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Translator Arthur Reiji Morris interviews author Li Kotomi about her novel Solo Dance

  • What was the spark of the idea for Solo Dance?

I’ve always loved writing novels, but there was a period of my life where I fell into a slump and wasn’t able to write. Then, one day when I was commuting to my office job that I’d started in 2016, stuffed into the morning rush-hour train car, all of a sudden the word death descended upon me from the sky. The word wasn’t in my native language of Chinese, but in Japanese. As I pondered on the word, the first lines of a novel started to form in my mind. I began to think things like “This could be the start of a whole novel” and “I’d like to write a novel again.” And so, Solo Dance was the result of five months of work. And because that first word came to me in Japanese, I decided to write it in Japanese too, and it became the first novel I had ever written in the language.

 

  • Chō heads to a number of different locations near the end of Solo Dance. Are these places you have been before? Was there any significance in your choosing them?

Yes, the USA (San Francisco and New York), China (Xi’an and Beijing), and Australia (Sydney) appear, and these are all places that I have been to.

As the novel draws to a close, Chō heads on a journey to say farewell to the world, but through this journey she also closely reexamines herself and her roots. Chō is from Taiwan and knows a lot about both the Chinese language and literature. By visiting these ancient cities of China she is able to explore her cultural roots. She is also a member of the LGBTQ community, so in going to San Francisco and New York (in particular the Stonewall Inn) she similarly traces back the history of this community.

 

  • Both Chō’s and Haoxue’s relationships with Qiu Miaojin are explored in Solo Dance, but how do you personally view Qiu?

Qiu Miaojin sadly committed suicide in Paris in 1995 at the young age of 26. I personally would love to have known what kind of life she would have continued to lead and what kind of works she would have written if she were still living today. Her works had a huge influence on the lesbian community in Taiwan. Lazi, the name of the main character of Notes of a Crocodile, has become the stand-in word for lesbians in the Chinese language region and is used even now. There are few other authors with such an influence and I hugely admire her as an author who came before me.

*Note: Notes of a Crocodile has been published in English by New York Review Books (tr. Bonnie Huie)

 

  • You’ve translated a number of your own books into Chinese. What does it feel like to leave the translation process to someone else?

As Chinese is my native language, I feel uneasy leaving the Japanese-to-Chinese translation of my books to anyone but myself. I am not very skilled at English, however, so my only option is to leave the work to another translator. I’m certain that my translators do their absolute best.

 

  • As a bilingual writer, you have mentioned before the different idiosyncrasies that writing in either Japanese or Chinese give. Are there any of your books that you feel you couldn’t or don’t want to translate yourself into Chinese?

No, not as of yet. My novel “The Island Where the Spider Lilies Bloom,” which was awarded the Akutagawa Prize, was extremely difficult to translate but with a lot of work I managed to do so.

 

  • You have a superb output of books in Japanese (two published novels per year since 2019, excluding 2022). Do you ever struggle for ideas?

Right now I’ve got so many things I want to write about that I’m almost frustrated at myself for not being able to write fast enough. As such I don’t really have any worries about wondering what to write about.

 

  • Do you have any book recommendations? (Originally written in any language; and if they are translated into English, great!)

Sayaka Murata: Convenience Store Woman; Earthlings; Life Ceremony (pub. Granta (UK), Grove Atlantic (US); tr. Ginny Tapley Takemori)

Kaho Nakayama: “To the Abyss of the White Rose”; “Double Suicide in Marrakesh” (both as of yet untranslated)

Pai Hsien-yung: Crystal Boys (pub. Gay Sunshine Press; tr. Howard Goldblatt)

 

Solo Dance is published by World Editions.