Author Q&A:
Kikuko Tsumura

There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job

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Kikuko Tsumura has been carving out her name in the Japanese literary scene since 2016, when she won the New Artist Award from the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job is the first of her novels in English – translated by Polly Barton. Darkly funny and cynical, it follows an unnamed protagonist through a string of meaningless jobs, from surveillance to slogan writing, following her departure from her careers as a result of burnout syndrome. 

What is burnout syndrome and is it common in Japan?
As far as I understand it, burnout syndrome occurs when someone is channelling all their effort into something that yields no satisfaction, and where everything feels uncertain despite their best efforts. Sufferers are hounded by a feeling of futility, and lose their desire to do the thing that they set out to. I haven’t witnessed other people experiencing this, but I suffered from it once for a period of time, with my writing.

Despite trying to choose jobs that are mindless and require little effort, the protagonist becomes increasingly invested in all of her roles. Is it impossible for a conscientious person to not care about a job, however menial?
I think it’s less about being conscientious, and more about being the kind of person who seeks to adjust their environment. Whatever task people are given, they find elements to work on and improve, and take joy in doing so. The narrator feels a sense of frustration towards working in general, and yet when she starts on a particular job, it becomes interesting to her, and she gives it her all. I find that a really interesting and endearing trait in people.

Why did you choose to leave the narrator of the book unnamed?
I didn’t have any strong intentions around that decision, but I knew that with this book, more than in previous works, I wanted to limit the amount of information I gave the reader about the narrator so as to home in exclusively on her behaviour towards work.

Each job presents a mini mystery for the narrator to solve. Did the idea for the various jobs providing the structure of the book follow the idea for the mysteries or vice versa?
The ideas for the jobs came first. The first job that I came up with was the job in a hut in an enormous park. There’s a park I love in Osaka called Expo Commemoration Park, which is dotted with huts, and the book came out of a thought I had that it would be fun to work inside one of those huts. All of the other jobs are roles I’d myself like to try doing, if they actually existed. The jobs are ordered so that the physical spaciousness increases each time –starting out from the narrow booth staring at a screen and ending with the wide-open space of the huge park.

Tell us about your own career trajectory. Have you always been on the path to novel writing?
I knew as a child that I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t believe it would ever happen, so after graduating university I looked for a regular job. The recruitment process was extremely taxing, and I eventually found a job at a printing company, but I was subjected to extreme emotional blackmail while I was there, and left after nine months. After that, I found a job at a geological survey company, and worked for ten and half years creating their written material. In about my third year at that company, I was awarded the Dazai Osamu Prize for literary newcomers, and began writing alongside my day job. From the age of 27 to 34, I was working both as a company employee and a writer.

This is your first book to be translated into English. Did you work closely with the translator, and what was the relationship like?
Polly Barton translated my short story The Water Tower and the Turtle, about an old man who moves back to his hometown on retiring, for Granta in 2018. That was the first of my works to ever be translated into English. When working on There’s No Such Thing…, she got in touch with me via the publisher to ask a few questions about the book.

More Japanese authors are being translated into English. What are some of the characteristics of contemporary Japanese literature and can you recommend some books for English readers?
I’d say contemporary Japanese fiction is highly realistic, in a good way. I feel like the authors are looking directly at reality, not engaging with bizarre fantasies. In this age where everybody uses social media to manipulate the image they put out to the world, I think that the author’s act of looking at unadorned reality through their work is becoming ever more important. In terms of books that have been translated into English, I like The Factory by Hiroko Oyamada (translated by David Boyd), which gives a portrayal of a factory so enormous it takes on a kind of sci-fi aspect. I also really like the winner of the July 2020 Akutagawa Prize, The Shuri Horse by Haneko Takayama, about the shared elements of individual stories.

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