Despite her prolific output, author Yoko Ogawa says that for her writing remains a slow, measured and labour-intensive activity; a kind of ancestral ritual that allows human beings to rediscover their natural rhythm of life, escaping the frenzy and excesses of an increasingly fast-paced and demanding digital dimension. The craft of being a storyteller delves into reality and recounts its darkest elements, aloof from the obsessions and preoccupations that haunt social media. In a confused age, in which individual interpretations seem to replace factual objectivity, Ogawa reassures us that literature, stories and novels will survive. And with them, the stories of the protagonists and, above all, the identities of the readers.
You have said that your inspiration for being a writer came from reading The Diary of Anne Frank: what did you find so inspiring about this book?
By writing her diary, Anne Frank created her own world of freedom, overcoming physical confinement. It taught me that with words it is possible to travel into the unknown an infinite number of times. My writing starts from here, from the inspiration that closed spaces can give: a hospital room, a sample room, a museum, an island, a chessboard, a box. A silhouette with no apparent way out, but which the imagination is able to break through.
What do you think is the role of literature in an increasingly fast-paced, digital and connected reality?
Reading and writing literature is tiring and time-consuming in today's society, which is inundated with instant information. But I wonder if all this speed corresponds to the innate human sense of time: it is delicate acts such as breathing, walking, writing and reading that are in line with the comfortable rhythm of human activity. No digitalisation will diminish the wealth that literature brings to people: it is only literature that restores the flow of time that is truly necessary for human beings.
If you had to give a title to a novel about the times we are living in, what would it be?
Tomorrow the Bird of Dawn Will Sing.
What is your relationship with technology, the internet and social media? Do you consider them a source of inspiration for writers or do you shy away from this?
I keep my distance. Sometimes I find some ideas for a novel on my computer or my smartphone, sometimes I use them to look for information instead of going to the library: however, I can still write a novel without using modern technology. Novels have been written for over a thousand years.
One of the recurring traits in your artistic production is the inclusion of grotesque, surreal elements in apparently common, familiar, almost indifferent contexts: is this also the case for the reality in which we are immersed? Does the grotesque of which you speak exist in the outside world?
It is reality that nurtures the roots of the grotesque, the surreal and the improbable, and I try to portray it as it is, not as mere fantasy. I write patiently keeping an eye on the darkness that lurks deep within the human heart, impossible to conceal no matter how hard one tries. Whatever emerges in the darkness – malice or cruelty – I do not ignore this side of humanity, but welcome it into my novels.
This issue of World wants to investigate the need for a single reality, for facts, after technology and the internet have offered their various interpretations. Playing on the expectations/reality theme: what are your expectations for the near future, as an individual and as a writer?
Writers always look to the past, bringing back memories. They are not good at predicting the future, which is why I argue that it is difficult to visualise what possibilities technological development will open up for the world. It will bring advantages in terms of convenience and entertainment, but I wonder what it means for artificial intelligence to beat a chess champion. Of course, I have respect for those who have developed the technology, but chess only makes sense when it is played between human beings.
In this regard, we cannot fail to mention your 1994 science fiction novel, The Memory Police, also cited by Byung-Chul Han in the preface to his book Non-things. If, in the island surveillance state you describe, disappearance is linked to the dimension of emptiness, in today's society, is it the access to and excess of news, data and information that encourages the disappearance of real things?
The Memory Police does not foresee today's digital society. However, the novel has succeeded in expressing a sense of crisis due to the information overload in contemporary society, where even the reality that people hold in their hands is taken away. All this happens and no one resists it. We should reflect on the fact that every time we gain something, we lose another.
Two stories – one of the protagonist and one which the protagonist has written in a manuscript – intertwine within the novel and almost merge, in an admirable game of mirrors and cross-references. Is this what happens to us internet users when we tell our stories on social platforms? Do we run the risk of becoming only what we share of ourselves?
One should not reduce oneself to mere internet entities. Every human being has several faces and the art of merging them. However much we try to write about our true selves, we never depict it exactly, but by writing about it we discover unexpected aspects. This is because language is a paralysing tool, always lacking something and always having something in excess. Only a small part of the self can be expressed on the internet.
At one point in the story, R – the protagonist's publisher – puts it this way: “All the inhabitants of the island will be analysed, turned into data and filed without their knowledge.” The information economy is based precisely on this mechanism: what are the risks of this reduction, even of social interactions, to a data set?
However much existences are analysed, converted into data and archived, they remain only stories in a machine. Some politicians may use this data to their advantage, but the machine has no proof of these identities. If a dictator would not show me the proof to confirm my identity, I would rather offer him a copy of one of my novels than my identity card.