Sayaka Murata’s quirky novel Convenience Store Woman caught the imagination of readers in 30 languages and projected the cult writer into the mainstream. Her new collection of short stories, Life Ceremony, won’t surprise her fans but it might unsettle them, as she imagines a world in which people recycle human remains for homeware and clothing or one where mourners tuck into human hotpot in the ultimate tribute to their loved ones. Strange and thought provoking, Murata mixes humour and horror, and ultimately asks what it means to be human.
Did you set out to write a collection of short stories or does Life Ceremony draw together stories written over an extended period of time? And what ties them together as a collection?
This book is a compilation of short stories I’ve written in many places since the beginning of my career. I’m an author that writes both short and long stories, and my debut was with a short one.
As I didn’t think I would get the chance to publish my work as a collection, I freely wrote each short story from the beginning of my debut.
However, when I read them back as a book, I did feel that they were well connected together. Ever since, I feel like I’ve been writing short but a very long story. Even if the characters and stage settings are different, I feel that each story shares similarities on a deep psychological level. I feel that there is a connection between what I want to know about a novel, the mysteries that are evolving repeatedly, and the discoveries that sleep deep in its tale. This whole process is like an experiment for me.
Topics including cannibalism (Life Ceremony), conformity (Hatchling), alienation (Puzzle) and asexuality (A Clean Marriage) are familiar to readers of your novels. What compels you to return to these themes and what does writing about them allow you to do?
I always hope that writing will destroy me. I don’t mean “ruin” – I mean I wish to destroy what I believe in and the ground on which I stand. I am longing to experiment thoroughly and reach the truth which I am not yet capable of imagining.
I always write novels with the image of an aquarium. When I create people and settings in it, when they are there they automatically start moving and the story begins to move beyond my imagination. I write down what happened in there, sincerely, as if I was really experiencing it.
I, as a result, want to discover what is lurking in the depths of my unconsciousness, and write it down, no matter how scary it may be and even if it betrays my living self.
I think this is similar to a psychological experiment. I use my unconsciousness to write novels. The topics you have mentioned are not intentionally repeated, but they probably have important implications for my deep psyche and occur repeatedly in the aquarium.
Perhaps those topics will evolve over and over again. It gives me deep joy, because making discoveries beyond my imagination is my biggest purpose of writing.
As well as exploring cannibalism, you address the disconnect between city dwellers, who buy vegetables wrapped in plastic, and people living off the land in the countryside (Eating the City), the artificiality of modern convenience foods and the food of different cultures (A Magnificent Spread). What are you exploring broadly about food?
I have a great interest in eating. I enjoy eating every day. When I was a kid, I wasn’t good at eating foods that had strange flavours or foods that felt strange in my body. Even if I swallowed them forcibly, I couldn’t accept them and I would throw up.
Now, on the contrary, I like to eat mysterious things. The act of eating gives me a strange sensation of a connection between a cultural object and the body. Not only while chewing, but also after that, I feel the object melt in my stomach and the process of how that affects my body. With enough knowledge and information, I’d be happy to put even the strangest things in my stomach.
I have always had a special interest towards the act of “eating” since I was a child. That’s why I often write about it.
Many of your stories are speculative but use only slight alterations to our accepted norms, highlighting the fragility of our social structures. Maho points out: “Morals don’t exist. Instinct doesn’t exist.” Do you agree with her and if so, what can we put our trust in?
I don’t have any control of my stories, so when I heard Maho’s words and the confidence she had in asserting them so flatly, it surprised me. At first, I wondered if her thoughts were too extreme. But as I wrote the book, I questioned my opinion.
The man in the novel asks Maho: “Is normality a kind of madness?” This also surprised me. These words remain in my body and I still think about them to this day.
What I believe in is to “keep thinking” and “keep doubting”. The moment I make up my mind about something, I feel as though my brain stops thinking, and that scares me. Therefore, I personally feel it’s important to keep questioning things even if it doesn’t benefit myself.
Are your sparse, matter-of-fact prose style and polite characters designed to sit in direct contrast with sometimes shocking, grotesque and outlandish ideas?
It’s not very conscious, but when I imagine a complex setting, I feel that I’m getting rid of words instead of adding them. In a strange world, I like to highlight ordinary words so that they reveal their different interpretations.
How do societal expectations of Japanese women inform your fiction?
I have been suffering from the expectations set for Japanese women for a long time. Since childhood, I felt that neither my body nor my life belonged to me.
I felt that I was gradually regaining my body by writing a novel, but I still suffer from the trauma.
It’s different from anger because I eliminated the emotion of “anger” when I was a kid, but sometimes I feel that quiet suffering and complete despair are one of the driving forces to writing a novel.
I can truly disappoint myself by writing. To me these feelings have a great impact on my work.
Translated from Japanese by Translators without Borders