Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian novels in Japan

Here is my second Monday Musings inspired by my current Japanese travels. It is, loosely, a companion piece to one I wrote three years ago on Australian literature in China. That was inspired by an article I found in Trove. This one, however, was been inspired by a program I discovered via Google, called The Masterpieces of Australian Contemporary Literature.

The website describes the series as follows:

The Masterpieces of Australian Contemporary Literature Series was established by Gendai Kikakushitsu Publishing in 2012. With the support of the Australia-Japan Foundation, the program aims to increase the recognition of contemporary Australian literature by translating and publishing Australian novels in Japan. Not only showcasing the excellence of Australian literature, the series looks to reveal ‘Contemporary Australia’ and share with the Japanese audience the diversity of its culture and society.

ABC RN Books and Arts Daily discussed the project after the launch of the first book. The Australian ambassador to Japan at the time, Bruce Miller, comments that Japanese interest in Australian Aboriginal culture comes from their interest in ancient cultures, and because it’s unique. He also talks about the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which is supporting the project, being comfortable with sharing the positive and negative aspects of our culture. Professor Kate Darian-Smith from the University of Melbourne says that part of the project is to support and foster the teaching and discussion of Australian literature in universities and by the public.

So far, apparently, six books have been so translated and published – and here they are in the order they were done (with the date they were launched, and links to my post on that book, if any!)

  • David Malouf’s Remembering Babylon, trans. by Rumi Musha (2012)
  • Tim Winton’s Breath, trans. by Keiji Sawada (2013, my review): the launch included a discussion between Japanese writer Natsuki Ikezawa and Kate Darian-Smith.
  • Christos Tsiolkas’ The slap, trans. by Keiji Minato (2014, my review): Tsiolkas attended the launch and took part in a symposium.
  • Kate Grenville’s The secret river, trans. by Tomoko Ichitani (2015): Grenville attended the launch, along with “Ms Yukiko Konosu, a well-known translator of foreign literature”.
  • Kim Scott’s That deadman dance, trans. by Masaya Shimokusu (2017, my review): Scott attended the launch, along with two prominent Japanese writers, Ms Akiko Shimoju and Mr Masaaki Nishiki, to talk about “Australian culture and literature, and the role literature plays in multicultural societies”.
  • Helen Garner’s This house of grief: The story of a murder trial, trans. by Megumi Kato (2018, my review): Garner attended the launch, and took part in a panel discussion with Japanese author Kyoko Nakajima discussion Australian and Japanese perspectives on “the non-fiction novel”. You can read a report of the launch event here.

I’m thrilled that I have read, and liked (in different ways and for different reasons) every one of these six books, some, of course, before blogging. I wonder what the next book will be?

Kim Scott That Deadman DanceAll these books have won major awards and/or been bestsellers (by Australian terms, anyhow). None are simple or easy books, and none present Australia at its best. In this sense they represent “true” literature that grapples with real issues, and clearly meet the goal of revealing ‘Contemporary Australia’ (in all its messiness.) Clearly, they appreciate that historical novels also say something about “contemporary” Australia. It’s encouraging that the program is still going, and is supported, it seems, by quality launch events. So many visionary programs like this seem to flounder.

Oh, and by-the-by, I discovered that in July this year, Monash University held a Translation in transition: Australian literature in Japan. It was to focus in particular on this Masterpieces program, which they describe as a 10-year project. The seminar was being given by Tomoko Ichitani who translated Grenville’s book for the project. She is apparently working on a “collaborative translation of Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria“. I wonder if that’s for this program?

Anyhow, what book would you choose next? (I have a few ideas.) And do you have any comments on those chosen to date?

20 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian novels in Japan

  1. Gosh, Carpentaria… from what I know of J-Lit (which I admit isn’t much) a chunkster like that will be a contrast to their minimalist approach to fiction!
    What would I suggest? Something to offset the weirdness of Breath and the smuttiness of The Slap. Shell, I think, by Kristina Olssen, illuminating the divisiveness of the Vietnam War era and the creation of our most recognisable icon, the Sydney Opera House.

