—generation) and sansei (grandchildren of the first immigrants, the third—san—generation) in that country kept a lot of their traditions, especially in culinary and language practices. I am a Brazilian nisei, and I have friends in Brazil who are also children or grandchildren of Japanese immigrants, but most of us don’t even understand Japanese. A lot has been lost in the tropics. Even the Japanese food we sporadically eat, such as sushi, is something we eat the Brazilian version of, with mango, crispy bacon, and cream cheese!

In the city where I live (Campo Grande, Mato Grosso do Sul), there are many Japanese descendants from Okinawa. Here, traditional Japanese soba noodles are served in a single bowl along with boiled beef tripe—quite different from the soba they serve in Okinawa, with many side dishes served in tiny bowls, and certainly no tripe!

This doesn’t mean that Japanese descendants are now completely blended into Brazilian culture. Far from it! Even those who are very integrated into the tropics carry strong traces of Nipponese behavior from Japan. I am certainly one of those cases.

Some of us have lost too many roots: the language, contact with our Japanese relatives, identification with Nipponese culture. Some of us even developed a certain aversion to whatever may be considered “too Japanese,” so we put down other roots to try to adapt: we adopted the regional taste for music and food or married and built our families with non-Japanese-Brazilians. In spite of losing some roots, we are all still the same kind of tree: we cherish silence, we are reclusive, we can be prideful, a tendency we counterbalance with role-played humility.

On the other hand, there are Japanese communities in Brazil where their native culture has been preserved, such as the Yuba and Shinsei communities in the state of São Paulo, where even the children speak mainly Japanese. To this day, the Yuba community maintains a rural and communitary structure quite similar to the one the pioneers founded when they first arrived in Brazil at the beginning of the twentieth century. But those are exceptions. The price of keeping those traditions is that their communities are now very different from the high-tech capitalist country that Japan has become.

As for Japanese-Brazilian representations in literature, I don’t know much about that. I’m not an expert, but what I can tell you is that most of the books concerning Japanese-Brazilians I know of are historical accounts of the immigration. I can’t recall any significant Japanese-Brazilian character in Brazilian literature. When Japanese-Brazilians are depicted in Brazilian television or movies, they are usually caricatured as naïve, grinning individuals with a strong accent.

Throughout the essay, you tie together many topics, including a brief history of Mato Grosso do Sul, the Japanese immigrant experience in Brazil, and a critique of the Brazilian judicial bureaucracy. How did you come to associate these subjects with each other for a personal essay? Did you have a specific audience in mind?

This particular essay is the result of discussions I had with Catherine Howard, the translator of the text. A few years ago, she presented me with the concept of creative nonfiction and Lee Gutkind’s articles on the subject. More than a new horizon to writing, the ideas surrounding the “creative nonfiction” discussions instigated an awareness in me as a reader of nonfiction works. I was really struck by the creative possibilities for approaching facts and began noticing them in nonfiction writing.

Later on, Catherine suggested I read an anthropology book about Japanese culture entitled The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, written by Ruth Benedict. That was a difficult book to read because it exposes all the contradictions, virtues, and flaws of the Japanese. Some people may argue about Ruth’s perspective as a foreigner, but as far as I am concerned—as a person of Japanese descent—her considerations were well founded. And it’snot easy to look at your own flaws and contradictions.

From those readings on creative nonfiction and Ruth Benedict’s work, and from the discussions with Catherine—who is not only the translator but also the editor of the essay—I tried to figure out a way to build a creative nonfiction work about my own history as the Japanese person I discovered I am through Ruth Benedict’s studies.

The specific topics you mentioned—the history of Mato Grosso do Sul, the Japanese immigrant experience in Brazil, and the critique of the Brazilian judicial bureaucracy—emerged from this effort to figure out a text from the readings I just mentioned. Why those specific topics? I don’t know. During the composition of the essay, many topics came up and were discarded for one reason or another. The others were the ideas that remained. But in order to give you a more objective answer, I would say that those topics have to do with my own life. My father is a Japanese immigrant, and my mother was born in Brazil, but she is the daughter of Nipponese immigrants. I am a bureaucreat in the Brazilian judicial system, and I live in the State of Mato Grosso do Sul. How did I associate them? I’m not sure I’d say they’re so strongly bound together in the text; there’s no “contract” between those ideas. They were simply kept side by side as they appeared, as objects, and I tried to describe how one cast its shadow over the others.

The other day I saw this comedy show on Netflix, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. There’s no inherent bond between the terms comedians, cars, or coffee; they are just put together and edited into a twenty-minute episode. The editing shows the details of the car, the comedian in and out of the car, the coffee shop, the cup of coffee ,and the comedians drinking the coffee. The secret is in the editing, isn’t it?

Now, did I have a specific audience in mind? Other than myself, probably Catherine Howard, Lee Gutkind, and Ruth Benedict… they were the ones I had in the back of my mind while I was writing it… none of whom I’ve met in person. Benedict is someone I will never meet, since she died in 1948, but death doesn’t prevent her from being a possible audience, does it?

You write that Brazil is “a country that is continually being rediscovered, obsessively opening up new internal frontiers.” In the essay, your example is the arrival of federal offices in Mato Grosso do Sul that “rediscover” the state by erasing past injustices from the institutional record. How else would you say that Brazil is in a constant state of “being rediscovered,” and what are the consequences of this for the Brazilian people?

Brazil is a young country with a very young democracy and even younger institutions. In our youth, we are constantly rediscovering ourselves. Up until a few years ago, most Brazilians were comfortable with the idea of a democracy where minorities did not have access to fundamental rights or access to the government. We were comfortable with institutions being directed by and serving only a part of our vast population. We were comfortable with those institutions having very little or no accountability at all.

