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Manoa 18.1 (2006) 139-143

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From Mother Tongue to Linguistic Mother

Translation by Rachel McNichol

Yoko Tawada was born in Tokyo in 1960 and educated at Waseda University and the University of Hamburg. In 1982, she settled in Germany and began writing. Her first work, Missing Heals, won the Gunzo Prize for New Writers in 1991. In 1993, she received the Akutagawa Prize for The Bridegroom Was a Dog (the English-language translation of which was published in 1998). She writes in both Japanese and German, and in 1996 she won the Adelbert von Chamisso Prize, a German award given to foreign writers who make significant contributions to German culture. An English-language translation of her collection of stories, Where Europe Begins, was named Best Book of the Year by the Times Literary Supplement in 2005. In addition to short fiction, her works include novels, poetry, plays, and essays. The following essay is translated from German.

The first year I spent in Germany, I needed over nine hours of sleep a day to recover from all the new impressions. Every day at work was a series of puzzling scenes for me. Like anyone working in an office, I was surrounded by all kinds of writing utensils. In that respect, my new environment was not so strange at first. A German pencil was pretty much the same as a Japanese one, though it wasn't called enpitsu anymore, but Bleistift. Using the word Bleistift gave me the impression that I was dealing with a new object. A vague sense of shame came over me whenever I had to refer to it by the new name, a bit like the feeling I got when I had to address a recently married friend by her new surname. I soon grew accustomed to writing with a Bleistift—and no longer with an enpitsu. Prior to this, I had not been aware that the relationship between me and my pencil was a linguistic one.

One day, I heard another woman in the office complaining about her pencil: "This stupid pencil! It's gone mad! It refuses to write today!" Every time she sharpened it and tried to write with it, the lead snapped. In the Japanese language, you cannot personify a pencil in this way. A pencil can neither be stupid nor go mad. I have never heard anyone in Japan complaining about a pencil as if it was a person. This must be German animism, [End Page 139]

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I thought. At first, I wasn't sure whether the woman was joking or really as angry as she looked. I had never gone into a rage over my writing utensils and could not imagine feeling so strongly about such a small object. Yet the woman did not seem—as far as I could make out—to have meant her words as a joke. Her face was quite serious when she threw the pencil into the wastepaper basket and picked up a new one. Curiously, the pencil in the bottom of her wastepaper basket suddenly seemed alive.

The German language was at the bottom of what I saw as a strange relationship between that pencil and the woman. In German, it was possible for the pencil to offer the woman resistance, and in return, for the woman to assert her power over the pencil by complaining about it. Her power consisted in the fact that she could talk about the pencil, whereas the pencil was dumb.

Maybe she complained about the pencil to reassure herself of this balance of power. For the woman was very unsure of herself the moment she found she could not write. Whether it is a matter of lead snapping or lack of creativity, the inability to write would drive anyone to desperation. It can force you to reestablish your position as scribe by remonstrating with your speechless writing utensils.

Not only did the pencil seem alive to me when the woman was complaining about it, but also masculine: in German, der Bleistift is masculine. In Japanese, words...