  2. Further to Bruce Miller’s comment on the interest of the Japanese in Australia’s First Nations peoples/cultures I think I would add that there is much within those cultures which suits the Shintō way of seeing the world – living with the cycles of the seasons and both praying for and then giving thanks for the bounties of the harvest and of the seas. A ritually-based society as much in synchronicity with the natural world as possible. My graduate studies in Aboriginal Education served me well while in Japan – because the interest in Indigenous Australia was deep and widespread. Apart from this might I mention Amelia Fielden and her publications via Ginninderra Press. She has translated into English the tanka poetry of some noted Japanese poets as well herself writing tanka at award-winning level in English. An amazing poet. Tanka (literally “short song”) is a longer form than the haiku with which most non-Japanese are familiar. Check her name via your favourite search engine.

    • Thanks Jim. You are right about indigenous culture and Shintoism as far as I know them.

      I don’t know Amelia Fielden, but we were introduced to tanka poetry in 2006, by a Japanese woman on Tsugawa station who was heading south to a tanka convention. She was retired but had taught English so could converse pretty well with us.

  3. In the days when I foolishly believed I could write, I wanted to do it like Garner. She was my writing hero – still is. Of course, her work ethic is so far beyond my ability as to render such a belief utterly ludicrous. :\
    Possibly The Narrow Road to the Deep North ?

    • You wrote very well M-R! I think Garner is an excellent role model for writers, but I can’t comment on whether he work ethic woukd be ludicrous for you to emulate!

      Hmmm… Narrow road would be a challenge for them. Good suggestion.

  4. Thomas Keneally’s Shame And the Captives would be an interesting choice. His novel , based on a real life Japanese breakout from an Australian POW camp in 1944, I found a bit clunky but Keneally does try hard to get the mentality of his Japanese characters.

  5. Much as I don’t like The Secret River in particular, I think this isn’t a bad selection. Two I’d like to see up next are The Natural Way of Things and Black Rock White City

    • Yes, I thought of those two also, Bill. My response is the same as yours, not so much about The secret river, but about the fact that it isn’t a bad selection though my own would be different.

  6. Hi Sue, I was in Europe with my two Japanese friends when I read your post. They thought the selections were appropriate. I asked them about Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria, but they had not read it. I personally don’t think it would be well received. I think Eucalyptus by Murray Bail, would be one the Japanese people would like.

    • Meg, if you’ll excuse me responding. I’d like non-Australians to be aware of the range and richness of Indigenous writing (I wouldn’t be surprised if one of Wright and Kim Scott were our next Nobel laureates for literature) though much of it is quite ‘difficult’. On a more facetious note I’d give them Marie Munkara’s A Most Peculiar Act which ends with the Japanese bombing Darwin.

      • Haha, Bill, cheeky re Munkara. I agree with your regarding indigenous writing of course. Like Meg, I expect Carpentaria could be a challenge but I’m guessing it was chosen by people who have some knowledge about what Japanese will read. I do think, however, that Eucalyptus, is a good idea too.

      • Hi Bill, I excuse you. I would suggest then, a non fiction book Lisa mentioned in one of her blogs, which is a fascinating read: Welcome to Country by Marcia Langton. (Winner of the 2019 Indie Book Award for illustrated non-fiction.)

  7. Good morning! I came across this link today while trying to work out what type of literature was translated between Australia and Japan. As for your question about what should be translated into Nihongo, that’s quite difficult, because it’s so multifaceted. I certainly know which Australian books I like, but that’s quite different as to which books I think would be popular in Japan. You have inspired me to think about this as a blog post…which I’ll do when I get around to it! 🙂

    In the first group, I think that Richard Glover’s “The Land Before Avocado” would be an interesting way for Japanese people to understand how Australia (like Japan) has changed over the past few decades. Likewise, Monica Tan’s “Stranger Country” would do the same thing on a broader scale.

    In terms of lighter topics, I think the “Rosie” set of books by Graeme Simsion could well be popular as a kind of Australian version of an otaku. I also find much of William McInnes’s books (such as “Full Bore”) hilarious – and after all, Dads being characters is common to both nations.

    One thing that hasn’t been mentioned is the Young Adult and children’s books. I think that very basic books around Australian animals would sell like hot cakes in Japan, especially if they had some Indigenous aspects to them. In the YA space, I wonder if Jacqui French’s reworkings of older tales, such as “The Girl From Snowy River” would show Japanese teenagers that their Australian counterparts face similar challenges in growing up….

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