In the last few years, however, Brazilians have experienced the need for a democracy that grants equal rights to all our citizens.We have discovered the importance of granting access to the government to all minorities . We have discovered the importance of defending the independence of our institutions and the importance of holding them accountable so they can serve more than just one segment of our citizens. But we’re still figuring out how to do it.

The rediscovery of those concepts has proven to be a very troubled process involving the rise of controversies and social questions we weren’t used to dealing with. The expansion of rights implied costs and disputes among diverging interests over public budgets and political representation. It caused friction and, in some cases, violence. This rediscovery has also included some setbacks, such as the undemocratic takeover of power in Brazil, the rise of intolerant, conservative politicians,“lawfare,” and the manipulation of the media and the judiciary system for political and economic interests.

So we rediscovered that we can be quite intolerant towards sexual, cultural, religious, and racial diversity. We rediscovered that our institutions can be biased. We rediscovered that we can be a nation willing to compromise the pursuit of fundamental rights for all in order to grant profit to a few.

A variety of interests are maturing in our country, and those interests are eager for institutional means that will allow them to materialize in our society. But some of those rising interests are conflicting with long-established authoritarian interests. A lot of dudgeon, frustration, and wrath unfold from this clash of interests.

What is really changing, though, is how aware and conscious each segment of the society is of its own needs. I believe we’re transitioning from a “mass” to a “multitude” society, to use Antonio Negri’s expression. There is a social price to pay if we are to fulfill that transition. But that’s just my optimistic perspective.

The essay builds to the very challenging idea that social forces in Brazil have resulted in both your marginalization as a Japanese-Brazilian and the marginalization of the people whose cases you tended to as part of your job. You then conclude the essay ambiguously, by stating that you have “let go of [your] speculation.” Why did you choose to end this way?

Jacques Lacan said that one of Freud’s great merits was that each and every trace he found of the unconscious he left untouched. Freud didn’t try to move or rearrange his findings. As an archaeologist knows, the position of bones are just as important as the bones themselves; similarly, Freud knew the significance of how and where and when each finding of psychoanalysis emerged.

Phrasing it a bit differently, Montaigne says something similar in his Essays about his own writing. “Others form man; I only report him.

“Dead Time” is an essay. If we try too hard to find a meaning that might tie together the bones of a fossil, if we move them and shuffle the pieces, turning them upside down trying to figure out how they fit, we’ll end up losing the original arrangement of the parts.

As archaeologists—if our intention is to preserve the as-yet unknown—we must let the pieces be exactly where they were. We can speculate at will, but we must preserve their position. They might not make sense, but if we impose our meaning on it, we will never understand them. We must endure our own ignorance.

The various topics tied together you mentioned before are like parts of a fossil. I think that’s why I let go of my speculations: to show there’s a very thin line between forming the man and reporting him.

You say those are challenging ideas. Maybe they’re challenging in the text precisely because they were left as they were, because they were only reported (although, I confess, with some speculation).

What other writing projects are you working on?

This essay was the first of a series of attempts to find a way to elaborate what I learned from reading about creative nonfiction, the studies by Ruth Benedict, and my discussions with Catherine.

From those attempts over the last three years rose a book of personal essays and short stories about the different perspectives I’ve had during my life about my father as a Japanese immigrant and the way he managed—if at all—to adapt to Brazilian culture. Do I form the man in this book? Do I report him? There’s that very thin line again. The book, Ototo, is being published by Confraria do Vento. The word ototo means “younger brother” in Japanese (my father is the youngest brother among his siblings), but it also means that “something is going to happen at any moment” in Hebrew (since my father is a Japanese living in a Judeo-Christian tradition) or the “completeness of something” in Yoruba (the language of Candomblé, an Afro-Brazilian religion that’s had a strong influence on the rest of Brazilian culture).

Allow me to add an observation about Yoruba. Words from this language are being used as slang by the Brazilian LGBT community. Studies analyze this phenomenon to understand why such groups use words from members of a historically marginalized religion—whose sexual orientation is not repressed—in order to establish a group identity.

In 2018, a discussion about this social phenomenon appeared in the Brazilian scholastic aptitude tests for college admission. But the far-right president-elect Jair Bolsonaro stated that those studies constitute “gender indoctrination” and are not useful knowledge for Brazilian society.

There’s a part of Brazilian politics that’s deliberately choosing to use utterly dismissive rhetoric. This rhetoric discards any voice that doesn’t comply with its interests (political, economic, religious, or social), no matter the content, ideas, facts, or realities those voices may bring to the discussion. So each voice and each individuality is no longer measured by what it may add to the debate but instead by how it complies with the establishment. Once this rhetoric is put to work and given power, marginalized voices are no longer able to participate in or set the political debates as a part of a multiplicity. Not at all. These voices have to find a way to be legitimized; they have to struggle just to get back in the debate. The dismissive rhetoric forces these voices to fight for legitimacy. They have to fight to be heard. As Salman Rushidie says, “The more authoritarian the people in power, the more tightly they want to control the narrative.” It’s a rhetoric that chooses not to know. It chooses not to reflect. It chooses not to understand. This rhetoric is as undemocratic as it is unrepublican.

So, to relate this observation to your question: lately, any writing project has become a political project, a defense of language, of its multiplicity, a defense of divergent voices—not only their right to be recognized as legitimate voices but also their right to be an active part of the debate. One of the writers in this issue, Eliane Brum, is the most vivid example of a writer who’s consistently trying to expose the dismissive rhetoric that’s being imposed on political debate in Brazil today. She’s holding the line against it.

I am happy such strong democratic Brazilian voice can be heard in English through Mānoa Journal.