Nao, a teenage native Californian girl, experiences the pain and discomfort of being uprooted from her home in Silicon Valley after her father loses his job, prompting her family’s move back to Tokyo. Identifying as an American, feeling like “an ordinary California girl adopted by Japanese parents,” she feels alienated in her new environment and finds it difficult to relate to the Japanese part of her identity. Part of this discomfort derives from the fact that – unlike her parents, who identify as Japanese and speak the language fluently – she only speaks Japanese on a conversational level and has very limited knowledge about, as well as exposure to, the culture.
Identifying more as an American, she feels a complete discord with her surroundings, and feels as if her “life is unreal, and Sunnyvale, which was real, was a jillion miles away in time and space, like the beautiful Earth from outer space.” She struggles in assimilating to a new, Japanese environment and experiences the disorientation of being viewed as “the other” in the country of her ethnic heritage. Her foreignness in Japan, as an American, causes relentless bullying from her classmates at a public Japanese school.
Not only does she have to grapple with her own social struggles, Nao is also plagued with an unhappy family life. Her father, unable to find a job in Japan, falls into a state of depression – withdrawing from the world and going into a state of social seclusion, or hikikomori – and attempts suicide twice. Her mother is constantly absent from the house, busy with her new job at a publishing firm, which she has taken up to compensate for her husband’s unemployment.
Unable to find hope for the future in her current circumstances, Nao is considering suicide when she first starts writing her diary at a French maid café in Akihabara. Before she takes her own life, Nao is determined to document the life of her great grandmother, a Buddhist nun who is more than one hundred years old. Nao finds comfort in writing in her diary, addressing an imagined reader and friend. Nao becomes distracted while she is writing the diary, however, and what she actually ends up doing is capturing her own life to readers. Her diary entries cover a broad range of topics, and are characterized by their non-linear chronology; she jumps back in time describe events that have taken place further back in the past, and makes frequent interjections – both to speak to the reader, and to send text messages to her grandmother.
Things start to look more positive after she spends a summer with her grandmother in Sendai, however. Jiko introduces Nao to new concepts such as zazen and helps her find a way to seek spiritual solace from her turbulent daily life and allow her to gain psychological strength to deal with difficult circumstances. Through Jiko, Nao forms a stronger connection to Japan. While Nao is in Sendai, she also unravels some family history, finding out about her great-uncle’s involvement in WWII.
On the other side of the Pacific, Ruth, a novelist living on a small island off the coast of British Columbia, finds a Hello Kitty lunchbox washed up on the beach—possibly debris from the tsunami that struck Japan in 2011. Inside is Nao's diary, and Ruth becomes heavily invested in this narrative, and in finding out Nao’s fate. Due to the geographic seclusion and rural nature of her home, Ruth feels isolated from the rest of the world in her environment. She feels a strong connection to Nao, and yearns to locate her in the real world in order to affirm her wellbeing. Ruth succeeds in finding several traces of Nao’s father and great-grandmother online; however, her efforts to do so are continually thwarted. These attempts eventually culminate in a curious convergence between the two worlds.
In the 1980s and 1990s, many assimilation and immigration narratives had been published within the canon of Asian American women's literature; one example of such a novel is Jasmine. Ozeki's novel, however, marks the emergence of new genre of narratives: the return narrative, which depicts immigrants' assimilation back into the country of their ethnic heritage.Nao Yasutani – one of the protagonists of the novel, a 15-year-old native Nisei (second-generation Japanese American immigrant) Californian girl.
Jiko Yasutani – Nao’s great-grandmother, who is a Zen Buddhist nun. An anarchist, feminist, and novelist, who was also a “new Woman of the Taisho era”.
Haruki #1 – Nao’s great-uncle, a WWII soldier who supposedly died while carrying out a kamikaze mission over the pacific.
Haruki #2 (or Harry Yasutani) – Nao’s father who had a prestigious job at Silicon Valley, but is fired from his job and loses most of his savings after the dot-com bubble burst, prompting him and his family to move to Tokyo.
Ruth – the other protagonist of the novel. A novelist facing the problem of writer’s block.
Oliver – Ruth’s husband, who is an environmental artist.
Pest, or Pesto - Ruth and Oliver's cat.
There are several strong parallels between Ruth and Nao; Ruth is also Japanese-American, and she similarly feels isolated in her environment. Initially, Ozeki imbues Nao with the role of writer, and Ruth with the role of reader. Nao writes in the first-person, and is an unreliable narrator, whereas Ruth’s third-person narration is much more controlled in form. From the reader’s point of view, Nao is more of an obscure figure, and exists partially in the imagination, whereas Ruth is associated with reality – at least within the world of the novel. However, the boundaries separating these categories become blurred within the novel. Nao is also a reader, as she reads her great-uncles letters, and Ruth’s profession is as a writer. In addition, Oliver muses over the idea that the disappearance of words in Nao’s narrative also “calls our existence into question, too” and that if Nao “stops writing to us, then maybe we stop being, too.” The fact that Ruth is able to directly intervene in Nao’s story, in the dream episode, further creates slippages between the two roles.
Not only is multiplicity conveyed through the slippages between reader and writer that Ozeki creates, it is also illustrated when the multiplicity of the “you” that Nao is addressing becomes apparent. Although at the beginning of the text, readers believe that Nao is speaking to them, they later realize – as Ruth’s sections unfold – that Nao is also speaking to Ruth and Oliver. However, the unification of the beginning and the ending of the novel in the epigraph – where Ruth responds directly to Nao, and tells her that she is, indeed, sitting with a cat on her lap – suggests that the “you” that Nao was speaking to was Ruth. Thus, “you” can simultaneously be as specific as one person and as broad as multiple people.
Dōgen's conception of time is an important motif that permeates the entire novel, and is summarized within the text as the idea that “every being that exists in the entire world is linked together as moments in time,” while simultaneously “exist[ing] as individual moments of time,” and that since “all moments are the time being, they are your time being.”
These ideas are enacted in form and on the metacognitive level, through the slippages that Ozeki creates between the Nao’s world, Ruth’s world, and the world of readers. Ruth intervenes in Nao's narrative through her footnotes on Nao's diary, whereas Ozeki intervenes in Ruth's narrative by providing readers with context that does not serve to advance the plot - albeit placed directly in the middle of the narrative. By interspersing Ruth’s narrative with sections that provide only contextual information and by not integrating these facts into Ruth’s narrative, Ozeki blends the real world with the fictional world.
Ozeki questions the tendency of readers in using Asian American texts as ethnography through the use of epistemological interventions. Initially, readers may assume that the footnotes in Nao’s diary have been inserted by Ozeki to clarify unfamiliar concepts and terms; however, the fact that Ruth has written in these footnotes becomes evident later on. Ruth is unable to look up online a place that Nao references, which raises the question of the reliability of Nao. Through this idea, Ozeki asks readers to question how they know Japan as well as the authenticity of the information that readers receive from various sources.
Regarding the fact that Ozeki has inserted herself into the novel through the character of Ruth, Ozeki has stated that the reference is meant to be “playful” and that although she has a clear relation to the character, she is not the character. Furthermore, Ozeki has commented “every act of representation is also an act of misrepresentation, so there is no way to represent without fictionalizing” Ozeki’s statements have clear resonances within the tradition of Asian American women’s literature, since there is a tendency for works within this canon to be interpreted as ethnography. One such example is The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan, which was misconstrued as a memoir despite its fictionalized nature.2013 Man Booker Prize shortlist
2013 National Book Critics Circle Award (Fiction) shortlist
2013 The Kitschies Red Tentacle for best novel
2013 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction.
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