Fashion may be Maison Valentino’s pièce de résistance, but the Italian house has once again dipped their feet into the literary world, with a second launch of Valentino Narratives—a text-only campaign rallying 17 renowned authors to offer their own unique takes on this year’s theme: love. Considering the maison’s revered history of drawing inspiration from romance, it comes as no surprise that this year’s theme celebrates the diversity and multi-faceted nature of love. Amongst the authors bridging the gap between belle-lettres and fashion for Valentino, Japanese author Mieko Kawakami undeniably stands out as a veracious voice for womanhood.
As the author of a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, Breast and Eggs—Kawakami is no stranger to exploring the depths and immutable realities of the human condition. Breaking into the male-dominated world of Japanese literature, Kawakami’s luminous prose and discursive compositions often smuggles in a refreshing honest take on the ever-evolving theme of femininity.
Her m0st recent book, All The Lovers In The Night is chock-full of social commentary, following the life of a single lady working as a proofreader and her relationship with her one and only friend and so-called lover. Underneath a deceivingly flatlined personality and mundane life of the protagonist Fukuyo, lies a burgeoning sense of melancholia and a frightfully realistic string of existential musings, inviting readers on a ride along a woman’s painstaking journey of self-discovery.
Below, Kawakami chats about stereotypes and expectations when it comes to her works while ruminating on her latest book, All The Lovers In The Night, as well as her hopes for the Valentino Narratives campaign.
You’ve always seemed to lean to the art of words—from lyrics, to poetry, and now novels. What does the power of words mean to you?
I think words, with all their big rules and mysteries, are almost as vital and vexing for us human beings as the whole world and all its enigmas. The things we think can’t come to life without words. We experience things with our bodies and senses, which obviously aren’t words themselves, but we need language to communicate those experiences to other people. I daydream a lot about what things might have been like before language came about.
“Though I’m a feminist myself, I don’t really think I’m a feminist writer writing feminist novels.”
Quite a bit of your work deals with the delicacies of being a woman in Japan. Obviously since your experiences are very much tied to a more localszed experience, in what way do you think is your feminist literature is different, from that of the rest of the world?
People are free to read my work however they want. Though I’m a feminist myself, I don’t really think I’m a “feminist writer” writing “feminist novels”. I always write to depict individual people, to portray the moments of light that a certain situation brings flickering up, to capture the singularity of everything. I think that gives my writing a wide range of different attributes that people might see as central.
Breasts and Eggs might be a “feminist novel” dealing with women’s issues to some, but it could also be about the ethical and philosophical dimensions of anti-natalism to others. Some might see it as a novel about poverty. At the same time, I believe that when it comes to gender, philosophy, social structures and poverty—you can’t treat these kinds of things as separate entities; they’re all deeply intertwined, always interacting with each other. That’s why they’re never easy to figure out. They don’t just happen in isolated incidents. They develop as complex, multilayered experiences inside a specific individual life.
You also talk about simply wanting to write about real people and not wanting to perpetuate stereotypes through typified oriental imagery. Could you share more about your personal thoughts on this?
People tend to equate Japan with Tokyo, and see Japanese people as happy and unhappy in equal measure—in a somewhat boring sense. I think the image of an ‘odd, quiet neighbour’ often colours perceptions of the Japanese. I suppose that’s why a lot of journalists and readers from outside of Japan tend to tell me that they’d never known about the side of Japan as I’ve written in my narratives.
But echoing what I said in my answer above, I don’t write novels to show people what Japan is like. For me, probing the singularity of things is what gets me into narrative ideas. When I talk about real people, I’m referring to the singularity of individuals and time. That uniqueness runs through every single moment and every single person. What I’m trying to do is express that singularity in words as much and as deeply as I can. For me, that’s what makes real people who they are.
Who are the authors you look up to?
There are so many authors I draw inspiration from, learn from, and really, really love. But when I look long and hard at that word admire, the first one that comes to mind is Kurt Vonnegut. He never, ever showed any kind of self-pity (narcissism, in other words) in his work or in his personal life—at least as far as I can tell from what he wrote.
‘All The Lovers In The Night’ is fresh on the racks. What can people expect from this latest release?
It’s a novel about words and light and existence. For people who know love and people who don’t, people with love and people without, the end is always the same. Everyone dies. There’s no one out there who’ll live your life and die your death for you, either.
But there are people who try to control, even kill, others. In that sense, all of us are just living out our own lives on this planet, our existences so fleeting, so alone, so stupid—and yet we all come together, each with our own special moments in our hearts, and give each other pieces of ourselves to share in. I hope the book gets that sense of ‘being’ across.
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Your beautiful work for Valentino Narratives seems to ring like a song of endearment and the sweet memory of someone. What do you hope to achieve with this campaign for Valentino Narratives?
When you’re struggling or feeling hopeless, memory can work wonders. The power it has is incredible. I’m so grateful for my memory—to me, remembering something is basically the definition of the human experience. It’s what life’s all about. Whenever you remember something that’s important to you, someone who cared about you, a conversation you had, a sight that you’ll never be able to see again, or anything else that might be lost to time forever, you’re bringing that moment back to life in a way that only you can ever know. I just want to share those types of moments with people.